Saturday, August 21, 2010

Edwin Morgan: taking it personally

The death of a famous person snags the consciousness, be they movie star, writer or monarch. But when that famous person is someone you've known, the news of their death is a moment of bereavement. And now Edwin Morgan has died, and the memories surface.

My first memory is one shared by hundreds of undergraduates at Glasgow University. I was a student in the huge Ordinary English class of 64-65, daunted by lectures on Extraneous Factors in Literary Criticism (what do you write down during such a lecture?), ignorant of anything beyond the school syllabus, in which we had studied nothing written after the 1920s. Edwin Morgan was the youngest figure to lecture to us, on 20th century poetry. His slightly breathless, undeniably Scottish voice was encouraging; I found something to write down. A friend produced a poem: look - he wrote this! And things began to join up.

Fast forward to the late '90s. I am no longer ignorant about 20th century poetry and have Morgan's collected poems as well as a slim volume or two. I have taught generations of children First Men on Mercury and In Central Station along with other gems, and they have loved them. Morgan comes to the school to talk to the seniors, and I am detailed to look after him - because you knew him. I am in awe - more than when I was 20 - and delighted. He wears a yellow jacket and reads his poems and the voice is still there, quieter but recognisable, and we can't get the kids to leave him alone at the end because it is obvious they love him as they loved his poems. He tells me he'll probably not make it to Dunoon again as he comes by public transport and the stairs on the ferry are getting to be too much for him. When he leaves, I write a poem about the visit. Later, I realise the librarian has sent it to him, for he sends a postcard in thanks.

In the years that follow, I presume upon my renewed contact with Morgan to send him poems - not just my own, about which he is encouraging, offers constructive advice, but also poems written by pupils. The best moments are landmarks for them: the very mixed bunch of S2 boys who write their own poems based on the form of Off Course and laboriously compose the accompanying letter which they dictate to the most literate of their number; the S3 girl who makes a speech about Strawberries for her Solo Talk assessment and sends him the script. Nothing goes unacknowledged, and each is the recipient of a personal reply - photocopied 27 times in the case of the boys.

My final memory, however, is mine alone. Morgan, by now already living in one nursing home because of illness, has to transfer to a second on the closure of the first, and comes to inhabit a room on the floor below the one in which my mother has lived for the previous 6 months following a stroke. Despite the stroke-induced problems with speech, my mother tells me that he has been visiting her on "her" floor, having been told that there's a lady who loves poetry there. He reads to her, and brings a new interest into her last months. The day before she dies, I take a breather from sitting in her room, ask a nurse if Professor Morgan is able to see a visitor. She doubts it, as he has been in pain that day, but checks - and swiftly comes back with an invitation. He is sitting at a desk in a room identical to my mother's, but lined with books. He is wearing a rust-coloured needlecord shirt. I thank him for what he has done for my mother, and tell him her end is near. He holds my hand, tells me I shall write about this experience some day, but not yet. I tell him there is one poem already, about nasturtiums. I love nasturtiums, he says.

I read the poem at the funeral the next week.


  1. A lovely tribute.

  2. Thank You very much for leaving a comment on our class blog - the children will be delighted as it's their first experience of blogging :-)

    When I followed your link, I read your post about the meetings with Edwin Morgan and thought it was a wonderful read. Thanks for taking the time to share the story. JV (other half)is a lover of poetry - he'll appreciate this post, too.

  3. ovely post, Mrs B, to a very fine man with a place in many hearts. Some of those hearts were directed by you.

  4. Elizabeth Sandie7:12 PM

    We metdiscussing Shapcott's Night flight from Muncaster at The Edinburgh Festival last week. Pleased to find your blethers and especially this tribute to Edwin Morgan. I was a great fan too and like you introduced many students to his work. Unlike you I didn't have the privilege of knowing him. Haven't got going properly with my blog yet but can be found at