Centenary Selected Poems

Edwin Morgan, edited by Hamish Whyte

Carcanet, £14.99

Review by By Fiona Rintoul

In “From a Nursing Home”, which appears towards the end of Carcanet’s Centenary Selected Poems by Edwin Morgan, the poet writes of what life is like when you are “down to one room”. Having surveyed his table, typewriter, bed, bookcase and good book-booty, he concludes that:

“Careful, careless, carefree – we are alive

With whatever equanimity we can muster

As time bites and burns along our veins.”

The only time I met Edwin Morgan was in that one room in a nursing home. He’d agreed to sign a copy of A Book of Lives for me. It had just come out, and I’d chosen a poem from it to read at a friend’s wedding. I wanted to give her a signed copy as a wedding present. Morgan had recently had a stroke and could barely hold the pen I handed him. The dedication was almost illegible. And yet, the poet would muster the equanimity to publish another collection of poetry before his death in 2010 at the age of 90.

Like all of Morgan’s work, that last collection, Dreams and Other Nightmares: New and Uncollected Poems 1954-2009, sizzles with life and a kind of magical optimism. The energy that had by then evaporated from a body battered by illness is still there in Morgan’s writing – must still have zinged through his remarkable mind.

Morgan’s last poems reveal that he was more alive in his wheelchair in a Glasgow nursing home room, with Alasdair Gray’s portrait of him gazing down from an institutional wall, than many of us are at the height of our physical powers. One of the many reasons to pick up Carcanet’s Centenary Selected Poems – edited by Hamish Whyte, who published much of Morgan’s poetry at Mariscat Press – is that it includes some of the poet’s brilliant and inspirational later work.

Love and a Life from 2003 is as vibrant and penetrating an examination of love and desire in all their glorious, excruciating, sometimes dangerous manifestations as you are ever likely to read. Few poets (or authors of any sort) can write about romantic love with neither sentimentality nor rancour. Morgan can. In Love, he nails the whole damn business:

“Love is terror. Love is sweat. Love is bashed pillow, crumpled sheet, unenviable


Love is the honour that kills and saves and nothing will ever let that high

ambiguity abate.”

Elsewhere, you’ll find some of his most famous love poems, such as Strawberries and One Cigarette from his 1968 collection, The Second Life. “You are here again, and I am drunk on your tobacco lips,” writes the non-smoker of his lover’s left-behind fag butt smouldering in a brass ashtray. Morgan finds poetry in everything.

Even the violence that accompanied life as a gay man before homosexuality was decriminalised in Scotland is described with something like beauty. In Glasgow Green, an oblique plea for understanding of the “sea of desire” away from “the beds of married love”, Morgan, who did not come out until 1990 when he was 70, evokes a world of forbidden encounters that has its own allure:

“Somewhere a shout’s forced out – ‘No!’ –

it leads to nothing but silence,

except the whisper of the grass

and the other whispers that fill the shadows.”

Another reason to embrace this collection is that the decade that now separates us from Morgan’s death provides a new perspective on his towering poetic output, and its message to those us still tilling the soil in Arcadia. As this anniversary selection demonstrates, Morgan was both a patriotic Scot who supported independence (he left almost £1 million to the SNP) and an internationalist. Yes, these two impulses may coexist in one individual.

Morgan’s love of his home country and home city of Glasgow is fierce – but it is never parochial or nationalistic. He relishes Scotland and Glasgow’s flaws as much as their merits. The first of the Glasgow Sonnets begins with a less than blissful portrait:

“A mean wind wanders through the backcourt trash.

Hackles on puddles rise, old mattresses

puff briefly and subside."

In Post Referendum from Sonnets from Scotland published in 1984, he evinces a frustration with his homeland that contemporary readers may recognise:

“You don’t want the world now, do you? Come on,

you’re pegged out on your heathery futon,

take the matches from your lids, it’s ended.”

Morgan himself was never pegged out on a heathery futon. He was a breathtakingly prolific translator, moving with ease from Italian to Russian to French and Hungarian. These polyglot adventures fed his own work, which displays the linguist’s love of language for its own sake.

But the beam of Morgan’s imagination shone further. It probed “so far from the globe”, and many of his electrifying space poems appear in this centenary selection. Reading “Io” from The Moons of Jupiter, you are there on that moon witnessing the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that killed 75:

“We saw the men huddled in knots, or walking slowly

with bent heads over pumice beds, or still

and silent by the bank of the red lake.”

This is Carcanet’s third Selected Poems by Edwin Morgan, but the first to cover the full range of his work. For readers new to Morgan, it forms a perfect introduction, showcasing his fearless experimentation. With equal facility, he speaks in the voice of an apple, a space traveller, Baron Munchausen, even a midge:

“Sisters, I smell supper,

and what is more perfect than supper?”

For those who already know Morgan’s work, this selection is a welcome romp of rediscovery. It offers a reminder that he masters every form – from sonnets to strict rhyme schemes with free rhythm to the disintegrating word curtains of some of his early concrete poems – and gilds them all with the humour and humanity that infuse his own effervescent voice.

That voice unites Morgan’s disparate work – from the accessible to the more obscure, from the interplanetary to the Glaswegian – and provides the most compelling reason to revisit his oeuvre. Whether he is writing about his mother’s hysterectomy, the death of Marilyn Monroe or a spaceman’s disturbing memories of Earth, Morgan speaks with uncommon warmth and understanding. He never shrinks from the darkness, but the shimmering beauty of his words somehow makes it more bearable.