Playing Games of Sense in Edwin Morgan’s Writing

by Monika Kocot (Author)
©2016 Monographs 218 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 12


Monika Kocot’s book on Edwin Morgan’s literary achievement, both poetry and drama, foregrounds the themes of cultural transgression, dialogism of the author’s creative design, and various, potentially subversive games of sense creation: «verbivocovisual» constellations, mythopoetic «writings-through» and intersemiotic translations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: “Not Playing the Game”? Influences and Inspirations: Morgan’s Dialogising with Literary Tradition(s)
  • Chapter One: Dialogic Imagination in Morgan’s Work. The Process of “Writing-Through:” the Strange Case of John Cage and Edwin Morgan
  • Chapter Two: Latent Textuality and the Rhetoric of Re/Mis-Reading in “Message Clear”
  • Chapter Three: (De)(Re)Constructivist Mimesis of Repetition and Difference
  • Chapter Four: From Broken Communication to the Technique of (Linguistic) Anamorphosis
  • Chapter Five: Trickster Discourse: The Figure of Whittrick
  • Chapter Six: Voices of the Other in Morgan’s Christian Mythopoeia
  • Chapter Seven: The Play of the Ancient and the (Post)Modern: “He Who Saw the Deep” in The Play of Gilgamesh
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Index

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Introduction: “Not Playing the Game”? Influences and Inspirations: Morgan’s Dialogising with Literary Tradition(s)

To be means to communicate dialogically.

When dialogue ends, everything ends.

Thus dialogue, by its very essence,

cannot and must not come to an end

Mikhail Bakhtin

of what we call genius, energy is the most essential part

Matthew Arnold

I.I Critical Appreciation

In Iain Crichton Smith’s opinion, Edwin Morgan’s poetry has always been large, vigorous, and imaginative.1 It has been energetic and various, composed of straight narrative, concrete poetry, science-fiction, satire. “It has been life enhancing, technology-welcoming, adventurous, protean.… Its range of languages is gargantuan, using Latin, French, demotic Glasgow, grave Academe, the language of the computer and of geology” (“Vintage Morgan” 13). Ian Gregson in Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism describes Morgan’s dictionary as “a more centrifugal poetic” and goes on to draw the ingenious (postmodern) analogy that “reading Morgan can seem less like reading and more like channel-hopping” (134). The stations involved will not only be beaming in from (in Morgan’s own words) “the ← 9 | 10 → lunar mountains in Hugh MacDiarmid,” but will also involve “the orbiting rocket in Anselm Hollo,” and “the lobotomy in Allen Ginsberg” (qtd. in Gregson 136).

For Kenneth White, reading Poems of Thirty Years (1982) felt like a “gradual process of getting spaced out … for this virtuoso has a finger in every pie, from the meat pies you get in the local greasy spoon to the cherry pies they make in Nebraska” (32). The 1985 Selected Poems persuaded Denis Donoghue that “the force of Morgan’s imagination is its variousness” (21), and Morgan’s Italian translator joined those who find this variousness “disorienting and enriching at the same time” (Fazzini 84). As Robyn Marsack puts it, Morgan was interested in exploring a tension between his subject-matter and the chosen aesthetic form; he wanted “a kind of Whitmanesque inclusiveness without Whitman’s gorgeous egotism” (27).

Since, to paraphrase Whitman, Morgan is “large and contains multitudes,” others will read him in their own way, as “nothing else would do for a poetry recurrently involving freedom from coercion and restraint, and where only structure of perception and hypothesis at hand is operative” (Nicholson 10). The 1990 About Edwin Morgan, edited by Robert Crawford and Hamish Whyte, the first full-length book on the work of Morgan, provides a range of perspectives of looking at his poetry: Douglass Dunn studies Glasgow Sonnets and Themes on Variation and the way Morgan interrogates the myth of Glasgow; Marshall Walker explores Morgan’s science fiction poems, but he also revolves around the theme of Scottishness; Robert Crawford seeks connections with W. S. Graham, Dunbar and MacDiarmid, and explores the relation between examples of change / metamorphosis and the established Scottish tradition; W. N. Herbert focuses on how far “Morgan’s words” exhibit a Scottish attitude towards language, Peter McCarey studies Morgan’s work as a translator and points to the way this experience influences his own poetics. Contemporary Poetry and Science offers another two essays: Crawford’s “Spirit Machines: the Human and the Computational” and W. N. Herbert’s “Testament and Confessions of an Informationist” which investigate the convergence of science and poetry in Scottish writing of Morgan.

