Poem of the week: The New Divan by Edwin Morgan – The Guardian

Posted: April 29, 2020 at 3:43 am


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Charged and complex Edwin Morgan in 2003. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Three poems from The New Divan

1.Hafiz, old nightingale, what fires there have been in the groves, white dust, wretchedness, how could you ever get your song together? Someone stands by your tomb, thinks as a shadow thinks: much, little, any? You swore youd be found shrouded in another grave-cloth of pure smoke from a heart as burning dead as beating but the names of cinders are thick where passions were. Whole cities could be ash. But not the song the Sufi says we have but our dying song, you knew, gives us our beings.

86.Not in Kings Regulations, to be in love. Cosgrove I gave the flower to, joking, jumping down the rocky terraces above Sidon, my heart bursting as a village twilight spread its tent over us and promontories swam far below through goat-bells into an unearthly red. He dribbled a ball through shrieking children and they laughed at our bad Arabic, and the flower. To tell the truth he knew no more of what I felt than of tomorrow. Gallus, he cared little for that. Ive not lost his photograph. Yesterday, tomorrow he slumbers in a word.

92.Angels with abacuses called their calculations once, in an ancient scene of souls. They shrug now, its not calculable, dive in pools, dry out half human with their wings on rocks and let computers mass the injuries let computers mess the injuries let computers miss the injuries let computers moss the injuries let computers muss the injuries of merely mortal times. Consequently waters break on earth but not for them. And those who see them in this labouring place have shadows watching them, not angels. It doesnt matter which. When was our ACHTUNG MINEN ever their concern, or the tears where our bodies were?

Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) considered his 100-poem sequence, The New Divan, his war poem.

A conscientious objector, Morgan served in a non-combatant role in the Royal Army Medical Corps in north Africa during the second world war. He wrote the sequence years after the experience, and published it in 1977, by which time his major collections, The Second Life (1968) and From Glasgow to Saturn (1973) had established his reputation. He chose the right moment for himself as a poet: its as if the poem had always been waiting for him to find his hail voice.

The sequence is non-linear. There are narrative glimpses only. Many of the poems have a swift, strange jostle of images, like vivid dreams, almost surreal. Wars violence is more often hinted than described, part of the symbolism of red, a favourite colour in the swirling weave. Blood, roses, sunset, fire, wine, the eyes after drinking all shades and moods of red connect Morgans divan (the word means in Persian a collection of poems) to the original Divan by the 14th-century Sufi poet Hafiz.

Love, for Morgan as for Hafiz, is the major theme. In a context where homosexual relationships were officially forbidden, its a charged and complex business. As the second poem here affirms, to be in love was against Kings Regulations. It would not have been an easy subject for Morgan at the time of writing, either.

Sufi mysticism and carnal ecstasy merge for both poets. Of course, Morgans persona isnt seeking union with God, but the ecstatic union with the man he desires, Cosgrove, is a spiritual matter in that its a quest for the utmost personal authenticity. The shapes, colours and syntax of Morgans poems, so unlike Hafizs stately ghazals, make them seem to dance like whirling dervishes, the Sufi worshippers who seek divine connection through bodily movement. As the Indian mystic, Acharya Rajneesh, (Osho), explained, Sufis sing, they dont give sermons, because life is more like a song and less like a sermon. And they dance, and they dont talk about dogmas, because a dance is more alive, more like existence, more like the birds singing in the trees ... The whole life is a dance, vibrating, throbbing, with infinite life. Sufis like to dance; they are not interested in dogmas.

In Poem 1, Morgan addresses the old nightingale Hafiz himself, and refers to the text where Hafiz declares: Open my grave when I am dead, and thou shalt see a cloud of smoke rising out from it; then shalt thou know that the fire still burns in my dead heart; yea, it has set my very winding-sheet alight. (Gertrude Bells translation). Death in Morgans poem is retrospective transformation: But / not the song the Sufi says we have / but our dying song, you knew, gives us our beings. It seems likely that Morgan wrote the Divan after Cosgroves death; it was certainly written when the realisation of that love was no longer a possibility. But the love gives Morgan his song.

No 82 is a long way ahead in the sequence or would be if The New Divan were chronologically structured. This poem has a lighter, airier voice: insouciant as well as sad, it captures the character of Cosgrove, and the obligatory playfulness which both defuses and heightens the relationship. Gallus (line 10) is an adjective in Scots . The fact that Gallus is a proper noun in Latin creates an ambiguity: might it also be read as a reference to the Roman prefect-in-Egypt, Aelius Gallus, whose expedition was described by Strabo, among others?

No 92 laments the disunity jarring the heart of Morgans wartime experience. Angels are imperfect, or invisible. Capital letters shout, Beware Landmines. An excursion into concrete poetry results in a mechanical, anti-creation hymn . Mass, mess, miss, moss, muss: the hissing litany of words chancily formed by the sequence of vowels, recalls a device used humorously in The Computers First Christmas Card. Poem 92 is a cry of pain, but still a word-dance.

Edwin Morgans 100th birthday would have been on 27 April. Im delighted to have an excuse to return to his work, and for PotW to play a small part in his centenary celebrations. No 20th-century poetry has brought me more varied, intense and unfading pleasure than Morgans. His is the song of our time the living, not the dying, song which gives us our being.

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Poem of the week: The New Divan by Edwin Morgan - The Guardian

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