Friday, June 23, 2017

Carol Ann Duffy / Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway

by Carol Ann Duffy

'I gyve unto my wife mi second best bed...' 

(from Shakespeare's will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlights, clifftops, seas
where he would dive for pearls. My lover's words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he'd written me, the bed 
a page beneath his writer's hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love -
I hold him in the casket of my widow's head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Carol Ann Duffy / Warming her pearls

Warming her pearls
by Carol Ann Duffy
for Judith Radstone

Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.

I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.

Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…. Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way

she always does…. And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Les Murray / On the Mitchells

Les Murray
Poster by T.A.
On The Mitchells

The following article was written by the editor for The English Review, a UK journal for A-level English Literature students. A slightly modified version of it was published in Vol. 17, No. 2, Nov. 2006. Reproduced with permission.


Jason Clapham shows how Les Murray's sonnet "The Mitchells" is interesting for students of post-colonial literature as well as those exploring what the sonnet can do
There are certain poems that are difficult to write about because they are so easy. This is not usually the case with Les Murray's work: dense and outspoken, his poems lend themselves readily to detailed analysis and discussion. But "The Mitchells" is different: on first glance it seems to be no more than an affectionate description of two men taking a lunch break in the outback.

Celebrating something without giving it away

One way to approach poems such as these is to start not with language and form but with the key question the reader is left with. In this case, what is it about the Mitchells that the poet thinks is worth writing about? There is an interesting humility about the men, choosing to boil their water in a "prune tin" and wear an "oil-stained felt hat" even though one of them "has been rich". Then there is the curious delayed response of the second Mitchell, who would look up "with pain and subtle amusement" before repeating an identical phrase, "I'm one of the Mitchells". In fact, these two features are related: the faint, understated humour at work here is reminiscent of a quality Murray associates with "deeply Australian" traits of "restraint" coupled with the "sardonic".
Seen in the light of Murray's comments, the poem appears to be a study of Australian rural culture, even a celebration of it. Some years before writing this poem Murray expressed a "paradoxical" desire to "celebrate something without giving it away", and this poem appears to do that. There is a festive quality about the "unthinning mists of white // bursaria blossom", both in their appearance and in bursaria being another name for The Christmas Bush (as it flowers in the Australian midsummer).
The fact that the bees are described as working a "shift" creates a connection between their work in the Australian flora—bursaria and wattles—and that of the men working the land, while the second Mitchell holds leaves in his hand as he gives his name, creating a strong association between the men's identity and the land they farm.

The poem as a sonnet

It therefore might seem odd for Murray to choose the sonnet, a quintessentially European form, with resonances (for us) of genteel love games and the Elizabethan court. Taking a post-colonial approach, commentators such as Ashcroft would not be surprised: as he says in The Empire Writes Back, Les Murray
faces two directions, wishing to reconstitute experience through an act of writing which uses the tools of one culture or society and yet seeks to remain faithful to the experiences of another. (59)
The "Mitchells" does at first seem to support such a reading. A cursory glance at the poem establishes the traditional division into octave and sestet, with the octave further divided into two quatrains (at least visually). More important, perhaps, is the sense of a volta in the unexpected switch to urban in the final line, "Sometimes the scene is an avenue". As in a traditional sonnet, this line effectively alters the meaning of the sonnet as a whole: the urban "avenue" suggests that this "pair" of men represent something broader than a particular rural culture, they represent Australia itself.
We might read this as an irreverent post-colonial "subversion" of the genre. Murray has replaced the urbanity and confident virtuosity expected of the sonnet with plain speaking ("I am seeing this") and an awkward hesitation ("raise / I think for wires … The first man, if asked …"). Instead of aristocratic amours, this sonnet cheerfully presents workmen eating "big meat sandwiches out of a Styrofoam / box with a handle". There might be something indecorous about the pronounced caesurae that slice through four lines, and about the four enjambed lines of the octave; the thirteen, fourteen and sixteen syllable lines seem to struggle against the confinement of the sonnet "box". In "The Quality of Sprawl", a poem published shortly after "The Mitchells", the poet seems to describe this spirit of irreverence as quintessentially Australian:

Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly ...