The 2003 Aspects of Form and Genre in the Poetry of Edwin Morgan by Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, one of two monographs on Morgan’s poetry, is more firmly rooted in genre. Instead of focusing on key collections, or on the poet’s Scottishness (which at times seems slightly reductive, given ← 10 | 11 → that throughout his whole life Morgan was proving that poetry has no nationality, and reaches beyond geographical borders), Edgecombe selects for discussion the genres most favoured by Morgan, and shows how he has radically modernised them. Elegies, journey poems, concrete poems, and dramatic monologues are prominent genres transformed by Morgan which Edgecombe investigates, and he does so with transparent enthusiasm and stylish liveliness. What makes Edgecombe’s Aspects different from About Edwin Morgan is also the range of close readings, which often show Morgan’s immersion in modes and traditions of writing having their roots outside Europe (one of such instances is Persian-inspired The New Divan).

But the most informative study of Morgan’s work is Colin Nicholson’s Inventions of Modernity which tackles all the issues and perspectives mentioned above, and provides valuable details on Morgan’s poetic filiations reaching far beyond Scotland. Because Morgan’s writing spans over half a century, Inventions includes “a seriatim of the aesthetic practices and associated ideologies he uses and refuses” (Nicholson 10). For Nicholson, fascinated by the unspeakable, the absurd, “the possible futures anciently set and possible pasts figured futuristically,” Morgan’s interest in “social, personal, linguistic and cultural othernesses comes to us in the poetics of communicative rationality, which often operates through mind-bending syntax” (5). Nicholson studies how Morgan recognises a grounded, limited subjectivity, and how he works at and against frontiers of the possible. The subsequent chapters of the monograph are organised more or less chronologically, but first and foremost thematically. Each theme is embedded within a carefully sketched framework of ideas which show that in his methodological approach Nicholson combines the perspective of a literary and cultural historian, as well as a cognitivist, even though he does not refer to any cognitivist schools. Nicholson adopts a range of lateral perspectives which show the poet’s avant-garde way of thinking and writing; he traces Morgan’s literary fascinations (most clearly with Mayakovsky and the concretists), and, the way I see it, succeeds in showing how the drive towards changing the unchangeable led Morgan from the apocalyptic visions to concrete experiments and to the affirmation of the sonnet (in his Glasgow Sonnets (1972), and Sonnets From Scotland (1984)) and science-fiction poetry (Star Gate: Science Fiction Poems (1979), Themes on a Variation (1988), Virtual and Other Realities (1997)). ← 11 | 12 →

James McGonigal’s Beyond the Last Dragon. A Life of Edwin Morgan, written with Morgan’s full support, and published a few months after his death in 2010, recounts his career, and offers an informative and engaging overview of Morgan’s literary, cultural, anthropological and scientific fascinations. McGonigal divides Morgan’s life into decades and proceeds chronologically from various early childhood interests and hobbies to his dramatic and poetic narratives written in his late eighties. Great emphasis is placed on Morgan’s own comments and analyses of his works and on the cultural and political context they were written in and that is why I will refer to this book throughout my book. Beyond the Last Dragon is all the more valuable because it is the only book which discusses Morgan’s work as a playwright. Not only does it mention A.D. A Trilogy of Plays on the Life of Jesus (2000) and The Play of Gilgamesh (2005) (discussed in Chapter Six and Seven of the present book), but also speaks about Morgan’s interest in Japanese theatre, with his new versions of Japanese Kyogen plays (15th century farces) written for the London-based Jet Theatre, which show a significant change in Morgan’s poetics that took place in the last decade of his life.

