From Glasgow to Sobieski’s Shield:
Diversity in the Poetry of Edwin Morgan (1920-2010)

by James Graham

Table of Contents

4: The Poet at Play

Now, read the following poem carefully and translate into English.

The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

Sssnnnwhuffffll?
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl -
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok — doplodovok — plovodokot-doplodokosh?
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
Zgra kra gka fok!
Grof grawff gahf?
Gombl mbl bl -
blm plm,
blm plm,
blm plm,
blp.

Alas, there’s no Nessian-English dictionary to help us render her song word for word. But we can use the more fanciful department of our imagination to make some sense of it.

She surfaces, spluttering and taking deep breaths. (She is of course an amphibian, and has occasionally been observed on the Loch shore.) She is asking what the... is going on. She gives vent to a few multisyllabic expletives, and in line 6 lapses into the archaic Russian that betrays her origins in the White Sea off Archangelsk.

Her complaint is about the fok — the ever-present tourist folk who — especially in summer — gather on the banks of the Loch in the hope of seeing her. She can’t come up for a breath of air without having them gawp at her. Thoroughly pissed off, she sinks beneath the waves again, diving all 230 metres to the bottom. (The BT Tower, at 189m, would be well submerged.)

Notice that Nessie’s peculiar vocal organs and cavernous mouth allow her to make only two vowel sounds, while her extraordinarily agile tongue produces clusters of consonants.

Readers who are more tuned to the Nessie wavelength than I am are welcome to find other meanings in her monologue.

Edwin Morgan wrote many poems in which language itself is the subject. Some are in near-nonsense invented languages — several different ones — and some are meaningful word-play. He was always fascinated by place-names, and made humorous capital out of the many odd names of places in Scotland. ‘Canedolia [i.e.Caledonia]: an Off-Concrete Scotch Fantasia’ is a series of questions, presumably asked of travellers to various parts of the country. The answers are all actual place names.

what is the best of the country?
blinkbonny! airgold! thundergay!

and the worst?
scrishven, shiskine, scrabster, and snizort.

tell us about last night
well, we had a wee ferintosh and we lay on the quiraing. it was pure strontian!

and what was the toast?
schiehallion! schiehallion! schiehallion!

More serious, but still in the spirit of word-play, are Morgan’s typographical experiments. One ‘game’ involves taking a well-known phrase and finding new meanings in it by very innovative means — not by ‘extracting’, but by ‘subtracting’. Not by extracting meaning but by subtracting letters, leaving only the letters of certain significant words.

‘Manifesto’, for example, is built on (or unpicked from) the Russian for ‘Workers of the World, unite!’ I don’t think Morgan set out to write a Marxist poem — though he may have had some sympathies; he wrote an elegy on the death of Che Guevara — but saw this Marxian declaration as good experimental material.

Manifesto poem

Proceed to part 5...

Copyright © 2016 by James Graham

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