Sprawl occurs in art. The fifteenth to twenty-first 
lines in a sonnet, for example.
Sprawl gets up the nose of many people ...
So "The Mitchells" can be read as Murray working against the sonnet form, provoking the "centre", trying to free himself of it.
Beyond this, however, such readings are too limiting to allow us to discover much of interest about the poem. It is worth reminding ourselves that the octave-sestet structure of the sonnet dates back to pre-colonial Europe, beyond Dante to Lentini in early 13th century Italy. It could be argued that Murray is doing what poets have always done, importing foreign genres and adapting them to local language and experience (the English sonnet tradition began this way, with Wyatt in the sixteenth century). Seeing Murray as a sort of Janus, with one eye on the poetic genres of the "centre" and the other on the marginal "Otherness" of Australian experience is simply inaccurate. As he remarks in his introduction to Hell and After, Murray feels he has struggled throughout his career against "the narrow national protectionisms which still impede much poetry in English from reaching its natural public across the whole Anglophone world". Post-colonial readings, many of them emanating from the "centre", seem to constitute one such "protectionism", as they leave Murray with a secondary status.

The Vernacular Republic

Language is what "The Mitchells" is really about. The reader is immediately struck by the lack of literary pretension right from the opening four words of the poem, and the language of the whole poem seems to imitate the qualities of directness, reticence and humour discernable in the speech it includes. There is little that could be described as "non-standard" English, grammatically speaking, but the attempts to capture the cadences of Australian speech are unmistakable. This is particularly apparent on hearing Les Murray read this poem; listen, for example, to the elongation of the /a/ sound of the word "handle" and the lack of any sort of subordinating pause around the phrase "I think" in the third line.
The first published version of this poem bore the more grandiose title "Dedication, Written Last, for the Vernacular Republic" (1974). Although this was replaced, Murray used the idea of a "vernacular republic" for his 1976 edition of selected poems, where the Australian vernacular is held to be key to understanding Australian identity. It is "the matrix [of Australian] distinctiveness" he says, "[w]e are a colloquial nation", a "vernacular republic".
The poem dignifies Australian speech, presenting it as beautiful in its own way and worthy of being immortalised in the high art of the sonnet. In his review of The Macquarie Dictionary (the first dictionary of Australian English), Murray says
how much larger and richer our dialect is than many had thought ... gently but firmly shifting our linguistic perception, so that our entire language is henceforth centred for us, not thousands of miles away, but here where we live.
His poetry might be said to have a similar effect.

Nearly everything they say is ritual

In the third to last line of the poem, the reader is struck by an apparent disjunction between the second man announcing that he is "I'm one of the Mitchells" and our being told that one of the men "has been rich / but never stopped wearing the oil-stained felt hat". When we look at the following line the logic becomes clear: "Nearly everything / they say is ritual", the purpose of their speaking is, like many rituals, to express a sense of identity and belonging, and the hat serves also as a badge of identity. Indeed, the speaker persistently fails to distinguish one man from the other - what is important is the fact that they are both Mitchells, not their differences or Christian names.
It is worth noting that the name Mitchell, like the name Murray, is strongly associated with the Scottish settlers of Australia (Les Murray's own family arrived in Sydney from Scotland in 1848, fleeing poverty caused by the highland clearances). By declaring that they are Mitchells, the men are honouring their "lost" Gaelic roots, an important constituent of Australian identity: as Murray has said, "Many [Austrialians'] attitudes, even their turns of phrase, are only really comprehensible in terms of that lost inheritance". The poem as a whole can be seen as a sort of "clanship" ritual, like a number of other Murray poems, namely "Four Gaelic Poems", "A Skirl for Outsets" and "Elegy for Angus Macdonald of Cnoclinn" which concludes

.. Even the claim I make at times

to write Gaelic in English words 
would make you sniff (but also smile),

but my fathers were Highlanders long ago

then Borderers, before this landfall …

Waltzing Matilda

The Scottish theme is arguably continued in the ritualised actions of the men. The very act of brewing tea and eating together by a campfire is ritualistic, and peculiarly Australian. But many would be also be reminded of a better known bush tea drinker:

Oh! there once was a swagman camped in the Billabong,

Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;
And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling,
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"
Less well known, perhaps, is that this celebration of Australian experience and "unofficial national anthem" as it is sometimes called, was written by a poet also from New South Wales, of Scottish descent, and that the tune for "Waltzing Matilda" is actually a Scottish folk tune.

Who is seeing this?