With the exception of Nicholson’s Inventions of Modernity and a limited number of articles in literary magazines, critics pay little attention to Morgan’s concrete poetry, seeing it as rather insignificant stage of the poet’s experimental undertakings. Even Mary Ellen Solt in her Concrete Poetry: A World View sums up Morgan’s varied body of concrete poems in one short paragraph; it seems that this can only be justified by the fact that the book was published in 1968 when Morgan was gradually gaining recognition in the literary world. In the present book, I would like to see Morgan’s concrete experiments as fine examples of postmodern writing in which “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan). Different faces of the concrete are explored in Chapter One, Two, Three and Four, but more importantly each chapter presents a distinct cultural and literary phenomenon which again is viewed through the prism of the theories within a discourse of contemporary human sciences. Similarly, The Whittrick: A Poem in Eight Dialogues, forgotten and marginalised by the critics, is subject to analysis in Chapter Five, where the emphasis is placed on the figure of the trickster, one of the most important figures in the discourse of human sciences.

One of the aims of the present book is to show that (cultural) transgression is integral to Morgan’s forms of attention, and that his poetry and ← 12 | 13 → drama question cognitively privileged habits of observation. Ezra Pound’s dictum “MAKE IT NEW” changes into Morgan’s “CHANGE RULES” and Jasper Johns’s “Take an Object. Do something to it. Do something else to it” (Johns 54). If, as Nicholae Babuts notes, at the semantic level, “language is a matter of covering and uncovering of semantic bands in a wide spectrum, an ebb and flow of conceptual sequences that are activated by different word patterns on different occasions” (77), and if because meaning is dynamic, a matter of extension and delimitation, and “there is a struggle for meaning” (Babuts 77), then in Morgan the struggle is indeed intense and often processual. It is certainly determined by various games of sense creation. It goes without saying that within Morgan’s immanent poetics we might speak of different games: “verbivocovisual” sense constellations, latent textuality and the rhetoric of mis-reading as well as (de)(re)constructivist mimesis of repetition and difference in his concrete poems, mythopoetic “writing-through,” games of (linguistic) anamorphosis, and intersemiotic translations.

As the nature of the text determines the kind of knowledge it demands from the reader (Babuts 87), and the methodological approach chosen by the critic, I apply various—cognitivist, post-structuralist and deconstructivist—methodological tools. I refer to the theories proposed by Ronald Langacker, Nicolae Babuts, Reuven Tsur, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Gerald Vizenor and Mikhail Bakhtin. Keeping Langacker’s conception of conventional imagery and scene construal as a methodological framework, in my analyses I attempt to develop the issue of cultural (linguistic and non-linguistic) context. My cognitive analyses focus on anthropocentric conceptualisation of space as a typical way of expressing experiences within the categories of states such as “me in relation to the world,” “me in the world,” “the world within me.” But some of Morgan’s writerly poems, especially concrete ones, with their “changing messages and messages of change” (Watson 191) and transformations, based on the principle of repetition and difference, create favourable conditions for introducing Derridean différance, freeplay and dissemination of meaning. There are instances where Morgan denies the text a unique meaning and extols the value of its plurality, therefore in my analyses I do not aim at establishing the truth of the text, but its plurality, its polysemous potential. It might seem that the cognitivist and deconstructionist methodologies are mutually exclusive but when the tendency to respect the idea of ← 13 | 14 → order of representation is weaker, one can notice how the standpoints of deconstructionism and cognitivism draw nearer, particularly in the conception of Reuven Tsur who, drawing on Joseph Culler’s Rule of Significance, stresses the idea of Constructing a Stable World within the universum of meanings, with attention given to the coherence of physical-socio-spiritual environment on the one hand and the coherence of the poetic text on the other (Tsur 43–44).

