powered by FreeFind

Home > Articles & Essays > Edwin Morgan Poems, National 5


Edwin Morgan Poems, National 5

Professor James McGonigal

(A paper given at the Schools Conference of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 3rd October, 2015click here to watch this and other conference papers on video.)

The Poetry of
Edwin Morgan
The International Companion to
Edwin Morgan
I want to offer a slightly different approach to the six poems of Edwin Morgan that are now set texts at National 5. Line-by-line analysis has been done elsewhere, both online and in classrooms, so it seems important to think about providing some fresh perspectives on poems that (we might feel) have already been analysed within an inch of their lives. I am thinking here mainly of three of the four poems of Glasgow life that feature in the list of six set poems: ‘In the Snack-Bar’, ‘Good Friday’ and ‘Trio’, which have been taught for many years. These can be looked at afresh, and set within an approach that includes the other poems, ‘Winter’, ‘Hyena’ and ‘Slate’. The National 5 examination in fact demands that students pay attention to the interconnections between poems, and so there clearly needs to be a wider perspective than line-by-line analysis.

Everyone looks for a starting point for analysing poetry, however, and I will refer to three useful resources for teachers and pupils. The first of these is Scottish Short Texts (Hodder Gibson, 2014) by Carolyn Cunningham and Willie McGuire, which can be highly recommended for its interactive classroom activities and practical examination focus, in addition to detailed textual analysis. Secondly, placing the set poems within a wider view of Morgan’s life and work, and also written at an accessible level, is the ASLS Scotnote, The Poetry of Edwin Morgan. This pays attention to the set poems, but also to the development of his writing and reputation, and it draws on my work as the poet’s biographer. It also provides useful guidance towards further audio and online resources. Finally there are the BBC Bitesize web pages on the set poems, which students might be directed to by parents or teachers. This I found somewhat basic and uninspiring, but it is thorough enough, and does offer a multiple-choice test after each poem has been analysed. This can be a quick and useful assessment technique, and could be adapted to be more challenging.

I will be pointing out some errors of interpretation in all three of these resources, but the main intention here is not to pick holes or over-interrogate the obvious. Rather, it is to set the poems in a fuller context, so that they can be read, taught and written about more confidently. It is important to consider the dynamic in any poem between its line-by-line movement and its endpoint of completion or summation – in other words, to remember the journey of the reading mind, which is not a linear series of discrete steps but more like a dance movement, where the tempo and overarching musical theme work together with an enjoyment, or at least a deployment, of the technical skills. This holistic approach can get lost whenever we focus too anxiously on what each line or image ‘means’, and the whole point of the poetry vanishes into a sort of fussiness.


The context of Morgan’s Glasgow poems

Four of the six set poems have Glasgow as a setting. Three of them date from the early 1960s: ‘In the Snack-bar’ (written in August 1964), ‘Trio’ (15 December 1963), and ‘Good Friday’ (May 1962). These poems seem very familiar now to many teachers, who might even have studied these texts themselves at school. But at the time of writing they were quite new, radical or even rebellious. In the early 1960s, Morgan was known mainly as a translator and critic, and as an experimental poet within the avant-garde and international movement of concrete poetry and sound poetry, pushing the typographic and the phonic elements of poetry to their extremes. But the other important Scottish concrete poet, Ian Hamilton Finlay, who was a good friend of Morgan, disliked these Glasgow poems, and said so. To him they lacked the verbal intricacy and sparkle of Morgan’s concrete poetry. And at the other extreme, Hugh MacDiarmid, who was the great precursor and a sort of poetic father-figure for Morgan, not only saw concrete poetry as trivial word-play, but he hated industrial Glasgow. For him it was an ‘arrida nutrix’, not a wet-nurse but a dry-nurse, a place that offered no poetic nourishment whatsoever. He also despised the Glaswegian dialect as a slovenly and bastard mixture, far from the ‘authentic’ Scots language which he had tried to re-invent and synthesise, and which was for him definitely a rural and mainly Borders and East-coast tongue.

But Glasgow was Morgan’s birthplace and home. He identified with its technological inventiveness, its modernity and energy, and he felt solidarity with its people and concern for the modern city’s very visible social problems. He came from quite a well-off background. The family firm was Arnott, Young and Company, founded by his grandfather on his mother’s side, a significant ship-breaking and metal recycling business on Clydeside, with several yards. They were well-off, but his family did not own a car, and they travelled everywhere by tram or train, surrounded by Glaswegian voices. Morgan was an intelligent only child, often in adult company, and very alert to voices, and what accents and tones might mean. Travelling was always a sort of entertainment for him, and just being in Glasgow, he once said, was like being in a play. It was surprising, dramatic, comic or tragic – you never knew who would walk on-stage next.

