Issue 6: Edwin Morgan Tribute
Jim McGonigal


[This title is not just an anagram of ‘maze’ or strange para-rhyme of ‘amazed’. It is true, all the same, that even though he has left the maze of life behind, we continue to be astonished by Edwin Morgan’s linguistic dexterity and inventiveness. His length of life makes him difficult to summarize within a short memoir, so I have instead selected the 26 key letters that he used to such memorable effect as a poet and essayist, and annotated each one with reference to his life and writing. He often signed himself as a poet with just three short equal horizontal strokes followed by three vertical ones. The reader’s eye and imagination recreated this as EM, a readable sign with riddling gaps. What might an A to Z look like that could provide detail on some of those gaps?]



A is for ‘Ae’, as in ‘Ae fond kiss’, meaning in Scots language the ‘single’, ‘certain’ or ‘only’ one. As an only child, EM was the focus of parental attention and became, in turn, a focused man, single and singular. Thus the way was clear for him to dedicate most of his life to the work of poetry, as expressed in many languages, forms and eras. His parents were perplexed by his academic and artistic career, and would have preferred something safer and more rewarding, such as work in a bank.


B is for ‘Boy’. EM became aware in his early teens that he was much more interested in boys than girls. His mother and father, concerned by teaching standards at his local Rutherglen Academy, arranged for him to sit a scholarship exam for the High School of Glasgow, an all-boys fee-paying school. On National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps (1940–46), he preferred to remain ‘one of the boys’ rather than to seek promotion, and so he remained Private Morgan (Serial no. 11379) from first to last. His translation of Beowulf (1952) was his first poetic attempt to deal with that experience of male brotherhood in war.


Countering his parents’ conservative, capitalist and church-based values, EM opted for ‘Communism’, or for a republican socialism so radical that it is hard to distinguish it from that ideology. This can be related to (Red) ‘Clydeside’, where his father was a director of Arnott Young & Company, a firm of ship-breakers founded by his wife's father. EM in contrast loved ships and voyages, on the Firth of Clyde and beyond. Sea imagery flows through his poetry, early and late.


D is for ‘Drawing’ or ‘Design’. EM clearly possessed great skill as a draughtsman, and studied Art at school. His colour blindness helped him create interesting effects. His parents considered an apprenticeship for him at Templetons, a well-known carpet manufacturer in Glasgow, and later discussed a Diploma course at the Glasgow School of Art. He remained a life-long collector of paintings, and his keen eye for design informed his experimental work in concrete poetry.


E is for ‘Edwin’, but not for Edwin Muir, the Orkney poet for whom he was often mistaken. A slip of the tongue, perhaps, but it particularly annoyed him. He rejected absolutely the rural, mythic, backward-looking, un-experimental aspects of Muir’s work, and somewhat resented his selection as a Faber poet. Here was a rival EM, to be disparaged. However, another EM, Eugenio Montale, was much more acceptable and a set of his translations of the Italian poet’s work was published in 1959.


F is for ‘Frank’. EM was drawn to revolutionary communism partly by his attraction to Frank Mason, a left-wing student whom he met when studying Political Economy and Russian at the University of Glasgow in 1937. He took on Russian as an additional subject in his first undergraduate year mainly to be in Mason’s company. But there he encountered the radical poetry of Mayakovsky, whom he would eagerly translate into Scots, wi the haill voice.


G might be for ‘George’, EM’s middle name, after his paternal grandfather, a silk merchant who had died six years before the poet’s birth. A second George was G.K. Hunter, a university friend and intellectual peer who became a wartime naval officer and then distinguished academic. G is also for ‘Graham’ (W.S.), the Greenock-born poet with whom he corresponded from the late 1930s onwards. Both friends presented alternatives to EM’s chosen path through the dark streets of Glasgow, the city that sustained him by its own diversity and energy. This was not the Silk Road, but it was the starting point of a thousand imagined journeys.


Every journey needs a ‘Homecoming’. EM passed most of his life within one square mile of the West End of Glasgow. There is pattern of voyage and return in his life and poetry. He was born in Hyndland in 1920. His academic, emotional and creative lives were centred at the University on Gilmorehill and in his modern flat in Anniesland. He died in a nursing home in Broomhill. These districts neighbour each other. His diversity of imagination perhaps relied more than we knew upon the familiar view from his window.


