Edwin (George) Morgan Essay - Critical Essays

Morgan, Edwin (George)


Edwin (George) Morgan 1920–

Scottish poet, essayist, and translator.

Morgan's poetry is characterized by broad experimentation with language, form, and subject matter. He often borrows the rhythms of Scots verse and sometimes writes in the vernacular. Also prominent in his poetry is the unconventional usage of typography and phonetics. Concerned with the visual impact of his work, Morgan has written concrete poems, found poems, and poems partially typeset by computer, while his interest in sound has resulted in the use of music, dialogue, and repetition. One critic has referred to Morgan's work as a "Joycean romp through language." Morgan's subjects are diverse; he has written love sonnets, science fiction fantasies, and poems about social problems. Underlying most of his work is his belief in the improvability of humankind and his reverence for ordinary life. Morgan has been compared to the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid for his wit and his socialist political attitudes.

Morgan's first major collection of poems, The Second Life (1968), received praise for its direct and simple language. These poems build meaning through the compilation of concrete images written in a free verse style similar to that of Walt Whitman. A later work, Instamatic Poems (1972), attempts to capture events objectively. In these poems Morgan uses newspaper stories and other reported incidents as sources for his subject matter. The collection was considered innovative but linguistically unsuccessful. In his next major volume, From Glasgow to Saturn (1973), Morgan combines themes by including his previously published Glasgow Sonnets (1972) together with concrete poems and poems concerning space travel. Some critics concluded that Morgan's experiments with different styles and themes contributed to the unevenness of the collection.

The New Divan (1977) was Morgan's next important collection. The title poem is based on the poetry of the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz; the volume also includes experimental wordplay poems, science fiction poems, and love lyrics. With The New Divan, most critics accepted Morgan's broad poetic spectrum as an attempt at universality and agreed that his concrete and wordplay poems had transcended mere cleverness.

The publication of Morgan's retrospective Poems of Thirty Years (1982) has brought new attention to his career. Though his variety and his use of unconventional techniques are sometimes dismissed as eclectic and trendy, Morgan is considered by many critics among the more daring and imaginative of contemporary poets.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27.)

Julian Symons

[The Second Life] contains straightforward verse and (printed on differently-coloured paper) concrete poems. [Morgan] is certainly the wittiest and least pretentious practitioner of con-crete poetry, in which his range extends from the charming piece that plays variations on the word 'pomander' to social comments like Starryveldt, in which this word changes gradually to Sharpeville and shriekvolley, then to smashverwoerd and spadevow, sunvast, survive and SO:VAEVICTIS. I still feel that this sort of trickiness is not the right form in which to comment on the South African situation, but Mr Morgan goes a long way to justifying concrete poetry as something more than a joke, although he has some good jokes too like French Persian Cats Having a Ball.

The poems that lack the support of typographical devices sometimes tend, like those of E. E. Cummings, to drop into sentimentality. The best of them are those in which fantasy has a fairly free rein, like one that begins 'The white rhinoceros was eating phosphorus!' and a poem about a Canadian timber-wolf hunted through Hertfordshire by planes and helicopters, which is finally shot and bludgeoned to death. There are good poems about the deaths of Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe, and throughout the book Mr Morgan shows a dash and romantic bravura that are welcome elements in our present thoroughly mud-coloured poetic scene. (p. 179)

Julian Symons, "Versions," in The New Statesman & Nation, Vol. 75, No. 1926, February 9, 1968, pp. 178-79.∗

Martin Dodsworth

[Morgan's semi-concrete] poems must be taken in their entirety or not at all. They will not be fragmented (which is, I take it, the justification for their existence). They are among the best things in his varied book, The Second Life. There are more conventional poems, equally intelligent, but they seem embarrassed by the nakedness of the emotions expressed, which are too often dour and dreary. A lot of the poems are about looking back and feeling miserable….

