Edwin Morgan, who has died aged 90, brought Piaf, Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe into his verse life and opened doors to a joyous new world
Sunday 22 August 2010 00.06 BST
arlier this year, to mark Edwin Morgan's 90th birthday, the Scottish Poetry Library and Mariscat Press published a festschrift in his honour and called it, simply, Eddie@90. The title is sufficient, its affectionate shorthand entirely appropriate, and there can't be many poets of whom that would be true. (Seamus Heaney? Carol Ann Duffy? Both, incidentally, contributed to the book).
There's a story that when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, at the age of 80, the doctor breaking the news to him said there was no way of knowing how long he had left — it might be six months, it might be six years. Eddie replied: "I'll have six years, please."
When he'd made it through those six years, he was determined to hold on until he was 90, and that landmark was cause for much celebration – events in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, a new collection of poems, Dreams and Other Nightmares, and the tribute book itself (in which one contributor imagined him smiling wryly at the premature tribute books). Those 10 years, from 80 to 90, were the most remarkable late flowering, even for a poet so accomplished and prolific. When he could no longer physically write or type, he dictated, and the poems kept coming until the effort was just too great. Ian Campbell of Edinburgh University, who visited him just over a week ago, marvelled at his "steadfast refusal to give in to self-pity or pessimism" and found him "still witty, even cheerful", still looking out of his window at worlds far beyond.
Then on Friday came the phone call, from his editor, publisher and friend Hamish Whyte: "Eddie's gone."
To Scottish writers of my generation, who came of age in the 1960s, Edwin Morgan was an inspiration and a revelation. Here was a world-class poet who was one of our own. In grey postwar Glasgow, his work was a sunburst of hope and possibility. He wrote about the world we inhabited, but placed it in a global, even a universal, context — From Glasgow to Saturn.
Like a great many young writers starting out at the time, I owed him a great debt. In my case it was quite specific – in 1966 he judged the Scotsman's school magazine competition and awarded a prize to one of my poems. I hadn't yet read any of his work – his early collections, published in the 1950s, were out of print. But I remember the thrill of excitement I felt on discovering his 1968 collection, The Second Life. (In Eddie@90, Catherine Lockerbie describes the same experience – the sheer beauty of the book, its coloured pages, the joyous explosion of language). There were poems on Hemingway and Piaf and Marilyn Monroe, poems set in Glasgow – Glasgow! – and the exhilarating experimentation, the virtuosity and playfulness of his concrete poetry. It was a book to stimulate and move and delight, and it was like nothing I'd ever read before. In retrospect I was to realise it was like nothing much anyone in Scotland had read before, in fact it was a radical departure for the poet himself, a stepping out into new forms and subject matter. It opened doors for all of us.
That same year I was doing readings at the Edinburgh Fringe with a loose-knit group of writers and musicians calling ourselves The Other People, inspired by the anarchic Tom McGrath, who persuaded Eddie to join us as a guest reader. His performance was glorious, adding another dimension to the work. In contrast to his mild, self-effacing, almost shy persona, the reading was powerful, profound, moving and at times uproariously funny. If he was a magician, a conjurer with words, his rendition of them could be incantatory, almost shamanistic, especially when delivering those mesmerising sound poems. (Seamus Heaney writes: "In that combination of shyness and certitude, his intellectual and artistic authority were unmistakable.")
As an academic too, in his long teaching career at Glasgow University, he could captivate his student audience, bring literature to life. (Marshall Walker spoke of his clarity, his conversational style, and said: "You always wished his lectures would keep going past the hour.") I remember sitting at a lecture he was giving on the Metaphysical poets, and looking along the row and seeing a friend of mine who was an engineering student. I asked why he was there, and he said: "To hear Eddie."
By the mid-70s, with a reference from Eddie, I was back at Glasgow as writer-in-residence, and he was happy to give advice, take part in readings, contribute to publications, always with humility, graciousness and goodwill. That held good in all the years since, at other events I've organised. The last of these was at the WORD Festival in Aberdeen, some 10 years ago. That must have been just as his illness was beginning to manifest itself, but you would never have known.
Seated on a bar stool, surrounded by Tommy Smith and the young musicians of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, he gave an electrifying performance of his poem-suite Planet Wave, dealing with nothing less than the history of life on Earth. It was sublime, an absolute high point.
Over these last few days, many tributes to the man and his work have been published and broadcast. Carol Ann Duffy called him "a great, gentle, generous genius". She said: "He was poetry's true son and blessed by her. He was, quite simply, irreplaceable."
In addition to a host of literary awards and prizes, he was declared Glasgow's first Poet Laureate, and Scotland's own Makar. He was commissioned to write the inaugural poem for the opening of the Scottish Parliament building in 2004, and a fine scathing job he made of it, before exhorting: "Don't let your work and hope be other than great." But like his great contemporary, Ian Hamilton Finlay, he was truly international in his outlook, his appeal, his vision, and he published translations of poetry in a score of languages.
The appeal of his work was broad and his readership spanned the generations. His poetry has long been taught in schools and in recent years he collaborated with the likes of Roddy Woomble and his band Idlewild. His honesty, his humour, his humanity and compassion enabled him to reach across any age gap. And his dazzling technique, the verbal pyrotechnics, were always in the service of something more, something deeper.
His love poems in particular ring in the heart as well as the mind – perfect little lyrics that resonate. This is all the more amazing since he revealed at the age of 70 that he was gay. It hadn't been too hard to work out! But in a country where homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1980, he had to be circumspect. In fact, perhaps it was the fact that the poems were coded that gave them their extra charge and intensity. They are in the moment, the specific place and time, and yet they are transcendent, timeless, universal.
I ended my own piece for Eddie@90 looking at my personal archive – all Eddie's books from these past 40 years (most of them signed), a couple of manuscripts, quirky handwritten postcards and revisiting it all with gratitude and love.
At this year's WORD Festival, in May, a few of the writers taking part read their favourite Edwin Morgan poems. I read a well-known piece called A View of Things. ("What I love about poetry is its ion engine.") And I wanted to read another but ran out of time. The one I'd chosen was Fires, a rare autobiographical poem about his childhood and his parents, recounting a happiness that was only a moment before being reduced to almost nothing. Then he ends, as only he could, with what seems to me a credo: The not quite nothing I praise it and I write it.
Alan Spence is one of Scotland's leading poets