Professor Edwin Morgan: Writer celebrated as one of the finest Scottish poets of the 20th century
Friday 20 August 2010
When the Sixties started Edwin Morgan was already 40. No one could have predicted that by the end of the decade he would be establishing himself as one of the most widely read contemporary poets in English, still less that well before the year 2000 some good judges would be acclaiming him as the mightiest Scottish writer since Hugh MacDiarmid.
He had had some success as a student poet in the late Thirties but made no notable poetry at the time out of his Second World War experience carrying stretchers in the RAMC. His first "slim volume", The Vision of Cathkin Braes (1952) came out from a small publisher in his native Glasgow but made no great waves. In an autobiographical poem, "Seven Decades", Morgan wrote of the '50s: "At thirty I thought life had passed me by... / And week after week after week strained to unbind myself, sweated to speak."
Teaching at Glasgow University, Morgan wrote such useful papers and interesting reviews as lively academics tend to produce. He was a fine critic, of prose as well as verse, and a wide-ranging, careful scholar. He built up some reputation as a translator of verse, with a special interest in Russian. Then, bang! the Sixties belonged to him as much as they did to Warhol and the Beatles. In 1962 he moved out of his parental home to his own flat in Anniesland. Demure and learned, he was a closet Romantic whose favourite novel was Wuthering Heights. In 1963 he opened out in his first fulfilled romantic love relationship, with John Scott, a Roman Catholic from a working-class family, who worked as a storeman. Till Scott died in 1978, Morgan's life had a source of joy and energy.
There is no obvious connection between romance and concrete poetry, but he made a lot of splendid things out of an international fashion which many were happy to see fade away. The concrete movement clearly tickled his delight in scientific and technological advance – by 1965 he had the foresight to compose "The Computer's First Christmas Card". This appeared with other concrete teases in The Second Life, which came out to acclaim in 1968 and won the Cholmondeley Award for Poetry.
The book also contained more familiar verisimo poems, including three which became standard fare in Scottish classrooms. In "In the Snack Bar" the narrator encounters a disgusting old man. "King Billy" is a romantic elegy for the most famous paladin of Glasgow's notorious razor gangs. It is easier to see why teachers went for "Trio", a cheery Christmas poem about a man, two girls and the baby and chihuaha the girls are carrying.
The Second Life also gave us a haunting Beat-like outburst on "The Death of Marilyn Monroe", and a superb love poem, "Strawberries", which told many of us that Morgan was gay years before he "came out". But, more, there were imagined hellish landscapes ("In Sobieski's Shield", "From the Domain of Arnhem") – it was not for nothing that Paradise Lost was one of Morgan's favourite poems – and hilarious experiments with language. The Russian spacedog Laika sends a message to the first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin ("star! spot! sputt! stop! star! sputsput! star! spout! spurt! start!").
In 1969, Morgan's worldwide fame was launched by inclusion in Penguin Modern Poets 15. As the book made its way round the world it was as if a dam impeding Morgan's complete self-expression had burst. The years 1972 and 1973 were anni mirabiles. A wee Peeblesshire press published his Glasgow Sonnets, and these attracted significant reviews. So they should have done. One great line in particular – "The shilpit dog fucks grimly by the close" – exemplifies Morgan's perception that a single Scots word in a poem otherwise in English can make a vast impact. ("Shilpit", as anyone might guess, means "starved-looking".) A London pamphleteer brought out Instamatic Poems – "snapshots" from all over the world, cross-sectioning contemporary history. Carcanet commenced its role as his major publisher with Wi the Haill Voice, Morgan's translations of 25 poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky into Scots. Then, in 1973, they published From Glasgow to Saturn, a title which simultaneously conveyed Morgan's internationalism and his utter devotion to his home city.
Those who loved and admired Morgan's work fell avidly upon this second important collection. There were two wondrous tours de force. I first heard "The Loch Ness Monster's Song" performed in public at an Open University Summer School talent show, by an English tutor with an otherwise perfectly Estuarial accent. "Sssnnnwhufffl? / Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?" and so on. If she could do it, so can you.
"The First Men in Mercury" is something I've performed myself countless times. The posh (English) space-explorer confronts extremely truculent (Glaswegian?) Mercurians ("Bawr stretter! Bawr. Bawr. Stetterhawl?") They win. By the end of the poem he is gibbering in pidgin Mercurian while they are fluent in Standard English. This is a knock-out party piece and also a profound statement about language, class and colonialism.
I met him for the first time when I invited him to meet Open University students in Glasgow. He gave a penetrating lecture on Eliot's Four Quartets, then a reading. That day we were among the first to hear "The Mummy", in which a French official greets the remains of Rameses II, brought to Paris for scientific treatment.