One of the interesting features of "The Mitchells" is the positioning of the poem's speaker. At the opening of the poem he describes what he is "seeing", apparently at some distance or hidden in the wattles, close enough to hear the bees humming around it mingled with the mens' voices and the bubbling of the water. He seems unsure of the nature of the work they are undertaking and, as if seeking clarification "overhear[s]" a comment by "one" of the men (he is unsure which). The remainder of the poem is presented first in the conditional, as the speaker has an imaginary conversation with "the pair", perhaps because he is no longer able to hear, and then he makes an observation that could sounds made at a distance: "one has been rich / but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat".
So who is the speaker? The speaker's observation of the men seems to stand in for the reader's, his fascination prefigures our own. Like him, we live predominantly urban lives, amongst "avenues" rather than wattles, and watch this ritual and drama of this scene played out with a sense of nostalgia for the certainty with which they would answer the question left unspoken in the poem: who are you?

Further Reading

Ashcroft, B. (2002) The Empire Writes Back, New Accents

Longley, M. (2004) Snow Water, Jonathan Cape
Matthews, S. (2001) Les Murray, Manchester University Press.
Murray, L. (2003) New Collected Poems, Carcanet.
Murray, L. Hell and After (2005), Carcanet. [Read the Introduction]
Williams, H. (2005) Collected Poems, Faber.

– Jason Clapham teaches English at St Edward's Oxford

Les Murray on The Mitchells

After completing the article I had the opportunity to ask Les Murray about the poem. Here are some of the remarks he made in his fax of 22 March, 2006.
On title of the poem:
"I stuck with the longer and mightier title for a little while, quickly coming to the conclusion that it was too large a title for that short poem … The poem felt more comfortable with its less grandiose name "The Mitchells": that's a surname with some resonance in Oz, partly from the splendid white Major Mitchell cockatoo, partly from the real surname of Dame Nellie Melba [soprano], partly from the venerable Mitchell Library in Sydney etc. etc. though I was mainly thinking of Joe Michell, an itinerant working in Henry Lawson's short stories. The poem did stand as a sort of epigraph to Ethnic Radio [see Bibliography], in which the ethnicity I meant was an Australian one."
On the sonnet form:
"As to my attitude to the sonnet back then, I dimly recall preferring the Petrarchan to the Shakespearean because the Petrarchan tended to integrate the last six lines into the poem, even after a strong volta, while a Shakespearean one might be no more than 12-lines with a pat concluding couplet, like the rhymed couplet that often the end of a scene in one of the plays. But I was never very steamed up about all that, and I can't recall being very political about subverting the sonnet form, if indeed that's what I did. Maybe I was grinning to myself just a little though—I was still at war with the dimensions of Empire and Posh back then …"

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Les Murray / Predawn In Health

Predawn In Health

by Les Murray

The stars are filtering through a tree
outside in the moon's silent era.

Reality is moving layer over layer
like crystal spheres now called laws.

The future is right behind your head;
just over all horizons is the past.

The soul sits looking at its offer. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Les Murray / Child logic

Child logic
by Les Murray

The smallest girl
in the wild kid's gang
submitted her finger
to his tomahawk idea -

It hurt bad, dropping off.
He knew he'd gone too far
and ran, herding the others.
Later on, he'd maim her brother.

She stayed in the bush
till sundown, wrote
in blood on the logs, and
gripped her gapped hand, afraid

what her family would say
to waste of a finger.
Carelessness. Mad kids.
She had done wrong some way.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Edwin Morgan / A sunburst of possibility amid the grey

Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan: a sunburst of possibility amid the grey

Edwin Morgan, who has died aged 90, brought Piaf, Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe into his verse life and opened doors to a joyous new world

Alan Spence
Sunday 22 August 2010 00.06 BST

arlier this year, to mark Edwin Morgan's 90th birthday, the Scottish Poetry Library and Mariscat Press published a festschrift in his honour and called it, simply, Eddie@90. The title is sufficient, its affectionate shorthand entirely appropriate, and there can't be many poets of whom that would be true. (Seamus Heaney? Carol Ann Duffy? Both, incidentally, contributed to the book).

There's a story that when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, at the age of 80, the doctor breaking the news to him said there was no way of knowing how long he had left — it might be six months, it might be six years. Eddie replied: "I'll have six years, please."