The Second Life is worth reading, though. It is a book without consistency, but the successes are real and memorable, in the anti-semantic manner. There are some excellent SF poems—like the one about primitive people sensing the presence among them of invisible time-travellers. (p. 414)

Martin Dodsworth, "Modified Smiles," in The Listener, Vol. LXXIX, No. 2035, March 28, 1968, pp. 413-15.∗

Thomas E. Luddy

Edwin Morgan's prodigious talent has [in The Second Life] produced one of the most refreshing collections of poems I have read. They range in tone from light to serious, and from the real to fantasy. The book includes groups of experimental poems: some concrete poetry and some permutations on sounds and letters which produce fascinating results…. Included are some powerful poems in memory of Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, and Edith Piaf. But the major group of poems is linked to the title poem, and is mostly nightmare-fantasy or science fiction in which the author suddenly finds himself alive again, but with déjà vu. The theme here is renewal…. But this is renewal in a grotesquely possible world that makes this real one seem paradisical.

Thomas E. Luddy, in a review of "The Second Life," in Library Journal, Vol. 93, No. 14, August, 1968, p. 2882.

Anne Cluysenaar

Perhaps because pity is the predominant sentiment of Glasgow Sonnets, as I read them, run a close second by indignation, the poor of that city appear as if at a distance, much as Larkin observed Whitsun weddings though the animating sentiments are so different, so sympathetic. Life in the run-down area of Glasgow is characterized (in sociologically relevant terms) rather than described. One is more moved, ultimately, by the poet's attitudes than by his subject. Which is to say that the sonnets fail by what is, I am sure, their own standard. The privileged outsider's eye turns realities into props.

Under the darkness of a twisted pram a cat's eyes glitter. Glittering stars press between the silent chimney-cowls …

These images are selected for aesthetic effect. As the same poem laments, there is no substitute for the deliverer who has never risen 'from these stone tombs to get the hell they made / unmade' and whose eye would be accurate in a different sense. Similarly, the sonnet-form seems unadaptable to this subject-matter, bringing with it an 'artist's humour'—and Morgan handles the form in a relatively conventional way, if one compares his structures with Keats' experiments with the genre. Another aspect of the problem is brought out by the absence of the abstracter facts of poverty, as of the daily indignities of social interrelationship (Department of Health and Social Security, rent collector, local shop), which prose reporting and television are so well-adapted to handle in a moving way…. Poetry has very great problems in standing up to such competition, and Glasgow Sonnets has not solved them, though it may help others to. (pp. 70-1)

Anne Cluysenaar, in a review of "Glasgow Sonnets," in Stand, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1973), pp. 70-3.

Alan Brownjohn

From Glasgow to Saturn collects, interestingly, most of the many facets of Morgan's poetic personality: one gets for the first time some sense of the whole oeuvre, not just glimpses of his work as a writer of lyrical love poems, or sci-fi fantasies, or slightly loaded whimsicalities in 'concrete', or excursions into horror which suggest a George MacBeth without the fastidiousness or the zany charisma. All that said, it's an uneven book. The love lyrics derive only too plainly from the pop songs to which he pays tribute. Wilful—and, one suspects, clumsy—mystification rubs shoulders with beautifully constructed and entertaining collages, like 'Soho'…. Where Morgan doesn't contrive, he is ineffective;...

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Dabney Stuart

Most of [From Glasgow to Saturn] is graduate school diddling with all kinds of neat-o stuff: science fiction, American westerns, typographic calisthenics, computer creation, voice inversion. Some of it is coffee-break cute, much of it simply silly. Remarkable are a few love lyrics scattered at the beginning of the book, two prose poems near its middle, and especially the series of ten "Glasgow Sonnets" that close it. It's a shame that such substantial achievement has been dumped in a playground as if it were no different from the seesaws.

Dabney Stuart, in a review of "From Glasgow to Saturn," in Library Journal, Vol. 98, No. 20, November 15, 1973, p. 3381....

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John Matthias

Morgan's range is wide. Wide enough, in fact, to touch both of the antagonistic poles of Scottish poetry—Ian Hamilton Finlay and Hugh MacDiarmid—and an amazingly large number of points along the way between them. The trouble with being versatile and working in many forms is that readers (and especially critics) will want one thing or another, this sort of poem or that. Even though the possibility exists that a book manifesting widely divergent techniques can achieve a shape and identity as its parts combine to form a whole, this is not very often admitted, and poets who don't stick pretty much to one mode are likely to be abused for not doing so. All the more reason I should apologize for feeling that [From...

