Expansive Poetry & Music Online Poetry Review
A Look at Edwin Morgan
All poems cited are by Edwin Morgan and
may not be copied or distributed
without the express permission of the author
review by Arthur Mortensen
If you're a Scot or aware of Scottish poetry, you've known about Edwin
Morgan for decades. Since 1949, this prolific writer has published
16 books of poetry that include formal and narrative work, free verse,
shaped poems and so on, and with content in a range from the epic sea poems
of Dies Irae to science fiction in the long blank verse "tapes"
of "Memories of Earth" in The New Divan. We'll
look at that book and at From Glasgow to Saturn, as they expose
much of Morgan's approach, a poet whose whose ear and taste are well-suited
to both the metrical and the prose line.
Did you touch me? I thought
It takes a sharp eye and ear to write a narrative scene like that.
There are just enough details to make it vivid, chosen just so to create
a prevailing mood of a party's chaos and near brutality that nobody
very much cared about, least of all the "lizard" host. Parties
are often arenas where playing hard enough to draw blood is considered
proof the guests have had a good time. The poem then drifts
into forgetfulness of subject and object, "slips through my hands like
at the door, as the party broke up violently,
streaming out into dark snow --
who wants to remember the bad wine,
the worse coffee, that raving blond on the stair
with his jagged half of a Mingus EP dipped in punch --
or his friend whimpering cut wrist
squirming on his paunch on the bathroom carpet, imagine
a white fitted carpet and a botched suicide, but the host
went on smiling as he shooed us out into the cold. The old
lizard clutched his dressing gown about him, though -- I know.
I sat on the step and rolled myself a cigarette....
from "After the Party"
Much of this book, as much of Morgan's work in mid-life, uses the prose
line, but occasionally, as in "Song of the Child," he uses a song measure
to describe a child's progress from challenging nature to challenging death:
...the child ran to his daddy
Morgan will often go into another writer's territory to explore on his
own, as in "Lord Jim's Ghost's Tiger Poem," also written in a rough measure:
and he pulled his beard about
-- I'll knock you off your rocky chair old daddy
for I'm what you're about
the child ran to the holies
and he pulled their spires about
-- I'll strip your lead for soldiers you old holies
for your games are all played out
Lying on the rattan with pipes glowing
An advantage of working Conrad's territory rather than that of post-Modernist
fiction or of the "high concept" movie or TV series is that Conrad's settings
were of this world -- they were external to Conrad's imagination.
The characters and plot were imaginary in Lord Jim. Morgan's
"ghost of Lord Jim" wandering through some island scene in the South Pacific
is Morgan imagining himself as Lord Jim in a decidedly post-World War II
version of the same setting.
we saw a bird of paradise in paradise
bending to its image in an image
until a rain of diamonds was rain --
pattering white on the Monsoon Club....
A narrative tactic is to connect the dots between events and people
where there are no otherwise meaningful relationships, a tactic of both
poetry or of Jarmusch movies. The effect is to put events and people
together in time, part of a story that is not the same story each of them
is a part of. This is a very old means, which can be as revealing
as statistical analsysis, can be seen in nursery rhymes and chants, and
in this modern rendition called "Flakes:"
The lack of punctuation encourages a run-on reading aloud which only amplifies
the effect of "everything is all connected for no apparent reason but that
we'll all on the same planet together."
Morgan's free verse is often employed in dramatic poems. His free
verse also employs an approach used by the originators of this method but
rarely since (William Kistler is a rare exception); the lines correspond
to how the poem should be read aloud. They pace the poem; the poem
is not "verse by typesetter" as contemporary free verse has been described
by Richard Moore. See "Hyena:"
I am waiting for you.
This personification of one of nature's least attractive, but most necessary,
types, the carrion eater, gives the raison d'etre you would expect
of such a beast. It does not lie; it argues for good, dead meat,
and the pleasures of not hunting and of finding. "It is said
I am a good match//for a dead lion...." It would be hard to find
a more precise description.
I have been traveling all morning through the bush
and not eaten.
I am lying at the edge of the bush
on a dusty path that leads from the burnt-out kraal.
I am panting, it is midday, I found no water hole.
I am very fierce without food....