The idea of writing poetry about Glasgow came as a revelation to him. In the 1950s, his poetry had been interesting but anxious, tense, over-worked perhaps. This reflected tensions and uncertainty in his own life and work, including his own gay identity and the secret and illegal life that this entailed. Then, in the spring of 1962 he was on an educational cruise to St Kilda (he may have been giving lectures on literature, to work his passage) when suddenly he had a psychological break-through. It may have been because he was at sea, which he always loved; or because this was a former troop-ship, the Dunera, which would have brought to mind his former freedom as a young soldier sailing round the Cape of Good Hope to take part in the North Africa campaign, in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Suddenly the poem ‘Linoleum Chocolate’ came into his mind – a tiny incident in which he had seen ‘Two girls running, / running, laughing / laughing, lugging, / two rolls of linoleum / along London Road’ in Glasgow’s East End, near the Barras open-air market (Collected Poems [CP]: pp. 163–64). Suddenly a bar of chocolate flies out of the second girl’s pocket, a man picks it up for her, and the girls have a bite of it ‘to recruit the strength / of their giggling progress’.

It was a trivial incident, but here is how Morgan describes it to a friend and fellow-editor, seven years later in March 1969:

Never had I been able to write about two girls running down the street till that moment. It was as if – and I recognised the change immediately – I suddenly realised that I was able to be free, that the albatross had slipped off my neck into the Atlantic, that the everyday things that I had always had sympathy with but had never been able to write about were now in a new relation to me and could come into poetry as naturally as symbols of alienation had come in the past. My god, to be post-alienated!
Edwin Morgan, The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950–2010 ed. James McGonigal and John Coyle (Carcanet Press, 2015: p. 232)

These letters provide another useful background resource for Morgan’s poetry, in his own words. We might notice here how this Glasgow poem relates to ‘Trio’, in its atmosphere of laughter and generosity; or to ‘In the Snack-bar’ in its helpfulness from a stranger (the man who picks up the chocolate for them); or to the use of real settings, London Road, or Bath Street, in ‘Good Friday’, Buchanan Street in ‘Trio’ or Great Western Road in the other Glasgow poem, ‘Winter’. I should also say that Morgan’s letters, and the actual dates when he wrote particular poems, come from another place that is well worth visiting online: the Edwin Morgan Papers in the Department of Special Collections, University of Glasgow Library.


Can meaningful poetry come from small incidents?

We need to see where such local poems fit into the wider scheme of things. Scottish Short Texts and BBC Bitesize are fine on the surface detail and techniques line-by-line, but are perhaps not so good on the thematic structure of where that detail fits. So here I’ll offer three ways into dealing with all of the set poems and with the final comparison question in the National 5 examination. Scottish Short Texts has really good teaching ideas, such as the use of Venn diagrams to plot the similarities and differences between the set poems, but it also seems to me to get some things awry. For example, I don’t read the drunk man on the bus in ‘Good Friday’ necessarily as a character with whom we do not sympathise (which the authors warn students against trying to do – fair enough, they admit, it is possible, but just don’t try it in the exam). Sensible advice, perhaps, but I don’t want to follow it here. Nor do I see ‘alcoholism’ as a key theme of this poem. For BBC Bitesize, the drunk is unquestionably a Catholic. Again, that is not the only reading, nor the likely reading, nor the whole story. A better way of treating these poems may be to consider how they fit into a larger pattern, both in Morgan’s work and in terms of how they inter-relate and bear comparison with each other.

Here are three central themes in Morgan’s poetry:

  1. journeys in time and space (or the space-time continuum)
  2. isolation and social solidarity (the solitary seeks solidarity)
  3. voices for Scotland (tuning in to difference, beyond the single voice)


Journeys in time and space

We know that Edwin Morgan was really engaged by space exploration in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but he was even more puzzled by time, which remained ‘the great mystery’. As a boy he was very interested in science, and the evolutionary variety of human and animal life on earth fascinated him. He was also growing up in an age when the theory of relativity was reshaping the way human beings thought about time and the universe. One work that caught his attention in his late teens was Joseph Dunne’s An Experiment in Time (1927, 1934), which deals with relativity, alternative universes and parallel time zones, which become accessible through our dream states. I think this is the genesis of some of Morgan’s best-known science-fiction poems. But in his other poems the varieties of time are crucial too, and the theme of time is a way into reading them.

‘In the Snack-bar’ seems to slow down time. There is the moment-by-moment movement across the café floor, down the stairs to the toilet, with the poet assisting the old blind hunchback and adjusting to his pace:

Inch by inch we drift towards the stairs.
A few yards of floor are like a landscape
to be negotiated, in the slow setting out
time has almost stopped. I concentrate my life to his: [. . .]

Time and space are slowed down and distorted. ‘Thematic variation’ (where the adverbial phrase is used to start a clause or sentence, rather than coming, as normally, after the verb) makes ‘Inch by inch’ the ‘theme’ of the sentence, the point that comes first to our minds and is emphasised. The slow pace of time is measured by the small inches taken – not ‘we drift inch by inch’ but ‘inch by inch we drift.’ The use of personal pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ here marks a contrast with the objectively-described opening of the poem, where alliteration and onomatopoeia help enact the scene for us. There is an extraordinary technical skill behind the setting of an ordinary scene:

A cup capsises along the formica,
slithering with a dull clatter.

