INTRODUCTION Presence, Process, Prize
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1 INTRODUCTION Presence, Process, Prize Alan Riach The Presence On 27 April 2010, Edwin Morgan was ninety years old. A gathering of people approached him as he arrived in his wheelchair in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, passing from one conversation to another in small groups, sharing warm words, in an appropriately quiet, festive fashion. The occasion was amicable, without friction or animosity, a collective of goodwill. In his company, we were all friendly, but every one of us paid attention sharply when the necessary moment arrived and he was invited to cut his handsome birthday cake. He extended his hand with purpose, the slight tremble steadied, and Alasdair Gray’s voice rang out, ‘Use the knife, man!’ This book is a companion to a life’s achievement in work that could never have been predicted fifty, or even ten, years before his death a little later the same year, on 17 August 2010. Morgan continued to write, publish and take new directions to the end, and point forward towards different possibilities, but with one deep driving force, active long after his death. This introductory chapter considers two questions that take us to the heart of Morgan’s work, and to that driving force. The two questions are: Why is it that, for Morgan, the most essential motivation is exploration? His essential affirmation is ‘the intrinsic optimisim of curiosity’ or, as he says himself, ‘Unknown is best’.1 And what is it that makes Morgan’s work such an enabling, encouraging oeuvre in modern poetry? The driving force we will come to later. Turn the clock back ten years from the ninetieth birthday to the celebration for Morgan’s eightieth birthday and the little book of tributes 2 produced for the occasion, Unknown Is Best. The title was taken from a line in the poem Morgan himself contributed to the book, entitled ‘At Eighty’. It begins: Push the boat out, compañeros, Push the boat out, whatever the sea. This is bad advice, of course: whatever the sea? The wise man does not push out the boat into oceans murderous with elemental hostility, and no one in a long career of negotiated public identity and private disposition demonstrated that truth more clearly than Edwin Morgan. But of course, this is a poem, not literal advice. It works by metaphor. It continues: Who says we cannot guide ourselves through the boiling reefs, black as they are, the enemy of us all makes sure of it!2 The turbulent seas and raging rocks are there, and whatever it is that opposes us all ensures that the world is difficult. But the poem enacts a defiance: ‘who says we cannot guide ourselves?’ The metaphor is one of self-determination, but it is not a glib assurance. What keeps it tense is the reality of opposition, whoever would foreclose the extension of human life to which we are healthily disposed. The words of the pioneer of socialism in Glasgow during the First World War, John MacLean, as quoted by Morgan in his commemorative poem from 1973, come to mind: ‘We are out / for life and all that life can give us’.3 And thus the conclusion: Out, push it all out into the unknown! Unknown is best, it beckons best, like distant ships in mist, or bells clanging ruthless from stormy buoys. This suggests that the co-ordinate points by which we must navigate our voyages are not always reliable, and are subject, themselves, to the tides and torrents of time. In turn, that might remind us also that there is something deeply serious in the seeming frivolity of the aural pun in that last word, ‘buoys’. alan riach 3 introduction: presence, process, prize The precedent here is Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ with ‘Old age superbly rising!’ and the exclamatory praise, that Every condition promulges not only itself, it promulges what grows after and out of itself, And the dark hush promulges as much as any. I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther systems. Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding, Outward and outward and forever outward. My sun has his sun and round him obediently wheels, He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit, And greater sets follow, making specks of the greatest inside them. There is no stoppage and never can be stoppage, If...