The Cries o’ a New Warld

In his centenary year, we salute Edwin Morgan – a Scottish socialist whose modernist poetry covered the distance from Glasgow to Saturn.

There’s a terrific photo from the late 1960s of Edwin Morgan sitting on the sunny balcony of his Glasgow flat, a modest smile appearing on his face as he scans the city through dark glasses. The poet moved into the new build at Whittingehame Court in 1962, having previously lived with his conservative middle-class parents. As his biographer James McGonigal notes, the flat was a sanctuary, ‘the place where his creativity […] flourished.’ The flat provided the viewpoint for some of his finest poems of that decade: the sensuous love poem ‘From A City Balcony’, which alludes to countryside trysts with his ‘silent love’ John Scott, and the panoramic ‘The Second Life’, in which Morgan, then in his early 40s, maps his newfound personal and creative fulfilment onto ‘a city’s renewed life.’

The latter poem describes the transformation of the city, with ‘slow great blocks rising under yellow tower cranes, concrete and glass and steel/out of a dour rubble[…]’ Constructivist fervour meets romantic lyricism, with the yellow cranes mirrored by ‘daffodil banks that were never so crowded and lavish.’ People are a constant presence in Morgan’s renewed city, with drivers stopping to watch the skaters on Bingham’s Pond, laughter and pleasure rising ‘in the rare lulls/of the yards-away stream of wheels along Great Western Road.’

In contrast to the anti-urbanism of an earlier generation of Scottish poets, Morgan embraced Glasgow, and its culture and language, depicting the Baudelairian ‘heroism of modern life’ in a range of modes and styles, from gritty realism to science fiction, sonnets to concrete poetry. As the title of his 1973 collection From Glasgow To Saturn suggests, his scope went far beyond city boundaries. Through his translations of Mayakovsky, Michaux, Weöres and many more, Morgan brought the world to Scotland, establishing a life-affirming left modernism distinct from the reactionary Anglo-American tradition of Eliot and Pound.

His cosmopolitanism went hand in hand with his civic nationalism: here was a vision of what Scotland could be. In 1999 Morgan became the first Scottish ‘makar’ – national poet – but like his friend Alasdair Gray, he resisted the role of cuddly national treasure. Ten years on from death at the age of 90, Morgan’s socialism, internationalism and queerness still presents a challenge to Scotland’s liberal establishment, no matter how much it tries to co-opt him.

Two excellent new books provide deeper insight into Morgan’s aesthetics and cultural politics. Published to coincide with the Morgan centenary celebrations, In Touch With Language is a new collection of prose, encompassing essays, lectures and reviews. Edited by John Coyle and James McGonigal, who previously compiled Morgan’s selected letters, it complements two volumes from the Manchester-based publisher Carcanet, Essays (1974) and Crossing The Border: Essays On Scottish Literature (1990), and Hamish Whyte’s collection of interviews and miscellany, Nothing Not Giving Messages (1990). Drawing on the Morgan papers at Glasgow University library, the editors have selected a valuable body of material broadly in tune with the Edwin Morgan Trust’s centenary themes: Scottishness, international and intergalactic, queerness, queer history and identity, learning and teaching, collaboration. It also includes a section on drama, an important aspect of Morgan’s later work.

Greg Thomas’s Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland surveys the movement’s impact on British poetry through the key figures of Morgan, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Dom Sylvester Houédard and Bob Cobbing. Through each poet’s work, Thomas traces a move from ‘classical concrete’ rooted in ‘constructivist aesthetics and a range of literary modernisms’ to a style more connected to Dada, Futurism and intermedia art. Reflecting post-war ideals of international communication, classical concrete took an interest in simplifying and clarifying language systems, often related to semiotics. Later forms of concrete, Thomas explains, were more concerned with complicating or undermining linguistic sense.

Finlay and Morgan leaned towards the classical definition of concrete, but as Thomas shows, they both pushed against its limits. Morgan discovered concrete poetry in 1962, after reading a letter from the Brazilian poet E.M. de Melo e Castro in the Times Literary Supplement.  He forwarded this to the Edinburgh-based Finlay, with whom he shared an interest in modernist avant-gardes and new developments in international poetry. They were soon exploring the work of the Brazilian Noigandres group and the Bolivian-born German Eugen Gomringer, and within a year, both men had published their first concrete experiments in Finlay and Jessie McGuffie’s magazine Poor.Old.Tired.Horse.

