Modern Scottish Poetry (2004)

Modern Scotish Poetry
Whyte’s survey of Scottish poetry during the last 6 decades of the 20th century takes an approach which is aleatoric and agnostic.
First of all he discusses polemically the role of nationality in assessing poetry, then offering a lively account of Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Literary Renaissance in the interwar years.
For each decade he analyses in detail 3 or 4 significant collections, building up an overall portrait which is penetrating and suggestive, posing at least as many questions as it answers.
On Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘The Second Life’
The poet looks back to the winter months preceding when, from the windows of the flat in a 1960s high-rise block which was his home during much of his life, he watched the skaters on the frozen pond beyond the busy highway separating him from them. A renewal is occurring inside him too and, as the poem proceeds, its second, more covert agenda gestures towards explicitness. Seven lines from the beginning, ‘a looming mastery’ has laid ‘its hand’ on a young man’s ambiguously, perhaps euphemistically designated ‘bowels’. After ‘aspiring’, the word ‘rise’ occurs three times, then ‘stir’ four times within three lines, until ‘desire’ and ‘strength’ are imaged as ‘an arm saluting a sun’. To put it a touch mischieviously, it is beyond doubt that the new blocks of housing are not the only erections being celebrated.
Here, as typically in his work until the 1990s, Morgan limits himself to half-statements, allusions and displacements. In the third extended paragraph of ‘The Second Life’ a ‘seed in darkness’ introduces the notion of a ‘snake’, immediately replaced by an ‘eye’ which sloughs off its film rather than a skin. And though it is this ‘eye’ which concludes the paragraph, echoing the ending of the first as it ‘salutes the sun’, it is hard to overlook the persistently phallic imagery, the slippig back of the foreskin through which ‘we come alive/not once, but many times’.
While accepting the need to be covert, Morgan also gestures towards what he is concealing. ‘Many things are unspoken/ in the life of a man’, and his ‘unspoken love’ for his native city is only one of at least two kinds of love. The isolated injunction to ‘Slip out of darkness, it is time’ can be read as addressed to himself and to his phallus, as well as to his city in the throes of rebirth. And when, in the last paragraph but one, he announces that he has no other children than ‘the children of my heart’, the meaning of the last lines, with orgasm achieved and ejaculation following, seems unmistakable:
                                     On the generations,
on the packed cells and dreaming shoots,
the untried hopes, the waiting good
I send this drop to melt.
The poem’s debt to Walt Whitman, then, cannot be restricted to its effortless deployment of a free verse so natural in its inflections as to seem inseparable from the utterance, to its generous embracing and affirming of a modern, urban community in all its varied manifestations. Whitman was Morgan’s master, too, in manipulating, even contaminating a poetic medium to accommodate contents of a literally criminal nature in the society of the time. This tension between saying and not saying, between coming out and staying in, which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would quite rightly identify as a tension of the closet, is fundamental to Morgan’s poetry.
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Modern Scottish Poetry

‘As cultural history, Modern Scottish Poetry teems with ideas. The kaleidoscope of Scotland’s multiple languages and cultures comes across persuasively.’
– Alasdair Fowler, Times Literary Supplement

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