Edwin Morgan: a universal treasure
Right up until his death this week, the work of Scotland's national poet Edwin Morgan seemed infused with a universal appeal and a timelessness that few other poets may ever achieve
Edwin Morgan was a singular voice in a country with a literary tradition rich in singular voices. He managed to be both an outsider and an academically respected writer who rose to be one of the best of his time; a defender of the underdog and the individual who was nationally lauded when, in 2004, he was elected the first Scots Makar, the Scottish Parliament's equivalent of Poet Laureate. It was a position that formally recognised Morgan as the national treasure many had already long since viewed him as.
Morgan was 70 before he came out as gay in his 1990 work Nothing Not Giving Messages: Reflections on his Work and Life, but his sexuality was evident in far earlier poems, particularly sonnets such as the superb Strawberries, in which two lovers eat the fruit "glistening in the hot sunlight" before letting "the storm wash the plates". His refusal to make known the gender of the person to whom his affections were aimed was, he reasoned, out of a desire to "universalise" his poetry.
And it worked. Right up until his death this week, Morgan's work seemed infused with a universal appeal and a timelessness that few other poets can achieve, let alone retain. His form, content and style varied widely from the traditional to the experimental; from concrete poems to free-flowing Beat-inspired works, though Scottish identity was never too far away. Works such as his Glasgow Sonnets (numbered 'i – x') immortalised a tough postwar city where "Play-fortresses / of brick and bric-a-brac spill out some ash / Four storeys have no windows left to smash". He was no voyeur slumming it though – he loved the city, warts and all, and his many poems about Glasgow offer a series of period snapshots of a place that are as poignant as, say, a Don McCullin photograph or a Terence Davies film.
My own discovery of his work came via a brief but stirring spoken word guest appearance on a 2001 song entitled In Remote Part / Scottish Fiction by bookish Scottish rock band Idlewild. Morgan's evocation of "a red hearted vibration / Pushing through the walls of dark imagination" and "asylum seekers engulfed by a grudge" seemed less like the poetry of a then 81-year-old, more like the angry, impassioned thoughts of a much younger man.
And that, perhaps, was Morgan's strength and what made him a truly great poet. His work kept evolving – so much so that his lines continue to echo on down through the decades. They have found favour with new readers in a way that those of his contemporaries, some of whom have been grouped together as The Big Seven (George Mackay Brown, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, Robert Garioch, Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig) may not.
Only time will tell, of course, but for those who have been reading his work for the past 50 years, Edwin Morgan is already up there with the very best poets, not only of Scotland, but of the world.