Interview: Edwin Morgan - Scotland's greatest living poet

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'YOU'LL be wanting the professor then?" A bright spring day in Glasgow, daffodils fluttering in the breeze outside the Crow Road care home, and inside an assistant smiles and says, yes, they've got plenty of doctors, but only the one professor.

• Edwin Morgan is described by Robyn Marsack and Hamish Whyte as 'the most wide-ranging and inclusive poet Scotland has ever had'. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

And not just any old professor either.

Edwin Morgan is 90 today. This afternoon, a taxi will call round to the care home and take Scotland's best-loved poet to the Mitchell Library for an event in his honour. He won't be reading any of his poetry himself: his voice, like much of the rest of his body, has grown too frail after a decade of living with prostate cancer.

So today, it's the turn of his friends and admirers. Morgan doesn't know it yet, but he'll be presented with a book in which they try to put into words the effect his own words have had on them.

"He is," say Eddie@90's editors, Robyn Marsack and Hamish Whyte, "the most wide-ranging and inclusive poet Scotland has ever had."

"You've got to go back to Burns," adds Whyte, his publisher and long-time friend, "to find a Scottish poet of similarly sweeping range and humanity."

In the care home, he's sitting in at his desk with his back to me, his head bowed down on his chest as if meditating or snoozing after lunch, the light from the window haloing his white hair. He doesn't turn round when I enter his room, but I know that he can't and that he probably hasn't heard me anyway.

There are dictionaries for a handful of languages on his shelves, but because he can hardly move they lie beyond his reach. Languages into whose depths he could dive at will for his translations of Mayakovsky, Brecht, Neruda, Yevtushenko, Beowulf and Rostand now fall silent and unused. On his desk, where the bubbling words of the Loch Ness Monster, of Martians to visiting spacemen, of a man remembering his lover's smoky kiss were once banged through the red and black ribbon of his Adler Blue Bird typewriter, there's no papery hint of work in progress.

But that's where I'm wrong: there is still one Edwin Morgan poetry book left. Dreams and Other Nightmares, which is also published today, is a book of new and uncollected poems, a few of which have been written from the nursing home, the rest ranging back up to 50 years.

This will be, he says, his last book, so I turn to its last poem. It's about not death, but its opposite. A translation of one of the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book riddles, it harks back to the anonymous tenth-century monk who composed it, teasing out the sublimity of the world around him, showing how the grand sweep of life itself could be reduced to just one hidden word:

Up beyond the universe and back

Down to the tiniest chigger in the finger –

I outstrip the moon in brightness,

I outrun midsummer suns.

I embrace the seas and other waters,

I am fresh and green as the fields I form.

I walk under hell, I flow over the heavens.

I am the land, I am the ocean.

I claim this honour, I claim its worth.

I am what I claim. What is my name?

The answer – well, we'll get to that in a minute. But first, just note how typical it is of Morgan's work, not just in its erudition and playfulness, but also in its lack of self-pity. Here, after all, is a poet whose own world has grown even more narrowly circumscribed than a tenth-century monk's cell; who, for all the shining sharpness of his mind, can hardly write and is barely able to drag a spidery signature across the page. He could have been forgiven for feeling sorry for himself, this poet whose work has given us limitless universes, yet who is now isolated by encroaching deafness.

But while he could have written an elegaic note of remembered longing, or a shout of rage against the indignities of old age, or nightmare scenes in which the past rearranges itself in perverse forms – and there are such poems throughout the book – the poem he chooses to end his book with has a hint of optimism about it. And when I think of Eddie Morgan, it's his optimism that I think of first. Secondly, his mischievousness.

The first time I interviewed Eddie, towards the end of September 2001, was in his Anniesland flat. As he had just been diagnosed with the cancer that necessitated a move to a care home, one might reasonably enough have expected a certain amount of self-pity. Not a bit of it.

As the interview progressed, he told me about why, even though he had cancer, he remained an optimist ("it's not your life that matters, it's what you do with it"). We ranged back over the decades, including the war years in which he had served with the 42nd General Hospital in Egypt, Palestine and the Lebanon.

Towards the end, we talked briefly about his latest project ("Operation Glasgow, I call it") for which he was writing poems about historical figures associated with Glasgow. They weren't a predictable bunch: Merlin ("according to some authorities he had a palace at Partick"), the balloonist Vincent Lunardi and St Mungo's mother, St Thennoch. Oh, and Pelagius.

"What do you know about Pelagius?" asked Eddie, leaning forward, eyes twinkling. Not much, I replied, only that he was some kind of heretic. "Yes," he sighed, "all most people know about him is through him being denounced by St Augustine."

Later, back in the office, I looked up Pelagius on the internet and I read that he was a fourth-century Briton who was essentially an optimist about humankind, which he thought untainted by original sin. That he was a man of great learning who had travelled to Egypt and Palestine. "By some it is suggested," the article concluded, "that his real name was Morgan."

