Edwin Morgan at 90

Edwin Morgan at 90 by Stuart Miller and Lesley Duncan

 

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Edwin Morgan at 90

On the eve of his 90th birthday, Scotland's poet laureate Edwin Morgan speaks to The Herald's Lesley Duncan about his new book of poems, Dreams and Other Nightmares:

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Poetry - Edwin Morgan at 90

Lesley Duncan
27 Apr 2010

EDWIN MORGAN – POETIC PERSPECTIVES AT NINETY

Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s national poet, celebrates his ninetieth birthday today [April 27], and will attend a special birthday celebration at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library this evening. Last week I spoke to the veteran poet at his care home in the city’s West End. He sat in his customary easy-chair beside his desk, on which a computer screen has replaced the trusty typewriter of old. A portrait of him by Alasdair Gray looks down from the wall.
His voice retains its boyish eagerness. In spite of health problems, he is, as ever, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Best of all, he remains creative. A new collection of his poetry, Dreams and Other Nightmares, spanning his writing life from 1954 to the present, will be officially launched at tonight’s party. I ask him to talk a little about the book. The poems of the title, he explained, are based on actual nightmares and other kinds of dreams. “I found I was being almost bombarded with images and recollections and memories in a way that I thought would get into poetry. So I sat down and gradually the poems emerged from that. You could call them confessional poems - I don’t know.”
From the vantage point of 90 what did he consider the main achievements over his lifetime? “It’s probably not the poet’s own job to say which poems are good and which are not good,” he replies. “In some cases the poems I like of my own are not always the best known. Conversely, there are poems which, well, take their own place in a way that couldn’t be planned at all.” Pressed to single out particular pieces, or areas of his writing, he says, “I don’t have a favourite poem or group of poems. It’s tempting to do that but it’s probably wrong.”
In the case of his new poems, he wanted to set the poems out as actual, happenings, events. “I’m giving a kind of report on something that’s strange and unusual and not explained...It’s a very fascinating thing to go back and see if the dreams have much relevance to what you’re actually doing in life.
Before he became pre-eminently known as a poet, Edwin Morgan was a highly regarded lecturer in the English Department at Glasgow University and indeed had a personal chair in later years. Did he enjoy passing on his literary knowledge and enthusiasms to students? “Yes, I think so,” he reflects. “A poet regards himself or herself as a kind of link in a very long chain, although you can’t lay down the law about poetry. A lot of poetry, like any other arts, slides past the rational part of the mind. There is something mysterious about poetry in the end, something that resists being explained too much.”
All you can do, says Edwin Morgan, is give various pointers to what you enjoy and the kind of poetry you would like to see. “And of course it can help to see yourself as passing on the torch to another generation, but it would be foolish to think you could do this by yourself, obviously. We’re all part of some much larger attempt to make sense of things.”
Returning to the subject of nightmares, he says: “We all have dreams. I thought there was something to be done there, a new kind of poetry in which you’d be truthful as far as possible and yet at the same time might ‘subtle’ the reader into a new frame of mind. He cites the example of his poem Horsemen in the new collection. He’s not a horsey person, he says, and indeed finds them rather frightening. But his poem is his own reaction to images he’d actually dreamt. “After that it’s up to the reader to see what he can take from this!”
Edwin Morgan was born in Glasgow and still lives there. His poetry suggests a deep commitment to, and love, if not uncritical, of the place. Is that so? “Yes, I’m often referred to as a Glasgow poet,” he responds. “And, it’s quite true that many of the poems I’ve written are about Glasgow or are set off by thinking about Glasgow.” He adds that it’s a great challenge writing about a place where “some people are rather put off. It’s a kind of fear that some topics are more poetic than others.” He offers a startling juxtaposition to illustrate his point: it might still linger in people’s minds that “it’s perhaps easier or better to write about daffodils than about a strike, but I think that the strike and the daffodils can both be put into poetry!” What does he think of the contemporary literary scene in Scotland? ”The poetry scene in Scotland is fairly healthy,” he replies. “There are certainly more outlets for getting published than there used to be.”
