Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

'Is This a Poem? Do Not Lose It.'-Edwin Morgan's 'The Ropemaker's Bride'

Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

'Is This a Poem? Do Not Lose It.'-Edwin Morgan's 'The Ropemaker's Bride'

Article excerpt

Early in 2006 I received a brief letter from Edwin Morgan. It consisted almost entirely of a twenty-line poem, 'The Ropemaker's Bride'. This was initialled with the three short horizontal lines of the poet's proud seal, E, dated x a January 2006, and appended with the shortest of notes:

Dear R:

Is this a poem?

Do not lose it--an only copy!



This was confusing. It was unlike any other letter I had received in an unbroken correspondence of nearly twenty years. Eddie had been, for want of a better word, my mentor all that time. Here is my transcription of the poem:


   My friends, I was going to slip the ring on--
   Seventeen, and there must be no slip
   (Just as at night there must be no sleep!)
   Burghers, all men at thirty are not bad husbands.
   I've heard of brides counting the strands
   To please their lord, each his chequerwork--
   & only after he had checked his lattices--
   To please their lord--ivory. What use is ivory,
   Well-honed banker's booty, says click, says clack
   And you may be free well, where the servant's darker
   Who says you're made to be
   Anything like a servant, that's what's free
   Isn't it?
   What a mort of manuscripts we are carrying
   And then we are free.
   My husband is bound to ask me to play
   Some day,
   Such strings and strands,
   More than ropes, more than hopes,
   More than best instruments in gleggest of hands.

'Is this a poem?' On the face of it, this was an absurd question coming from 'Professor Morgan', 'Scotland's Makar', holder of the 'Queen's Medal for Poetry', and so on. While no-one should take such honours entirely seriously, of course Morgan's exceptional abilities were never in doubt. And after all Eddie, as he usually asked friends to call him, had opened up so much of poetry's possibility to so many, he could hardly be asking about the acceptability of a particular form.

In genre terms this poem is in any case a dramatic monologue, a favourite mode of his which warranted no query. Formally speaking, the poem is free but internally rhymed, with the jazz-like energy of his later work. There is nothing here that would make anyone think this was struggling to be a poem. I love its energy. It plays longer lines off against short ones; knotted erudite meanings against empassioned address; and it gently mutates its own creative repetitions. It displays those shuffling alliterations which propelled Morgan's poetry throughout his writing life, as if the exhilarating 'shuh' and spine-honey bass of 'Come Together' belonged to him as much as to his favourite band The Beatles.

'Is this a poem?' One of the things that confused me was that until relatively recently Eddie had never asked my advice and this was his most serious question to date. He shared news with me, told me what he was working on, where he was about to read, and, occasionally, he shared new poems. He quietly, as if casually, introduced me to all manner of poetry, fiction, art, history and politics. In return he hardly got the best of the bargain: I think most of my own correspondence was humdrum commentary on the English news of the day, reactions to his suggestions and enthusiasms, domestic ups and down, and irritable 'poetry biz' squawks. We shared some things of course--a technological imagination, for example, a fascination with outer space (and a feeling that humankind should urgently step up space exploration). Although he cautioned patience over my frustrations with UK publishing he also had experienced its establishment retardants, the peculiarity of his breakthrough book, The Second Life, being only published when he was in his forties. Like my collection Lucky Day it is probably still mistaken as a 'debut' though it followed years of publication.

'Is this a poem?' Eddie was proud of his knowledge, of his quickness; of his ability to write with a catholicity of technical accomplishment. …

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