‘Imagination’ is central, and its image-making power. In childhood this was fed by fantasy and adventure stories and also by weekly general-knowledge magazines. From these and other sources he began to construct his Scrapbooks, which were quasi-surrealistic juxtapositions of fact and literature. Images and texts that caught his attention were cut out and pasted into large office ledgers with an artistic eye for the incongruous and significant detail, a sort of intellectual collage. It was also perhaps a substitute for poetry, and he gave up the Scrapbooks only when his own writing took off in the mid-1960s.


J is for ‘John’, the love of EM’s life. He knew him from 1962 onwards, although they parted on a quarrel a year or so before he died in 1978. He was a Lanarkshire store-man, champion dancer and Celtic fan, the sharp-witted son of a large and close-knit working-class Catholic family – exactly the sort of offspring of Irish immigrants that EM’s father would never employ in the family firm. Such casual sectarianism was an aspect of the Morgan household, in which EM lived until his early forties, and of the freemasonry of Glasgow businessmen that he declined to join.


K is for ‘Knowledge’ and the creative potential of knowledge. EM was one of the first to recognize and extol MacDiarmid’s later encyclopaedic poetry of fact. For both poets, linguistic and scientific exploration seemed central to human identity. This understanding ultimately led EM towards concrete poetry and engagement with the artistic and moral challenges of the international avant-garde in ways that displeased the older poet, who wanted a more clearly Scottish stance, in poetry and politics.


‘Love’ and ‘Loss’ are perhaps inextricably linked in the life of a gay man, in search of ‘the impossible perfect partner’ (as EM recalled Quentin Crisp describing it). This was particularly the case where the poet’s own preference was for young working-class men, often in casual employment. Impermanent relationships suited him in some ways – he just could not write poetry when another person was around, even in a different room. His late biographical sequence ‘Love and a Life’ (2003) recalls the men he loved.


‘Morgan’ was not a Welsh surname, as EM thought, but a Scottish East Coast name. Its meaning is linked with the sea, ‘sea-bright’, and hence by translation with pelagic, belonging to the open waters. In translation too, a 4th-century British monk named Morgan became Pelagius, the British heretic who denied original sin and said that salvation came through one’s own efforts. EM approved of that sea-going subversive wilful ancestry, and adopted his voice in Cathures (2002).


‘Narrative’ is a driving force in his poetry, and story-telling a strong motif. The late Tales from Baron Munchausen and The Play of Gilgamesh (both 2005) are the end of a series of narratives that begins with his early translation of the epic Beowulf, proceeds through the science-fiction journeys of the 1960s and 1970s, takes up the influence of The Arabian Nights in his 100-stanza war poem, ‘The New Divan’ (1977), and proceeds via the time-travellers observing past and future Scotlands in Sonnets from Scotland (1984) to the collaborative work of jazz and poetry in Planet Wave (1997), spanning the millennia.


O is for ‘Organisation’ and ‘Order’. EM kept track of multiplicity, as is evident from his detailed filing system for letters and projects, his carefulness with finance learned from his father, and his punctilious approach to teaching and assessment. In writing, too, he balanced an inventive avant-garde openness to language and life with a love for the discipline of the sonnet form. His complex Cathurian stanza, a late invention, combines flexibility in line length with fidelity to (frequently surprising) rhyme.


P is for ‘Poet’, and the poet’s role in society. When a replacement was sought for Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate, EM, as Scotland’s Makar or national poet, was asked for his view. Both ‘laureate’ and ‘makar’ seemed to him rather precious-sounding titles, yet he felt that we do require someone to provide a kind of ‘clarion call to the country’, or a warning voice. His example was the young 19th-century Hungarian poet, Petöfi, and his remarkable vehement poem, ‘Nemzeti Dal’, or ‘National Song’. EM’s own choice for the post would have been J.H. Prynne.


‘Questions’ were central to EM’s approach to writing. They could start a poem or end it, or both. ‘The Death of Marilyn Monroe’ in The Second Life (1968) opens with four questions and closes with a different set of four. The questions that echo through his Sonnets from Scotland invite us to interrogate the mysteries of time, change, identity and commitment. This was a poet who enjoyed alternative viewpoints and found themes in variation. For him, questions invite answers, but not often the single or the expected answer.


