Variousness, Voice and Audacity: Learning from Morgan

(This piece, commissioned and — expertly — edited by Julian May, was broadcast on Dec 3rd on BBC Radio 3’s slot The Essay: Under The Influence, alongside pieces by Alison Brackenbury and Michael Symmons Roberts, among others. This is the unedited version, without the texts for the Morgan poems, two of which were broadcast in the form of archive recordings by Morgan himself. I’ve indicated where the text can be found in his Collected Poems, and will fill it in later, when I get a chance. The texts of my two poems are edited for performance.)

The genealogy of poets, who considers themselves influenced by whom, is always a fraught subject. I know myself to be the only child of many parents, but the one whose poetry has meant most as I try to develop as a writer is Scotland’s laureate or makar, Edwin Morgan.

Morgan was born in Glasgow in 1920. After serving in the Medical Corps during World War Two, he returned to Glasgow University, eventually teaching English Literature. He knew the marvellous poet W.S. Graham from the 40s, but didn’t come fully into his own voice until reading the Beats. He helped to transform Glasgow into the literary capital of Scotland – a mantle it surely claimed from Edinburgh in the 70s when he, his contemporaries and successors began to dominate Scottish writing. He retired from teaching in 1980, and has recently embarked on a late career as dramatist and librettist.

Throughout his writing life he has made it his mission to celebrate, especially our social and technological progress, and to record loss stoically rather than to bewail it. His poetry, though responsive to local sectarian division and to global conflict, to much destruction and questionable renewal, has always hymned the human capacity for love, resolve and invention.

His work embodies a vivid throng of characteristics: amplitude, restlessness, compassion, energy. He demonstrates an engagement with language in its ephemeral, as well as classical, forms, being much drawn to its battered, colloquial beauties. He is receptive to the spell-making of arcane vocabularies, with an ear for the memorable phrase lurking in jargon. He looks eagerly overseas for both subject and solidarity, allowing other literatures to rejuvenate him through the hard graft of translation. Among his poetry’s many avatars, perhaps the figure of Cinquevalli comes closest to describing its creator’s nature:

Cinquevalli is falling, falling.
The shining trapeze kicks and flirts free,
solo performer at last.
The sawdust puffs up with a thump,
settles on a tangle of broken limbs.
St Petersburg screams and leans.
His pulse flickers with the gas-jets. He lives.

Cinquevalli has a therapy.
In his hospital bed, in his hospital chair
he holds a ball, lightly, lets it roll round his hand,
or grips it tight, gauging its weight and resistance,
begins to balance it, to feel its life attached to his
by will and knowledge, invisible strings
that only he can see. He throws it
from hand to hand, always different,
always the same, always
different, always the
same.
His muscles learn to think, his arms grow very strong.

Cinquevalli in sepia
looks at me from an old postcard: bundle of enigmas.
Half faun, half military man; almond eyes, curly hair,
conventional moustache; tights, and a tunic loaded
with embroideries, tassels, chains, fringes; hand on hip
with a large signet-ring winking at the camera
but a bull neck and shoulders and a cannon-ball
at his elbow as he stands by the posing pedestal;
half reluctant, half truculent,
half handsome, half absurd,
but let me see you forget him: not to be done.

Cinquevalli is a juggler.
In a thousand theatres, in every continent,
he is the best, the greatest. After eight years perfecting
he can balance one billiard ball on another billiard ball
on top of a cue on top of a third billiard ball
in a wine glass held in his mouth. To those
who say the balls are waxed, or flattened,
he patiently explains the trick will only work
because the spheres are absolutely true.
There is no deception in him. He is true.

(See CP (Carcanet, 1990), pp. 432-4)

He writes big books, full of diverse verses, some making high cultural gestures, like a piece in ottava rima about Byron surviving Missolonghi, others exploring a rougher, confrontational music, like the aggressive encounters of ‘Glasgow Green’. Some readers and reviewers, not all of them from England, have felt abashed by the the scale of his Scotocentric imagination, though Morgan is the most approachable of poets; being Scottish for him manifests itself in a love of language, engagement with history and joy in fine detail, the small print of being alive.

