Oral Poetry, John Jowett

Glasgow Poets Past and Present: The Story of a City
Edwin Morgan,
Avizandum Editions (University of Waikato Scottish Studies Association), $5.00

 

This pamphlet marks a time and place. It prints a lecture delivered by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan at Waikato University in March 1992, when Morgan was visiting Waikato to receive an honorary doctoral degree. His lecture was promoted by the university’s newly-formed Scottish Studies Association, and the present publication launches the Association’s Avizandum Editions.

Morgan’s subject is a city past and present in poetry. No one is better placed to speak on Glasgow poets than Morgan, a poet very much of the city, and a figure of unmistakable authority in the cultural life of Scotland. He consciously locates himself within a Scottish literary tradition and his work as a translator of European literature has opened up new possibilities of international configuration.

The printed lecture has the comfortable quirkiness of the spoken word, open and unrigorous syntax, phrases that demand a certain intonation. This is especially appropriate as many of the poems themselves hark back to oral traditions. Indeed, it would be hard to speak of Glasgow in a language oblivious of the demotic. Even Hugh MacDiarmid assumes a ‘lighter, ironic’ tone and writes casual lines such as ‘Buses & trams all labelled ‘To Ibrox”‘: the style of a poet who notes that, ‘Returning to Glasgow after long exile/ Nothing seemed to me to have changed its style’. The character of Morgan’s subject as lecture theme retraces the qualities of Glasgow as poetic topos. Morgan surveys poems that lend themselves to public reading.

He begins making a myth: the city’s patron saint, St Mungo, fancifully imagined exchanging verse with St Columba. John Mayne’s complacent Scottish Enlightenment celebration of ‘Clean-keepit streets! so lang & braid/ The distant objects seem to fade’ opens the extant record, and sounds a theme often varied usually by inversion. There are poems about Glasgow people: ‘The Humours o Gleska Fair’, ‘Glasgow Patriots’, and Marion Bernstein’s ironic poem on marital violence, ‘Married & “Settled”‘. Morgan praises more recent Glasgow poetry for its capacity, in defiance of MacDiarmid, to adapt, to be diverse and open to influence. He adduces Tom Leonard’s refusal of ‘Standard Southern English’; Jean Milton’s acceptance of American Open and Beat styles; Jackie Kay’s multivocal poetic of divided ethnic identity; the ‘populist socio-political’ alongside the ‘tough and difficult’.

In 1933 William Montgomerie saw Glasgow as a flowerless ugliness but dreamed of a transforming miracle; this miracle seems about to be realised in Morgan’s own ‘The Second Life’, which wonders at ‘the slow great blocks’ of concrete rising above the newly-planted banks of spring daffodils. His lecture’s commitment to the past as well as the present is a celebration of change, literary and historic, and if history has ironised his attitude to the rehousing schemes of the 1960s, Morgan no doubt accepts that, too.

The pamphlet has introductory notes by Alan Riach and Marshall Walker, and a bibliography of sources.

 

John Jowett, formerly at Waikato University, now teaches English at the University of Glasgow.

 

 

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