From Glasgow to Sobieski’s Shield:
Diversity in the Poetry of Edwin Morgan (1920-2010)
by James Graham
2: The Poet as Witness
A useful way into Morgan’s work is through the territory of one of his poetic ‘heroes’, William Carlos Williams. Williams is known (among other things) for his epic poem in five books, Paterson, in which he contemplates the savagery and poverty of American life through a portrait in the finest detail of the city of Paterson, New Jersey. Williams gives us an insight into his years of preparation:
‘I started to make trips to the area. I walked around the streets; I went on Sundays in summer when the people were using the park, and I listened to their conversation as much as I could. I saw whatever they did, and made it part of the poem.’
For Paterson, read Glasgow. Morgan walked the Glasgow streets, partly following Williams’ example I suppose, but also because he loved the city. Maybe this is the best kind of research a poet can do. Here’s one of the outcomes.
Coming up Buchanan Street, quickly, on a sharp winter evening
a young man and two girls, under the Christmas lights -
The young man carries a new guitar in his arms,
the girl on the inside carries a very young baby,
and the girl on the outside carries a chihuahua. [...]
The chihuahua has a tiny Royal Stewart tartan coat like a teapot-holder,
the baby in its white shawl is all bright eyes and mouth like favours in a fresh sweet cake,
the guitar swells out under its milky plastic cover, tied at the neck with silver tinsel tape and a brisk sprig of mistletoe.
Orphean sprig! Melting baby! Warm chihuahua!
The vale of tears is powerless before you.
Whether Christ is born, or is not born, you
put paid to fate, it abdicates
under the Christmas lights.
Like Williams, for Morgan the importance of reporting real fact, real observations, is paramount. It’s easy for any writer to mix fiction with fact, to alter details for effect, to add the chihuahua where the girl was in fact carrying only a poly bag. From all Morgan’s writings and remarks in his public readings, we can take it that here and in other Glasgow poems there is little or no fiction. There was a chihuahua. It wasn’t a poly-bag or even a toy poodle, it was a chihuahua. We can also be sure that the tartan was Royal Stewart, not MacDonald of Glencoe or anything else.
Morgan doesn’t always introduce a personal note as strongly as he does here; in some Glasgow poems he can be very detached, his own voice virtually unheard, as we shall see in a moment. But ‘Trio’ is an exclamation of joy, and we are glad to share it.
Bad things happen on the streets of Glasgow, too, and Morgan was there to witness a few of them. ‘Glasgow 5 March 1971’ captures a moment of violence:
Glasgow 5 March 1971
With a ragged diamond
of shattered plate-glass
a young man and his girl
are falling backwards into a shop-window.
The young man’s face
is bristling with fragments of glass
and the girl’s leg has caught
on the broken window
and spurts arterial blood
over her wet-look white coat.
Their arms are starfished out
braced for impact,
their faces show surprise, shock,
and the beginning of pain.
The two youths who have pushed them
are about to complete the operation
reaching into the window
to loot what they can smartly.
Their faces show no expression.
It is a sharp clear night
in Sauchiehall Street.
In the background two drivers
keep their eyes on the road.
Another present-tense, ‘witness’ poem, but how different! Not only in the much darker nature of the incident: here the poet’s feelings and reflections are not made explicit at all. The language is dispassionate; the incident is recorded in detail without comment. In ‘Trio’ the poet is saying, ‘I want to share with you how I felt’; in this poem, he is saying, ‘Never mind how I felt, how do you feel?’
The title is prosaic, like a note written on the back of a photograph. The rhythm is almost that of prose, and while there are traces of metaphor — ‘diamond’, ‘starfished’ — these are minimal. The strength of the poem lies in the way the pain and shock suffered by the young couple, and the indifference and habituated violence of the two youths, breaks through the shell of the dead-pan language.
Not least, we are unsettled by the two passing drivers who ‘keep their eyes on the road’, as they ought to do in the interests of safe driving; but clearly these drivers also turn a blind eye, so to speak, for understandable yet regrettable reasons.
Returning to the ‘no fiction’ motto of both Williams and Morgan, I imagine — though there is no way of knowing — that the two drivers may have been conjured up for the poem, where in reality there may have been one, or three, or none. The two drivers are ‘symmetrical’ with the young couple and the two boys. But there’s no doubt that the use of two young people as human bricks to carry out a smash and grab, is authentic and described as seen.
Morgan took his ‘witness’ poetry to a new level in his Glasgow Sonnets (1972). In them he moves away from snapshot poems and distils his experience of the poverty and hopelessness of inner-city slums into a broad poetry of sorrow and anger.
Glasgow Sonnet 2
A shilpit dog fucks grimly by the close.
Late shadows lengthen slowly, slogans fade.
The YY PARTICK TOI grins from its shade
like the last strains of some lost libera nos
a malo. No deliverer ever rose
from these stone tombs to get the hell they made
unmade. The same weans never make the grade.
The same grey street sends back the ball it throws.
Under the darkness of a twisted pram
a cat’s eyes glitter. Glittering stars press
between the silent chimney-cowls and cram
the higher spaces with their SOS.
Don’t shine a torch on the ragwoman’s dram.
Coats keep the evil cold out less and less.
Some words need explanation for the non-Glaswegian reader. Shilpit means ‘scruffy’. A ‘close’ is a common passageway giving access to tenement flats. ‘Weans’ are children. YY PARTICK TOI, as might be guessed, is a gang slogan. Partick is a Glasgow district, near the old University but at the time the poem was written, a place of mean streets. YY I can’t explain; a search turns up Yes Yes, Yin Yang, and Young Youth. The Toi were medieval Chinese pirates, strange as it may seem the probable source of the gang shibboleth.
Note that among the poem’s sonnet features, the volta or ‘turn’ after the eighth line is a subtle one. The octet is dark, monochrome; the sestet is full of points of light which might signal hope, but hardly succeed in doing so.
With these few notes, I leave readers to explore this poem and hopefully feel its power. I would single out only one extraordinary line:
The same grey street sends back the ball it throws — with its bleak connotations of childhood play in a mean environment, yet with no children heard or seen, only a desolate street; and its almost ineffable image of unchanging poverty, of a cycle of hopeless generations.
Copyright © 2016 by James Graham