Morgan sometimes goes 'way over the top with such as "The Loch
Ness Monster's Song," an entirely fantastic onomonopoetic outburst without
a single intelligible word. It's not poetry but is a very funny
joke. He has others like this in The New Divan, such as "The
Drum" whose last dozen lines are "drum sounds" or "The Computer's
First Code Poem" which is a pseudo-code of 5-letter "words" (which would
have been a lot funnier if Morgan had used the familiar "hex" codes.
These are laid out in the same fashion when a program or file is examined
bit by bit). The science fiction poem "The First Men on Mercury"
has an imaginary dialogue that begins in English and "Mercurian" and evolves
to where the astronauts are speaking "pidgin-Mercurian" and the Mercurians
are speaking perfect English, an amusing joke with ramifications beyond
the poem and its subject.
Sometimes, as in "Rider," Morgan loses me altogether. This
impressionist poem is for this reader too much of impression and not enough
of order. In the end, I haven't a clue as to what Morgan was trying
to convey. That seems lost in translation, as do many Modernist experiments
with language. Further, such disconnected strings as "Kossuth drew
a mirage on electric air/the hare sat calmly on the doorstep/it was Monday
all over the world/om Tom McGrath mixed bread and milk for the young hare/Monk
and Parker spoke in a corner/the still room was taken" seem to show Morgan
discipling to someone else, Ashbery maybe, someone not himself.
If a lecture is required, this is a poem best left for the lecturers.
"Stobill," the story of an abortion is written from the points of view
of the doctor, two people who saw or discovered the still-living fetus
in a trash bag, and the 'mother' and the 'father.' It requires
no explanation but is powerful, evocative and clear dramatic narrative,
a one-act play comprised of long speeches in accentual verse.
Each character provides descriptions, the doctor's matter-of-fact but in
striking contrast to the boilerman's testimony. (The latter found
the fetus was still alive and called it to the doctor's attention, a fact
the doctor leaves out.) It's written in dialect:
Ay well, the porter brought this bag doon
And he calls the porter, who calls the doctor who would just as soon as
not found out. The narrative goes on in that tone. The
(he'd come fae the operatin theater like)
an he sayed it wis fur burning.
Ah tellt him it would have tae wait,
ah had tae clean the fire oot first,
say half an oor, then it could go in.
So he goes away an leaves the bag,
it wis on a big pile of bags, like, all ready
fur tae go in. Anyway, ah gote the fire up,
ah starts throwin bags in the incinerator,
an ah'm luftin this wee bag an
ah hear a sorta whimperin -- cryin like --
an ah can feel somethin breathin
through the paper. Whit did ah dae?
Ah pit it on a binch, near the hote pipes....
I've no idea who the father is.
Morgan isn't trading in sentiment or ideology; the story of the mother
is probably the story of more than half of unwanted pregnancies -- an evening
of dancing, shouting, singing and drink, some fun outside in a car or on
the side of a hill and who knew or cared? The 'father,' not
surprisingly, immediately engages in character assassination:
I took a summer job in a hotel
in the Highlands, and there was a party. I
got drunk, it must have happened then
but I remember nothing. When I knew
I was pregnant I was almost crazy,
it seemed the end of everything....
Was it my bairn? Christ, I don't know,
The porter, the middleman between the doctor and the incinerator, sums
it all neatly:
it might have been, I had her all right ---
but there was three of us you know --
at least three -- there was big Alec
and the wee French waiter wi the limp
(what d'ye cry him, Louie, wee Louie)
and we went to this hut down by the loch --
it was a perfect night, a perfect night --
mind you, we were all staggering a bit
but she was the worst let me tell you.
...suppose the boilerman hadny noticed it --
"An roon an roon" -- a beautifully realized piece, and one bound to distress
pro- and anti-abortionists alike because, as stories must, it
delivers the plausible, not the correct.
mah wee lassie's gote a hamster, ye ken? --
and ah fixed up a treadmill fur it
and it goes roon an roon an roon --
it's jist like that. Well ah'm no in court noo.
Don't answer nothing incriminatin, says the sheriff.
And that's good enough fur yours truly.
And neither ah did, neither ah did,
neither ah did, neither ah did....
Morgan's adept "Glasgow Sonnets" follow in a similar vein, with
a sharp, contemporary diction that tosses a wrench in the critical works
that says "formality is effete; formality is effete; formality is effete..."
A shilpit dog f*cks gently by the close.
That's just one of ten of a powerful sequence; Tony Harrison isn't the
only fellow between Edinburgh and Wales using rhyme, measure and reason.
