Scotland’s first official Makar in modern times, Edwin Morgan was endlessly inventive, inquiring, energetic, internationalist, and deeply committed to his home city of Glasgow.
A book of poems in his honour, Unknown Is Best, was produced to celebrate Morgan’s eightieth birthday in 2000. His own poem, ‘At Eighty’, was characteristic of the poet’s work, faring forward into the future, embracing change: ‘Push the boat out, compañeros / Push the boat out, whatever the seas…. push it all out into the unknown! / Unknown is best, it beckons best…’.
This seems an unlikely sentiment from a man of Morgan’s background. He was the only child of loving, anxious and undemonstrative parents, Stanley and Margaret (née Arnott) Morgan, politically conservative and Presbyterian. His father was a director of a small firm of iron and steel merchants. Edwin George Morgan was born on 27 April 1920 in Glasgow’s West End, and brought up in Pollokshields and Rutherglen. He attended – unhappily – Rutherglen Academy, moving on to complete his schooling at Glasgow High and entering Glasgow University in 1937. When he was called up in 1940, he horrified his family by registering as a conscientious objector. He reached a compromise position while waiting for his case to be called, and asked to serve in the RAMC, with which he spent the war in Egypt, the Lebanon and Palestine.
He was demobbed in 1946, returned to Glasgow and took a first class Honours degree in English Language and Literature. There was a chance of studying at Oxford, but Morgan preferred to take up the offer of a Lectureship in the Department of English at Glasgow University, where he remained. Having become Titular Professor in 1975, he retired from the University in 1980. He was a much-valued colleague and himself appreciated the structure and salary that academic life gave him.
Morgan first published under the name ‘Kaa’ in the High School of Glasgow Magazine, in 1936, and went on using that nom de plume in the Glasgow University Magazine, emerging as reviewer and translator under his own name in a variety of periodicals after the war. His first collection, The Vision of Cathkin Braes, was published by William MacLellan of Glasgow in 1952, and in the same year the Hand and Flower Press issued his translation of Beowulf (reissued by Carcanet Press in 2002). For fifty years Morgan maintained this double output, translations from Russian and Hungarian, Latin and French, Italian and Old English keeping pace with his own work, showing astonishing variety and technical skills in both. He won the Soros Translation Award in 1985, and spent the prize money on a day trip to Lapland on Corcorde.
That first collection seems quite mannered now, given the immediacy of voice that characterizes Morgan’s poetry as it developed. A Second Life, published handsomely by Edinburgh University Press in 1968, signalled a profound private change as well as public achievement: this was the volume that established Morgan’s importance. In 1963 he had met and fallen in love with John Scott, to whom he remained attached – although they never lived together – until Scott’s death in 1978. Given the repressive legislation and attitudes of the time, this was a concealed love, but for Morgan it represented a liberating reciprocity. It was paralleled by his discovery of the Beat poets and other American exemplars such as William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley: from them, he said, ‘I really learned for the first time… that you can write poetry about anything.’
The subjects in A Second Life ranged from the dispossessed and marginalised populations of Glasgow, in all the misery of the tenements due for demolition, to the trio walking up Sauchiehall Street, ‘laughter ringing them round like a guard’ as well as poets, Marilyn Monroe and Edith Piaf. Some of his wittiest concrete poems – ‘Siesta of a Hungarian snake’, the classic ‘Computer’s First Christmas Card’ are here, and the love poems that are much loved, ‘Strawberries’, ‘One cigarette’. Kevin McCarra remarked of the devotion to the city Morgan lived in all his life:
It is part of his purpose to bear witness to Glasgow while insisting that hope and realism need not be at odds. This is tricky work and all his talent is required to hold off glibness. Misery, violence and pain are on the scene, but they will not be given the last word.
