Edwin Morgan (1920–2010) led a remarkable and wide-ranging creative life. He published 25 collections of his own poetry, and translated hundreds of Russian, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German poems too. He also wrote plays, opera libretti, radio broadcasts, journalism, book and drama reviews, literary criticism, and artworks. His work continues to be published, produced, taught and celebrated.
Some insights into Edwin Morgan’s poetry from biographer and friend James McGonigal:
Edwin Morgan is a poet for…
What he loved about the city was its energy, industrial inventiveness, humour and crowded streets. He warmed to its humanity, shared its sorrows, wrote against scarring deprivation, recovered its history (real and imagined), and projected several Glasgows into the future. Poems worth checking out include ‘The Starlings in George Square’, ‘Trio’, ‘In the Snack-bar’, ‘Glasgow 5 March 1971’, ‘Death in Duke Street’, ‘The Second Life’, ‘A City’, and ‘Nine in Glasgow’ in Cathures (2002). Born here, he taught literature in Glasgow University all his working life, and became the city’s first Poet Laureate in 1999.
He became Scotland’s laureate too, in 2004 – its first Makar or National Poet. He loved Scotland dearly and celebrated its varied landscapes, people and places, whether humorously in ‘Canedolia’, or reflectively in ‘Sonnets from Scotland’. For Morgan, part of the national poet’s job was to remind Scots that ‘if they want to achieve something in the world, and to really be taken seriously, then they need to show the world what they stand for.’ Poets, and other writers, can help them to do this. His poem ‘For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004’ gave pithy advice to its legislators.
the World, the Universe
He travelled widely, to Africa and the Middle East during World War Two, to Russia and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, to the United States, to New Zealand, to the North Pole. These places are in the poetry. ‘The New Divan’ is his mysterious long war journey. There’s a poem about flying to Lapland in Concorde. This supersonic flight was the nearest he could actually get to outer space, where he often journeyed in his imagination, as in ‘From the Domain of Arnheim’, ‘In Sobieski’s Shield’, ‘Thoughts of a Module’, ‘The First Men on Mercury’, and ‘The Moons of Jupiter’. He believed that humanity would someday create ‘A Home in Space’. In ‘Sonnets from Scotland’, time-travellers explore and wonder at this land across aeons of its past and future.
He could speak as a space module, or a Mercurian, and also as an apple, a computer, an Egyptian mummy. He was an acrobat of words and identities. Perhaps his own identity as a gay man, risking censure or imprisonment through most of his life, encouraged that ability to shape-shift. His love poems are haunting. Some deal with loss or transience, as in ‘One Cigarette’, Absence’ or ‘Dear man, my love goes out in waves’, or with the physical risks of a marginalised lifestyle, as in ‘Glasgow Green’ or ‘Christmas Eve’. But they also celebrate ways in which all loving couples share the tender details of everyday life together, as in ‘Strawberries’. His writing of gay and queer experience had a significant impact on social attitudes and political change in Scotland. His voice spoke for many young or isolated gay people, with an advocacy that was subtle but powerful in effect. The present generation of Scots is markedly more liberal than in Morgan’s time.
Partnerships and Collaboration
Morgan was an individualist, in some senses a loner. And yet he was also an inspirer of creative partnerships – in art, photography, opera, music and drama, cultural journalism and poetry in performance. His early support was invaluable to an array of ground-breaking poets and artists: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alasdair Gray and Thomas A. Clark, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay, Richard Price, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey and Robert Crawford, to name only a few. He took part in or inspired such creative movements as Concrete Poetry and Informationism. His work in drama with Communicado Theatre and TAG (Theatre About Glasgow); in jazz with Tommy Smith and in rock music with Idlewild; in art with John Furnival and Ron O’Donnel; in opera with Thomas Wilson and Kenneth Leighton … all these were influential too.
Such lists could be extended. In fact, they continue to grow through the Edwin Morgan Trust. You can see details of new creative work we have supported, in poetry and across the arts, in the following pages.
Most of the poems mentioned here are in Edwin Morgan, Centenary Selected Poems, edited by Hamish Whyte, published by Carcanet Press in 2020.