Late shadows lengthen slowly, slogans fade.
The YY PARTICK TOI grins from its shade
like the last strains of some lost libera nos
a malo. No deliverer ever rose
from these stone tombs to get the hell they made
unmade. The same weans never make the grade.
The same grey street sends back the ball it throws.
Under the darkness of a twisted pram
a cat's eyes glitter. Glittering stars press
between the silent chimney-cowls and cram
the higher spaces with their SOS.
Don't shine a torch on the ragwoman's dram.
Coats keep the evil cold out less and less.
One of the advantages of writing to suit your talent instead of to
fulfill a political agenda is that you can wander from one commissar's
turf to another without "selling out." If you're smart, aware
and talented, as Miles Davis was for forty years in jazz, you'll be received
by some as a genius for exploring both the new and the old and by others
as fashion's whore. However, it isn't possible to "win" on an ideological
field; ask any Russian. Like Davis, Morgan doesn't try;
what he does instead is explore ranges of possibilities, whether in metered
stanzas or in free verse lines. The results can be daunting,
as the 100-part sequence "The New Divan," most of which is comprised of
five-beat accentual stanzas of irregular length. It is addressed
to Hafiz. There were two poets of that name, one the most famous
lyric poet in Persian who lived in Dante's time and was noted for simplicity,
colloquial diction and sympathy for the everyday, and the other known as
"the poet of the Nile" in the first third of the 20th century, who
was renowned for his nationalist odes and for poems that attacked imperial
rule. The first was threatened by Tamerlane (Timur), the latter by
Britain's love of stolen antiquities, domination of the natives,
and of cheap passage from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.
Both haunt this sequence but the title ("The New Divan" recalling
"Divan," the 14th century Hafiz's most famous poem) and the manner of this
sequence call up the ancient Hafiz most of all:
This intoxicating sequence of over 1,500 lines moves out of its references
to Hafiz and into the impossible mixture of the modern and of antiquity
that is the Middle East since 1900. It recalls Cavafy and Durell,
worlds drenched with aromas, tastes, experiences so old that no one could
possibly care except those who have them, shadows of past and future,
signs past their time and before....
What a tottering veil to call an expanse
of desire demure by! I love those masses
of satsumas at your elbow, piled like the times
you praise. Beyond the window there's an engine
hissing past the harvest. A girl
walks her dog in mist. Lattices
tingle as you shriek like lightning
when the parrot shrieks and forcibly
detain the coffee-boy. A trail
of grape-seeds vanishes below
the couch. You crouch
on huge all-fours in the balcony sand
and groan and tap your grin with your pipe.
Swish the incense everywhere it's not.
I know you're full of arak and danger,
a fiery flying dressing gown on human
wheels, two joss-sticks tossing the lust of
the nose up out through our small world
into the jasmine banks that smelt before
incense was made. You're in your blood.
Is it like this the gods are,
making and breaking as they swirl....
Fairuz is singing. The notes throb and twist
This only gets better. Of American poets, Edmund Pennant has also
worked this territory in poems, for example, iin The Wildebeest of Carmine
Street (from Orchises); indeed, it would be hard to imagine a world
where some writer of talent wasn't seduced by the milieu that exists just
beyond the armored gateways of banks and multinationals, a world of very
different illusions than those practiced behind ultramodern logos and computer
screens. A hundred stanzas later, as Morgan finishes,
you can set this down and prepare yourself for something that is, in its
own way, as good or better, "Memories of Earth," a sequence of "tapes"
in blank verse.
from some radio across the street. Like wings
they beat past evening balconies. The lonely see
them, almost see them, as they lean. Any
day someone will come, belong, return! She sings (we
bring the weight of hopes, hung round, hung-up) the final
flake and loosened quiver, winding down, of love. A plant
needs more than water, some say. Sunspot,
green fingers, transistor on a stool --
or tuneless whistling through teeth
with love, if love makes two blades three --
it's the brightest
of all this
hurried wandering meskin scene where nothing's right
and we lie and die many alone uncalled....
Carcanet Press is Morgan's publisher; his Collected Poems may
be had from Grolier's or Amazon. Whether the amusements or
the serious stuff, whether darkly comic or profoundly disturbing, Edwin
Morgan at 78 is one of the most fascinating poets this reviewer has looked
at in years. The book is $27.97 at Grolier's.
If you can't see the table of contents at left, click here to return to page one.