But this moment-by-moment journey (‘And slowly we go down. And slowly we go down.’) is set within a final shocking perspective of days, years, spent as a cripple, stretching from birth to age: ‘Dear Christ, to be born for this’. Beyond that again, looking further back in time, there is the poet’s admiration or wonder at the old man’s perseverance, a very human survival trait, as he climbs:

with many pauses but with that one
persisting patience of the undefeated
which is the nature of man when all is said.
And slowly we go up. And slowly we go up.
The faltering, unfaltering steps
take him at last to the door [. . .]

So this one incident, a chance encounter of the poet happening to be present when a disabled man asks for help to go to the toilet, first slows down time and then expands it across one life, and then across human lifetimes and ages – a perspective caught in that sharp and admirable paradox of ‘faltering, unfaltering steps’. This trivial incident of a few moments of kindness towards a stranger pulses with frameworks of time that include moments, days, years, aeons of human survival and progress. (The thematic link to the geological timescale of ‘Slate’ is clear, albeit in a very different poetic form.)

The final exclamation, ‘Dear Christ, to be born for this’ is not a prayer, but seems to be half an expletive, half a challenge to a divine order that allows such a disabled and limited life. The authors of Scottish Short Texts take this reference to Christ and link it backwards in the poem to the biblical Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus to bear his burden towards crucifixion on Calvary, but I’m not really sure about this. Morgan was well-read in the Bible early and late, both as a smart Sunday-School pupil and as a lecturer on John Milton’s verse and prose, and he would have known that Simon was constrained by the Romans to help carry the cross rather than volunteering to do so. But it is perfectly true that the religious perspective does lead us to ask searching questions. In a supposedly Christian city, why is it only the atheist who volunteers to help the old man? Who is the Good Samaritan here?

This leads us on to consider another sort of time: namely, religious or supernatural time. In theology, the distinction is made between the Greek terms ‘chronos’ (chronological or historical time) and ‘kairos’, which is the crucial or sacred time, the moment of decisive change, which must be seized. Chronos sees time as a quantity, kairos concerns time as a quality. When Jesus says to his mother Mary at Cana ‘My hour is not yet come’, this does not mean he has just checked his wristwatch! It is a different kind of ‘hour’, a different order of time. It means the hour of destiny, or ultimate self-realisation. Now Edwin Morgan had his own disagreements with organised Christianity, both in its Protestant and Catholic forms (his parents were Presbyterians, but for mainly social reasons, he thought, and his father was a Freemason, again for business reasons). Their son gave up going to church about the age of fifteen. As a soldier in the Middle East, Morgan visited Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the holy places – and was not impressed by their commercialism. But the powerful persona of the Jesus of the gospel narratives continued to niggle him, and to fascinate by his difference. This would lead Morgan finally in the year 2000 to write a trilogy of plays on the life of Jesus, entitled AD. This non-traditional version of the gospel story caused some controversy at the time, most of it manufactured by the Scottish media.

We see that interest in religious or supernatural time in ‘Trio’ and ‘Good Friday’. Morgan questions religion by presenting alternative interpretations of it. In ‘Trio’, it is a bit too easy to suggest equivalence between the three Magi of the traditional Nativity in Bethlehem and the three young people carrying their gifts of the chihuahua in its Royal Stewart tartan coat, the guitar with its tinsel and the Christmas baby ‘in its white shawl’. In this reading, the Christmas lights on Buchanan Street are linked to the star of Bethlehem. But in a chronos/kairos reading of this particular ‘sharp winter evening’ at the ‘end of this winter’s day’, any Christian message is deliberately agnostic:

Whether Christ is born or not born, you
put paid to fate, it abdicates [. . .]

The quasi-supernatural kairos energy suggested in the references to the defeat of ‘fate’ and ‘monsters’ is more focused here, I think, on the political march of humanity. These three are like a protest march against ‘monsters of the year’ – which might be negativity, oppression, a sour humourlessness. Against these, ‘all three of them are laughing’, and they vanish into the city street crowded with Christmas shoppers, with ‘laughter ringing them round like a guard’ (a nice conflation of the ringing sound of laughter and a protective ring of steel). The moment of significance seems political, about the young and their need for freedom, a very 1960s concern. There is a religious perspective present, of course, but it is not traditionally Christian. Rather, it takes a longer view backwards in time beyond the BC/AD divide of the birth of Jesus towards the pagan world (or simply the human world), one that organised Christianity would to some extent supplant. The most memorable images resonate with the pagan mysteries, not church services:

The guitar swells under its milky cover, tied at the neck
with silver tinsel tape and a brisk sprig of mistletoe.
Orphean sprig! Melting baby! Warm chihuahua!