When he'd made it through those six years, he was determined to hold on until he was 90, and that landmark was cause for much celebration – events in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, a new collection of poems, Dreams and Other Nightmares, and the tribute book itself (in which one contributor imagined him smiling wryly at the premature tribute books). Those 10 years, from 80 to 90, were the most remarkable late flowering, even for a poet so accomplished and prolific. When he could no longer physically write or type, he dictated, and the poems kept coming until the effort was just too great. Ian Campbell of Edinburgh University, who visited him just over a week ago, marvelled at his "steadfast refusal to give in to self-pity or pessimism" and found him "still witty, even cheerful", still looking out of his window at worlds far beyond.
Then on Friday came the phone call, from his editor, publisher and friend Hamish Whyte: "Eddie's gone."
To Scottish writers of my generation, who came of age in the 1960s, Edwin Morgan was an inspiration and a revelation. Here was a world-class poet who was one of our own. In grey postwar Glasgow, his work was a sunburst of hope and possibility. He wrote about the world we inhabited, but placed it in a global, even a universal, context — From Glasgow to Saturn.
Like a great many young writers starting out at the time, I owed him a great debt. In my case it was quite specific – in 1966 he judged the Scotsman's school magazine competition and awarded a prize to one of my poems. I hadn't yet read any of his work – his early collections, published in the 1950s, were out of print. But I remember the thrill of excitement I felt on discovering his 1968 collection, The Second Life. (In Eddie@90, Catherine Lockerbie describes the same experience – the sheer beauty of the book, its coloured pages, the joyous explosion of language). There were poems on Hemingway and Piaf and Marilyn Monroe, poems set in Glasgow – Glasgow! – and the exhilarating experimentation, the virtuosity and playfulness of his concrete poetry. It was a book to stimulate and move and delight, and it was like nothing I'd ever read before. In retrospect I was to realise it was like nothing much anyone in Scotland had read before, in fact it was a radical departure for the poet himself, a stepping out into new forms and subject matter. It opened doors for all of us.
That same year I was doing readings at the Edinburgh Fringe with a loose-knit group of writers and musicians calling ourselves The Other People, inspired by the anarchic Tom McGrath, who persuaded Eddie to join us as a guest reader. His performance was glorious, adding another dimension to the work. In contrast to his mild, self-effacing, almost shy persona, the reading was powerful, profound, moving and at times uproariously funny. If he was a magician, a conjurer with words, his rendition of them could be incantatory, almost shamanistic, especially when delivering those mesmerising sound poems. (Seamus Heaney writes: "In that combination of shyness and certitude, his intellectual and artistic authority were unmistakable.")
As an academic too, in his long teaching career at Glasgow University, he could captivate his student audience, bring literature to life. (Marshall Walker spoke of his clarity, his conversational style, and said: "You always wished his lectures would keep going past the hour.") I remember sitting at a lecture he was giving on the Metaphysical poets, and looking along the row and seeing a friend of mine who was an engineering student. I asked why he was there, and he said: "To hear Eddie."

By the mid-70s, with a reference from Eddie, I was back at Glasgow as writer-in-residence, and he was happy to give advice, take part in readings, contribute to publications, always with humility, graciousness and goodwill. That held good in all the years since, at other events I've organised. The last of these was at the WORD Festival in Aberdeen, some 10 years ago. That must have been just as his illness was beginning to manifest itself, but you would never have known.
Seated on a bar stool, surrounded by Tommy Smith and the young musicians of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, he gave an electrifying performance of his poem-suite Planet Wave, dealing with nothing less than the history of life on Earth. It was sublime, an absolute high point.
Over these last few days, many tributes to the man and his work have been published and broadcast. Carol Ann Duffy called him "a great, gentle, generous genius". She said: "He was poetry's true son and blessed by her. He was, quite simply, irreplaceable."
In addition to a host of literary awards and prizes, he was declared Glasgow's first Poet Laureate, and Scotland's own Makar. He was commissioned to write the inaugural poem for the opening of the Scottish Parliament building in 2004, and a fine scathing job he made of it, before exhorting: "Don't let your work and hope be other than great." But like his great contemporary, Ian Hamilton Finlay, he was truly international in his outlook, his appeal, his vision, and he published translations of poetry in a score of languages.
The appeal of his work was broad and his readership spanned the generations. His poetry has long been taught in schools and in recent years he collaborated with the likes of Roddy Woomble and his band Idlewild. His honesty, his humour, his humanity and compassion enabled him to reach across any age gap. And his dazzling technique, the verbal pyrotechnics, were always in the service of something more, something deeper.
His love poems in particular ring in the heart as well as the mind – perfect little lyrics that resonate. This is all the more amazing since he revealed at the age of 70 that he was gay. It hadn't been too hard to work out! But in a country where homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1980, he had to be circumspect. In fact, perhaps it was the fact that the poems were coded that gave them their extra charge and intensity. They are in the moment, the specific place and time, and yet they are transcendent, timeless, universal.
I ended my own piece for Eddie@90 looking at my personal archive – all Eddie's books from these past 40 years (most of them signed), a couple of manuscripts, quirky handwritten postcards and revisiting it all with gratitude and love.
At this year's WORD Festival, in May, a few of the writers taking part read their favourite Edwin Morgan poems. I read a well-known piece called A View of Things. ("What I love about poetry is its ion engine.") And I wanted to read another but ran out of time. The one I'd chosen was Fires, a rare autobiographical poem about his childhood and his parents, recounting a happiness that was only a moment before being reduced to almost nothing. Then he ends, as only he could, with what seems to me a credo: The not quite nothing I praise it and I write it.
Alan Spence is one of Scotland's leading poets