The choice of perspectives of looking at the texts is never accidental, but always determined by the philosophy of a given text or a group of texts. Reconstruction of the patterns of perception of the speaker and his / her perspective of seeing reality, as well as the basis of conceptualisation is provided by spatial thinking and spatial metaphors (Babuts 70). Additionally, I look at the body of Morgan’s works from a comparative perspective and throughout the book I attempt to bring to the fore the issue of dialogue in Morgan’s writing. Therefore great emphasis is placed on the dialogism of Morgan’s creative process, on dialogism of his creative design, and on truly dialogical vision of the world both in his poetry and drama. The multifarious dialogism permeating his works plays crucial role in the construction as well as reconstruction and deconstruction of meaning of words, phrases, larger units of narration or concrete constellations. The book moves from one dialogue to another; it begins with Morgan’s intersemiotic translation of Cage’s Lecture on Nothing and finishes with another instance of intersemiosis: the postmodern version of the most ancient epic in the world, The Epic of Gilgamesh. The issue of dialogical perspective is visible also in numerous references to the theories of Bakhtin, the father of comparative literature. Bakhtin’s interdisciplinary approach to literature, and crucial importance of dialogue as a form of thinking, and “as a modern way of thinking about thinking” (Holquist 16), or as a sort of epistemology (Holquist 15–17), is certainly foregrounded throughout the book. Additionally, the references are made to Bakhtin’s carnival sense of the world and trickster discourse, the Other, and last but not least heteroglossia. “To be means to communicate dialogically. When dialogue ends, everything ends. Thus dialogue, by its very essence, cannot and must not come to an end” (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics 252), this is how Bakhtin refers to the significance of dialogue in Dostoevsky’s poetics. Bakhtin observes that this dialogism clearly visible in the structure of the novel, between its ← 14 | 15 → elements, but also at a micro-level of the dialogues of the heroes, in their words and gestures.2 I would argue that Morgan’s case is similar in the sense that various kinds of dialogism are visible at the level of single words, imagery building, structures of the poems, but also at the macro-level in the philosophies of his poetic and dramatic pieces, and each of the chapters focuses on a given dialogism employed in sense creation.

Chapter One, being the first instance of Morgan’s dialogism, offers a comparative reading of John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing and Morgan’s “Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words.” Taking Bakhtin’s concept of language as not given (dan), but posited (zadan), the chapter studies the avant-garde “written through” (autothematic) compositions of Morgan and Cage, and explores the way the principle of repetition and difference in Cage’s Lecture and Morgan’s concrete poem leads to (d)(r)esemantisation / (d)(r)ecategorisation of words and phrases. Additionally, the “verbivicovisual” aspect of the two texts is examined.

A comparative perspective applied in Chapter Two results in a transactive analysis of Morgan’s emergent poem “Message Clear” which dialogises with Christ’s famous saying “I am the resurrection and life.” The poem is seen through the cognitive prism of Reuven Tsur’s idea of Constructing a Stable World and Michel Foucault’s concept of ONE SPEAKS. I analyse the workings of dynamic processes of anaphoresis and metaphoresis thanks to which we are able to see the poem’s morphodynamics. The latent textuality of the poem and the rhetoric of re/mis-reading it seems to promote, open it to various readings, including a kabbalistic and Gnostic interpretation. ← 15 | 16 →

The third chapter is an analytical overview of Morgan’s concrete poetry (especially his various “writings through”) in which the poet ventures into meditation upon the nature of language, sign and meaning. The chapter explores the way the principle of repetition and difference leads to (d)(r)esemantisation / (d)(r)ecategorisation of words which in turn introduces the game of (empty) signifiers. I attempt to show how the process works by referring to Ronald Langacker’s theory of imagery / construal, and Jacques Derrida’s theory of dissemination of meaning and freeplay. Additionally, the chapter investigates the dialogical relation between Morgan’s concrete poems as arrière-garde and the avant-garde of Russian modernists: Vasily Kamensky’s “ferroconcrete poems,” as well as Ilya Zdanevich’s and Velimir Khlebnikov’s zaum.

