Sep 8 2011: Nothing Not Giving Messages: Edwin Morgan’s Collected Poems (Sheffield Thursday No.8, 1999)
This is the last of the three pieces I wanted to archive here from Sheffield Thursday magazine (there were a few others but these were much less focused ’round-up’ type reviews, so of less potentially ongoing interest). The well deserved status won by Morgan and his life’s work in his years as Makar of Scotland (a post held from 2004 until Morgan’s death in 2010) slightly post-dates this piece. From memory its publication circa 1999 was some time after it was written so the assumptions here – mainly, a sense that there was still a need to argue for Morgan’s importance – date from around 1997, when (in England, at least) he did still seem regarded as a figure to one side of the main current: respected and affectionately regarded, yes, but not generally acknowledged as anything like the influential or important poet he seems now. As with the rise in reputation noted in the earlier Robert Graves article archived from a slightly earlier issue of the same magazine, the publication of the Collected Poems reviewed here no doubt helped secure Morgan’s reputation by bringing something like the full spectrum of his work into one easily accessible place.
Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems 1949-1987 (Carcanet, £14.95)
Edwin Morgan doesn’t make his reviewer’s job easy. The present 600-page Collected Poems runs a gamut from throwaway to high-seriousness, from experiment to traditionalism, from the Sixteenth Century Makars to the Brazilian Concrete Poetry of the 1960s; it takes in Russian, Spanish and French literary influences, alongside interests in visual art, travel, film, science, technology and all the ephemera of its period, until – finally – the whole body of work seems so dauntingly diverse, so exhileratingly uneven, that you’re tempted just to throw up your hands in defeat and say ‘here it is, take it or leave it.’ Like a character at the “ranch factory” in his own ‘Frontier Story’, Morgan seems to be “turning out whole stampedes/just for the hell of it…”. In a 1971 interview with Robin Hamilton, he shrugs off this diversity:
I don’t very often or consciously try to see the links between the different things, and I suppose it means that I don’t see the thing as having a settled, steady kind of development. I hope that things are developing, but I allow it to go at its own pace, as it were, in different directions, in different ways, at the same time.
(p.22, Nothing Not Giving Messages, Polygon, 1990)
It might also be read, however, as a specific response to the example of Hugh MacDiarmid, and it’s not difficult to read Morgan’s work as a direct continuation of MacDiarmid’s in several important respects. Morgan’s whole output forms a bridge from the MacDiarmid of the 30s, 40s and 50s to the younger Scottish poets of the 80s and 90s. In a 1967 essay, Morgan himself pinpoints the lack he identifies in MacDiarmid that his own work appears designed to fill. Dividing MacDiarmid’s work into the (broadly geological) ‘poems of emptiness’ and the (broadly political/lexical) ‘poems of plenitude’, with between them “an enormous gap of ordinary human experience”, Morgan outlines the reasons for MacDiarmid’s rejection of this human scale in favour of larger concerns:
[MacDiarmid] would regard it as an essential part of his historical mission as a Scottish poet to undo the over-reliance on human feelings and human situations in Burns and his Victorian successors. As he remarks disgustedly in The Kind Of Poetry I Want: ‘Almost all modern Scottish poetry gives off a great sense of warmth and offering, like a dog when it loves you.’ Well, this is fair enough in the sense that we don’t want wet poetry. But a poetry of human feeling is not necessarily wet, and one would suspect that an inadequacy as well as a polemic lay behind this rejection of warmth.
(pp 220-1, ‘MacDiarmid At Seventy-Five’ in Essays, Carcanet, 1974)
This is a suspiscion reinforced by comments made to Marshall Walker in 1975, discussing the relationship between poetry and technology, the comparison between MacDiarmid’s extensive use of science and the pre-lapsarian, ‘organic’ vision of Edwin Muir:
I agree that Muir has a very taking humanity that MacDiarmid doesn’t have. There is a great deal in MacDiarmid’s work that shows a kind of ruthlessness and dehumanisation which can be disliked strongly. I would like to see the warmth and contemporaneity combined, though there’s no poet quite doing it.
(p.65, Nothing Not Giving Messages, Polygon, 1990)
On this level, then, we could read Morgan’s whole project – his ‘historical mission as a Scottish poet’, if you like – as the reinstatement of this human scale and warmth to the new paradigm created by MacDiarmid.
