A Roof of Fireflies

Edwin Morgan

I am not sure that I believe in the old adage that ‘the unexamined life is not worth having’, the sources of whatever power one has are not too fond of being poked and prodded to see how they are doing, and may withdraw their cooperation. A few years ago I visited the Waitomo underground caves in New Zealand, where you descend by a series of roughly cut staircases to a large underground lake and are taken in boats over the dark still waters, gliding in silence so that no conversation or other noise will disturb the thousands of fireflies shining in the roof of the cavern. It is a remarkable and beautiful sight, and like any other visitor I found it thrilling, but somehow it was more than thrilling, it was moving, it was saying things that only things can say, and my mind kept recurring to it for days and months afterwards, and I can feel a tingling even while I write about it now. But if what I said could be put in a letter, I was not going to open the envelope. I have not written a poem about it, though it might well come into a poem if it could do so unawares, with no tedious moralizing or clumsy piling of analogies (Charon’s ferry or Auden’s limestone or whatever). The subterraneanness, both physical and mental, enfolds its value, as a geode its flash, and that is where this visitor at least is going to leave it.

With that proviso, I have to say that I felt I must ask myself, and did ask myself, why I was not writing poetry about the Second World War at the time when I was engaged in it, as a private soldier in the Royal Army Medical Corps in various parts of the Middle East. If Owen and Rosenberg, whom I much admired, could do it in the first war, why could I not do it in the second? I knew the situations were different, both because the apocalyptic surprise and horror of trench warfare in France, with its intense emotional involvement, could not be matched in the African desert campaign of the 1940s, and also because I belonged to a hospital unit which by its nature had to be some distance behind the front line. For all that, I felt guilty, and angry with myself, at least during the times when I had leisure to reflect. Did something tell me, or was something trying to tell me, that it didn’t matter? That there is no pattern in the poetic life which decrees one must write about the immediacy of forceful or strident events? I didn’t even keep a journal, which doesn’t mean I didn’t think the things that were happening around me weren’t important, but that possibly my instinct about subterranean workings preferred to leave them in the limbo of memory. A risky pool to leave prized things swimming in! Would I live long enough for the right moment to come for fishing them out? It turned out in fact that the images and incidents of that time and place remained fresh and vigorous thirty years later, when I cast my mind back and wrote my hundred-poem sequence The New Divan, embedding long-belated war poems in a geographically horizontal and historically vertical panorama of the Middle East where Hafiz and Sindbad and Scheherazade could watch as tutelary spirits over ‘the thud of land-mines’. (It is my hidden poem, which no one ever writes about!). While it is tempting to say therefore that nothing is lost, I would have to admit to myself that that sequence would not have been instigated if the Middle East had not been again so much in the news in the 1970s, driving my mind through memorial labyrinths that were almost labyrinths of witness. – To which I add a sudden lateral thought: what sort of inevitability was it that sent me to the Middle East in the first place, since at school I had been strongly attracted by Egypt and Mesopotamia and not at all by the classical world of Greece and Rome?

Relating art to life may be dodgy at the best of times, but I would have almost too many, certainly not too few, reasons why I found the 1960s such a productive period that it seemed to have lifted me totally out of the slough of self-doubt I was in some danger of creeping about in during the aftermath of the war. I daresay some backlash against that remarkable decade was bound to come, but I would never find myself subscribing to the downgrading it has received in would-be virtuous quarters. The unexamined life in me – let us bring it back – does not know whether the decade was waiting for me or I was waiting for the decade. Do I want to know? I don’t think so! I was in love, and that casts a light and a glow that transform everything else. But without that I would still have thrilled to the new music, to the exploration of space, to the exploratory international poetries, beat, concrete, aural, oral, to the political and sexual radicalisms that were at last putting their heads above the parapet. I was at the same time, and without any sense of strain or strangeness, writing love poems, space poems, verbally experimental poems, and poems about social conditions in a Glasgow poised between grimness and potential renewal. Looking back, I would find it hard to scrub any of these interests, or to say that whatever it was I had to do in poetry was harmed by the diversity. I knew that it was not my job to ‘find my own voice’, as reviewers are always encouraging young writers to do. That is one kind of poetry, which is not mine. Good luck to Seamus Heaney, but I pushed out, and continue to push out, a different boat. What about a boat that is itself a shape-shifter: the nuclear-powered icebreaker is now a light white felucca triangle fading in the heat-haze and then a bathyscaphe goggling at black smokers and it emerges as an oily junk on the contraband run and before you know it it is a ship of space out there up there riding the solar wind.

