Edwin Morgan’s Message is Clear

When finding the right words is a process of elimination

Edwin Morgan is one of he best poets you’ve never heard of. Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1920, Morgan spent the vast majority of his writing life struggling to communicate. Or rather, Morgan spent the vast majority of his writing life communicating beautifully about the struggle to communicate. (Those curious to read more by him should check out his excellent New Selected Poems that is full of fine verse and has a pretty nifty cover to boot.)

In 1963 Morgan met and fell in love with John Scott, the man that he would be with until Scott’s death in 1978. At the time, homosexual relationships were illegal in Scotland, so Morgan’s relationship with Scott had to remain a secret; a fact that, in large part, led to Morgan’s fascinations with those that were unable to express themselves.

Sometimes this message would manifest itself through a failure to communicate, as in “The First Men on Mercury,” a fascinating dialogue between a human astronaut and native Mercurian (?), which finds the human’s speech disintegrating throughout:

I am the yuleeda. You see my hands,
we carry no benner, we come in peace.
The spaceways are all stretterhawn.

(Side note: Edwin Morgan is also a pretty amazing Sci-Fi poet as well).

At other times the message would be put forth only through abstract sounds. In “The Lock Ness Monster’s Song” we get 14 lines of what would otherwise be considered gibberish.

Sssnnnwhuffffll?
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
Zgra kra gka fok!
Grof grawff gahf?
Gombl mbl bl –
blm plm,
blm plm,
blm plm,
blp.

In my mind, though, there is something much more than just a random collection of letters thrown together and it has to do with the punctuation. There is a progression from questioning, to urgency, to resignation that happens both not only in question marks and exclamation points, but in the gradual petering out of the sounds at the end. It’s a sound poem, for sure, but it is also a poem about the frustration that comes with being unheard.

It was during the late 1960s and early 1970s that Morgan’s work reflected not only the sound aspects like in “Song” but also an interest in the shape of a poem. These concert poems, while of a different style, still worked towards a similar theme. One of my favorites is “Message Clear,” in which Morgan deconstructs a  famous phrase (i am the resurrection and the life) and comes away with the whole story of Christ’s journey. It’s a masterful use of a finite set of letters and illustrates not only the desire to tell one’s story, but how in charge of the language Morgan was.

For my money though, nowhere is that mastery better seen than in his poem “Strawberries,” a poem so simple and complex and beautiful, that I’m going to end with it, and nothing more.

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 together
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

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