RIP Edwin Morgan

You may or may not have heard, but sadly, Edwin Morgan has died.

Edwin Morgan, who has died aged 90, was the last of a group of great Scottish poets, spanning two generations, sometimes referred to as “the seven poets”. Morgan was unrivalled in his formal invention, linguistic resourcefulness and – not the least of his qualities – his sense of fun.

I’ve posted a poem by Morgan elsewhere on this blog and will repeat my reverence for his work and my recommendation of the brick-sized Collected Poems as published by Carcanet. It is sad, but not unexpected news.


Toga’d, furred, blear, brittle, grey.

Edwin Morgan: Pilate at Fortingall

A Latin harsh with Aramaicisms
poured from his lips incessantly; it made
no sense, for surely he was mad. The glade
of birches shamed his rags, in paroxysms
he stumbled, toga’d, furred, blear, brittle, grey.
They told us he sat here beneath the yew
even in downpours; ate dog-scraps. Crows flew
from prehistoric stone to stone all day-
‘See him now.’ He crawled to the cattle-trough
at dusk, jumbled the water till it sloshed
and spilled into the hoof-mush in blue strands,
slapped with useless despair each sodden cuff,
and washed his hands, and watched his hands, and washed
his hands, and watched his hands, and washed his hands.

This is possibly the best known living Scottish poet, and this poem is from an overwhelming volume/sequence of poems called “Sonnets from Scotland”, published in 1984. These poems, along with a huge number of others, can be found in Edwin Morgan’s Collected Poems , which you can buy here and which I fully recommend. It collects all of Morgan’s poetry up to 1990 and fills almost 600 pages of brilliant, musical, experimental, tragic, funny poetry. This poem, following up on a legend that would have Pontius Pilate’s birthplace be Fortingall, is serious, funny and devastating at the same time. It’s almost perfectly balanced, I think. I almost swooned woith admiration when I read it the first time. This balance few of Morgan’s poems are, but they are all good, and quite a few are very good. Very, very good.

I have spent a lot of time recently re-reading specifically the Sonnets from Scotland, because these past weeks I have done some more reading and thinking about the whole post-war sonnet issue I briefly mentioned here re: the Tony Harrison poem. Writing and thinking about Lowell’s Notebooks and Berryman’s Dream Songs has led me to all other kinds of poetry, with apparently similar goals, comparable spiritual and artistic visions, but executed in completely different manners. Within the next month I may follow up this babble with something more substantial. By the way, except for criticism on Berryman on Lowell, I have done little secondary reading on this. I welcome any recommendations.

To remind you of ‘ow us gaffers used to talk

Tony Harrison: The Queen’s English

Last meal together, Leeds, the Queen’s Hotel
that grandish pile of swank in City Square
Too posh for me, he said (even though he dressed well)
if you wern’t wi’ me ah’d nivver dare!

I knew that he’d decided to die
not by the way he lingered at the bar
not by the look he’d give me with one good-eye
nor by the firmer handshake and the gruff ta-ra
But when he browsed the station bookstall sales
he picked up ‘Poems from the Yorkshire Dales’

‘ere tek this un wi’ yer to New York
to remind you of ‘ow us gaffers used to talk.
It’s up your street in’t it? ‘ahh buy yer that!

The broken lines go through me speeding South –

As t’doctor stopped to oppen woodland yet…
wi’ skill they puttin wuds reet i’ his mouth

This poem is by a poet I’m just trying to discover and sort out in my head. It’s quoted from the Selected Poems (Penguin), and is from the sequence School of Eloquence. (Addendum: I’ve no idea how to do it with the wordpress interface, but the last line should be slightly indented!)

Harrison in general is fascinating, but the poems in School of Eloquence are nothing short of stunning. In them, Harrison shows himself to be one of the select groups of extraordinary poets who have written a sequence of sonnet or sonnet-like poems, which is grafted to the poet’s own unique voice. John Berryman’s Dreamsongs or Robert Lowell’s Notebook (including the stunning revisions in History and For Lizzie and Harriet),Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland, Ted Berrigan’s melodious Sonnets or even Geoffrey Hill’s incredible Mercian Hymns (though these are different in significant ways). I think that McHale’s project of discovering the postmodern long poem failed because he didn’t see or care about this pattern of songs that arose at roughly the same time. These are all flabbergasting achievements, although I haven’t read enough of Tony Harrison’s work to properly read and assess his work. But even from the little I have read, I can’t but recommend this excellent poet.