Achieving this without losing the intellectual and critical edge of both Muir and MacDiarmid, in their very different ways, is a problem Morgan solves by a kind of faith in technology for the long-term good of humanity, a solution that isn’t always adequate to the real dilemmas posed by contemporaneity. It can occasionally ignore the real dehumanising effects of technology itself, or become a kind of blithe acceptance of everything new that brings with it a willed naivete and optimism; as though to question the benefits of Progress is somehow to advocate an unacceptable Luddism.
Perhaps this has something to do with Morgan’s own particular generation, which saw the deprivation before the war, fought the war itself, then saw the Welfare State take shape, the rise of living standards, the emergence of popular music and ‘youth’ culture, alongside such landmarks as the Moon Landings and the spread of contraceptive technology, all of which must have seemed like a liberating panacea for a time. It is perhaps too easy for those of us, younger, who have grown up with these benefits taken to a degree for granted, while being also aware that the consensus that produced them is gone and of the social and environmental damage they’ve done, to be dismissive of Morgan’s optimism. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes a problem in Morgan’s work that it doesn’t always acknowledge these issues. ‘Epilogue: Seven Decades’, for example, with its comparison of Glasgow’s redevelopment to “Sao/ Paulo’s poetic-concrete revolution” has ‘Glasgow new’
…with cranes, diffusion
of another concrete revolution, not bad,
not good, but new. And new was no illusion…
The close of ‘The Demolishers’, a radio-poem from 1978 combining interviews with demolition workers in Glasgow with Morgan’s poetic comments, is in a similar vein, rhapsoding post-war urban redevelopment in the terms adopted by the planners and architects themselves:
They clear a space for the future.
The city breathes and sighs, settles, is restless, is furious,
is knee-deep in rubble, is renewed.
Buildings are – works of art, tombstones,
machines for living in, punctuation-marks
Yet this is perhaps exactly as it should be in a poet who, as Michael Schmidt points out, “is drawn toward directness and realism” and “is wary lest the poems slip anchor from their specific, temporal origins”. A poet who, by his own account, believes “that an artist ought to be reacting to as much of his whole environment as he genuinely can feel for and encompass” (Nothing Not Giving Messages, p 64). All this, taken together, practically requires that Morgan immerse himself wholeheartedly in the enthusiasms of his age, for better or worse.
One of the ways in which this anchoring to specific temporal origins is effected is by devising a poetry of the ‘real moment’, suspended in Schmidt’s words, “without its cause or aftermath, in a perpetual present”. Some of Morgan’s most characteristic poems are of this kind, from love poems like ‘Strawberries and ‘The Picnic’ to the extended encounter with the cripple in ‘In The Snack Bar’, from the series of ‘Instamatic Poems’ of the early ’70s to the song-like ‘Oban Girl’, an oddly haunting period-piece:
A girl in a window eating a melon
eating a melon and painting a picture
painting a picture and humming Hey Jude
humming Hey Jude as the light was fading
In the autumn she’ll be married
Such pieces form a kind of ‘Sixties Pastoral’ that links Morgan’s reinstatement of ‘warmth’ to MacDiarmid’s project with his own nascent romanticism. The combination of optimism and acceptance of the world as it is in Morgan is often pushed dangerously close to exactly the kind of sentimentality, the ‘sense of warmth and offering’, that MacDiarmid warns against. It’s a difficult, and not always successful, balancing act between interest in contemporaneity and superficiality; between genuine humanity and idealisation of the ‘ordinary’; between openness and uncritical acceptance of fashion. That there are failures here is, given the prolific nature of Morgan’s gift, less surprising than that at least some of these failures are repeated across large numbers of similar pieces, as though Morgan himself sometimes can’t tell the difference; as though, as in MacDiarmid’s cruel but apt image of ‘a dog that loves you’, Morgan’s poems would rather be likeable than entirely successful:
I wonder if we really deserve starlings?
There is something to be said for these joyful messengers
that we repel in our indignant orderliness.
They lift up the eyes, they lighten the heart,
and some day we’ll decipher that sweet frenzied whistling
as they wheel and settle along our hard roofs
and take those grey buttresses for home.
One thing we know they say, after their fashion.
They like the warm cliffs of man.
(‘The Starlings In George Square’)
At points like this Morgan appears to need something of MacDiarmid’s stringency, his ruthlessness even, to temper his own humane slide into easy accommodations with the world as it is. The occasional lapses into anthropomorphism in the poems about animals and machines, a too-easy forgiveness and understanding of apparent evils elsewhere, can unbalance Morgan’s work. It’s a poetic flaw born of a human virtue, and perhaps this shouldn’t be the case. Yet where Morgan does balance his optimism against objectivity, his attempts to understand and accept against a reality granted its full complexity, he can be wholly convincing:
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.