Pagan sensuality and celebration of animal life, of birth and kindness, of gift-giving and keeping small creatures warm – all of these can oust the morose parody of Scottish Protestant Christianity which was later represented in comedy by the character of the Reverend I. M. Jolly.

The poem ‘Good Friday’ opens at the kairos moment of Christian faith: ‘Three o’clock’, the hour of Christ’s death on the cross. The poet has remembered this, but the rest of the poem takes an agnostic or humanistic look at what religion has come to mean for many ordinary working people: ‘I don’t know what today’s in aid of’, says the drunk man. His religious or existential confusion is nicely set against the lurching line breaks, where enjambment constantly enacts the speaker’s drunken sway (even when seated!). Dashes and repetition are used too for the typical speech pauses caused by a drunk man’s need to focus on what he wants to say:

The bus lurches
round into the sun. ‘D’s this go –’
he flops beside me – ‘right along Bath Street?
– Oh tha’s, tha’s all right, see I’ve
got to get Easter eggs for the kiddies.’

I’ve already signalled disagreement with the view of the drunk man as not being someone with whom we would sympathise. I do think sympathy is being evoked. I do not think that the poet is silent during the drunk man’s monologue to signal his disapproval, or to ignore him in the hope that he will go away. Nor do I think, as BBC Bitesize suggests, that he is a Catholic. He may be. But most Catholics I know would refer to ‘Jesus’ not to ‘Christ’ in talking about the gospel story. It is true that the economic migration of Irish labourers both Catholic and Protestant into Scotland meant the uprooting and loss of cultural and religious continuities. My sympathy comes from the poet’s portrayal of a man who is smart enough to realise how working-class industrial life has cut him off from education and understanding, that it has wasted his potential: the working man is ‘jist bliddy ignorant – Christ aye, / bliddy ignorant.’ The accuracy of the speech rhythms here is harsh with self-blame.

The poet-narrator’s silent attention points us towards the causes of cultural loss, the social frustrations drowned or dampened down by alcohol. These are things that need to be heard, not to be commented on but simply listened to. And there is also the positive point of him not having spent all of his money on drink, but having kept enough back to buy Easter eggs ‘for the kiddies’. (That choice of ‘kiddies’ here, rather than the more traditional Glasgow dialect term ‘weans’, led me in the Scotnote to read these ‘kiddies’ as grandchildren. There is no indication of this distinction in the poem, however: it was merely a reflection of my own life at the time of writing it, with six of them to think of – grandchildren and Easter eggs.) The poem ends on a positive note, again one of human survival. The man is last seen heading towards the sun. The wordplay on the Son of God, and the way in which Christian tradition blends the rolling aside of the entrance stone from the Easter tomb with the pagan Spring fertility symbol of rolling eggs, are both understated, but just present, perhaps, in the final mood.

The last dimension of time is where we most often notice it passing – that is, within our own lives, or on the faces of family and friends. Decade follows decade and suddenly it seems that hair has turned grey and retirement approaches. Morgan was born in 1920, at the start of a new decade, and he always took the turn of the year seriously, settling all his bills and taking down old calendars. Even more serious was the change of a decade, which marked turning points in his life. In 1930 he was ten, becoming aware of his own sexuality. In 1940, at 20 he became a soldier for six years. In 1950 he was thirty and beginning to publish as a poet and academic. But 1960 felt much more significant than any of those. Morgan finally left home for a flat of his own in Glasgow’s West End. And he fell in love with John Scott, a working-class Catholic, a factory storeman, an attractive Other to almost everything in his earlier and often lonely life. In his creative life the 1960s brought engagement with international writers, translators and avant-garde artists. In politics there came a thaw in the Cold War that had divided Western and Eastern Europe since the end of World War Two. That was important because of his socialist ideals and horror at the thought of atomic warfare. In local politics, Glasgow saw a bold new programme of slum clearance and the building of social housing schemes, with major road works to improve travel and communication.

All of that sense of personal and political change is poured into his poem ‘The Second Life’, which provided the title for his first poetry collection, The Second Life (1968). His first major collection, at the late age of forty-eight – and a very successful, award-winning collection too. In the poem he seems amazed at life, its promise and renewal:

But does every man feel like this at forty –
I mean it’s like Thomas Wolfe’s New York, his
heady light, the stunning, plunging canyons, beauty –
pale stars winking hazy downtown quitting-time,
and the winter moon flooding the skyscrapers, northern –
an aspiring place [. . .] (CP: p. 180)

I dwell on this because the set poem ‘Winter’ (written 9–10 December 1977) really needs to be read through the mirror of ‘The Second Life’. Some of the optimistic images of the earlier poem are revisited and rewritten. It is not just a poem of complaint (‘But does every man feel like this at fifty-seven –’) – but in some ways it is a poem that is full of complaint. Morgan was very unhappy in his domestic and personal life at this point. There were messy and expensive repairs to his flat, disrupting his work routines. Worse, he had not only quarrelled badly with John Scott, but he had deliberately kept himself aloof. The two men would not be reconciled at all before John’s death from cancer the following year. Morgan felt tremendous guilt over that, made worse by the fact that he had already become attached to a much younger man. In a poem called ‘The Divide’ he talks about ‘the years between us like the sea’. The love affair is described in several poems: ‘Smoke’, ‘The Beginning’, ‘Planets’, ‘Resurrections’ (CP: pp. 369–73).