Morgan. Or should that be Merlin? Some sort of magician anyway. Some sort of modest magus that the tribe would turn to when its new parliament needed opening. Some sort of witty bard that would awaken a love of poetry in its schoolchildren – like the young Ian Rankin, reading Morgan's "The Computer's First Christmas Card" at Beath High School ("this was a new sensation for me as I sat in my English class: poetry was making me happy").

Among poets, Morgan has been such a generous encourager that you could almost pick them at random and find some remembered example of his kindness. The very greatest of them could see a lot more. In Eddie@90, Seamus Heaney recalls "paying formal homage to Scotland's poet laureate" in the very room I'm in now. He recognised in him the unpretentiousness and shyness he'd first noted 30 years ago when he first heard him read. "But now I was shy myself in the presence of one who had done such magnificent work as poet and translator… who cast a warm eye on life and whose achievement shines fuller and steadier as the decades pass."

I've brought a bottle, and the old bard's eyes light up childishly when he sees it. He's frank, but unpitying about the physical pain he often feels in the evenings, waiting for painkillers which often don't seem to work, "but I know everyone is doing their best and there's no point complaining".

"We're very limited in out knowledge of pain," he says, pointing out a book by 1920s French- Belgian explorer Alexandra David-Nel, With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet, which indicated that parts of the brain can be developed that will blank out pain. "Scientists will be working on that, I feel quite sure. But even if they overcome it, there is one big overhanging effect to it all – the knowledge that you're not going to live for very much longer. And that can make you very pessimistic – or it can make you very determined not to be pessimistic. I prefer the second option.

"A lot of people in my situation are held back by the fear of not being able to carry on or to finish things. I think this is quite wrong. You should not be put off by fear, but you should go ahead and do whatever it is you've still got to do, to put your head down, go to the plough and see what it turns up."

Which reminds me: that Anglo-Saxon riddle. Its answer – Eddie Morgan's last answer too – is "Creation". That's what happens when you go to the plough and see what it turns up. Or, in Morgan's case, write poetry.

It's time to go. I don't want to tire him out. As I turn back towards the door, I notice something I didn't spot as I made my way into the room. On top of a chest of drawers is a vase full of daffodils, bursting with life, blooming as if there's no tomorrow.

Dreams and Other Nightmares, New and Collected Poems 1954-2009 by Edwin Morgan, published by Mariscat Press, price 9.

&#149 Eddie@90, edited by Robyn Marsack & Hamish Whyte is published today by the Scottish Poetry Library and Mariscat Press, price 10

IN PRAISE OF THE BIRTHDAY BARD

If universes have a heart then Eddie Morgan is the beat

If all the world's a Fred Astaire then Eddie Morgan is the feet

If Scottish literature's calvinist then Eddie Morgan is the laugh

If all the world is short of neck then Eddie Morgan's the giraffe

If say-it's-only-a paper-moon then Eddie Morgan is the word

If all the world's a melody then Eddie Morgan is the bird

If art and life make eyes at all then Eddie Morgan's going steady

If all the world can speak the words are voice love art life (Morgan, Eddie).

IN THE MUSEUM OF MORGANISMS

'No, no, in our part of the galaxy

a morganism is not just a string

of words, a clever phrase, it is a thing

alive, morganic. Look at this one. See

how dense it is, how complex, yet how light –

sheer as morganza. What's more, all the cells

contain their own distinctive morganelles.

Well morganised, you say? Indeed, you're right.'

Our guide retreats. We wander through the halls,

letting our minds expand. Now in our ears

great morgan music plays, and shakes the walls

telling of loves, of joys, of hopes, of fears,

and stirs our hearts to cheer that magic kist

of whistles, and its maestro morganist.

FROM A NURSING HOME

– Now that you are down to one room,

Your world the room with the modest window,

Have you started thinking about it?

– About what?

– What we mentioned before.

First and last things. Don't say you've forgotten.

– I was never thinking about it.

Straitened circumstances are hardly a must.

A room is a room. As I write this

My eye sweeps round table and typewriter,

Bed and bookcase and good book-booty,

Black Marigolds, Howl, Vereshchagin,

Moby-Dick, Before Adam, Ulysses,

You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free.

Careful, careless, carefree – we are alive

With whatever equanimity we can muster

As time bites and burns along our veins.

Wakened by gulls – god what a raucous caucus –

I wonder what makes them so angry.

Think of my shrubbery wren, I tell them,

Copy his apologetic scuttle

Among dusty late-summer leaves.

So nothing changes? Stupid anthropomorphism

Is only the idealist's last gasp.

Let the wren shriek and the gull go pitter-patter

For one surreal day, see if you like it,

I don't think so, haecceitas is all:

– Four Tornados have just torn the sky to ribbons

So low-flying they make my pen bounce

And my heart too for a moment. Test flights

Not in nature become so. In my room

I watch the new design emerge and shine.

&#149 From Dreams and Other Nightmares, New and Collected Poems 1954-2009 by Edwin Morgan

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