From Glasgow to Sobieski’s Shield:
Diversity in the Poetry of Edwin Morgan (1920-2010)
by James Graham
In appraisals of modern poets and their work, the poet is often described as ‘highly regarded’, implying that the value of his or her work is a matter for scholars and critics. The Scottish poet Edwin Morgan is certainly highly regarded, having won numerous awards including the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Six years before his death he was appointed Scotland’s first National Poet.
But I prefer to recommend him as a poet to be read not only by academics but by anyone interested in poetry, including those venturing into poetry for the first time. Readers can readily appreciate his consummate skill, his virtuosity, his humour, and the accessibility of his work. Above all, they can enjoy his original and often quite magical use of language.
I knew him. It was not quite a friendship; we might perhaps say acquaintance bordering on friendship. As a student I attended his lectures on the Modernist poets, and thanks to him have ever since had a special admiration for TS Eliot and love of Yeats. He didn’t succeed in selling me Ezra Pound, however.
Several times during my teaching career I arranged for him to visit the school, talk to pupils and read his work. He always did this kind of thing with the greatest enthusiasm and must have left many young people with a conviction that there’s something to be said for poetry after all. He read his own work in a way that pupils found moving, and that often drew laughter and applause. More than once he was guest speaker at our local Arts Centre, where he moved and entertained an adult audience with equal panache. After these events we had many a lively conversation.
Let’s begin to explore his work. There is much to discover, and much to appreciate and enjoy.
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A scientist and his wife and son awake to find themselves on a planet in the constellation of Sobieski’s Shield. They and others have been dematerialised on a dying Earth and must make a new home forty light-years away. Elsewhere, a young man and two young women walk along Buchanan Street in Glasgow; one woman carries a baby, the other a chihuahua. We find both scenes in the Collected Poems of Edwin Morgan, and the ‘ordinary’ scene is no less remarkable than the futuristic vision.
The range of Morgan’s subject matter is astonishing. It seems to the reader that for him there is no person, place, object, experience, myth or fantasy that does not contain a poem. In terms of form, he is a virtuoso: he has mastered the short lyric, the dramatic monologue, the sonnet, and a range of experimental forms including typographical and concrete poetry.
There is no easy way to sum up his work. Nevertheless, if we read extensively we see some major preoccupations emerging. Here we can consider four of them:
- A broad spectrum of poems inspired by his home city of Glasgow.
- Speculative poems, in which he ventures into the territory of science fiction.
- His ‘playful’ pieces, in which he treats us to some of the most creative word-play in the English language.
- His love poems.
Looking at each of these in turn, we can begin to understand the depth and reach of his imagination.
Copyright © 2016 by James Graham