Edwin Morgan - People’s Makar
Mary MacGregor remembers a great Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan who died on 17th August 2010.
When I left school in 1975, Edwin Morgan had not yet pushed his way on to the syllabus for Higher or sixth year English. When I returned to school 4 years later as a student teacher, he was taught to all years and has stayed there for the best part of 30 years. When he died, it was the death of a man who had risen far beyond the crass commodification of mere “celebrity”; he was someone who had entered our cultural psyche and whose end left us feeling that an old friend had deserted us.
I know there are those who say that as communists we don’t have souls but he is part of whatever you want to call that bit deep inside me that represents my deepest expression of humanity, for shorthand’s sake my spirit. He got in there a number of years ago and won’t leave.
Poets don’t get to be celebrities – they are far too serious, pompous and self important for that. Except Edwin Morgan was none of these things. He was a man who could make you laugh out loud as well as weep for the plight of humanity. He had a notorious twinkle in his eye and well he should. His poetry was something of a trick played on the establishment. This is especially true in his earlier and I believe best and most powerful work. He wove a magic of language, which allowed poems of homosexual love to be taught in schools across Scotland. He took on the religious sectarianism of the central belt and pulled out of it a strange beauty, which left us perplexed at our sympathies. He produced work, which challenged our view of what poetry is, and he metaphysically linked the mundane and the “divine”.
His all-pervading sense of being a Scot did not limit his vision. He was so comfortable in that identity, it allowed him to be not just an internationalist but “inter galacticist” in his sensibilities. Always willing to take on the perceived wisdom of the day, this became even more obvious when he came out about his sexuality and challenged the establishment head on with the twinkle in his eye gleaming ever brighter.
I have read, taught and loved his poetry for most of my adult life. I have included words from his poems as part of messages to those I have loved. I have quoted on numerous occasions lines which reveal the truth far more succinctly than my own words have power to show.
So where did it start for me? Well, I think I was handed a book and told to “teach” in the Snack-bar to a group of S4, O Grade pupils. At the same time, the book we used for S2 poetry contained The Computer’s First Christmas Card and I was supposed to help them to “appreciate” Morgan’s craft via “concrete poetry”. It was my first year as a teacher.
I must admit the Snack-bar was far more successful as I had no idea what to say about,
“j o l l y b e r r y
m e r r y h o l l y”
However, I knew what to say with the “hunchback born, half paralysed”. I was on firm ground about human indefatigability – until of course Morgan twists in the knife and condemns us all,
“Dear Christ to be born for this!”
Morgan continued to pull my crutches from me as I grew to know him more. “Glasgow Green” with its moral ambiguities and shockingly explicit rape threw me into a spin until I felt something close to despair and then Trio fuelled me with the optimism that human beings can be divine in a way any made up deity is a mere shadow of,
“(Yet not vanished, for in their arms they wind
the life of men and beasts, and music,
laughter ringing them round like a guard)”
I love the fact that loads of Catholic or Calvinist teachers suddenly had a problem when they realised “Strawberries” or “One Cigarette was written to a male lover! “No smoke without you, my fire.”
Still today, I have heard “The Apple’s Song” taught to a class as if it is a poem about APPLES! “hold me, sniff me, peel me”
I had thought that kind of dishonesty in teaching was a thing of the past but no, stupidity reigns in the classroom, not amongst the pupils but amongst the teachers.
“King Billy” for me is a highly political poem about how poverty and sectarianism divides the Scottish working class. It reveals an understanding of how we can do terrible things to each other as we have been brutalised by capitalism. But still beneath the brutalisation, there is an expression of the overpowering desire for a better life. Morgan understands the meaning of non-judgemental. He does not glorify violence but he understands that just tutting at it will not bring about its end. Causes have to be addressed,
“Deplore what is to be deplored,
and then find out the rest.”
He pleads with us to get off our moral high horses and understand why people behave the way they do.
In recent years, it could be argued that Morgan has become more political in his work. I would argue that he has always been so but clearly he is more explicit in his later poems. Who could fail to love his polemic against Cardinal Winning over Section 28? The audacity to address the old bigot in the voice of God: it’s fabulous,
“God said to Winning: “You are not.
Winning, I mean.”
He goes on to say that Winning and “his lot” would be excluded from a place in heaven due to more worthwhile contenders like Alan Turing. Turing was a famous mathematician, and code cracker during World War Two. The state however decided in 1952 that his homosexuality was a crime and chemically castrated him. He committed suicide two years later. To suggest that Turing would be more fitted to heaven than members of the Catholic establishment presses so many taboo buttons - it is pure genius.
By the time the Scottish Parliament was opened, Morgan was the Scottish Poet Laureate or Makar (not a term Morgan liked as he felt it was too set in the past). His poem for the Queen’s opening of the Scottish parliament characteristically pulls no punches. He is firmly a democrat and believes parliament should be for the people,
“And when you are there, down there, in the midst of things,
not set upon a hill with your nose in the air,
This is where you know your parliament should be”
Rather than fawning on the politicians who were self satisfied with the limited parliament it is, he warns them against a lack of honesty and a lack of courage,
“ We give you our consent to govern, don’t pocket it and ride away.
We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don’t say we
Have no mandate to be so bold.”
Sadly and predictably, since the loss of the 6 SSP MSPs, we have seen no boldness in the parliament and no signs that it a place of illumination and inspiration where,
“…Light of the day shine in; light of the mind shine out!”
In an act of solidarity with all true democrats, while his poem was being read out before the Queen, he publicly signed and backed The Declaration of Calton Hill. The 450-word declaration was the brainchild of the Scottish Socialist Party and calls unequivocally for an independent Scottish republic built on the principles of liberty, equality, diversity and solidarity.
Right to the end, Morgan knew which side he was on. A Scottish republican and a poetic genius – what’s not to love? And love him I do as will generations of young people who struggle to find meaning in poetry but find an echo in Morgan’s work that they can relate to. As will generations of lovers who will find his breathless poetry captures their passion and desires. As will generations of socialists and communists who will recognise a rebel when they hear one.