What I witnessed for the first time was Eddie Morgan's astonishing transformation from mild-mannered academic into a vector of the fantastic voices and creatures spawned by his imagination. He was a wonderful reader, clear enough, just loud enough, and, in comic mode, rib-crackingly funny.
After Carcanet brought out Morgan's Selected Poems in 1985, I developed a habit of slipping the book into my pocket when I went to OU Summer Schools. On the first night I would seek out in the bar the naughtiest-looking group of students and start passing it round and urging them towards an Edwin Morgan Miscellany in the end-of-school talent show. The results were invariably special, not least when some tutor could be persuaded to swaddle himself in toilet paper and impersonate "The Mummy".
Early retirement from Glasgow University in 1980 gave Morgan more time to pursue a "third life" as indefatigable reader on the poetry circuits who would also turn up on demand at any of the Scottish schools where his work was "studied". He was turning 70 when Glasgow, nominated European City of Culture 1990, honoured him as presiding bard. I was privileged to chair the occasion when he lectured as such, then gave what I fancy was his most astonishing performance ever, of a Native American poem about horses translated by Jerome Rothenberg.
Morgan was also a man of the theatre. His translation of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano into Scots for the fine Communicado company was a hit at the 1992 Edinburgh Festival. His version of Racine's Phèdre for Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum in 2000 was even more remarkable. Morgan managed not only to encompass alexandrines throughout but to render Racine's classical French most movingly into language close to the everyday parlance of modern Glasgow. An original play, AD, on the life of Christ, followed in Glasgow the same year. It was denounced sight-unseen by various clergy and praised for its decency by thoughtful critics.
His value as a translator, into Scots and English, is unquestionable; his Collected Translations (1996) runs to nearly 500 pages. His engagement with language and languages stretched from Latin and Anglo-Saxon through Russian and Spanish, German, French and Italian to the strange Hungarian tongue. To which, of course, he added Computer-Speak, Loch Ness Monster-ese, Mercurian, and all sorts of Scots etceteras. He brought the High Modernism of Joyce and Pound and MacDiarmid down to Glasgow earth and extended the attention of any half-alert reader to the potentialities of word-sounds and word-rhythms.
Seldom, if ever, can a noted writer and public figure have so successfully maintained his privacy – another word for what he himself recognised as his essential loneliness. The necessary facts of his life are few. He was born in 1920 in the West End of Glasgow, and his sensible spectacles, neat dress, and even the hint of a slight impediment overcome in his light speaking voice, gave him an aura of middle-middle-classness. He was the only child of Madge and Stanley. His parents were loving in their Presbyterian fashion, but circled him with respectability.
His father was first clerk, finally director, in a small firm of iron and steel merchants. Called up in 1940 when a student at Glasgow University, Morgan appalled his parents by declaring his Conscientious Objection. Compromise took him into the RAMC. He returned from a war spent in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine to take a first class degree in English Literature in 1947.
The Wolfenden Report was still years away. Gays of Morgan's age and class could not reveal themselves without courting imprisonment. His parents had unwittingly provided him with a gay piano teacher, and his interest in Russian was first confirmed by a straight student of the subject with whom he fell helplessly in love. The wartime Forces had provided partial cover. In 1990 Morgan finally "came out" in an interview with a younger gay writer, Christopher Whyte, about the "awful kind of isolation" experienced by homosexuals in post-war Glasgow.
His history of painful social awkwardness conditioned his personality. He was easy to talk to but hard to "know". Even in those Sixties of Second Life he didn't muck in with the notable group of younger writers (Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and others) who gathered around his university colleague Philip Hobsbaum. He was open to popular culture, loved movies and the Beatles. He was in his quiet way friendly, and generous in his attitudes towards fellow writers. But he was not merely unclubbable, but unpubbable. I never saw him drink more than a half-pint. If you asked him to read at an event in Edinburgh, you put him on the bill early so he could be sure to get home to Anniesland in good time for bed.
Though he saw John Scott constantly, he never lived with him. He was loth to phone out from his lonesome flat. His words, though, reached out in wider and wider orbits, to platforms, theatres, concert halls, to 12-year-olds in their classes and to greybeards in foreign academies.
Edwin George Morgan, poet and translator: born Glasgow 27 April 1920; Assistant Lecturer in English, Glasgow University 1947-50, Lecturer 1950-65, Senior Lecturer 1965-71, Reader 1971-75, Titular Professor of English 1975-80 (Emeritus); OBE 1982; Poet Laureate of Glasgow 1999-2005; Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry 2000; National Poet for Scotland 2004-; died 17 August 2010.
Angus Calder died in 2008.
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