R is for ‘Release’ or ‘Response’. Throughout the bleak 1950s he had to bottle up emotions and keep much of his identity secret, and also cope with his failure to find a poetic voice free from strain. Translation was one way of adopting other notes or stances. It was only with the cultural and political developments of the 1960s, and the deep love relationship with John Scott in that decade, that EM found his emotional life released and his lively imagination able to respond to the changes opening up all around. Now nothing seemed impossible.


‘Scotland’ and ‘Scots language’ were vital to a radical nationalist who admired thrawn and independently-minded small nations, such as Albania. His parents retained a fair amount of Scots lexis in their ancestral movement from rural East into the industrial West, and their son’s ear was also attuned to the dynamics of Glaswegian speech. He used the language remarkably in his translations of Mayakovsky and Racine. Thus he retained a local identity in the midst of international experiment, and attained that rare status: national poet.


T is for ‘Translator’, a role in which he achieved recognition earlier than in his own right. He saw his Collected Translations (1996) as a second Collected Poems (1990), and both hefty volumes demonstrate his ease with different voices. He identified strongly with poets of many voices, tones or forms, such as Mayakovsky in Russian and Weöres in Hungarian. But he could also work from an intimate sense of identity with the quieter poetic practice of Montale in Italian, Scève in Renaissance French and József in Hungarian.


U is for ‘Unknown’. In a poem written to mark his 80th birthday, he declares: ‘Unknown is best, it beckons best / like distant ships in mist, or bells / clanging ruthless from stormy buoys’. This echoes his early love of fantasy and adventure stories as well as his adult confidence in the human drive to fathom the unknown worlds of sea and sky. Also to be explored were the hidden or forbidden worlds of sexual identity, which might offer other dangers to be faced.


‘Veronica’. The young and gifted Glaswegian poet and critic, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, died in tragic circumstances in 1975. EM liked and admired her very much, perhaps recognizing in her something of his own intelligence, wit and loneliness. She had first written to him in her final year at school, and he had followed her progress as a poet and teacher with great interest. His elegy for her, ‘Unfinished Poems’, leaves each of its ten poems cut short as her life had been, but not incomplete. As readers, we reach out to fill the empty spaces.


‘Whittrick’ is the Scots word for weasel, and it provides title and theme for a long poem in eight dialogues between historical and literary characters (such as Hieronymus Bosch and Johann Faust). First published as a whole in 1973, The Whittrick dates from the mid-fifties, and the creature that makes its fleeting appearance throughout stands for the sudden apprehension of revolutionary truth or inspiration, the striped flash of vitality or unexpectedness that EM longed to express in poetry, and would one day achieve.


X is for ‘Xanthura’, a genus of American jays with a yellow tail. It is one of the creatures in Tales from Limerick Zoo (1988), an alphabet of limericks from ‘The Amoeba’ to ‘The Zebu’. EM wrote it as a way of distracting his mind from worry, when an aging aunt who lived nearby began to accuse him of stealing her possessions whenever he came to visit her. Against family stress, he set up again his boyhood defences of word-craft, rare knowledge, and pleasure in the diversity of living creatures.


‘Yes, Yes’ was EM’s vote in the referendum of 11 September 1997: yes to a Scottish parliament, and yes again to enable it to have tax-raising powers. After the political disappointment of an earlier referendum of March 1978, which failed to clear the additional percentage hurdle of the ‘Cunninghame amendment’, his Sonnets from Scotland (1984) were an inspiration to many younger writers eager to secure more autonomy and recognition for their nation and its languages.


‘Zeru’ and ‘Zati’ are the Basque for ‘sky’ and ‘part, fragment’. These words appear in EM’s motto, which he never translated but used opposite the ‘Prologue’ to Collected Poems, pp. 16–17: Beti zeru urdin zati bat dago: bila ezazu. Word for word, it means: ‘Always sky blue fragment one is: search for it’. Or more elegantly: ‘Somewhere up there’s one shred of blue – pursue’. Typically, he gives a firm command, expressing a combination of realism and hope in the human voyage.

James McGonigal (b.1947) was a research student with Edwin Morgan in the 1970s, and a friend thereafter. He has combined professional work in schools and teacher education with editing and publications in British modernism and literary relations between Scotland and Ireland. His own poetry has won prizes in both countries.

His biography Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press, 2010) was written with the poet’s active encouragement, and draws on previously unexplored archive resources in the University of Glasgow, as well as regular conversations with him during the last few years of his life.