(‘Glasgow Sonnets II’)
Here, in the Sonnets From Scotland of 1984, and particularly in ‘The New Divan’, Morgan seems to discover a voice capable of depth as well as breadth in which he begins to articulate, rather than merely reflect complexity. He begins to achieve something of MacDiarmid’s potency as well as his contemporaneity, the ‘human warmth’ added by more oblique, often ambiguous means. In the Sonnets from Scotland, Morgan not only takes on MacDiarmid on his own ground, as it were, making use of history, landscape and cultural referencing of Scottish material in an inter-Nationalist context, he also anticipates more directly the work of a younger generation of Scottish poets. Robert Crawford, for instance, who often appears content to recycle Morgan’s tropes from poems like ‘Seferis on Eigg’ or ‘Not The Burrell Collection’ in his own poems, perhaps because Morgan was so adept at creating tropes that he left himself little time to exhaust their possibilities himself. This last, with its:
…blood crust from the blade
that jumped the corpse of Wallace for his head;
the stout rack soaked in Machiavelli’s sweat;
a fire-circled scorpion; a blown frog;
the siege of Beirut in stained glass; a sift
of Auschwitz ash; an old tapestry set
unfinished, with a crowd, a witch, a log;
a lachrymatory no man can lift.
might almost be Crawford’s poetic universe in microcosm. A poet like W.N. Herbert – the most obvious successor to MacDiarmid and Morgan, redirecting the latter back through the former, then rewriting both in his own image – seems heavily indebted here too, particularly to the kinds of Morgan conceits found in lines like “Scotland was found on Jupiter” and “That was the time Scotland began to move”, as though Calvino’s Invisible Cities had been conceived about the city of Glasgow rather than Venice.
Among Morgan’s finest poems, however, is one of the least often cited of his works, at least to my knowledge. ‘The New Divan’, modelled on the diwan of Arabic/persian literature, is taken by Morgan as the framework for a hundred short, informal lyrics grouped into a loose overall structure built around his own experience during wartime service in the Middle East during the 1940s. They span great tracts of time – from prehistory to the present day – and refer back to Fitzgerald’s ‘Rubaiyat’ in their consciously Victorian use of romanticism, unabashedly poetic rhetorical devices and ‘exotic’ tropes to foreground eroticism and hedonism against larger philosophical, historical and political concerns:
In the open
you must run, fire falls in a moment.
The burned ones lie on the common
after the roar has died. Their
shapes are a braille conducting
us silently from country to country
to country to country. Pale children
break the grass-blades in their hands.
(‘The New Divan 64’)
Morgan himself has described the sequence as ‘my war poem’, a late accounting of wartime experience. Yet the poem is also significant for its explorations of sexuality in a part-factual, part-fictional ‘buried narrative’ rooted in Morgan’s own liberation as a gay man into sexual activity at this time, and the contrast of this liberation with the restraints placed on it, both generally and in the broad circumstance of the war itself:
The starry dark, the steps, the peaks suggested!
The garden breathed outside.
Light, not water, gleamed on switched-off sprinklers. Nightly
the moon – that time – slowly forced my bed
till you came less coldly in. My study
was my joy, your body, moving there.
My joy was groaned into your thick, strong hair. Too
quick for art I wrapped my legs around you there
till we were empty. You were my staircase,
I was your curtain. When the sun came in
and we’d get up, and feed the parrot, I recall her
squawks under four hands, morning-wild and doubled.
(‘The New Divan 38’)
The sequence veers between celebration and meditation, often combining the two, as here, where the simple, but devastating “No crisis/breaks…” bears enormous weight in this context:
Let the groomsmen with drums
come over the water mysteriously through
the green and the parched islands, almost
threading life and death on the chain
of their procession. Her wedding dress is red
with the veil blowing, her companion
trembles waiting by the ox-wagon.
There is a wild music ready, tugging
their thoughts apart, around,
forward, everything out of his
heart into hers, hers into the traffic
of that filled enormous moment.
Slowly they dance about each other. No crisis
breaks his sweet address,
they kiss in justice,
the woman under roses, under torches the man.
