I had feared that I might be disappointed by the Edwin Morgan Celebration at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday. Perhaps the readers wouldn’t do the poems justice or perhaps the talk in between poems would be awkward or perhaps it might otherwise prove itself faintly depressing. But I needn’t have worried. It was a memorable and genuinely affecting occasion. Poems were chosen from all periods, old and new, and everyone did a great job of reading them. Some readings (Douglas Dunn’s on ‘The First Men on Mercury’, Andrew Greig’s on ’Jack London in Heaven’, Don Paterson’s on ‘From the Video Box, No. 25’) went beyond the highest expectations. Robert Crawford’s enunciation in ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’ was quite brilliant.
Someone (annoyingly, I can’t remember who. David Kinloch, maybe?) remarked that most of the poems read had their centre in the expression of love, and that their vast range, their blend of experimentation and tradition, their playfulness, depth and everything else that makes up Edwin Morgan’s body of work, find a unifying principle in love – both the dark struggles and the hard-won joys. Well, I’m paraphrasing wildly, but it was something like that.
There were also two video-clips: one a BBC recording of ‘One Cigarette’, and another from the Arts Council archive, a home-made recording of ‘For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004’. In the latter, he clearly wasn’t well, but I could still detect the vitality and passion that infused everything he wrote. He was the first poet I ever saw doing a reading, way back in the eighties, part of a ‘breakfast and books’ series Waterstones bookshop did on Saturday(?) mornings. I didn’t know his work at all at the time, but I was amazed at the way he read. There was a very small audience, but my memory is of him almost bouncing around during the reading. His style is very different from Heaney’s but there was similar warmth of personality and direct engagement about him. When I read his poems from a book, in all their vast range of styles, forms and voices, I can still hear his very distinctive voice reading them in my head. People who write the same kind of poem over and over and call it ‘voice’ – read Edwin Morgan’s Collected Poems and you’ll really hear a voice.
The main tent was packed full. I don’t know how many it holds but, certainly, there were many hundreds of people. Everyone came out enthused, smiling, maybe also with a few tears but not altogether sad tears. They loved the show and there was plenty to love about it. I can’t imagine that many poets will die and find themselves loved so much by so many people they didn’t know personally – the audience that night just being a small cross-section of a much wider appreciation. It did make me wish that such numbers (or even a quarter of such numbers. An eighth!) would turn up for readings by other lesser known but still highly talented Scottish poets. I know Edwin Morgan was special, but people who loved that evening would find plenty to love about other evenings with other good poets too. And I bet Edwin Morgan would agree.
Nick Barley, new director of the Festival, gave the closing speech. His final act was to dedicate the 2010 Festival to Edwin Morgan. This event was certainly a great way to end it.