The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Poet of a Better Nation

On Sunday 19 October BBC2's new series of Artworks Scotland kicked off with a programme about Edwin Morgan. Now in his eighties, Edwin Morgan is one of the greatest living Scottish poets. He is also a man who inspires, and deserves, admiration and affection. In interviews with other Scottish writers, including Ron Butlin and Liz Lochhead, this came across as strongly as the good reasons for it did in the interview with Morgan himself.

Despite having led what was in some respects a double life for many years - he came out publicly as homosexual at the age of seventy - there is very little of the famous Caledonian antisyzygy in Morgan's poetry. There is great variety, in manner and matter, but instead of contradiction there is coherence. He contains multitudes, but doesn't contradict himself. It's as if he accepted his then-illegal identity very early on like a dedicated secret agent conscious that he is in the right. No wrestling with Presbyterian conscience or Catholic guilt or Communist angst for him. He is, as far as can be ascertained from what I've read of his poetry, a modern pagan. No stranger to pain, in life or in his work, he affirms the possibilities of pleasure.

And progress. Whether it's hailing the reconstruction of Glasgow in the 1960s in 'The Second Life' or looking forward to 'the smoke of useful industry' rising over Scotland's empty (emptied) lands or rubbing Cardinal Winning's nose in the repeal of Section 28 ('you are not winning') his poems often carry a cheerful modernist charge that too many today might regard as quaint.

Some of his best-known poems ('The First Men on Mercury', 'The Coin', 'In Sobieski's Shield', etc) are science fiction, or are about space travel. I can't think of any other widely-recognised major poet who has written so well, and so unapologetically, in SF. And he is in SF. I don't know if he reads much of it, if any, but he speaks it like a native.

I once asked him if SF fandom had ever been in touch, asked him to a con, or to speak to or read at a meeting, taken him out for a drink ... Nope. Not a note, not a dram.

It's time to repair this omission. He's getting on. He's still working. Now is good.


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