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Edwin Morgan / "Kiss me..."

"Kiss me..."
by Edwin Morgan

Kiss me with rain on your eyelashes, 
come on, let us sway together, 
under the trees, and to hell with thunder. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Poem of the week: A Trace of Wings by Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan

Poem of the week: A Trace of Wings by Edwin Morgan

A very unusual elegy this time, to Basil Bunting, which will also serve as a tribute to the vivacious inventiveness of its author

Carol Rumens
Monday 23 August 2010 10.08 BST

The mood of elegy does not have to be Gray. This week's poem laments the death of Basil Bunting (1900 -1985) while reflecting the versatile and playful spirit of its maker, Edwin Morgan, who died last week (August 2010). "A Trace of Wings" is wholly characteristic of a poet who delighted in whirling the goodie bag of tradition and innovation, and so often magicked forth blends and mixtures never seen before.
With its strict, economical patterning, "A Trace of Wings" has something in common with Morgan's concrete poetry. Its structure might recall an old-fashioned sort of bird-book, with coloured pictures and friendly captions besides the more detailed and grammatically formal entry – the sort a child would enjoy. It's almost a crossword puzzle without the puzzle, the answers preceding a three-part cryptic clue.

These "clues" in turn suggest the Anglo-Saxon/ Old Norse kenning, reminding us that Morgan was a fine translator of Beowulf. The kenning, a metaphorical compound-word or phrase, is a descriptive stand-in for a noun. "The joy of the bird", for example, means the bird's feather, and "the dispenser of rings" is the prince. Anglo-Saxon listeners would be familiar with the metaphors, so "feather" and "prince" go unsaid. Morgan's poem borrows the technique, but also names the names.
The core-idea of the poet-as-songbird is hardly new. But it is expressed through such shining technical originality, and gathers round it so many other shared attributes, that the common metaphorical coin seems diamond-faceted.
Morgan's seven varieties of bunting bustle with birdy life. Conjured by swift phrases, they seem to flitter past as we watch, but leave indelible impressions of movement and colour. They are elusive: words like "shy", "perky", "scuttler", "darter" evoke their quick, barely visible movement. "Find him!", "What a whisk!" the speaker exclaims, surely glad that the birds are so fleet and wary. We catch, too, a moment of anger and fear when we reach the unfortunate Ortolan Bunting who "favours" (and flavours) gourmet tables, and has been hunted to near-extinction. The metaphorical associations continue to thicken. The poet might himself be an endangered species, like the ortolan, as well as a generous "grain-scatterer" like the corn-bunting. As a northerner, Basil Bunting could qualify, perhaps, as "blizzard-hardened." It seems fitting that the Snow Bunting is the last bird named before the poet himself appears.