I first encountered his work as an adolescent in the anthology Worlds, where he was ranged alongside Norman MacCaig, Heaney, Hughes, Thom Gunn, Adrian Mitchell and Charles Causley. It was a generous book, full of sharp black and white photos and even sharper pronouncements by the poets. It made them, and Morgan in particular, seem unstuffy, curious, and engaged.

He observed there that, although he himself was clearly bookish, his background was not: ‘There is a poetry before poetry…the imagination of someone who is going to write poetry can be stirred in all sorts of preparatory ways.’ I liked and wanted to emulate that quiet confidence. In it I began to realise the importance of receptivity to what Heaney would later call ‘the music of what happens’.

I was reading this in Dundee, a town with no discernible literary tradition, in which very little seemed to be happening. I was a smart-alec singleton, whose family had risen from the working class to the lower middle, who got into university and through my first degree with what seemed like suspiciously little disciplined effort.

The little I knew about what sort of writer I was appeared initially to be informed by the subject of my doctorate, Hugh MacDiarmid. But, as I began to publish, it became clear my imagination was more aligned to Morgan’s. Like him, I thought centrifugally, moving out from a particular city to a small country to a continent and beyond. Like him I was fixated both on the resonant kick of words and how they were reconfigured by formal patterns. And like him my cultural context seemed full of beautiful but unacknowledged voices.

The Lament for Billy Mackenzie

The stranger in our city’s voice is dead

so keep all Dundee silent for a day,

sheathe all your spoons within their mourning cases,

fling all your florins in devalued Tay:

let every mirror hold his fourteen faces,

our strangest voice is dead.

Our angel of the ragcart and the river,

the patron saint of tinkies, whose gold lips

could loose euphoric shrieks that split our hips –

but now he’s fallen out with song forever.

Praise to that voice, which spans the octaves as

the roadbridge spans the river’s range of tides

and snell winds, bullies of Siberia.

It holds the spheres together as they gride

and squeal, that mile-wide voice, in theory our

town’s diapase, ya bass.

His gypsy holler was holy jabber-code,

our Bowie of Baldovan Terrace: hark

to Billy, Bacharach of Baxter Park.

He was the Shirley Bassey of Bonnybank Road.

Lament now for the father who must touch

a cheekbone in the barn at Auchterhouse,

who knows it in the darkness and knows why

it is so cold. Duveted in overdose,

a photo album, dumbed at thirty nine –

lament for that numb touch.

Lament the kind of silence in that shed,

the absence of all further variation

on that one breathing theme thieved from creation:

lament MacKenzie’s lovely son is dead…

I had blundered into college: hoping to learn how to write poetry, it took me ten years to recover from an Oxford education. I then blundered into academe, happening onto the burgeoning discipline of creative writing without grasping its vocational consequences. I blundered into an exile in Newcastle I never thought would be as durable and nourishing as it continues to be.

Morgan, by contrast, seems always to have known about his craft, his vocation, his sexuality and his city, and to have fashioned for himself a life which, though his poetry betrays great lonelinesses, was always redeemed by a sense of centred literary purpose.

He has always been a master of the gestures of form, whether writing shocking sonnets, or teasing the reader’s brain with new varieties of genre – concrete poems, off-concrete poems, colour poems (and a few off-colour ones), computer poems, emergent poems, and, of course, sound poems.

[Loch Ness Monster’s Song. See CP, p.248]

That capacity to straddle the divide between the so-called traditional and the allegedly experimental is another of the lessons taught by this quietest of dominies. It isn’t, as I once thought, that there are two poetic camps, mainstream and experimental, and you have to declare for one of them – strophe or antistrophe, rather than the whole poem. I’ve encountered this entrenched position in England, America, Russia, and always feel alienated, shot by both sides.

What Morgan’s work implies is the imagination acknowledges no such divide, instead, many poets simply have the unpoetic desire to be right – and a more understandable need to belong, whether to an orthodoxy or an unorthodoxy. The original poet, however, only belongs to the work, to the next poem and the next.

