Donny O’Rourke reflects on a new biography of Scotand’s leading poet of the last half century
Edwin Morgan, who died in August at the age of ninety, quickened the cultural life of Scotland more than any poet since MacDiarmid. This was, to some extent, a matter of longevity. ‘Laureateship’ played its part also: Morgan was in turn the first ever Makar of his native Glasgow and then of the nation he sought to define. His accessibly varied poems, in their vivid reach and range, presented and represented the open, cosmopolitan, modern country he wanted to live in and thus had to help create.
Appalled by the rigged referendum of 1979 which in closing the door to home rule, opened the gates to Thatcher, Morgan insisted on Scotland’s imaginative viability, as a place being transformed by artists whose cultural exertions would in time produce a politics worthy of their talent and tenacity. The poems continued to say, ‘YES’. Indeed his, I’d contend, was the most affirmative major poetry written in the English-speaking world during the last half century.
Essentially solitary, the independently progressive Morgan was chary of most ‘isms’. Coming into contact with this poet of the left therefore, ideological labels lose their adhesiveness. The political beliefs that emerge from James McGonigal’s meticulous and masterly biography Beyond the Last Dragon (and from conversations I was lucky enough to have with the poet over many years) were strong and unwavering.
A socialist republic was what Morgan hoped Scotland would become. Sectarian dogma did not attract him. MacDiarmid’s rejoining of the Communist Party in nineteen fifty six to trumpet support for the Soviet quelling of the Hungarian uprising, disgusted the younger writer. Morgan had visited the USSR the year before and seen the article he had written subsequently for Soviet Weekly crudely edited to remove any ideologically disobliging criticisms. University colleagues at Glasgow who did not know the lecturer in English well (and even some who did), believed him in those days to be ‘extremely left wing’. Much later he would visit Albania, professing himself impressed by the people’s thrawn refusal to join any ‘bloc’ whether American, Chinese, or American.
Morgan’s detestation of Stalin never occluded his admiration for the original revolutionary impulse in Russia whose language he studied at university and whose doomed, ardent, agit prop bard, Mayakovsky, he brought over into a superbly supple and sensuous Scots. From the Futurists this determinedly up-to-the-minute poet drew lifelong inspiration. Born into a ‘well to do’, and well to the right, mercantile family Edwin Morgan maintained a certain prosperous punctilio about money until the end. On the other hand, ‘wining and dining’ never particularly appealed and his claim that a boiled egg, a slice of buttered toast and a ‘freshly poured cup of tea’ would delight him was the (very) simple truth.
Forced by the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression to ‘down-size’ from Pollokshields to Rutherglen, the Morgans did not change their outlook with their alteration in circumstances. Their only child would reject along with their Calvinist Conservatism and Freemasonry, Morgan senior’s unapologetic bigotry. “I would never knowingly employ a Catholic,” he told his son over breakfast. This prejudice, typical enough in its day, seems to have had at least something of a hold over Morgan until he met the love of his life, John Scott, who came from a large, easy going and warmly accepting Catholic family.
Service as a Royal Army Medical Corps private in the Desert Campaign in North Africa broadened the basis of Morgan’s social – and erotic – contacts and although he wrote almost no poetry in situ the War, and the anti-fascist ideals it was waged for, affected everything that came after. And the war poems did eventually and marvellously get written. Literary success did not come easily or quickly. Morgan was translating Beowulf at thirty, ‘for lack of love’.
For those who believe that talent is work, Edwin Morgan’s indefatigable feats of formal self fashioning will bolster such a conviction. James McGonigal traces brilliantly the making of the master whose ground breaking, name making, first substantial collection was not to appear until 1968 when its author was pushing fifty. Ah but oh so suited to and suitable for, the sixties with these jazzy, unjaded poems that watched housing schemes going up and totems coming down, love lyrics of ineffable poignancy addressed to that Shakespearianly ambiguous ‘you’, concrete poems, experimental poems, poems that zinged with the zeigeist, poems so futurist(ic) they were science fictional, poems that pulsed with the energy of pop culture and of the United States and of Glasgow, yes Glasgow, a very ‘happening’ locus and focus for all manner of exhilarations as Morgan dizzily embraced this ‘Second Life’; and was embraced in turn as he began to become the public figure, the exciter of dazzled interest, the inspirational visitor of schools, my own included. This was the poetry, and the poet, a renewed nation had been waiting for.