Unobtrusively yet significantly, Morgan’s wide reading, love of cinema and definite musical tastes all informed his poetry. Of poets writing in English, he was one of those most attuned to what changes science and technology have brought to our perception of the world. He was one of the first civilians to put his name down for a space-shuttle trip (yet he never used a computer). The title of his 1973 collection, From Glasgow to Saturn, not only suggests his subject range but also his curiosity. The scienc-fiction element in his poetry is one aspect of this, but there is also the interest in the whole history of earth, manifested in his Planet Wave sequence (1997) which was set to music by Tommy Smith. The energy of inquiry attracted him, and the energy of invention.
His concrete poetry was informed by correspondence with leading poets of the genre from Switzerland, Germany and Brazil, as well as in England and closer to hand with Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose Wild Hawthorn Press published Morgan’s first concrete poems in 1963. Inventing verse forms throughout his career – as late as Cathures (2002) he found a new stanzaic form – he was also a master of classic form. He demonstrated in his use of sonnets, particularly, how a construction in some ways ‘rigid and exoskeletal’ yet shows what is ‘living and provocative’ inside. The ‘Glasgow Sonnets’ are a brilliant example, while the Sonnets from Scotland (published by Hamish Whyte’s Mariscat Press in 1984) remain the most significant Scottish collection of that decade. They look on Scotland from the perspective of time-travellers or space-voyagers, and offer a view of utter change. The change in history is summed up in ‘The Coin’, one side showing the head of a red deer, on the other ‘the shock of Latin, like a gloss, / Respublica Scotorum…’ Morgan conjures up the prospect of an entirely different nation, in the same sequence as he had considered the 1979 referendum. The Sonnets, James Robertson has said, ‘were a hugely uplifting read during a politically frustrating time’.
It was in 1990 that Morgan ‘came out’ in an interview with Christopher Whyte. Not all Scottish attitudes had moved with the times: it was a shock to some and was revisited in the controversy over the Stobhill sequence about an abortion (the Daily Record protesting against the poems being read in schools) and when his play, AD, was performed to mark the millennium. Morgan’s life of Jesus was typically questioning and bold, and surprisingly his first complete play, though he was drawn to the theatre all his life. His poems were often dramatic monologues – as in the collection From the Video Box (1986) – and he translated several plays, including a bravura version of Cyrano de Bergerac. That play was almost all in Glaswegian Scots, a language Morgan moved in and out of with ease in his poetry, and relished for the range of expression it allowed him.
Morgan lived on his own and judged it best for his work that he should do so. Yet he was a public man, always ready to take part in readings, travel to schools, judge competitions. He enjoyed public recognition in the form of his OBE in 1982, the Queen’s Gold Medal in 2000, and being made the first Poet Laureate of Glasgow in 1999, and then of Scotland, as the Scots Makar, in 2004. His poem on the opening of the Scottish Parliament building is a model of public poetry, challenging and celebratory. The literary community of Scotland warmly admired him and his fellow-citizens regarded him with great affection; he was generously encouraging to younger writers, corresponding widely. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999, he remained curious, even about that, and kept up his literary interests to the end. The energy of his last major collection, Love and a Life (Mariscat, 2003), was a testimony to many loves, and to the undiminished power of his imagination. This collection was included in A Book of Lives (Carcanet, 2007), shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.
He opened the Edwin Morgan Archive of printed and recorded material at the Scottish Poetry Library on his 89th birthday, and his 90th birthday party at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow also marked the publication of a gathering of uncollected and new work, Dreams and other Nightmares (Mariscat, 2010).
Morgan was widely recognised as the most influential poet of his gifted generation. His linguistic resources, formal invention, intellectual curiosity, sense of humour and humane vision combined to produce a poetry of extraordinary range and emotional reach.
Read the poems
In published work, Carcanet Press or Mariscat Press; otherwise by permission of the Estate of Edwin Morgan.
Audio recordings of Edwin Morgan’s SQA set text poems (by Pitlochry Festival Theatre) on Soundcloud