Watermonster Blues

William Wootten

  • Edwin Morgan: Inventions of Modernity by Colin Nicholson
    Manchester, 216 pp, £40.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 7190 6360 4
  • Beowulf translated by Edwin Morgan
    Carcanet, 118 pp, £6.95, November 2002, ISBN 1 85754 588 5
  • Cathures by Edwin Morgan
    Carcanet, 128 pp, £6.95, November 2002, ISBN 1 85754 617 2

Poems of science and science fiction, history and politics, love poems, comic poems, social realist or surrealist poems, dialogues and monologues, newspaper poems, Beat poems, concrete poems, sound poems and sonnets burst out of the pages of Edwin Morgan’s Collected. If he can’t do everything, it’s not for want of trying.

Now in his eighties, Morgan is the most influential Scottish poet since Hugh MacDiarmid. Partly because his prose statements and his poetic praxis lay more stress on what poetry can be than on what it should be, that influence has occasioned remarkably little anxiety in the younger poets, such as Robert Crawford, Liz Lochead, W.N. Herbert, Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay, who have learned from him.

In Edwin Morgan: Inventions of Modernity, Colin Nicholson tries to account for his many-sided subject by examining him facet by facet, but the result is rather less than the sum of its (sometimes valuable) parts. Nicholson gives a sense of the various periods and idioms, and the many influences, but not of which aspects of Morgan’s large and uneven output are the more important, nor of what continuity there has been through all the styles and years. Nicholson expands on Morgan’s nationalism, his political radicalism, his belief in modernity and his homosexuality, helped along by references to Julia Kristeva, Guy Debord and the like, couched in cluttered criticalese; but he leaves it unclear how Morgan’s beliefs have determined his poetics.

Reading Morgan’s most recent collection, Cathures (the old name for Glasgow), alongside the reissue of his early Beowulf makes it clear that he is as much a poet of la même chose as the poet of changes. He began his translation of Beowulf in the late 1940s; it was first published in 1952. Recent versions by Seamus Heaney and Michael Alexander might have made the need for the republication of Morgan’s less urgent for anyone who just wants to get hold of a good modern Beowulf, but as an early and defining Morgan poem it remains indispensable. First of all, the poem is a translation: Morgan has also translated from Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Dutch and ancient Greek, as well as (with a crib) from Khmer, Armenian and Hungarian. He has turned English into Scots and, in his version of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, turned English into English. In his original work, too, Morgan likes his language foreign. His talent for imitation and pastiche has given rise to passable impersonations of Shelley, Byron, Joyce and MacDiarmid; it has also allowed him to transcribe the sentiments of animals, aliens, waking mummies, monsters and computers.

The attempt to make a strange time and tongue communicate is supremely Morganish behaviour. But Beowulf has a rather more personal significance. In his new preface, Morgan writes: ‘The translation, which was begun shortly after I came out of the army at the end of the Second World War, was in a sense my unwritten war poem, and I would not want to alter the expression I gave to its themes of conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss.’

Not one of them thought he would ever again
Leave there to find his beloved land,
His folk or his fortress, where he once was bred;
For they knew how sudden death had already
Swept from the wine-hall more than too many

Morgan’s later reflections on the war also come at an angle. The poem that most explicitly addresses his wartime experience, the 1970s sequence ‘The New Divan’, intersperses personal reminiscences with fictions and meditations on the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. ‘The Demon Goes to Kill Death’, in Cathures, describes battlefields where

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