First poem from Scotland's new Laureate is plea for a republic
AS EDWIN Morgan casts his smiling gaze over his first work as Scotland’s Poet Laureate, a look of mischief crosses his eyes.
No wonder. A week after being appointed as the "Makar poet" by First Minister Jack McConnell, the new Laureate has decided for his first work to write what critics describe as a clarion call for an independent Scottish republic.
The work, the first by Scotland’s national poet, was commissioned by Scotland on Sunday following his appointment last week and is published exclusively for the first time today.
Morgan wrote the work in the nursing home in Glasgow where he moved four months ago as he continues to battle against terminal cancer.
Upon taking up the unpaid post, the 83-year-old insisted that he would be a "turbulent" poet, who would not be afraid to ruffle the Scottish establishment.
McConnell will be excused this morning for allowing himself a wry smile as Morgan shows that he has been true to his word.
The work, entitled ‘New Times’, makes little attempt to hide the poet’s long-held republican sympathies.
"So give us leave to build our highway
Which you may think is but a byway
But it is not... " he declares.
It goes on:
"… We’re raw, we’re green
But what’s to come, not what has been
Drives us charged and tingling-new
To score our story on the blue."
The poem was already been compared by literary critics last night with a previous work by Morgan entitled ‘The Coin’, where he imagines finding a coin inscribed with the words "Republica Scotorum".
It will be met with delight by campaigners for independence and equal dismay by many of their opponents.
In an interview with Scotland on Sunday, Morgan said he believed that Scottish independence was an inevitability.
"I think a Scottish republic is on the cards," he said. "You have to congratulate the Executive for creating this post. It is something of a risk because we poets are free spirits and we distrust the establishment.
"A writer can do what he wants and not what the politicians want him to do."
A former professor at Glasgow University, Morgan is now indisputably Scotland’s foremost contemporary poet, with works spanning six decades.
His best known works, including ‘The Second Life’ and ‘From Glasgow to Saturn’ are now in the school curriculum.
McConnell paid tribute to the life-work of the poet last week, recalling how he had discovered poetry at the age of 14, when picking up a work of Morgan’s entitled ‘Glasgow, March 5th 1971’.
But there is a gulf between the two in the political sphere. Morgan is among a group called "Artists for Independence" which include the novelist James Kelman and composer James MacMillan.
Readers of his work last night said that it was clear he intended to drive that home in the new post.
Professor Robert Crawford, from the department of English Literature at St Andrew’s University, and an expert on Morgan’s work, said: "It is clearly a republican poem and it is very interesting that he is raising that as he takes over this post.
"It establishes something about the nature of this Laureateship which will make is different to the post down south which has been always associated with the Monarchy.
"He is marking himself out as someone distance himself from the political establishment. It reads to me that he is trying to establish a point that the Scottish Poet Laureate will not become a political flunky of the Scottish establishment."
He added: "It has a resolute quality, not least in the phrase at the beginning of the third stanza ‘But it is not’."
Morgan wrote the poem last week in the small ground floor room he now lives in within his nursing home.
He writes at a desk at the foot of his bed, with views of Glasgow city centre to the south.
It is understood that the terms of the position are "delicate" because of the poet’s declining health.
In future years, holders of the post will be chosen by an independent committee.
The post has been termed "the Makar", a term which refers to Scots poets of the 15th and 16th centuries.
McConnell is understood to have long wanted to create the post, following lobbying by the Scottish Arts Council, and proposed it to the cabinet two weeks ago. Following discussions with the leaders of the other main parties, Morgan was named as the "obvious choice" for the post.
Morgan prefers to use the title of Poet Laureate, as opposed to "makar", claiming he would prefer to look ahead, rather than borrow titles from the past.
But speaking to Scotland on Sunday, he enthusiastically welcomed the creation of the post.
"The UK Poet Laureate has always been English - never Scottish or Welsh or Irish. And many people thought that that was an anomalous position. This isn’t an anti-English position, but we weren’t getting the whole picture and I believe the Welsh have been saying the same thing," he said.
"Now we have finally got the ear of people in government."
Morgan said he backed the devolved parliament, but insisted that it was only a job half-done.
"I would be in favour of further change," he said. "I think a Scottish republic is on the cards. Scotland was once independent; it was so for many years. It is always in the back of our minds. It is not an impossible future."
"The parliament has done OK but there is a nagging feeling that it is not quite enough."
Morgan has previously written a poem about the late Donald Dewar, a personal friend. He said he had yet to decide whether to write about McConnell in future years.
"I don’t know him well enough," he said. "I knew Donald Dewar well and I admired him a lot. It was a great loss when he died.
"Jack McConnell has still to prove himself and he has to do a lot still. But I was quite impressed by him."
He said he planned eventually to write a poem about the new Scottish parliament building when it was finally complete.
John Swinney, leader of the SNP, said last night: "Edwin Morgan has been a fantastic ambassador for Scottish literature. This poem is rooted in the tradition of many Scottish artists of looking confidently and ambitiously to the future of Scotland. These words prove that Edwin Morgan is the Makar for our times."
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