Morgan was not only conscious of his own age, but also of the recent death of friends and contemporaries – the young Scottish experimental poet, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, died of an accidental overdose, possibly suicide. Musicians and artists he admired had died: Elvis Presley, Marc Bolan, Maria Callas, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Lowell. Just three months before composing ‘Winter’, he wrote a poem called ‘A Good Year for Death’, with a verse about each artist, each ending with the same refrain, ‘Death has danced his tune away’.

So ‘Winter’ is a poem about time as experienced in the aging process, and the impossibility of arresting the progress of time. The myth of Tithonus (in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s re-telling of it in his dramatic monologue, ‘Tithonus’) is used as an ironic commentary on Morgan’s own life. The setting of his poem overlooking the frozen wintry scene of Bingham’s Pond, which he could see from his flat on Glasgow’s Great Western Road, is a bitter reprise of his optimistic ‘The Second Life’ (May 1963), written fourteen years earlier. In the myth, Tithonis had been granted perpetual life but forgot to ask for perpetual youth (a bad mistake!) and so was forced to live on within an increasingly decrepit body. In his poem, Morgan almost seems to be mocking his own 1960s experimental poetry as he plays verbal games with Tennyson’s famous opening lines, which are:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burden to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

Morgan keeps this autumnal scene, but fast-forwards it into winter:

The year goes, the woods decay, and after,
many a summer dies. The swan
on Bingham’s pond, a ghost, comes and goes.
It goes, and ice appears [. . .].

These fragmenting sentences, stopping and starting in the wrong place and turning the meanings upside down, enact Morgan’s confusion and the loss of coherence in his life – everything is broken, including his usual optimism. The motto he would choose for his Collected Poems (1990) was: ‘Beti zeru urdin zati bat dago: bila ezazu’. No translation is given, but it is a saying in the ancient Basque language: ‘Somewhere in the sky there’s one shred of blue: chase that’. The saddest line in ‘Winter’ to me is the longest:

Even / dearest blue’s not there, though poets would find it.

If he himself can’t find it, the central core of his life as a poet has vanished. ‘The Second Life’ and ‘Winter’ share the setting of Great Western Road, and Bingham’s Pond with its skaters in the evening dark – but what a change of mood from the happy skaters and their happy audience of the crisp cold early 1960s evenings when

they swung and flashed among car headlights,
the drivers parked round the unlit pond
to watch them, and give them light, what laughter
and pleasure rose in the rare lulls
of the yards-away stream of wheels along Great Western Road!

In ‘Winter’ now the scene is ‘stark’ and ‘cut by evening cries, by warring air’. Not communal ‘laughter’ but a sense of violence and threat in the darkness. Not ‘a stream of wheels’ and helpful headlights, but instead it is the fog that is on the move, as it ‘drives monstrous down the dual carriageway / out to the west.’ The monsters of the year which once seemed to have been banished by the happy laughter of ‘Trio’, have come back to haunt the poet. Tithonus had been granted eternal life by Aurora, the Dawn Goddesss of the East, but the poet’s life seems to be heading west with the declining sun, in a fog of uncertainty. The white page he is writing on can’t seem to meet the challenge of ‘the grey dead pane of ice’. In the course of the poem, the ice has altered from ‘swan-white ice’ with glints of ‘crystal beyond white’ to something that is as inert and grey as the poet now feels. The ‘grey dead pane’ is the image of the cold division between life and death. In this mood, time has ceased to be flexible, and any life and any relationship can be seen as limited and finite.

We have looked at various aspects of time in the poems so far:

  • examining the behaviour of time: how it can seem to speed up or slow down (and how the poet’s word order and rhythms can make that seem to happen);
  • or considering significant or meaningful time, moments of destiny or discovery with the present day set against a sacred past, at Christmas, or Easter time, with Christian and pagan world-views intersecting with the present;
  • or finally time passing in one person’s life from youth to age, from a sense of life as being open to the future to a sense of life closing down, locked into memories or regrets.

And within this theme of time, we should also think about the narrative movement of the poems, how they move from the upper to the lower level and back again (‘In the Snack-bar’), or from street level to top deck of the bus then back down to the street again (‘Good Friday’); or, within the remembering mind, from the hopeful 1960s to the almost despairing 1970s. Morgan liked to describe himself as a story-teller, and narratives also deal with time – as in that most famous story opening, ‘Once upon a time . . .’.


