one of Edwin Morgan’s chums, Liz Lochhead, wrote in The Guardian, ‘There’s nothing he couldn’t make a poem out of.’
Absolutely no doubt about that. The range of this collection covers:
Glasgow worthies in various shapes and sizes; sperm; magic mushrooms;
new uses for banks; knife-culture; homosexuality and the church; crustaceans
in the Clyde; urban sand sculptures; sponsored ice-skating; a hearse
being used for canoe transportation; the art of gasometer construction;
the rain; the saving of a suicidal junkie; witch-hunting; Walt Whitman
on the Brooklyn ferry; every type of demon imaginable; and then, of
course, there’s the one where he passes the time of day empathising
with a seagull!
A seagull stood on my window-ledge
said nothing, but had a good
Perhaps he was a mutation,
Perhaps he was, instead,
which only used that tight
firm forward body
to bring the waste and dread
of open waters,
foundered voyages, matchless
into a dry room. I knew nothing.
(from ‘A Gull’)
strange is that I seem to remember indisputably
Scotland’s greatest living poet as being considerably more interesting than
the poems here would suggest. I
was confused, therefore, by the jacket notes’ claim that, ‘Over the
last five years Edwin Morgan, now in his eighties… has written some
of his most powerful poetry.’ What
he has written, if this is the product of the past five years, is
a good number of commissioned and laureate poems – poetry on demand
– and this may be what lets him down.
A fine day brings him out
He strides along the throbbing
Stripped to the waist to
light a fuse
Of glances at the rich tattoos
Crawling and swirling round
Saying Read me! And even
The challenge on his lower
That spells out just above
CELTIC, as gallus as you
(from ‘On the Bus’, a BBC R4 commission)
laureate poems, incidentally, arise from the fact that, in 1999, he
was appointed Poet Laureate of the
City by Glasgow City Council – a fact made
clear right from the outset. Indeed,
such an honour would appear to have been more of a hindrance than
a help to his creativity, locking him into a mind-set that, although
Morgan’s introduction –
‘…there are many poems outwith this [Glasgow] connection, since (as
Lucretius pointed out) it does not matter in what part
of the universe you live’ –
has the effect of requiring a good seventy-five percent of the collection
to be Glasgow poems. As for
Lucretius, it does matter and it matters all the more
when the material contains so many alien references as to make it
incestuous, if not universally irrelevant.
What’s this, George Square
with ants and anthills?
A giant mole has thrown up
That’s all. The
shirtless sculptors sweat,
They climb, they crawl, they
slither, they get
A pack of pats, a gorge of
gouges, a thwack
Of thumbs to fashion each
From the top down, no ladder
Into the likeness of a god…
(from ‘Sand City’)
again, perhaps it’s
just Morgan being absurdist.
After all, there are also the surrealist eroto-horticulturalism of
‘The Freshet’ and the unlikely up-beat dance-song of ‘Burke
and Hare’ to contend with. And when that’s done…
…For we are merry dancers
through curtains of the dark
feel us hear us fear us
when the dark begins to spark!
(from ‘The Demon Sings’)
this stage, being astute, you’ll have surmised that many of the poems
are in rhyme, mostly straight couplets, a lot of it heavy, cliché-ridden
They never danced by day
but only in the darkest night
or sometimes by moonlight.
Their clothes were always
It was their way.
(from ‘My Moriscos’)
my mind, this does nothing to help reduce the sense of flippancy created
by the other linguistic and poetic idiosyncracies
Morgan over-invests in. Of these, the worst has to be the Parliamo
Glasgow of the sperm-bank poem.
Ah thote Glasgow wiz that
But here we’re doon tae wir
last batch o
Sperm, the bank’s near
Ur therr nae real men tae
loosen their load?
Whit’s wrang wi ye all?
tell me it’s cash.
Is fifteen pound no enough
fur a splash?
…Think o yon near-impotent
Grit yer teeth and gie it
(from ‘A Plea’)
kind of shallowness, in particular, throws
up all sorts of questions. For example, why does Morgan even bother to attempt something
another of his chums, Tom Leonard, did much, much better in terms
of phonetic precision
and quotidian humour?
Similarly, if Morgan has a serious point to make about a taboo subject,
why try to disguise it in
a ‘funny’ Glaswegian voice? Does
the voice and Morgan’s lavatorial approach to the subject make it
more populist and, therefore, easier
to forget as being a taboo? And
even, by writing in this manner, does Morgan believe he is saving
Glaswegian from becoming a lost language, as Stanley Baxter had before
him, or is he simply continuing that tradition of cynical misrepresentation
of Glaswegians through the piracy of their vernacular, which, as always,
will lead nowhere but to a perpetuation of the stereotyping that helps
no-one, no matter in what part of the universe they live.
A youth attached himself.
“Radio 3.” “Whit band’s that
“Ninety to ninety-two.” “Ur
you a Sir?”
“No, I’m a poet.” “Great,
see ye la’er!”
He gave a thumbs-up, darted
He would turn night into
were, however, high points
– too few and far between –
‘The Tree House’ in which the experience of seeing the world from
a different perspective
brings joy to an adult heart –
‘Sunset’ where its simple parallels of old age and the day’s end are
treated to a certain tenderness at
Morgan’s usually brash hand – ‘John Tennant’ with all its social comment surrounding
nineteenth century paternalistic industrialism and the no-nonsense
attitudes of the rebel capitalist
of the title – ‘The Salmon’s Tale’ which,
despite a dreadful salmon/shaman pun, couples Glasgow’s religious
origins with its industrial golden age through a conversation between
St. Kentigern and a fish, both significant figures in Glaswegian iconography.
Chains rattle madly as the
ship slides out,
riveters cheer, queens’ bottles
crash on hulls,
shrieks fly westwards from
the scattering gulls,
Mammon’s millions raise a golden shout –
Then, in that famous twinkling
of an eye
(And Kentigern must know
the phrase all right)
The dark metteur en scène switches the light
Off, leaves the gallus yards
to dim and die.
‘The Salmon’s Tale’)
at the end of the day, based on previous encounters, I’d expected
something more, a good deal more from Edwin Morgan than these few
so, was disappointed. But
at least I, in being from the same neck of the
woods as Morgan, know why. For you, I’m sure, it would be a different matter, wherever
you might be in the universe.
© John Mingay 2002