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

the sand was fused to glass,
And oil burned screaming along the waves,
And shelled villages were smoking shells
Or hells, though the shellers crowed to heaven.

Morgan has strong feelings of solidarity with the war band, but he’s also rather taken with one of its enemies. Grendel is a ‘demon’, a ‘monster’ and ‘mankind’s enemy’; but, a ‘terrible solitary’, he is also almost human: he is an outcast of the race of Cain, which has somehow strayed from the Land of Nod into the fen. There are moments when it’s clear how terribly solitary a terrible solitary can feel. Grendel

Began to suffer bitter sorrow
When day after day he heard the happiness
Of the hall resounding: the harp ringing,
Sweet minstrelsinging

Barred from the officers’ mess, it’s unsurprising that Grendel doesn’t care for its party music, or that he decides to ruin the fun of those inside.

Grendel is the first of Morgan’s many monsters, and casts some of his shadow on nearly all of them. Perhaps the most famous of them warbles ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’. It’s a sound poem, partly modelled on the Russian Futurists’ Zaum; the only clear English words are those of its title. As I understand it, the sounds transcribed are those of a poor solitary beast who surfaces hopefully looking for others of its kind (‘Sssnnnwhuffffll?’), discovers, to its great annoyance, that it is alone (‘fok splfok!’), and so goes back down to the depths (‘blp’). I might have got it wrong. But though its sounds, especially when read aloud by Morgan, are highly expressive, not understanding the Loch Ness Monster is part of the point. No one can properly understand the Loch Ness Monster: that’s why he sings the incomprehensible Caledonian watermonster blues.

These days Morgan is of the demon’s party, and he knows it. ‘Demon’, a sequence of poems in Cathures, is either about one demon who gets about a great deal or about several who sound remarkably alike. In the first poem, the protagonist is at the gates of the underworld where Orpheus, ‘picking at his harp’, makes a sound so moving that even Pluto appears to be misty-eyed. The demon takes his iron shaft to rattle the bars of the gate, causing Orpheus to get ‘devilish angry’, which, the poem intimates, might do him some good. The setting may be a little different, but this is Beowulf reshot as ‘Grendel Strikes Back’, the harpist and hall forced to listen to a little demon music for a change.

From Homer through Virgil and on, the descent to Hades has grown into a convention that has allowed poets to start a dialogue with the past, and with their poetic ancestry. It is also a trip that risks being merely a routine trot down the stairs for a chin-wag at the great poets’ club. So Morgan’s decision to stay outside the gates, to identify with the demon with his metal rod rather than Aeneas and his golden bough, neatly subverts tradition and the wish to be Virgilian. Morgan seems happy to leave greatness to others and to stay on the side of the lively, noisy, monstrous and mischievous.

Demon music may not always sound pretty, but it wakes you up. Morgan can be sonorous when it suits him – the pastiche Omar Khayyam of ‘empty as the soul/That seeks eternity in Nishapur’ is particularly nice – but even in poems that follow traditional forms, he usually goes for a rougher, impatient music. The idea of making a gadfly demon music provides, I suppose, a partial justification for squibs such as ‘A Plea’, which reacts to the low stock of Morgan’s local sperm bank with

Trot tae the clinic the morn’s morn
Wi the wherewithal tae get someone born.
Think o yon near-impotent bank.
Grit yer teeth and gie it a wank.

The notion of the poet as noisy irritant can seem more attractive in theory than in practice, but there’s a more general problem with Morgan’s playing demon’s advocate. The demon gets to be a hero only because his darkness is rendered nearly invisible. He is impish but not devilish, and careful to distinguish himself from the nastier sort of demon. It’s fairly easy for me to take Grendel’s side. He’s a fictional monster from a poem written more than a thousand years ago, and he hasn’t killed any of my hearth companions. Update him, though, and that strange figure with the overprotective mother who keeps himself to himself becomes a serial killer. However much one might object to particular people or groups being demonised or called monsters, and however much one values Morgan’s championing of the outcast, there are limits to how far it’s possible to side with certain modern demons. So when, in his new ballads, Morgan writes about real monsters – Burke and Hare and the poisoner Madeleine Smith – there is black comedy, but no attempt at fellow-feeling.

By making his 21st-century demon so likeable a spokesman for alterity, Morgan has avoided glorifying murder, but he has also bleached out something of the potent otherness of the demon’s ancestor. In ‘Grendel’, a poem written three decades after his translation of Beowulf, the creature says: ‘It is being nearly human/gives me this spectacular darkness.’ The completely unhuman – dinosaurs, aliens – is funny or frightening, and tricky to decipher, but it isn’t creepy. Grendel, an ancestor of Freddy Krueger, with claws for hands and each of the nail-joints ‘like very steel’, is very creepy. ‘In the Snack Bar’, a realist poem of the 1960s, describes helping a blind, hunchbacked old man, ‘like a monstrous animal’, to have a pee. Morgan is compassionate, but he is also honest enough to register fear.