Isolation and social solidarity

Themes can intersect within a poem, as in a Venn diagram. ‘Winter’ creates a time, a season, but it also presents an isolation. The grey ice is like a window pane that divides the flat-dweller from the life of the city outside. This takes us on to the second overarching theme in these poems selected for National 5 – a division between the solitary writer and the solidarity of social life outside or beyond him. It is a contrast between isolation and social identity. I am thinking of ‘identity’ as a confident or easy sense of belonging to a community, whether seen as a family, or a social class grouping, or even a sexual identity or orientation. Frequently in Morgan’s poetry we find him on the outside, observing, looking in on other people’s lives, catching them as in a photograph, in an instamatic or Instagram pose.

We find this division in the poems of Glasgow life. The trio in Buchanan Street are happy, instinctual, unreflecting – the poet is alone on the busy street of shoppers. In ‘Good Friday’ he is the almost silent passenger, listening carefully to what the drunk man is saying, taking it in, recording it, reflecting on what it implies. The one person to come to the aid of the hunchbacked man in the snack-bar is the other loner: the poet is in the café but not part of a crowd, on his own, it seems.

Various factors combined to place Morgan in an outsider role. He was an only child, the bookish son of non-reading parents whose main interest was the family business of ship-breaking. The parents were conservatives, their son was a socialist with a particular interest in Russian literature and society. They did not approve of his academic career and would have preferred a more secure and perhaps better-paid job in a bank. In his academic life, Morgan was deliberately not a traditional specialist, and his main areas of interest were not part of the English curriculum when he started teaching: American literature, avant-garde poetry, literature in translation, Scottish literature (then seen as part of Scottish History) and cultural studies that included science and social science. So he was, in a sense, isolated from more traditional colleagues.

What made him most acutely a loner, of course, was his sexual identity as a gay man – a secret identity, since homosexual activity continued to be criminalised in Scotland until 1980. (England and Wales became more liberal in 1967, in response to the Wolfenden Report of ten years earlier.) If Morgan’s sexual life had been discovered and he had been arrested and jailed, then he would have lost his job and been socially ostracised. So the love poems that he wrote for John Scott in the 1960s, such as ‘One Cigarette’ or ‘Strawberries’ were written in a deliberately ‘coded’ manner, where the gender of the loved one is unclear. And this gives the poems their power to speak for love beyond gender and sexuality. There is a sense, which the poet certainly felt, that his poetry in the early 1960s was part of an underground movement for ‘gay liberation’, even before that term had been invented. ‘Glasgow Green’ is the most explicit of such poems, although even here some of his colleagues did not recognise what its implications were. My biography of the poet, Beyond the Last Dragon, A Life of Edwin Morgan (2012 extended paperback edition) provides a full account of these crucial aspects of the poet’s identity.

Morgan was regularly invited to give readings in secondary schools all over Scotland, and was often asked to read ‘Glasgow Green’ which was taught in many classrooms. He sensed a gradual change in pupils’ attitudes towards homosexuality. In 2003 this topic came up in an interview on ‘Gay Writing in Scotland’, for a book called Ethically Speaking: Voice and Values in Modern Scottish Writing (2006).

If ‘Glasgow Green’ is an appeal for gay liberation, then it is just possible (I put this forward tentatively) that ‘In the Snack-bar’ might also be seen as offering a corrective towards biased views. To be a gay man in a toilet in a basement, helping another man, is not necessarily to be ‘up to no good’. In this poem, kindness and charity and sensitivity to the needs of others are signs of a shared humanity, not an occasion for social prejudice. We may sense here that, just as the pagan and Christian symbols overlap in ‘Trio’ or ‘Good Friday’, so isolation and identity overlap in ‘In the Snack-bar’ and the other Glasgow poems too. The drunk man on the bus is isolated too, despite all his talk – ‘it’s the drink talking’, as the saying goes, and he has cut himself off by inebriation from a society (and a divisive schooling system, as it then was) which has failed to recognise the contribution he could have made.

The poet, then, presents the light and dark of modern city life, but he is also a witness to its humanity and warmth from which, in the nature of things, he sometimes feels excluded. Often he presents a camera’s-eye view, snapping the urban landscape and letting it speak for itself – as in the poem ‘Death in Duke Street’ where a young man and a young mother hold an old man who has collapsed dying on the street: ‘As if he still belonged / they held him very tight’. The poet is watching this, on the edge of the crowd it seems, but that too is a position of isolation, a single focus. Singleness is not, of course, something we associate with Morgan’s work. He is the most multi-faceted of poets, open to the widest range of experience and poetic forms. But the individual’s perspective, isolated and sharp, is part of a key theme of longing for solidarity.


