In praise of Edwin Morgan

It’s a tough ask, but If I had to name my favourite poet, it would be Edwin Morgan. I love the playfulness of his language and the way he experimented with so many different forms: sonnets, concrete poetry, epics… he tried them all.

Morgan’s poetry is impossible to separate from his native city of Glasgow, but at the same time he roved far and wide for his subject matter – not just across the world but out into the solar system and beyond.

This rare footage shows him reading his work in 1975. He has a pretty rapid delivery that is at times hard to catch, especially with the lousy sound quality, but you can get the idea albeit missing a word here and there.

Some of the best live poems are the ones in the form of dialogues, like The First Men on Mercury, at 8:45, where he imagines a meeting between Earthling visitors and locals speaking their own Mercurial Lingo.

– We come in peace from the third planet.
Would you take us to your leader? 

– Bawr stretter! Bawr. Bawr. Stretterhawl?

Morgan’s earthlings are oh so genteel at first. But soon enough their intentions come out and you realise it’s a funny poem about the serious menace of colonialism. It also has at its heart one of his central concerns: how language can morph and evolve into new and unexpected forms. Having spent over two years in Japan, where numerous English words are Nipponified,  and with a half-Japanese daughter who finds it equally amusing to do the reverse (in our English, shoes are koots and trousers zoobs) I know he’s on the mark here.

Words weren’t sacred to Morgan. He was a fan of concrete poetry, breaking language down into the equivalent of building blocks. Possibly he saw a parallel with the motorways and high-rises that by the late sixties had completely transformed the Glasgow he would have known in his childhood. ‘Opening the Cage’ at 17:30 starts with a remark made by the composer John Cage: “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry”. Morgan then takes the same fourteen words and rearranges them in fourteen different ways, ending with:

Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it.

Edwin Morgan had it alright. In his poetic world, anything is possible. Who knows, maybe one day even dogs will read him and wonder about the essential nature of their dogginess.

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