Does he know how frightening he is in his strangeness
under his mountainous coat, his hands like wet leaves
stuck to the half-white stick?

Hands ‘like wet leaves’ may not seem threatening, but they do induce a disquiet like that conjured by Beowulf’s damp, half-human creature. Morgan’s poetry, which demonstrates the humanness of the monster and the inhumanity of the human, is more troubling but richer than any straightforward celebration of otherness is likely to be.

Morgan isn’t much interested in theory. When he quotes from Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, in his lecture ‘Language, Poetry and Language Poetry’, the choice of passage is revealing:

Barthes speaks about the zero degree of the word, found only in the dictionary or in poetry, where for example the noun need have no article, and where each poetic word is a sort of Pandora’s box, full of potentiality rather than referentiality. ‘This Hunger of the Word,’ he says, ‘common to the whole of modern poetry, makes poetic speech terrible and unhuman. It indicates a discourse full of gaps and full of lights, filled with absences and over-nourishing signs, without foresight or stability of intention, and thereby so opposed to the social function of language that merely to have recourse to discontinuous speech is to open the door to all that stands above nature.’

Morgan has fashioned a discourse that includes the terrible and unhuman, and is opposed to the social function of language. Perhaps his most characteristic invention is the poem where the poetry is all in the gaps made in a pre-existing sentence, as in ‘Message Clear’, which deletes letters from ‘i am the resurrection and the life’ to make lines such as

i am r                   ife

                    i     n

          s         ion and

i                           d     i e

In his lecture, Morgan cites Veronica Forrest-Thomson as one of the precursors of the American Language School. Forrest-Thomson tried to mix literary theory with Wittgenstein and some of the poetics of J.H. Prynne. She died young, and her poetry promised more than she had time to deliver. The ‘Unfinished Poems’, Morgan’s fragmented elegies to her, published in The New Divan (1977), are some of his most remarkable and moving poems. Like the ‘Demon’ sequence, the ‘Unfinished Poems’ begin uneasily close to Virgil’s underworld; the first poem goes on to describe

when the light was withdrawn from the edges of things,
and monsters shook their scales, with a dry clashing,
and there seemed more dead than living,
as indeed there are.

These monsters bring terror not amusement, and the gaps that start to appear at the poems’ edges indicate not a game but the unsaid and the unspeakable, as an attempt to communicate with an unreachable, absent, lonely addressee keeps breaking down.

In a 1949 letter to Morgan, W.S. Graham wrote that on the sea he felt ‘a part of a great energy which has nothing to do with any morality and is completely unhuman’, and that the ‘only ones whose sympathy to my poetry I respect are those . . . in whose poems there is evidence of that relation to language as a dialogue taken part in, going on in the very centre loneliness’. This is a brilliantly insightful observation, and the (intentionally?) absent ‘of’ in the phrase ‘the very centre loneliness’ seems an important omission. The sea for Graham is sometimes the desert for Morgan, but more often it is space – the place where the unhuman energy that is his daemon seems at home with its homelessness.

‘The Tree-House’, one of the better of the short poems in Cathures, has Morgan climbing into a tree-house, surveying the world below, then gazing at ‘the high, the uncapturable’ clouds. It’s a happy poem. But – sitting comfortably some way above the world and contemplating what’s higher still and more untouched – it’s happy in a Philip Larkin sort of way. The happiness both is and isn’t characteristic: Morgan likes his watchers of the skies and likes being one himself, but gets impatient when the drift of clouds becomes the drift into reverie. In ‘Use of Clouds’ he inquires frustratedly: ‘What about your mates on Jupiter?’ Cloud-gazing is all right for a bit, but scanning the stars through a telescope is better, and the view from a speeding spaceship or racing demon best of all.

The two slightly Tennysonian dramatic monologues that begin Cathures can be read as disguised imaginative autobiographies. In the first, ‘Pelagius’, the fourth-century British heretic and enemy of St Augustine articulates a determination, in spite of all his failures and enemies, to work for a brighter, less superstitious future, concluding: ‘It is for the unborn, to accomplish their will/With amazing, but only human, grace.’ This is one Morgan, the singer of hymns to a bright humanism and a brighter future. In ‘Merlin’, both speaker and meaning are more hermetic. Merlin declares: ‘Battles end, and surgeons come, and ravens./A horn blew truce, but nothing would console me.’ And so, for a time, Merlin becomes a maddened solitary, so much in the company of a wolf that he too is made wolfish. At last he is brought back to sanity and society, like Lear (that ‘nothing’ is purposeful) but unlike Grendel, by the workings of soft music, here that of lute players. After this, Merlin seems almost content to live out his days peering at the heavens from an observatory above Cathures: ‘The madness was gone,/And now I must make the most of men.’ The line has a nice ambiguity, poised between sociability and humane optimism and a shrugging disappointment at the loss of beastly solitude. Morgan can never decide whether he belongs alone in the fen or with the lutanist in the hall.