A self-consciously public intellectual along precisely ‘organic’ Gramscian lines, Edwin Morgan was not. Yet by talking Scotland up, steadying its aestheto/ political nerve in time of Tory traumatised need, he anticipated, indeed precipitated our present constitutional arrangements. In this respect his prescient co-editorship of Scottish International was crucial. Ever the nationalist as rationalist and internationalist, Morgan, the polyglot translator from several European languages, intuitively jaloused that non-chauvinist, geopolitically congruent communities based on common values, common languages, common traditions common weal and common sense should be understated in every sense. A large and lauded library full of poems, plays, translations, critical essays and correspondence is his legacy. Of the bards gathered in Sandy Moffat’s seminal ‘Poets’ Pub’, Morgan the eyes-averted homosexual peering into the middle distanced future, was the longest lived.
One can almost watch him determinedly foreseeing a Scotland whose preeminent poets would be gay, black, female or all of the above (cf Jackie Kay a regular visitor of Morgan in his nursing home ) and not Prostestant, male and complacently heterosexual. Unlike Hamish Henderson, whose busier, bigger and perhaps ‘braver’ war, the sometime ‘conchie’, ambulance orderly and inventory clerk respected, Morgan accepted the offer of an OBE. In which of us does any father fail a little to live on? He taught, inspired, influenced, corresponded with or actively mentored many of the poetic generation I am a part of. Richard Price comes out of James Mcgonigals account with especial distinction as a loving and loyal successor poet, writing unfailingly each week to his fellow avant-gardist in that cancer perturbed care home for a decade and more, when like a word tinctured wonder drug, the writing and reading of poetry seemed to keep Scotland’s national poet alive.
Rarely can it be said of any writer, all the books have been written, the work is done, the oeuvre completed. Finis. In that respect, Edwin Morgan is nearly unique. He lived and wrote exactly as long as he should have, losing not a single line to self indulgence, temperamental imbalance or sloth. That work ethic was a patrimony he didn’t reject.
In the Welsh language Morgan means ‘sea bright’. That he was. His fetish from the animal world would have been the ‘whittrick’ or weasel, the title of an early opus. His wits were quick. To protect his privacy (and proclivities), there were secrets and social compartments. Edwin Morgan came out at the age of seventy during Glasgow’s year as Capital of Culture. Some fairly explicit poems soon followed.
He could be whimsical. The proceeds of a literary prize went on a day trip by Concorde to visit Santa Claus in Finish Lapland; and the author of From Glasgow To Saturn was one hundred and second in line to be a civilian passenger on the space shuttle!
The dragon of this book’s title is death. The author begins his outstanding account with an analysis of several dreams that troubled the poet as he neared that deferred demise. This is no mere device. It gets the book off to a beguilingly symbolic start and is expertly followed up. As Edwin Morgan’s undergraduate pupil, PhD student, surrogate son of sorts, literary executor and confidant-cum-carer, James McGonigal could have resorted to hagiography and myth mongering. Instead, swiftly but scrupulously, he has written a beautifully measured biography, unstinting in its praise for a great poet of international importance, yet candid throughout about flaws and failings, of which, in truth, there were few.
A professor poet himself and like his subject therefore a doctus poeta, Jim McGonigal has shown in this weighty but wonderfully unwearying book, that reverence can be revealing. I salute him and his elegantly written, assiduously researched, judiciously balanced, utterly enthralling life. A large life, room has nonetheless been left for other approaches. For example, a study of Morgan as a gay poet would complement McGonigal’s magisterial survey. In the meantime we have this comprehensive, insightful and almost filially tender amalgam of literary criticism, memoir and biography. Edwin Morgan was a great advert for the species and this is a splendid book about a splendid man.
This article was originally pubished in the current issue of Scottish Left Review