Edwin Morgan

One of the best stories I’ve heard about the late Makar Edwin Morgan, from James McGonigal’s biography Beyond The Last Dragon, was that when part of his archive was opened at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, he wore a T-shirt that subtly made his point: Glasgow takes the biscuit. Edwin Morgan was a very Glaswegian poet and there is something about having his archive in Edinburgh that doesn’t seem right. (It is a fine collection, incidentally. The Scottish Poetry Library, whose motto is Patrick Geddes’s line ‘By leaves we leave’, is an excellent institution and their building, in the Canongate in the capital, is beautiful.)

I first became aware of Morgan’s work through another institution just down the road from the Poetry Library. Edwin Morgan was our Makar at the time the Scottish Parliament was opened in 2004 and he wrote a magnificent poem for the occasion, read by his successor Liz Lochhead. The poem was written to be read and Liz Lochhead’s expressive style carried it off with great aplomb. My abiding memory was when the immortal line

‘And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’ is what they do not want’

was read out. The camera cut to the then Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive with knowing smirks on their faces. At the time, they put those particular words into practice quite often, albeit marginally more eloquently. This poem, though not always those particular words, have been quoted at several parliamentary occasions since, most recently in Nicola Sturgeon’s acceptance speech when she was re-elected as First Minister.

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‘The City Chambers are hopping mad’

Anyway, I was struck by these words and ended up getting into Edwin Morgan’s work, as I still am. I think I have written here before about often being in George Square and thinking about the poem ‘The Starlings in George Square’ and the cables to Cairo getting fankled and all that stuff. When I was in Bridgeton recently, I thought about the poem ‘King Billy’ and the line about

the flutes

threw ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to the winds

from unironic lips’.

In recalling a conversation I had earlier about Brutalist architecture, I am thinking about ‘The Second Life’ about the optimism around the time some of the buildings sprung up in Glasgow. Morgan himself captured what I think about poetry in ‘A View of Things’ when he said that ‘what I love about poetry is its ion engine’. There are just little lines that come up in different situations, mainly while here in Glasgow but it is often universal, as with ‘Aberdeen Train’. I have seen a few pheasants in fields in my time but rarely have I expressed it so thoughtfully as ‘a Chinese moment in the Mearns’, six words that you can unpack into many more.

One of Morgan’s more absurd poems is quoted in stone on the wall outside the Scottish Parliament. ‘Canedolia’ goes through a list of Scottish place-names that goes into sheer poetry without knowing quite how.

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Just up the road at the Poetry Library, they have put the words that opened the Scottish Parliament on their door.

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Not long ago, Jackie Kay became the third Makar. She is a very fine poet and I am a big fan of hers too. We have had three fine poets as our national poet so far, as well as Carol Ann Duffy as the UK’s poet laureate. Edwin Morgan was the first Makar and he’s definitely mine.

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