(‘The New Divan 70’)
In a 1988 interview with Christopher Whyte, Morgan discusses this period in his life in some detail (Nothing Not Giving Messages, pp147-151), and the gay ‘subtext’ of the work is revealed to be, in fact, one of its primary themes. It is perhaps in this area of sexuality in ‘The New Divan’ and the substantial body oflove poetry from the 1960s onwards, that Morgan’s most significant work lies. Here, as Whyte says, is a gay poetry “in a very central, a very accessible place in Scottish literature”. Yet it is also the case that Morgan’s sensibility is well-suited to love-poetry and his romanticism and eroticism are framed in openly, but rarely exclusively, gay terms. It’s a strategy that draws the heterosexual reader into a complicit and empathetic relationship with the sexuality being expressed. This is achieved by the simple expedient of a gender neutral ‘you’, a direct second-person address, which – while inclusive – is also uncoded, quite open in its specifics:
A surgeon massages the heart
is that red pulsing bag these
verses, these pens, fingers in accord
have called the seat of love? Your
heart, I sighed, your cruel heart, but that
was in my mimosa days. My
heart you said was faithless, but men
don’t gallivant in ventricles. We deserve
the science of danger,
the valved incubus.
The heart says this.
(‘The New Divan 28’)
Only that ‘men’ and the implied danger at the close reveal the exact nature of the relationship under discussion, but it’s enough, and we’re quickly drawn in to a strong identification with the emotional content regardless of our own sexuality. The complex effects and interrelations between sections across the whole sequence make ‘The New Divan’ one of the most accomplished long poems of recent years. It deserves to be more widely known as such.
Perhaps one reason for the neglect of this side of Morgan’s work (at least outside Scotland) is the emphasis that has always been placed on the ‘concrete’ and ‘sound’ poems. Poems like ‘Pomander’, ‘Chinese Cat’ (“prmiao…mao”) and ‘Siesta Of A Hungarian Snake’ (“S sz sz SZ sz ZS zs ZS zs zs z”) are witty, and justly well-known. The sound poems, such as ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’ and ‘The First Men On Mercury’, not to mention such ‘system’ pieces as ‘Opening The Cage’ and the best of the ‘Emergent’ poems, are among the finest work of their kind. Yet, as Morgan himself points out, the division of his 1968 collection The Second Life into alternating sections on different coloured paper, ‘lineated’ poems on white, ‘concrete’ poems on cream, was intended partly to aid the coexistence of the two kinds of poetry in the one book by drawing a distinction, but equally as:
…a kind of compromise, if you like, between saying that it was poetry and saying it was something quite different.
(p.26, Nothing Not Giving Messages)
Perhaps the occasional overemphasis on Morgan’s experimental work has tended to obscure much fine work in more traditional forms. In the present Collected Poems, it becomes obvious that Morgan, while undoubtedly inventive, is also sometimes guilty of padding out his books with repetitions of the same experiments, bringing rapidly diminishing returns – or at least, sometimes resembling the laboratory notebooks rather than the final works. The ‘Newspoems’, ‘Emergent’ poems, ‘Found’ poems, ‘Instamatic’ poems, ‘Computer’ poems; the less obviously experimental, but heavily systematised sequences like ‘An Alphabet of Goddesses’, ‘The Moons of Jupiter’, ‘From The Video Box’; the diverse variations, reconstructions, conclusions and marginalia to other texts and media; the sci-fi and conversation idioms of ‘The Whittrick’ and ‘Memories of Earth’; all of these have their moments, and those moments are usually exhilerating in their impact, but few wholly escape the dilution that goes with repetition, over-extension, over-familiarity and – not infrequently – a certain lack of purpose.
Morgan’s own fondness for this kind of open-endedness and over-production in certain areas may tie in with his relationship to MacDiarmid (again), at least insofar as the infamous 1962 diatribe against Ian Hamilton Finlay, The Ugly Birds Without Wings, opens a breach in Scottish literature – both stylistic and generational – that Morgan sets out, almost certainly with conscious intent, to heal. He goes so far as to provide his homage-poem to MacDiarmid with a companion-piece to Hamilton Finlay, an obviously polemical move, as well as an expression of genuine affection and respect for both writers on Morgan’s part.
So it’s certainly not the case that I’d wish to marginalise the ‘experimental’ work in favour of a more ‘traditional’ Morgan, or any such thing, even if it were possible to separate the two sides of his work. But there does seem to be a need, in England at least (Morgan’s position in Scotland seems far more secure, and his complexity and significance is more readily acknowledged north of the border) for a better balance between the two sides of the whole body of material, a fuller account of both and their important interrelations. It will be our loss if we continue to think of him as entirely synonymous with ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’ and ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’ and, on that basis, leave him to the classroom’s light relief rather than taking him for what he is: a poet whose flaws are integral to his achievement and, without question, one of the most significant poets of the post-war era.