Edwin Morgan, who has died at the age of 90, was one of the best poets of the second half of the 20th century, though never all that well known among people who don’t read poetry. (At least his poems remain in print – plenty of poets have to face the indignity of seeing themselves forgotten before they die.)
He was unusual amongst ‘great’ poets in that he didn’t take himself too seriously. He gave poetry readings where he pretended to speak the Loch Ness Monster’s language, and delighted in the laughter he provoked. He wrote deliberately bad limericks with anti-comedy punch lines:
A huge anaconda named Mary
Was told she was wicked and scary.
She swallowed a village
Without any spillage
And said to them, ‘My, that was rare, eh?’
‘The Anaconda’, Tales from Limerick Zoo, 1988.
It’s hard to imagine Phillip Larkin unbending long enough to write that, I think. Though, to be fair, it’s hard to imagine Morgan being as well-regarded as Larkin, and part of the reason is that he deliberately subverted the seriousness that people expect of poets.
Morgan was, despite all his playfulness, linguistic and otherwise, a serious poet, and one who was possessed of a sound technical ability. He took the Petrarchan Sonnet (harder to write in English than the Italian it was developed for, because of the relative lack of rhyme words; even Shakespeare used an easier rhyme scheme), and in his hands a form that had been used for idealised celebrations of unrequited love discussed a different kind of loveless hopelessness:
A mean wind wanders through the backcourt trash.
Hackles on puddles rise, old mattresses
puff briefly and subside. Play-fortresses
of brick and bric-a-brac spill out some ash.
Four storeys have no windows left to smash,
but the fifth a chipped sill buttresses
mother and daughter the last mistresses
of that black block condemned to stand, not crash.
Around them the cracks deepen, the rats crawl.
The kettle whimpers on a crazy hob.
Roses of mould grow from ceiling to wall.
The man lies late since he has lost his job,
smokes on one elbow, letting his coughs fall
thinly into an air too poor to rob.
No. 1, Glasgow Sonnets, 1972.
Edwin Morgan was gay, although he didn’t come out until he was 70. That decision caused some consternation among narrow-minded people who’d studied his love poetry at school, and had even had it read at their weddings; they thought he was writing about women when – horror of horrors! – he was actually a bender. The writer of The Guardian’s obituary, James Campbell, says that readers ‘were invited to assume that the object of desire was female’, but I don’t think that’s true. They were simply invited to read the work, and in doing so naturally related it to their own experiences and desires. For heterosexuals, therefore, the love was heterosexual, but that’s not implied in the poetry itself. This is made obvious by one of Morgan’s most famous love poems:
There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone cobbles
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills
let the storm wash the plates
‘Strawberries’, The Second Life, 1968.
There’s nothing here to identify the gender, either of the person speaking, or the person they are speaking of.
(As an aside: isn’t this a wonderful poem? The way the word ‘sultry’, because of it’s dual meanings (‘oppressively hot, close’ and ‘sensual, sexy’), acts both to describe the physical environment the poem takes place in and to establish the sexual subject matter. The sly, subtle reference to sex as ‘the feast […] to come’, and ‘one hour of all/ the heat intense’. The lugubrious sensuality of lines like ‘from your eager mouth/ the taste of strawberries’. The familiar trope of displacing some of the descriptive work onto nature, so that the sunshine is hot and the air humid, the heat building to the drama of lightning, followed by the slow cooling of a cleansing rain that ‘wash[es] the plates’: and this parallels the build up, release and resolution of sexual energy. The understated complexity of the phrase ‘in my arms/ abandoned like a child’, the first part of which (‘in my arms/ abandoned’) evokes sexual abandonment, the second part of which (‘abandoned like a child’) evokes watchful caring, and the whole of which, therefore, is a beautiful evocation of the passionate tenderness of love. And, as you read it, can’t you see yourself there, in the heat, on that step, looking out over a view of distant hills, seeing the red of the strawberries against the blue of the plates and the whiteness of the sugar, tasting the strawberries as you eat them, and later, again, as you kiss?)
One of the interesting things about Morgan’s decision to make his love poetry non-gender-specific is that it had the slightly unusual effect of placing straight people in the position of realising that they’ve read themselves into the poem, by which I mean have combined the words with their own experiences to create something that speaks to them, even if their visualisation doesn’t match that of the poet. This is something that people unavoidably do when they read – interpret the words in the light of their own experiences – and it’s something that gay people have done a lot of, if they read any of the myriad descriptions of heterosexual love that make up the canon of great literature. It’s interesting, therefore, that, when a straight person reads Morgan’s love poems – especially when they read them unaware of the poet’s sexual orientation – the boot is temporarily on the other foot.
Morgan said, after he came out, that this, or something a little like it, was deliberate – that he wanted his poems to be universal, to speak to everyone. This is something often said by gay artists who have not foregrounded their sexuality in their work, and it represents something of a catch 22 for them; make your sexual orientation explicit, and have many straight people unthinkingly dismiss your work as not relevant to them, or universalise your work, and face accusations that by doing so you’ve made it inauthentic. At least in Morgan’s case he actually did universalise his work – often enough universalise simply means heterosexualise.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Morgan’s decisions may also have been influenced by practical considerations. He published ‘Strawberries’ in 1968, the year after male homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales, but in Scotland it was to remain illegal right up until 1980. A poem would never on its own have been grounds for prosecution under the sexual offences act, of course, but it might have been introduced as supporting evidence in any trial that was mounted. Certainly, Morgan always said that illegality affected both his life and his writing, as demonstrated in this moving excerpt from a poem written to mark his 70th birthday:
At thirty I thought life had passed me by,
translated Beowulf for want of love.
And one night stands in city lanes –
they were dark in those days – were wild but bleak.
Sydney Graham in London said, ‘you know
I always thought so’, kissed me on the cheek.
And I translated Rilke’s Loneliness
is like a rain, and week after week after week
strained to unbind myself,
sweated to speak.
from ‘Seven Decades’, Felt-tip Hosannas, 1990.
The same poem goes on to detail his experiences with finding love and finding his poetic voice – for Morgan, the two were clearly linked – but ends with something like an optimistic look to the future, even as that future closes down to death. That seems like a good way to end this post.
please, keep that for Europe. Switch the whole thing
right on. When I go in I want it bright,
I want to catch whatever is there
in full sight.
from ‘Seven Decades’, 1990.