While concrete poetry consumed Finlay’s volatile passions, Morgan, according to a 1964 lecture, regarded it as ‘a sideline which I find useful and rewarding for producing certain effects’. Nonetheless, Morgan made significant interventions in the form, adapting its typical compositional features – grid-based or visual syntax, phonetic and grammatical patterning – to humorous, polemical and narrative ends. Thomas calls Morgan’s approach ‘off-concrete’, a term borrowed from the 1963 poem ‘Canedolia: An Off-Concrete Scotch Fantasia’. He observes a persistent desire to ‘access worlds of cognition and communication beyond the conventionally human’, from the minds of animals and computers, to outer-space scenarios that ‘test the boundaries of human thought and language itself’.

Thomas argues that concrete poetry allowed Morgan to express various forms of international cultural allegiance and political solidarity, from the cosmic communism of ‘Spacepoem 1: from Laika to Gagarin’ to the anti-apartheid ‘Starryveldt’. Composed around the first letters of Sharpeville’s two syllables, the latter poem uses compound words to convey the horror of the massacre – ‘shriekvolley’ – and vow vengeance on the white suprematist President – ‘smashverwoerd’. But as Thomas contends, the very internationalism of concrete poetry helped Morgan define the version of Scottish culture he sought to project: ‘an urbane, technologically alert, socialist modernism’ with a ‘distinctly nationalist animus’.

Concrete poetry’s ideals of ‘transnational cultural communication’ chimed with Morgan’s McLuhanite optimism about the new world of ‘television and sputniks, automation and LPs, electronic music and multistorey flats, rebuilt city centres and new towns’, as outlined in his era-defining 1962 essay ‘The Beatnik In The Kailyard’. Thomas is struck by the ‘palpable excitement with which a socialist poet enumerates the delights of a supercharged consumerism’ as well as major projects of post-war social democracy, noting that it helped distinguish Morgan’s politics from the ‘outdated Marxism’ of Hugh MacDiarmid. While critical of MacDiarmid and his  Scottish Renaissance followers for loosening their ‘hold on life’, Morgan sought to revive the older poet’s original ‘double aim’ of creating a poetry that was modern in form and content, and ‘unmistakably Scottish’.

Morgan’s brilliant translations of Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Neruda and others in Sovpoems (1960) are a perfect example of this approach. As he told Hamish Whyte, here was ‘a modernism that yielded nothing to the Right, that avoided propaganda, and retained its sense of poetic adventure’. Mayakovsky was particularly important to him as ‘a poet committed to the left’ but ‘revolutionary in language’. Translated into a modernist Scots idiom that bristles with demotic energy, the justly celebrated ‘Ay, But Can Ye?’ reclaims Mayakovksy’s call for an art worthy of the ‘new warld’.

In Touch With Language offers two pieces on Mayakovsky: a 1965 Glasgow Herald review of Herbert Marshall’s biography of the poet, and a 1962 note on Morgan’s translation of ‘Fiddle-Ma-Fidgin’. In the latter, Morgan reflects on his use of the ‘Caledonian cornucopia’ to bring out ‘the distinctive Mayakovskian mixture of grotesque high-jinks and underlying seriousness of purpose’, suggesting that ‘slunkert’, ‘daunert’ and ‘sprachlt’ are much more impressive than ‘slunk’, ‘wandered’, ‘sprawled’. Morgan did not always translate into Scots, but in this case, he felt it got ‘closer than English to the “barbarian lyre” of the revolutionary spirit’.

The section on translation provides great insight into Morgan’s approach and the wider development of the practice.  A 1956 conference paper sees Morgan reflecting on the problems of sound and syntax, before turning to the utopian potential of mechanical translation – a subject he’d playfully explore in his 1963 concrete poem, ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’. A series of reviews from across the decades reflect Morgan’s wide ranging interests – Celan, Yevtushenko, Armenian and Chinese poetry – but an interview with Marco Fazzini, and a paper on the translator as ‘creative communicator’ are particularly illuminating.