Chapter Four foregrounds the theme of broken communication and anamorphosis in Morgan’s poetry as related to Khlebnikov’s zaum. The emphasis is placed on the element of playfulness and introducing a game with the readers. Beginning with computer poems, and moving to games of illusion in selected concrete poems, the chapter investigates various forms of anamorphic gaze in Morgan’s poems and finally comes to the technique of linguistic anamorphosis. This chapter focuses on the ways the poet tries to resurrect the creative imagination through a development of the linguistic ostranenie (“alienation,” “making strange”) which the Russian formalist critics of the 1920s saw as essential part of poetry making. I investigate Morgan’s lateral perspective of looking at things, and ways in which in seemingly distorted / deformed poetic reflections he unexpectedly reveals another sense of reality.

Chapter Five examines Morgan’s “dialogising” with selected canonical texts of culture (in the form of re-narrations, re-interpretations), and explores the ways in which the Scottish tradition of “zestful topsyturvydom,” embodied in the figure of Whittrick, the trickster, manifests itself in Morgan’s writing. The textual example of trickster discourse, The Whittrick: A Poem in Eight Dialogues, is analysed through the prism of Bakhtinian theory of carnival sense of the world and Gerald Vizenor’s theory of trickster discourse. In the course of analysis the author attempts to show how the trickster manifests itself on three levels: as a character endowed with fluid identity, as a narrative structure (trickster-relation, trickster-timespace), and a processuality on the level of plot and narration. ← 16 | 17 →

The sixth chapter explores Morgan’s selected conventional poems “dialogising” with Christian mythology. The chapter might be seen in a thematic relation to the transactive analysis of Morgan’s concrete “writing through” presented in Chapter Two. This part of my book provides an opportunity to see the evolution of Morgan’s experimentation with form and diction, from his early apocalyptic / surrealist poems to those where a poetics of recycling of images dominates. Apart from analysing Morgan’s poetic texts, I focus on the dramatic A.D. A Trilogy of Plays on the Life of Jesus depicting Jesus’s life from his birth to crucifixion, and “filling the gaps” left by the Synoptic Gospels. By exploring Morgan’s dramatic texts the author opens a new field of study, as Morgan’s plays have not been subject to scholarly analyses so far. The dramatic and poetic texts are viewed in a comparative perspective in order to show how Christian mythopoetic themes are processed and reproduced, how the essence of myths, their structure and ontological references are de/reconstructed, to become hybrid forms of para-myth and anti-myth.

Chapter Seven closes the book with a study of intersemiotic translation of the Sumerian The Epic of Gilgamesh which Morgan renders as a five-act poetic drama The Play of Gilgamesh (2005). Apart from a few mentions (in The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Drama and Ziolkowski’s Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic), the drama is one more instance of the text which thus far has not been subject to an in-depth academic analysis. The chapter is a comparative reading of the two texts with emphasis put on the similarities between the texts, but it also explores Morgan’s techniques of contemporising of the ancient epic poem and his trickster-like attempts to make it a bit more Scottish in character. By placing the play on the life of Gilgamesh in the last chapter of the book I would like to emphasise the issue of seeing ancient texts not as something of the (long-forgotten) past, but rather as belonging to the here-and-now, and offering new beginnings.

The architecture of this book requires that before we focus on specific literary dialogues in subsequent chapters, we should draw a sketch of a map of Edwin Morgan’s encounters with various literary traditions, with poets who certainly left their signatures on Morgan’s creative mind and whose presence can be traced either in the poet’s imagery or in his formal experiments. The sketch aims to offer a series of pointers across and through the scene, and the themes it introduces will be further developed in the book; additionally, it ← 17 | 18 → emphasises the importance of playfulness in Morgan’s immanent poetics. It is also worth noting that a considerable space is given to Morgan’s quotations, for in his argumentations one can trace certain qualities and characteristics that will be further investigated in the subsequent chapters of the book.

I.II Drawing a Sketch of a Map


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Scottish literature concrete poetry intercultural dialogue multilingual message
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 218 pp., 3 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Monika Kocot (Author)

Monika Kocot, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of British Literature and Culture at the University of Lodz, Poland. Her main academic interests are: contemporary British and Polish poetry, literary criticism and translation. She is a member of the Association for Cultural Studies, and The Association for Scottish Literary Studies.


Title: Playing Games of Sense in Edwin Morgan’s Writing