Poets always have a certain sense of belonging to a very large group of writera, of artists, he says. “It’s all right as long as it’s not taken too far and becomes a kind of race to see who’s Number 1, who’s Number 2, and who’s Number 3... Give each writer a change to express himself or herself!”
Have contemporary Scottish poets an obligation towards the Scots language? “There’s a duty to develop the language, to feel yourself part of a larger sense of art,” he replies. He mentions Seamus Heaney, who “is very keen on the idea you can’t get everything into poetry, but you can try, and you can get quite close. I’m not sure I can go along with that!”
“I don’t think you should always be looking for a reaction to a poem,” Professor Morgan says. You should do what you can. If it’s no good you put it in the bin. If it’s got promise you work on it and hope to get it published. “Publication is quite important but not everything. It’s not the be-all and end-all.”
“I always say to people, try at least. See what you can do...You can dip your toes into this enormous ocean and can come up with a new kind of water, a new kind of fish, a new kind of landscape... A poet should be an explorer of some kind. You discover strange areas sometimes... You’ve got to do it. If you think you’re onto something good, you must keep at it.”
And the Scots language? “Well, it depends what you want to do,” he replies. “People have different talents, different gifts. There’s no prescription for all poetry to do one kind of thing. You have thoughts and desires for the continued health of poetry in Scotland. And you have a wide choice of languages, English, various kinds of Scots, and Gaelic.”
Here Morgan mentions the Greenock-born poet W S Graham who was in touch with the great T S Eliot in the 1940s and 50s. “Graham made a sound point. Don’t be too hasty to rush into it: Paradise Lost in the morning; Paradise Regained in the afternoon; and Restored in the evening.” His personal advice to the young Morgan was: “Give it time. You’re an intellectual poet... A poem should grow out of a body of experience that you and only you have.”
Apropos of TS Eliot, Edwin Morgan says, “I suppose Eliot warned Graham that Scottish poetry would be bombarded on all sides by people with ideas - should you write in Scots, should you write about your own place or not?” It all takes a bit of unravelling, says Morgan. “They’re all interesting, important questions. Plenty of material there!”
Does Professor Morgan have any favourite poems in the English canon? We all have our own special admirations,” he replies. When he began to write, the major influence on most young poets was Dylan Thomas, and there was the Surrealism Movement which often produced “quite difficult poetry.”
I’d earlier reminded Professor Morgan that I had taken his classes in Milton’s Paradise Lost at Gilmorehill (and still had the lecture notes in my loft). “Paradise Lost is unquestionably a great poem,” Morgan reflects. “It’s not an easy poem. It makes great demands on the reader, first of all to see what it’s about, then to be able to answer questions about language, about style, and about society. All things poetry should be writing about.” Turning from the seventeenth-century master, Dr Morgan offers some positive advice: “If you’re starting out as a young poet, don’t be discouraged. Other poets at an early age - think of Rimbaud in France - wrote great poetry in their teens. You can’t complain about that, can you?!”
Edwin Morgan’s many admirers, young and other, will offer him warmest wishes on this landmark ninetieth birthday. And here is a taster from his new collection, Dreams and Other Nightmares (Mariscat Press, £9). Professor Morgan talks about the poem above. – Lesley Duncan

HORSEMEN

It was late, a wintry evening, and I was in the old flat
looking out at everything familiar, all the details
of every neighbouring house quite clear under streetlights
when at the corner by the lamp I saw them – horses and
their men
talking together, their hoof clatter and whispering
(the Horseman’s Word I’d read about but cannot speak),
their great flanks, fetlocks, ancient and out of place
in Glasgow now, under the streetlamp at my corner
where they should not have been.
And as I stared at them talking together all at once
every light went out and I was left in darkness with
that sound
of hooves, beating, retreating -

 

 

 

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