A version of this article first appeared on the Books From Scotland website. Head there to sign up to their newsletter and never miss an issue.
James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Janice Galloway, Iain Banks – these are just a few writers who made me realise at a formative age that people like me, mine, and those around me, belonged on the pages of books, and that our culture and language was legitimate. This is hopefully beyond any reasonable argument today, but even in the dying embers of the 20th century it was much less certain. Those named above did as much as any to challenge and change the situation, but before them all there was Edwin Morgan.
The first poem of his I read was ‘In The Snack-bar’. Not many lessons from my less than comprehensive education have stayed with me, but just thinking about it transports me to that snack-bar with the sights, sounds, and smells that Morgan evoked so powerfully.
The desperate plight of the blind man with his ‘dismal hump’ and face hidden, the voyeuristic nature of the onlookers, and the decidedly uncomfortable relationship between young and old, contrasting hope for the future with resignation approaching defeat – Morgan captured the picture perfectly with the keen eye of someone invested in the lives of others however, and wherever, he finds them.
It takes something special to grab the attention of a 14-year-old for whom poetry till that point was little more than a song lyric or amusing graffiti on a toilet wall, but here it was and Morgan and his poetry would never leave me.
Charming, challenging, intellectual yet intimate, humorous and humble, his work is all of those things and more, inspiring widespread adoration and devotion for a poet that is rare. I have found him to be revered by people who claim not to read, or even like, poetry, and many who admire his work talk about it in hushed awe as they might a favourite band who they want to keep secret – he belongs to them, he is their poet.
When enough of the population claim you as “their own” before long the inescapable conclusion is that you have come to belong to the nation, and there is no doubt that applied to Edwin Morgan. Despite life-long links to his home town of Glasgow he was undoubtedly a poet of national, and international, importance and it was no surprise when, in 2004, he was named Scotland’s first National Makar. Arguably there was no other choice.
Part of the reason for this was not only the quality of his work, but also for a literary longevity that is quite astonishing. Morgan’s peer group consisted of writers at work throughout the 20th century, and beyond. He is one of the subjects of Sandy Moffat’s famous painting ‘Poet’s Pub’(1), alongside Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Sydney Goodsir Smith, and Robert Garioch, a collection of writers often referred to as the forefathers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, and whose influence on Scottish culture endures.
At the age of 82, Morgan worked with Scottish indie darlings Idlewild on their seminal 2002 album The Remote Part (2). Being involved in this sort of collaboration again seems a result of his innate interest in others, and particularly the work of fellow artists. He was constantly seeking out the new, and was only too pleased to support those who were up-and-coming. As a result he remained relevant with subsequent generations discovering him anew, believing that he spoke to and for them. Morgan retained a youthfulness and vitality even in later life that few could hope to match.
As late as 2007 he was involved with the album Ballads of the Book (3) alongside writers such as A.L. Kennedy, Laura Hird, Alan Bissett, Rodge Glass, Louise Welsh, and others who came to prominence in the 90s or later, their work adapted by a variety of musicians. Morgan’s nearest contemporary on the project, at least age-wise, would be Alasdair Gray, (14 years his junior), someone who shared this ability to appeal across the ages.
Over the years I have continued to read and return to Edwin Morgan’s poetry with a mixture of affection and reverence – the scope and breadth of his work never failing to impress, from the early collections such as The Vision of Cathkin Braes and Other Poems, through experimental concrete poetry of the 60s, the sonnets, numerous translations into Scots (Cyrano de Bergerac a personal favourite), and so much more.
However, for all his variety, and mastery of form and subject, it is his reflections on the subject of love where he truly excelled, with poems such as ‘One Cigarette’, Strawberries’ or ‘Absence’. Poignant, insightful, and often heart-breaking, few have managed it better. Edwin Morgan’s legacy is one of peace, love, and understanding and it’s one we would do well to heed.
1: ‘Poets’ Pub’ is on display now at The Modern Portrait exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
2: Idlewild’s The Remote Part was released on Parlophone.
3: Ballads of the Book was released on Chemical Underground
To learn more about Edwin Morgan head to Edwin Morgan 100