I think his example grounds me, in a way Hugh MacDiarmid or many of the other poets to whom I claimed allegiance as a younger poet, did not. As I began to mature as a writer, to wish to interact with society other than through the jeremiad – I began to be haunted by an image of these poets, and of myself, as a species of giant baby.

The more MacDiarmid, for instance, clamoured for ‘The Kind of Poetry He Wanted’, as a late poem has it, the more he claimed to have achieved a Mature Art, the less clear I was as to what precisely such a thing could ever be.

Morgan has never opposed that type of grand statement, indeed he argued eloquently that it should be criticised responsibly, but the poetry of his maturity effortlessly digests and renews that which is verbally vibrant and ideationally daring about his peers and predecessors, dispensing with all the poisoned prejudice and bonny prince chauvinism.

His perspective, crucially, refuses to be partisan: he never excludes, in order to correct or castigate, any aspect of what it is to be human, and he never loses sight of our position in an unhuman, not inhumane, universe.

He effectively told me this in an interview back when I was the fledgling editor of a very tiny magazine, Gairfish, in the mid-eighties. It only took me the twenty years to grasp what he meant: variousness is, in itself, a resistance to dogma.

[In the 60s] I learned, really learned for the first time, however much I may have thought I believed it intellectually, that you can write poems about anything. You really can! The world, history, society, everything in it, pleads to become a voice, voices!

Morgan is our great poet of voices. He gives words to apples, to starlings, to sputniks, to Mercurians, to a mummy, to his old hero Jack London, and, in the most daring of his late poems, a piece possessed of grave and daring wit, to Gorgo, a cancer cell:

You may not even think I am a tempter,

But I am the insidious one, hissing Listen listen.

Every tumour begins with a single cell

Which divides and divides and is its own boss.

The joy of kicking decent cells away,

sucking their precious nutrients, piercing

Membranes that try to keep you from the waves

Of lymph and blood you long to navigate –

Through unimaginable dangers, be robust! –

Until you reach those Islands of the Blest –

The distant organs where you plant your flag

and start a colony. Those cells are heroes,

Homer would hymn them, but I do my best!

To consider that these lines were written by an eighty year old poet with terminal prostate cancer demonstrates the degree of integrity and lack of sentiment with which Morgan articulates what has hitherto been unsaid or even unsayable. His remains a considerable imagination in a heightened state of freedom.

I’m not a member of Edwin Morgan’s close circle of friends and supporters, and both temperamentally and professionally I favour distance over declaration, deference over dependence – something else I suspect I learnt from him. As these things are reckoned in the poetry world, I have not been a good son. But in the scale and structuring of my books, the range of language and tones I attempt to deploy, in my particular understanding of Dundonian-ness and indeed Scottishness, I remain indebted to his diction, his directness, and his audacity.

The Glacier

Scrambling among the hobo pebbles, pilgrim quartz,

we were speechless on the glacier’s black back,

surfing its slowest wave, listening to its Xhosa click,

its rhotic grind, its kilometre throat’s distracted rattle.

 

We’d diceboxed off the Karakoram highway up

a broadening valley between the Uigur villages,

their pease pudding walls, their carved palace doors,

corncobs drying on their roofs like giant pollen.

Then finally, parked by the concrete yurts painted

with scenes out of the cartoon past and walking

 

through the churr of magpies towards the first firs,

the first Swiss-eyed glimpse of gull-shouldered peaks,

breathless in the highland air as though we’d smoked

ourselves down to a quarter of our proper size;

 

there was a flight of steps up to a blind crest

you had to rest before, during, and at the climbing of –

and then it was before you, the blackberry tongue,

the exhausted shit lolly, the lava-stained granita.

 

It had something to tell us that we could only learn

by climbing on its dead whale belly and holding out

our mobile phones to record its auriculate melts.

There was a voice down in its rootlessness that knew

 

the root to all our travelling, the small dripping home

of our incomprehension. All our friends yelled at us,

and while their echoes put the eagles off their glide,

the glacier quietly carried on carrying us away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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