On Monday November 30, The British Library will be hosting a very special #edwinmorgan100 event titled ‘A New Divan: Celebrating Edwin Morgan’s poetry’. You can read more information about the programme and book tickets on the British Library website.

Friend, poet and Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library, Richard Price, shares an introduction to the event below:

Edwin Morgan was a friend and an unofficial mentor to me and though he died nearly a decade ago he is still speaking to me in his poetry, in the fragments of conversation I remember, and in the letters he wrote to me.

The breadth in subject and form of Morgan’s poetry is unusual in Anglophone literature of any period – there’s no-one like him for mastering and transforming new and old forms and making sure the content, the meaning, addresses the most urgent of concerns: how to build a better society, how to actively dream into a better future, how to love. He is a lyric poet of tenderness, a playful poet of teasing language, a prophet for an equal world. 

I suppose his breakthrough collection – The Second Life – published in 1968 – is the best place to start historically, but Carcanet’s recent Centenary Selected is the way to go to sample his whole career, including his transformation of the sonnet, opening it out to middle and long distance views not just the claustrophobic rooms it had often moped about in until then (disclaimer: my poetry is also published by Carcanet).

Like so many of his later collections, The Second Life has a restless command of form and demonstrates an artist whose variety of approach and content no other poet of his era could reach. Its surprises offer challenges and delights – the concrete poem ‘Starryveldt’, written in 1964, denouncing apartheid, the cherished lyric ‘Strawberries’ – as delicate and passionate as the Persian poetry he loved – and the thoughtful and remarkably quick-response poems which address contemporary culture and society. This is a book where you’ll find elegies for the death of Marilyn Monroe and also an East End gangster and also a wolf escaped from a zoo and killed rather than recaptured, an early eco-poem if you like, and also and also and also. It’s a book playfully celebrating the ‘Computer’s First Christmas Card’, a book fiercely imagining space travel and regaining identity by losing then subtly twisting it.

With this in mind I thought I’d publicly celebrate Morgan’s poetry with an event featuring poets who respond to the extraordinary engagedness of Edwin his work. I’ve chosen writers who are not just considerable poets but who take poetry to other places – in drama, performance, music, translation, publishing, visual art, the poetic essay, the digital. 

And because I wanted to show the way that Morgan’s work goes beyond Scotland I chose Scottish writers certainly but also poets who are outside of that tradition, who have Irish, English, Ghanaian, and Portuguese heritage. Morgan is nothing if not international. Because of the pandemic the event became a zoom-like programme and I was tempted to call it ‘From the Video Box’ the title of one of Morgan’s most celebrated sequences.

But I settled with my orginal thought. ‘The New Divan’ – it’s taken from one of Morgan’s most ambitious books and there is a poem from that collection in the presentation, but I’ve also used it metaphorically. A ‘divan’ in Persian now Iranian culture is a collection of poems, that’s its meaning, but it has other senses – a custom’s house (it’s where the French ‘douane’ comes from), a government department, a gathering of advisers (and perhaps an informal ‘social’ associated with it).  I wanted to hybridise it with the Scottish concept of the ceilidh – not just a dance but a visit where people share poems, music, songs, and news with each other. In that spirit on the metaphorical sofa – another meaning of divan, of course – I asked each contributor to choose a favourite Morgan poem and then to respond with a work of their own.

The outcome has been an unexpected and I think fascinating introduction to Morgan’s work, incorporating canonical poems, yes, but lesser-known ones, too, whose hidden depths are revealed sensitively by the poets. 

I won’t give away what they chose but simply hint – how Simon Barraclough’s immense film expertise has an effect on his choice, how Dzifa Benson’s research into the South African Sarah Baartman made her think about the poem she would choose, how Peter McCarey links Morgan to his contemporary Gael Turnbull. Kirsten Irving takes up Morgan’s challenge to find new ways of thinking about space travel (now that it really is with us). The artist and publisher João Concha’s choice brings us into the very visual world of Morgan’s concrete and sound poetry, while Ricardo Marques affirms the lyric power of Morgan’s love poetry. Nancy Campbell reveals how intertextual some of those lyrics can be, while my own choice is a poem which is a reflection on his care for younger poets and his sensitivity to the pressures all human beings have emotionally. Finally the programme will close with a reading by Edwin Morgan himself from the Poetry Archive, copies of whose tapes the British Library keeps for safety. I hope you enjoy the programme.

Richard Price, November 2020


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