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Saturday, 26 January 2008

Scottish Genius

The Guardian has an interview, today, with the 88-year-old poetic genius, Edwin Morgan, Scotland's greatest living poet, who should have won the TS Eliot Prize for this year. His loss will, in time, be seen as both emblematic of the current climate in certain British poetry circles, and quite sad - but also deeply silly. Not only was he clearly the deserving winner, anyone with class would have decided it was a just and fitting bit of icing to a great cake of a career. Sadly, lesser minds, and more importantly, spirits, are currently bossing things about - without an ounce of Morgan's wit, open-minded playfulness, or international curiosity. In listing his influences, Sarah Crown the interviewer, notes that some names are less popular now - and then mentions Hart Crane. Only in the UK, where many in the new gang of poetry top dogs thinks anything even slightly modern, rhetorical, or American, is rubbish, would Hart Crane be so thought of - elsewhere, Crane is still beloved as one of the finest, and most thrilling, of 20th century poets.

What has happened, basically, is that Morgan (an engaging gay man with a great mind) represents the cosmopolitan wing of the British poetry world - a wing that has otherwise been mainly shut down by the so-called current mainstreamers - people who edit for Picador and Cape, say. The international poetry that gets in, almost under darkness, to Britain, gets in with the help of Salt, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, and a few other smaller presses. Even then, there is sometimes an overly sombre take on things - something Morgan, like Ashbery, in some ways a very similar figure for American writing (but far more influential over there) - avoids.

Basically, Morgan is open to the full play of poetry, word, and world - he has not morally, or aesthetically, edited his poetry before the ink flows, and he has no portentous, ego-driven agenda. Sadly, the force of Heaney's shadow has called forth a great many neo-emulators in Britain, men and women without Heaney's ability, or, for that matter, striking source material - therefore the countless dreary translations of classical poems of the last few years coming from London. This small group of influential neo-classical poets is trying to fight for the great seriousness of Poetry, but in the process, have managed to drive the life out of it. They've forgotten what Morgan always knew - a glad heart, and a big one - has more wax on which to burn a wick. Most poets in the UK are afraid to openly question this neo-classical crew, though some, deep down, feel alienated by its gruff, male, dour tone.

It's time to recall that, before poetry societies, and poetry prizes, there was poetry, full stop. Too much careerism means there are few fearless, clear, and direct poetry reviewers operating over here. Crown was right to feature Morgan now - it sends a good signal.
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