Friday, 20 August 2010

Edwin Morgan

It is hard to write a proper appreciation from where I am, in the midst of work, but I hope to write something about Edwin Morgan, who died yesterday at the age of ninety, on my return. I met him just once for any length of time, when we were two of the three judges of the National Poetry Competition some time in the Eighties (Jonathan Barker was the third judge). It was a long session and the winner came up late and sudden, unexpectedly after having lurked in the pack.

I had reviewed his Poems of Thirty Years and was, at that time, uncertain about one aspect of it. I wrote in enthusiastic praise but hinted that I had missed what I think I then called, 'psychological complexity' or some such thing. But that was my own immaturity. It is easy to miss in others what you yourself experience as a pressing need - it seems important because you personally desire it, and you want more of it elsewhere. In fact you want it to be evident everywhere. But why, after all, should it be? And of course it might be there, but not quite in the form you yourself want, or even recognise. If I have recently been deemed to be - generally - a generous critic it is because I am more aware of my own possible limitations as a reader - you say what you think but you don't take what you think to be the last word.

What I did praise, and couldn't help praising, was the breadth, the energy, the willingness to be full of everything that was exciting. Many people have spoken of his warmth and generosity and these qualities were to the fore in the poems. It is interesting that experimentation, an enjoyment of the gifts of Modernism, and a willingness to enter areas that might or might not be central to your concerns, is more characteristic of Scottish than of English poets. It is, in some ways, a great sense of contact with the European mind and way of thinking. In England there is an earnest desire to find your heartland and live exclusively there - which might, after all, be another way of saying, Know your place. It is a kind of solemnity that underlies aspects of behaviour, and may be class based. People sometimes frown on what they regard as merely 'a lark', but which may be something more like 'high spirits'. Inappropriate behaviour.

High spirits is energy willing to forsake its own manners. Edwin Morgan was full of them. I can't talk about the characters of people I have never properly met - in the case of artists, however, there is a perfect right, indeed an invitation, to talk about the character of their work in terms of human character. It might in fact be a truer impression of the human being than the impressions one gets in life, which is full of moods and circumstances. In that sense Morgan was brilliant, sparkling, substantial and moving - a proper human being with heroic dimensions.

Here is a poem of his I have sometimes discussed with students. It is one of the Instamatic Poems, where the poet places himself in the instant and just watches. It's just that the light sensitive surface of the imagination is sensitive to a great deal else:


Glasgow 5 March 1971

With a ragged diamond
of shattered plate-glass
a young man and his girl
are falling backwards into a shop-window.
The young man's face
is bristling with fragments of glass
and the girl's leg has caught
on the broken window
and spurts arterial blood
over her wet-look white coat.
Their arms are starfished out
braced for impact,
their faces show surprise, shock,
and the beginning of pain.
The two youths who have pushed them
are about to complete the operation
reaching into the window
to loot what they can smartly.
Their faces show no expression.
It is a sharp clear night
in Sauchiehall Street.
In the background two drivers
keep their eyes on the road.


Emerging Writer said...

Thanks for the interesting post. I'm going to have to look up more from Edwin now.
The poem does beg the question (though I'm sure it's been said before) why was the poet not intervening? Like those journalist photos and film of people starving or dying

Crafty Green Poet said...

Edwin Morgan has always been my favourite poet in the English language for his willingness to experiment.

Emerging Writer - it may be an imagined scenario in the poem and one that the poet therefore couldn't intervene in,

George S said...

It is certainly an imagined incident though it may have been an item in a newspaper. It was one of a whole series of Instamatic Poems written by Morgan and they are not all as hyper-realistic as this. Some are surreal and speculative. The polaroid camera would have just reached the peak of its popularity at the time the poems were composed.

I am out at Ty Newydd this week (finishing tonight) tutoring a course on poems about art, including photography, with Pascale Petit and we spent some of the afternoon looking at this poem next to one of his Glasgow Sonnets.

Anne said...

Great post, thanks, George. Whereas many poets dip into obscurity for a while after death, Morgan will surely become more luminous.

Diane said...

Such a wonderful week of blogs, George. Thank you.

On Edwin Morgan -- I met him in Edinburgh in the 1970s with that small group of close poet friends who included Hugh McDiarmid. The irascible McDiarmid was the "older man" of the group but it was always Morgan who was the balanced and generous "heavyweight". These men were of a generation close to modernism and alwys dedicated to experimentation. They drank whisky and argued and cared for each other and were as "un-English" as you are implying. But Morgan was always the implicit and generous leader (in his poetic style as well as in his personality). I'm looking forward very much to your analysis when you reach home.

Poet in Residence said...

It's been lovely sharing your week at Ty Newydd through your posts - I feel as if I was actually there. You are very generous with your time and knowledge.

Poet in Residence said...

Hello Emerging Writer, when Wm Wordsworth wrote those immortal lines "I wandered lonely as a cloud..." I believe there were at least 3 people on the walk along that Ullswater path: poet, wife, sister. Wm was therefore far from lonely with two chatty women at his side. I believe it was his sister who made write the poem, or at least gave him the idea of it. I believe we must take what poetry we read with the proverbial pinch of salt. Or maybe go into science.

angelatopping said...

That's a beautiful and generous tribute, George. I'd expect no less from you. There's always wisdom in your writing. We are losing too many brilliant poets of the generation before us these days. I am still missing Matt Simpson terribly. But after a great poet has died, after the shock and the mourning, the path of grief leads back to the accomplishment of the work and consoles. It also faciliates evaluation of the body of the finished work and allows us to trace the rainbow arc of the writing development.