In 1976, Edwin Morgan passed a verdict on an older Scottish poet - then still living - that now serves equally as a summary of his own remarkable career. "His methods are his own, and he is a model for no one, but he is one of the great 20th-century writers whose individuality it will take the next century to sift and define." At 83, Morgan is still writing with undiminished inventiveness. That may be why this is the first full-length study of his work.
Colin Nicholson has made a broadly chronological approach to Morgan's output and the critical and political concerns that have driven it. He relates his early career to the deutero-surrealism of the postwar Apocalyptic school, traces his passionate and very informed interest in Russian futurism, his prescient concern with space and cybernetic technology, and his long-standing commitment to libertarian politics. In a publishing career that has spanned six decades, Morgan has written in Scots and standard English, has written science fiction and "concrete" poetry, has translated from a number of languages, and has written an important body of gay poetry. He has chosen to ignore the more tiresome squabbles and antinomies of 20th-century literary history in favour of a very personal voice and a very personal set of urgencies. This makes him a difficult figure to pin down, and Nicholson has done a magnificent job of historicising the career without making the work seem abstractly historicist.
This dilemma is central to Inventions of Modernity as it has been throughout Morgan's long writing life. The figure he was writing about in 1976 was, of course, Hugh MacDiarmid. From him, Morgan learnt many lessons, not least about the role of spoken Scots in written poetry. The one he has taken unfailingly to heart is the one he identified in an earlier interview with Nicholson and published in the latter's 1992 book, Poem, Purpose and Place: "Hugh MacDiarmid used to speak about the human brain being largely unused. I'm sure that's quite true, and I think language is like that too."
Morgan has devoted himself to the exploration of language as a reflection of lived reality and the way we perceive and interact with it.
Like MacDiarmid, he has not resisted the use of outwardly non-literary language in his verse; science is a constant presence. Morgan's poetry, all the way from The Vision of Cathkin Braes (1952) to Themes on a Variation (1988) and beyond, is not so much "experimental", as is often claimed, but experiential. The clinching confirmation of this is Morgan's growing interest through the 1990s in dramatic work and writing for the stage.
Nicholson's introduction is peppered with the old-fashioned rhetoric of 1980s literary theory. On the very first page of the introduction, Morgan's "satanic verses resonate a structured intention to bring the unthought into dialogic relationship". Happily, most of this is dispensed with by page 15 and Inventions of Modernity has for the most part the same tender muscularity as its subject. It is a much-needed and timely first approach to a very significant modern poet.
Brian Morton is a former literary editor, The THES.
Edwin Morgan: Inventions of Modernity
Author - Colin Nicholson
ISBN - 0 7190 6360 4
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 216