"A Trace of Wings" is full of lovely sounds, and the stop-start rhythms leave room for savouring their effects. The longer closing line, in which the poem uncovers its true subject and occasion, introduces a mournful cadence. A rise and fall of lamentation, it climaxes with the sharp assonance of "prince of finches" and dies away with the monosyllables of the colloquial understatement, "gone from these parts."
Morgan was a writer who cared about a poem's visual impact as well as its sounds. The extra spacing between the bird-name and the "kennings", for instance, reflects the gulf between ornithological category and the elusive, living thing. Even the semi-colons seem to have a bird-like look, each a tiny pictogram of wing and eye.
In an essay in The Poet's Voice and Craft (edited by CB McCully, Carcanet, 1994) Morgan talks about the need for a poem to be both "deliberate" and "open". Particularly in some concrete poems, he says, "the danger would be that not enough space, not enough interstices, might be left for the spirit of inspiration to slip in". This poem is a beautiful example of how Morgan negotiates a disciplined structural arrangement without fencing off the places where "inspired accidents" occur. In fact the poem's very seed is an inspired accident – the fact that the superbly musical poet of Brigflatts should share his surname with a species of bird. It needed only a poet of Morgan's genius to notice – and whip up a miraculous, sparrow-quick elegy that is tender, funny, sorrowful, Anglo-Saxon-ish and modernist, mimetic and metaphorical, all at once – and all in eight lines. "What a whisk!" indeed.
"A Trace of Wings" appears in Edwin Morgan's Themes on a Variation (1988) and Collected Poems, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Carcanet. It's a poem to sweeten and sharpen our sorrow for two great makers, now "gone from these parts" but placeless, and timeless, in their bright plumage and full-voiced song.
A Trace of Wings

Corn Bunting             shy but perky; haunts fields; grain-scatterer
Reed Bunting            sedge-scuttler; swayer; a cool perch
Cirl Bunting               small whistler; shrill early; find him!
Indigo Bunting           blue darter; like metal; the sheen
Ortolan Bunting         haunts gardens; is caught; favours tables
Painted Bunting         gaudy flasher; red, blue, green; what a whisk!
Snow Bunting            Arctic flyer; ghost-white; blizzard-hardened
Basil Bunting             the sweetest singer; prince of finches; gone from
                                   these parts

Friday, May 19, 2017

Edwin Morgan / A universal treasure

Edwin Morgan
Edwin Morgan: a universal treasure
Right up until his death this week, the work of Scotland's national poet Edwin Morgan seemed infused with a universal appeal and a timelessness that few other poets may ever achieve
Ben Myers
Edwin Morgan was a singular voice in a country with a literary tradition rich in singular voices. He managed to be both an outsider and an academically respected writer who rose to be one of the best of his time; a defender of the underdog and the individual who was nationally lauded when, in 2004, he was elected the first Scots Makar, the Scottish Parliament's equivalent of Poet Laureate. It was a position that formally recognised Morgan as the national treasure many had already long since viewed him as.
Morgan was 70 before he came out as gay in his 1990 work Nothing Not Giving Messages: Reflections on his Work and Life, but his sexuality was evident in far earlier poems, particularly sonnets such as the superb Strawberries, in which two lovers eat the fruit "glistening in the hot sunlight" before letting "the storm wash the plates". His refusal to make known the gender of the person to whom his affections were aimed was, he reasoned, out of a desire to "universalise" his poetry.
And it worked. Right up until his death this week, Morgan's work seemed infused with a universal appeal and a timelessness that few other poets can achieve, let alone retain. His form, content and style varied widely from the traditional to the experimental; from concrete poems to free-flowing Beat-inspired works, though Scottish identity was never too far away. Works such as his Glasgow Sonnets (numbered 'i – x') immortalised a tough postwar city where "Play-fortresses / of brick and bric-a-brac spill out some ash / Four storeys have no windows left to smash". He was no voyeur slumming it though – he loved the city, warts and all, and his many poems about Glasgow offer a series of period snapshots of a place that are as poignant as, say, a Don McCullin photograph or a Terence Davies film.
My own discovery of his work came via a brief but stirring spoken word guest appearance on a 2001 song entitled In Remote Part / Scottish Fiction by bookish Scottish rock band Idlewild. Morgan's evocation of "a red hearted vibration / Pushing through the walls of dark imagination" and "asylum seekers engulfed by a grudge" seemed less like the poetry of a then 81-year-old, more like the angry, impassioned thoughts of a much younger man.
And that, perhaps, was Morgan's strength and what made him a truly great poet. His work kept evolving – so much so that his lines continue to echo on down through the decades. They have found favour with new readers in a way that those of his contemporaries, some of whom have been grouped together as The Big Seven (George Mackay Brown, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, Robert Garioch, Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig) may not.
Only time will tell, of course, but for those who have been reading his work for the past 50 years, Edwin Morgan is already up there with the very best poets, not only of Scotland, but of the world.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Edwin Morgan / Strawberries


by Edwin Morgan

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I beent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills
let the storm wash the plates