Voices for Scotland

This leads onto the third broad shaping force in Morgan’s poetry, which could be called ‘Voices for Scotland’ – a focus on the plural and multiple. If you want a political slogan, you might demand ‘a voice for Scotland’, or present yourself as ‘the voice of Scotland’. These are party slogans. In Edwin Morgan’s world there is no single voice, nor should there be. He was critical of creative writing tutors who advised young writers to ‘find their voice’. For him, the world spoke in many voices. This included its many languages (he translated substantially from a dozen European languages, ancient and modern, and occasionally from several others) but also the imagined languages of machines. ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’ is well known, but what about its second Christmas card, and its code poem and dialect poem? Objects are made to speak too (‘The Apple’s Song’) and creatures both imaginary (‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’) and real, as in ‘Hyena’. We have already seen how he includes, among Scotland’s voices, the Glaswegian dialect which had formerly been discounted as an unacceptable literary medium.

I sometimes think that these multiple voices were being presented partly against Hugh MacDiarmid’s unique and powerful voice, ambitious for his own poetry and for Scotland. MacDiarmid was knowledgeable on many matters, but not perhaps gifted in knowledge ‘from the inside’ – whereas Morgan was happy giving voices to all sorts of things, not content only with describing them ‘from the outside’. So the techniques of the dramatic monologue appealed, and were extended into new territory. The Hyena’s voice, dispassionate, ironic, cold, insolent, efficient, is a good example of Morgan’s skill in dramatic monologue.

The first-person narration conveys the creature’s character and threat from the start: ‘I am waiting for you’ – followed by a pointed description of how hungry and thirsty it is. The present tense verbs draw the reader in towards this dangerous encounter – we are brought closer to its eyes ‘screwed to slits against the sun’. There is an arrogance about this creature. He sounds like a narcissist, a charming sociopath. Three times the hyena compares itself to Africa in similes that emphasise its rough coat, its craftiness, its energy. The energy is itemised in its tireless prowling movements: ‘I trot, I lope, I slaver, I prowl’.

The essential movement of the poem is towards the reader, in a scary way. Having explored the desolate and ruined places, and described in slow motion how to tear open a dead lion, the hyena moves in on us, by way of listing pieces of anatomy that we humans share with other prey: foot, heart, sinews and glazing eye. In the final lines, it is the reader’s bones that are picked clean and left to the winds. In the creation of the hyena’s voice, the number of questions posed to the reader/listener is a way of turning this encounter into a one-sided conversation. ‘What do you think of me? . . . Do you like my song? Do you like me when my tongue comes lolling over my jaw?’ This gambit of question as threat reminds me of the well-known Glasgow pub enquiry, posed in a somewhat aggressive manner: ‘What are you looking at?’ (There’s no absolutely safe answer to that.) This also makes for interesting contrasts with the dramatic monologue form, partial in ‘Good Friday’ or fully in ‘Slate’. It might strike us, also, that the hyena is a loner, but a dangerous one.

Unlike the other set poems, ‘Hyena’ was specifically written for children, commissioned by Penguin for its early 1970s school anthology series, The English Project. It was in Stage One of a three-stage series. Writing to his friend Iain Crichton Smith in October 1971, Morgan describes the process of writing it:

I am not at all sure that I know what happens when I am creating a poem, and whatever it is basically, it varies a good deal from poem to poem (since my poems are of many different kinds). At one extreme perhaps is the commissioned poem, like ‘Hyena’, ‘Heron’, and ‘Goal!’ which Penguin Books asked me to do for school anthologies: in each case they sent me a photograph of the subject, and my poem was to be an accompaniment to the photograph (a sort of reversal of the more usual habit of finding an illustration to go with an existing poem). It worked reasonably well; I was able to react strongly enough to the photographs to be roused into verbal activity, though not immediately, since I let them lie around for a while and sink into my subconscious, and then eventually had a more intense go at them and tried writing ‘with my eye on the subject’ as in this case it had to be. Having gone through this process I feel it has something to be said for it. Maybe more poems should be commissioned.
(Edwin Morgan, The Midnight Letterbox: p. 260)

We might note again here the combination of photographic image and an entry point into an estranged moment of encounter, a solitariness or distance that, as we have seen, Morgan had some personal experience of, but emerging powerfully here from his creation of a non-human voice.

This phrase ‘non-human’ brings us to ‘Slate’. The choice of this poem as the set piece from Sonnets from Scotland (1984) may be slightly puzzling, when there are so many other marvellous ones to choose from in the series of 51 poems. ‘Slate’ is published at the beginning of the sequence, but opens with the paradoxical claim: ‘There is no beginning’. This may a challenge to biblical explanations, whether in Genesis or at the opening of the Gospel of St. John: ‘In the beginning was the Word [. . .]’. But in any case, ‘Slate’ was not the first sonnet written. That was ‘The Solway Canal’ (printed 26th in the series) which imagines a journey by hydrofoil, at some time in the future, along a canal dividing Scotland from England. This dividing line reveals the political impetus behind the sonnet series – the failed Referendum of 1979 when a majority of Scots voted for a Scottish assembly, but not in a sufficient majority of everyone actually eligible to vote. Morgan felt that it was wrong to be too pessimistic over the result, but better to view it as a spur to writers and artists to create a more confident sense of Scottish identity. And indeed Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead (to mention only Glasgow writers) all went on to publish important work in the 1980s.

