CHAPTER FOUR Edwin Morgan’s Poetry from Scotland
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59 CHAPTER FOUR Edwin Morgan’s Poetry from Scotland Cairns Craig The publication of Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland in 1984 was to prove as decisive a turning point in his career – and in the public’s perception of him – as had The Second Life in 1968. That earlier volume established Morgan as the ‘international’ Scottish poet – fellowtraveller with the Beats (in poems such as ‘The Death of Marilyn Monroe’), experimenter with ‘concrete’ (‘French Persian Cats Having a Ball’) and ‘sound’ poetry (‘Canedolia’), playful constructor of typographic witticisms (‘Siesta of a Hungarian Snake’), almost more famous for his translations of European poets such as Montale or Mayakovsky than for his own writings. ‘Seven Headlines’ said it all in many variations: absolu t e m odern men Il faut être absolument moderne (CP, 176) Morgan was the ‘absolute modern’ and the modern was ‘international’ – as evidenced in his editorial role on the journal Scottish International from 1968. Though many of his poems were about local subjects – ‘Glasgow Green’, ‘The Starlings in George Square’ – or local encounters – ‘Good Friday’, ‘In the Snack-bar’ – they were framed by a style that declared its international affiliations, that saw Scotland anew through the medium of elsewhere (the ‘Chinese moment’ in ‘Aberdeen Train’), or celebrated modernity in Scotland (‘The Opening of the Forth Road Bridge, 4.IX.64’). Implicitly, Morgan’s poetry was the answer to the failure of Scotland to be fully part of the modern world: Scotland had to be made modern, because Scotland was a place resistant to modernity, 60 cairns craig resistant to renewal, left out of the technological transformations that were reshaping humanity’s relationship with the cosmos: Vostok shrieks and prophesies, Mariner’s prongs flash – to the wailing of Voskhod Earth sighs, she shakes men loose at last – out, in our time, to be living seeds sent far beyond even imagination. (CP, 199) The ‘living seeds’ of the future go forth from Russia and America, two of the cultures whose most important poets Morgan imitates or translates, as though, through him, Scotland might itself at least mimic the trajectory of a history it cannot itself perform, a history projected into a future that makes the past, the national past, the weight of past tradition, irrelevant to modern creativity. On this basis, for instance, Morgan would distinguish himself from the ‘modernists’ of the preceding generation: as compared with Pound or Eliot, he would prefer a poetry relying less I think on earlier literature. I’ve the feeling of wanting to get away from that, I think; I’m a pretty strongly anti-traditionalist in that sense. I really on the whole dislike history and tradition. I’m interested in what is happening, and I’m interested in what will happen, more than I’m interested in what has happened, I think, so that my long poem, if ever it comes out, will be rather different from existing ones. It will perhaps be ‘now’ plus the future, rather than ‘now’ plus the past. (NNGM, 33) ‘“Now” plus the future’ suggests that Scotland, Scotland as a past, is irrelevant to Morgan’s conception of poetry. As late as 1990, when the magazine Cencrastus published a special issue on Morgan,1 it linked him with Alexander Trocchi and William Burroughs, both of whom had been contributors to the 1962 Edinburgh Writers’ Festival where Trocchi had famously challenged the relevance of Hugh MacDiarmid’s work to contemporary Scotland. By framing Morgan with Burroughs and Trocchi it suggested that Morgan might be, like Trocchi, a poet of resistance to the traditions of Scottish literature – perhaps even a writer in ‘exile’, with Glasgow, where he had lived continuously since returning from service in the Second World War, as much a place of exile from the rest of Scotland as Paris or New York. It was as a native Glaswegian rather than a native 61 edwin morgan’s poetry from scotland Scot that he had described himself in a letter to Michael Schmidt in 1972 – ‘I am really a very native Glasgow-loving root-clutching person’ 2 – and his preference for Glasgow as distinct, and as distinctly different, was a view which Morgan retained even late in his life: he was reluctant, for instance, to attend the celebration of the opening of his archive at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh because he thought it ought to be housed in Glasgow, and was only convinced to attend when he could defiantly wear a T-shirt with a...