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.
  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 snow...."

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:

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:
  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.

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:"

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.

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:

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 mother....
  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: The porter, the middleman between the doctor and the incinerator, sums it all neatly:
  "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.
 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..."
  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.
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....
  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.

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.

                                Arthur Mortensen

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