Poets of many voices – Dunbar, Blake, Khlebnikov, Voznesensky, Weöres, Prigov – have therefore always exerted an appeal that I am aware of and acknowledge. I liked to see exploration, divergence, risk-taking. I liked the idea of an avant-garde, and the common assumption that The Iliad, to say nothing of the much older Gilgamesh, had not been ‘beaten’ by anything later and greater did not seem to me to validate an anti-evolutionary view of art. Biodiversity, whether vegetal, animal, human, geophysical, or astrophysical, is surely the key. The range of poetries has grown enormously and continues to grow. Unknown territories beckon. Alien territories beckon. I recall the military origin of the term avant-garde, the band of scouts who went ahead of the main troop, not out of bravado or to gain kudos but in order to facilitate or encourage a general advance. In this sense, both Whitman and Hopkins were a true avant-garde of their times. The extreme dislocations of the twentieth century have naturally manipulated the use of the term, sharpening or roughening it according to one’s point of view, but certainly allowing it to problematise the idea of trailblazing. Dmitry Prigov (b. 1940), arch-perestroikist and deconstructor of Soviet social realities, has used an enormous variety of forms to roll back what he saw as the timorous traditionalism and incipient sentimentalism of Russian lyric poetry, and he has made a large impact. I sense a kinship with his work, and yet I also realize that his task cannot be the same as mine. He has said: ‘I don’t deal with human emotions directly, neither am I able to identify myself with any individual feeling or idea.’ I, on the contrary, don’t find myself the either-or of the personal and the impersonal, the direct or the deconstructional. I have poems in invented languages; poems with compressed or dislocated syntax; permutational poems; simulated computer poems; poems in code; poems of one word, and even of one letter. But the pleasure of writing such poems, of making something meaningful out of something very new, the pleasure in language itself, its malleability, its untapped potential, is not enough. I need, with another part of me, the very things Prigov is suspicious of: a direct poetry of human relationships, friends, lovers, family, a poetry of vulnerabilities, desires, losses, encounters missed and encounters won. This being so, who would not be impatient of categories?

An English astronomer was interviewed recently about the severe problems being undergone by the Russian space station Mir, including problems that might involve the actual survival of the astronauts. He scarcely disguised his belief that the whole operation was little better than a waste of valuable resources and time. Why risk men’s lives when machines could do everything we wanted? Space, telescopes, space probes, as automated as technology can provide, that was the cleancut way to do things, no crewmen fumbling and bumbling about among the – oops – cables. Cut to his American counterpart at NASA: no sir, we have to go up there; we have already learned good lessons from the troubles in Mir; everything we do is a step forward, not a set-back; even the disasters don’t stop what is a matter of destiny. Needless to say, I rejoiced in the positiveness of the second interview after being depressed (though it was a familiar pattern) by the first. Poetry, just like Mir and the greater space stations which are planned as launchpads for planetary exploration, seems to me to want to take its human load wherever it is possible for that human load to go. When Gagarin first saw the blue glow round the globe of the earth, he commented on its beauty in a way no machine would be able to do. What good is beauty? We don’t know. But if we sense it, we ought to record it. Words go with everything human. Poetry is a brilliant vibrating interface between the human and the non-human. A gutter in Calcutta or a rille on the moon, we’re there, and if we’re not there, push us, drive us! And don’t try to tell us that the gutters of Calcutta will run with milk and honey if we dismantle the space programme; they won’t, the world is not like that. Médecins sans frontières – oui, assurément! Astronautes sans frontières – naturellement! Poètes sans frontières – pourquoi pas?

As I write this, Scotland has voted to have its own parliament, with law-making and tax-varying powers and a fair measure of autonomy, though still within the United Kingdom. As a member of the universe, Scotland does seem to be twinkling, however faintly. It is my place, and I shall continue to write about it as occasion arises. Its fate, as an entity, haunts me, and will not haunt me the less if I stand on a hill in Glasgow and look up on a clear night at a dash of stars.

Salt 11, Fremantle, Australia, 1998.

Reprinted from Edwin Morgan: In Touch With Language: A New Prose Collection 1950–2005, eds John Coyle and James McGonigal (ASLS, 2020). For Morgan’s lecture and reading tour of New Zealand in March 1992, see James McGonigal, Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press, 2012), pp. 326–8. This essay was reprinted in Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, eds W. N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis (2000). Morgan’s ‘fireflies’ are usually termed ‘glow-worms’ in Europe; but both are Lampyridae.

Photograph by Hazel Frew.