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Desmond Graham

Whether in the individual poem, the sequence or the collection, Edwin Morgan makes a plurality of styles into a thoroughgoing eclecticism. At once unpretentious and daring his range of production over the past twenty-five years is almost worryingly wide. His wit has done as much as anything to make the "Concrete" and "Sound" poem respectable and accessible. His refusal to decry the contemporary or to set barriers between modes has led to poems using, for example, the terms of space-fiction. He is a tireless translator or adapter…. Theoretically, his work could be seen as the inevitable inheritance of the movements of this century's art—pragmatic, multiformed and experimental in technique. Yet the very judgement...

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Michael Schmidt

Poetry, Edwin Morgan says, should 'acknowledge its environment'. It can do this in the development of its themes, in its imagery—drawing from particulars of place and time—or in its approach to language, reproducing in the word order or in the word itself specific processes of the environment. In a sequence of poems called 'Interferences', for instance, the failure of language in various extreme circumstances is expressed in the deformation of certain words at the climax of the experience; in the 'Glasgow Sonnets' the references are drawn directly from the city, its history and the present; and in the Science Fiction poems the themes relate to actual human ambitions and actions, with analogies to actual...

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Alan Young

Edwin Morgan is a Scottish poet who has achieved original and interesting results by employing experimental methods which dislocate conventional poetic vocabulary and syntax…. At a technical level, however, Morgan is also rooted firmly in traditional modes of writing. His poetry ranges, therefore, from original work in English and Scots (including translation from several European languages) to linguistic games of chance, many of which are certainly more anarchically neo-modernist than anything by [Ian Hamilton] Finlay. (p. 118)

As the title indicates, the poems of [From Glasgow to Saturn] include both local, sometimes most moving, social commentary and space-age science-fiction narratives...

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Dick Davis

Edwin Morgan's Poems of Thirty Years is a curate's egg of a book. Large stretches of it are only intermittently comprehensible (e.g. 'The New Divan'), it contains a great deal of versified sci-fi which can be of interest only to aficionados of that genre, and a lot of the earlier verse verges on the worst kind of 1940s apocalyptic twaddle (it was I think a mistake to include the hitherto unpublished 'Dies Irae' of 1952). On the other hand, many of the poems display passion, wit and a desperately inventive verve which is very persuasive; Morgan is at his most impressive in parody and invective, as in the early 'Vision of Cathkin Braes' or the later 'Five Poems on Film Directors', and despite the omnivorous range...

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John Lucas

[Poems of Thirty Years] brings together a vast amount of original work remarkable for its variety and skill. The skill is sometimes frittered away on sound and concrete poems, which may be fun to write and to utter but are not much fun to read. There are also elegies which feel merely dutiful and love poems notable for their lack of any intense feeling at all; yet these failures do not greatly matter. Morgan's imagination is not much stirred by the purely personal, but against that is the fact that he is an exuberantly inventive poet. Poems of Thirty Years is thoroughly entertaining, because although you never know quite what will come next you know that sooner or later you will come upon a poem that...

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Alasdair D.F. Macrae

The thirty years in the title of [Poems of Thirty Years] run from 1952 to 1982 and over this period Edwin Morgan has been remarkably productive…. Abroad he is perhaps best known for his concrete poems, poems such as 'The Computer's First Christmas Card' and 'The Loch Ness Monster's Song' where he plays with permutations of sounds, words and shapes on the page. Play, improvisation, surprise discoveries are central to his idea of poetry. Although he often writes in conventional metres, he obviously believes that many poems present themselves to the vigilant observer; thus, his Instamatic Poems (1972) catch the poetic moments as they are offered. The dangers in this notion of the found poem are that what...

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John Wain

[Morgan] makes statements, lots of them, and his poems are not ingenious but deeply intelligent. Since the death of Auden, who brought a tremendous range of speculation and knowledge into his poetry, Morgan seems to me to stand out almost unchallenged as a poet of ideas.

In case I seem to be saying that Morgan is a poet like Auden, let me add at once that he has nothing like the same gift for the felicitous phrase and is altogether a heavier, more viscous writer. He resembles Auden only insofar as the two of them are natural intellectuals. (p. 75)

Morgan, for his part, is a poet of amplitude. He is interested in so many things, the beam of his vision flashes round so widely, that he...

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