Beyond the paradox of ‘There is no beginning’ for the beginning of a poem at the beginning of a series, there is the puzzle of the words that complete this first line: ‘We saw Lewis / laid down [. . .]’. Who are ‘we’, who in the next sonnet in the series are to be found scuba-diving in the warm prehistoric seas around Bearsden, near Glasgow, or in the next sonnet again are watching glaciers melt or discovering the ashes of hunter-gatherer fires in the Grampian mountains. ‘We’ are time-travelling intelligences, all-seeing and existing perhaps in the sort of parallel universes that Joseph Dunne proposed in An Experiment in Time, mentioned above as influential on Morgan as a student. The recorded observations of these intelligent beings create the vibrant images of this poem and the other poems in the series, ranging over Scotland in time and place.

Their exploration of Scotland’s pre-history and lost history and still-to-be-written histories is carried confidently through the series on two formal elements. The first of these elements is the traveller’s voice, which is interested, poised, wise, all-seeing and not unemotional. These intelligent presences are able to appreciate colour and other sensory detail. The words ‘Drumlins blue as / bruises were grated off like nutmegs [. . .]’ bring a close tactile sense, almost a heightened synaesthetic awareness. As they explore Scotland through various epochs of its history, these travellers become fond of the place and its people, and are ‘loth to go’ by the final poem, ‘The Summons’: ‘If it was love we felt, would it not keep / and travel where we travelled?’ As they prepare for lift-off there is a sound: ‘a far horn grew to break that people’s sleep’ – an ancient Pictish horn that is also a political gathering-call.

The call is political, but it is calm and assured, not panicky or aggressive. The second formal element, the choice of writing in sonnet form, assures that confidence. We can do this, the series seems to say, and we can make it rhyme, with total assurance and without strain, time after time. Morgan was a master of the sonnet form, had translated many examples from other languages and particularly admired John Milton’s use of the sonnet for political themes. The sonnet form is often associated with love poetry, and it could be argued that these are love poems to Scotland, or at least that they are written to show what there is about Scotland, its landscape and its people, that might make it loveable.

There are other layers of meaning, too, in ‘Slate’. There is the notion of ‘a clean slate’ (making a fresh start) and ‘put it on the slate’ (keeping a record of our debts to the past, as an obligation to repay these in the future). Choosing to place this poem first, Morgan was probably also remembering that as a child he learned to write using a slate pencil on a piece of slate. He described it later: ‘It was a revelation / When words appeared / Writing on a piece of earth / with another piece of earth.’ Scotland is the piece of earth that Scots call home – but this sonnet reminds us of the immensities of time, the slow processes of erosion and change. There are lovely lines and details to look for, alliteration and internal half-rhymes, an almost tactile sense of time passing:

bens / and a great glen gave a rough back we like
to think the ages must streak, surely strike,
seldom stroke, but raised and shaken [. . .]

There is the final onomatopoeic entrance of men: ‘Their heels kicked flint, chalk, slate.’ This was before human memory existed (‘That was to come’) so the onomatopoeia is an apt sonic image: closer to the animal alertness that Edwin Morgan always responded to – sound patterns, sound effects, speech rhythms.


Towards assessment

That ‘Slate’ describes or enacts the passage of time so well also brings us back to the three overarching themes of Morgan’s poetry: journeys in time and space; isolation and solidarity, and different voices for Scotland.

It is possible to see how these themes intersect, and thus to reflect on the final exam question that asks students to make connections and comparisons between the set poems. Scottish Short Texts is really excellent here, with its focused use of Venn diagrams to show similarity and difference, and its very professional assessment guidance.

So we might combine

  • ‘Winter’, ‘Slate’ and ‘Hyena’ as poems set on alien, inhospitable landscapes.
  • Or ‘Slate’, ‘Hyena’ and ‘Good Friday’ as differing examples of the dramatic monologue.
  • Or ‘Slate’, ‘Winter’ and ‘Trio’ as poems exploring time in overlapping or contrasting ways.
  • Or ‘In the Snack-bar’, ‘Good Friday’ and ‘Trio’ as explorations of urban life and alienation (with advice as to how to cure it).

There are other possibilities, of course. The poems offer opportunities for independent research tasks, where pupils can become aware of cultural and scientific references (Orphic, mistletoe, Tithonus, geological processes) and also features of genre (the sonnet or dramatic monologue). There are many opportunities for group and class discussion of language and dialect, social responsibility, alienation and identity. These six short poems of Edwin Morgan are often astonishing in how they seem to expand and contract, touching on immense distances while remaining local and relevant to the engaging details of everyday life.


Copyright © James McGonigal 2015


Last updated 3 May 2016.