Asked by Fazzini whether a translation should be ‘faithful to the formal and linguistic structures of the original or to its literary beauty’, Morgan replies that this is the central problem of translation and nearly unanswerable, concluding, ‘I try to get both kinds of faithfulness, as far as I can’. Attracted to Walter Benjamin’s idea of a ‘pure language’ in poetry, Morgan talks of a ‘creative fidelity’ where ‘you feel that the poem exists in your mind, almost without language, and you have a sense of it as a non-verbal object’.

As we have seen with his Glasgwegian Futurist Mayakovsky, Morgan used translation to develop his own language and revitalise his own culture. From Anglo-Saxon to Renaissance Italian, Hungarian to Brazilian Portuguese, he brought it all into his world. His criticism performed a comparable function. The historical and geographical sweep of his essay on poetry of the city is remarkable, as he goes from Gilgamesh to Marinetti. But this is not an aimless eclecticism. Morgan’s urban vision includes Scottish poets from the Renaissance William Dunbar to the Victorian James Thomson, and he implicitly aligns himself with gay poets like Whitman, Crane, and Ginsberg.

Christopher Whyte has written perceptively on Morgan’s reimagining of the city as a queer space, and the poet addresses this himself in ‘Transgression in Glasgow: A poet coming to terms’ (1997). The fact that homosexuality was illegal in Scotland until 1980 had a huge bearing on Morgan’s personal and professional life, and this very private poet only came out at 70. The giddy sense of liberation leaps off the page, as Morgan takes us into Glasgow’s post-war gay subculture.

Within the city’s macho culture, there were always ‘tough little men, or tough big men, who would not dream of calling themselves gay… but who nevertheless engage readily, and even regularly, in gay sexual activity’. Morgan’s chilling 1963 poem ‘Glasgow Green’ showed how dangerous such men could be, but the essay acknowledges other aspects of queer Glasgow life, as he recalls a well-known lesbian from his 1920s childhood who wore ‘a man’s suit with collar and tie’ and smoked ‘a cigarette in a long cigarette-holder’. As a young gay poet, Morgan had to find ways around the oppressive atmosphere: ‘you circumvent, you encode, you enfabulate’.

In later years, Morgan was able to bring it all out in the open, celebrating queer life in his poem for the launch of the Glasgow Gay and Lesbian Centre in 1995: ‘Straightest of straights, bentest of bents, Carbolic scrub, Armani scents, Doc Martens girls, minikilt boys, Buyers of exotic toys’. Morgan publicly decried the rallying of reactionary forces to oppose the repeal of Section 28, and while one cannot speak for the dead, it is likely he would have taken a dim view of the current wave of transphobia in the independence movement and poetry scene.

There were contradictions in Morgan’s politics. A republican, he defended his acceptance of the OBE in 1982 on the grounds of changing the system from within, and we might view his poem for the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in a similar light. Morgan raises the spectre of the Renaissance poets who ‘tickled a Scottish king’s ear with melody and ribaldry and frank advice’.

There’s nothing particularly radical about the poem’s Lockean invocation of government by consent, but his warning that the people do not want ‘a nest of fearties’ or a ‘symposium of procrastinators,’ is agreeably pointed. Morgan’s socialism was perhaps less consistent than that of younger writer-activists like Tom Leonard or James Kelman, but he knew which side he was on. That much is clear from the material so expertly gathered by Coyle and McGonigal, and Thomas’s attentive reading of the concrete poetry.

Morgan was deeply engaged with Scotland and Scottishness, but his liberatory cultural politics transcends borders. As John Maclean, the hero of Red Clydeside and the subject of Morgan’s 1977 poem, put it: ‘we’re out for life and all that life can give us.’

Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry In England and Scotland by Greg Thomas is out now from Liverpool University Press.

Edwin Morgan: In Touch With Language, edited by John Coyle and James McGonigal, is available from the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

About the Author

Stewart Smith is a music and arts journalist and academic, with a particular interest in alternative cultural histories of Scotland. He recently launched Ion Engine, a newsletter dedicated to underground and experimental music from Scotland.