In a new series on Scottish writers Edwin Morgan discusses the art of teaching poetry with Raymond Ross.
A poet of international stature, renowned for his experimental verse and acclaimed translations, Edwin Morgan is a key figure in Scottish literature as well as being a much-respected critic and teacher. He has been visiting schools as a creative writer now for over 30 years, and what began as an informal series of visits at the request of teacher friends soon developed, with the advent of the Scottish Arts Council Writers in Public scheme, into a more formal contact with schools throughout the country.
Morgan is one of the most popular poets studied in Scottish secondary schools today - though he is often known to pupils only through a few poems like "In The Snack Bar" (about a near helpless blind man) or "King Billy" (about small-time Glasgow gangster Billy Fullerton).
"Teachers often say that pupils who wouldn't normally be interested in poetry can relate to a poem like 'In The Snack Bar'," says Morgan. "If they do identify with the emotion of that poem, then I think it may be a useful stepping-stone into poetry in general. At first, its popularity did surprise me because it's really quite a grim poem. Maybe it's because it describes a real problem that young people can relate to it.
"'King Billy' relates to actual people and events. It's expressing a kind of surprise that so many people turned out at this man's funeral. The poem doesn't condone violence. It merely asks you to think about this phenomenon."
Morgan lectured at Glasgow University from 1947 to 1980, eventually becoming a professor. In those years, as in his years visiting schools, he has witnessed a huge upsurge in interest in Scottish literature, though he had to fight a few academic battles himself to increase the Scottish content in courses at Glasgow.
"The increased interest is an excellent thing. I think it goes hand in glove with a more confident Scottish culture which has emerged since 1980. It maybe has something to do with the failure of the 1979 Referendum to deliver. That seemed to produce a determination am-ong writers that something had to be done to counteract the numbness. If we're not moving politically, culturally we're doing it."
Although Scottish poetry may be more popular now, Morgan still sees the actual teaching of it as "difficult".
"A lot depends on the individual teacher. But I think it's important to remind pupils that poetry is not just a book thing. It's something to be spoken or performed aloud. Poetry began as an oral art and I think a good teacher always bears this in mind."
When Morgan visits a school he will fill in the background to a poem, give references and explain difficult words. But he shies clear of ever explaining the actual poem.
"If a pupil asks what a poem means, I always make the point that it's not up to the writer to say. Once a poem is in print, once it's out there in the public domain, it's got to work by itself. Different backgrounds produce different interpretations. Poetry is still a mysterious art."
If poetry remains "mysterious", can creative writing, then, be taught as such? Morgan says: "It's very hard to teach creative writing. I'm a bit sceptical about the American idea that you can teach anything. The best kind of teacher to my mind will probably know who's writing what and encourage that person accordingly, and that's probably best done informally.
"You can certainly teach the more technical aspects of poetry. Knowing something about regular structures can help, even if you're writing free verse. I think you have to be sympathetic and find out who's really interested. "
What advice, then, might Morgan give to aspiring writers? "Make sure you read contemporary poetry to offset any archaic `poeticky' language. Get a feel for how language is being - and can be - used.
Try different forms of writing and don't decide too quickly what you want to do. You'll find out eventually. Try all the options. It helps you become a better craftsman."
Among the younger generation of writers whom Morgan values are Robert Crawford, WN Herbert, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie and Caroline Duffy. He believes that exposure to contemporary poetry is vital in schools but will still argue, certainly for senior pupils, that teachers should guide them back "at least to the Romantics" and even give them a brief schooling in John Donne and the Metaphysicals.
He laments his own schooling which left him bereft of knowledge about his own culture and literature - "besides a couple of lessons on Burns and the Ballads" - and though he still finds Scottish pupils and students more inhibited than, say, their American counterparts, he does believe the days of the inarticulate Scot as end-product of Scottish education are well in the past.
"Scotland is generally more confident. In spite of political setbacks, we're still here. Our heads are above the parapet. This isn't parochialism. Being a Glaswegian or Scottish poet is totally compatible with an interest in international literature."
Collected Translations by Edwin Morgan (a companion piece to his Collected Poems) is due out this month. His award-winning Scots version of "Cyrano de Bergerac" will play at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow later this month after a stint at London's Almeida Theatre.