In 1964, Edwin Morgan wrote a concrete poem in homage to the nineteenth-century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a bridge-shaped graphic verse probably intended to mimic Brunel’s design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge.1 The piece was created for a special, Brunel-themed issue of the little magazine Link, an important forum for the early circulation of concrete poetry in the UK. Link was edited by students at the Cheltenham campus of Gloucestershire College of Art, not too far from the west Bristol site of Brunel’s most iconic construction.
Despite the distracting editorial correction in its immediate vicinity, Morgan’s poem rings out from its foundations with alliterative zeal, just beneath a visual poem on the same theme by his friend, the poet, artist and Catholic monk Dom Sylvester Houédard.2 The relative semantic minimalism of Houédard’s work is useful in indicating by contrast how Morgan approached the possibilities and strictures of concrete poetry: by incorporating a surprising thematic expansiveness. His poem makes a series of associations between Brunel’s architecture and other figures, themes, and events from history and myth which we’ll return to at the close of this article. (It’s also worth noting that the Forth Road Bridge, a suspension bridge on a far grander scale than Brunel’s but vitally informed by its example, opened to traffic the same year as Morgan wrote and published this poem, and was probably in his mind as he clacked at the typewriter keys.)
For now, I simply want to emphasise the architectonic visual qualities of Morgan’s poem – and perhaps also to note the influence of cantilevering (of the kind Brunel made famous above the Avon Gorge) on the shift from nineteenth-century architecture, with its thick, stolid, regular verticals, to twentieth-century architecture, with its emphasis on light, space, and unbroken horizontals. After all, it was one aspect of the legacy of that modernism – specifically Glasgow’s quixotic post-war town-planning and high-rise construction – that gave the word ‘concrete poetry’ its most site-specific connotation for Morgan.
It’s worth taking a brief detour here to São Paulo, where the Noigandres poetry group – who fundamentally influenced Morgan’s sense of the creative possibilities of concrete after he discovered their work in 1962 – were based during the 1950s and 60s. Brazil at this time was experiencing a renaissance of modernist architecture. The construction of a new capital, Brasília, in the country’s mountainous interior by two followers of Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, became the quintessential expression of this paradigm. In a country undergoing a period of rapid economic and technological advancement, the capacity for modernist building design and town planning to facilitate new, collective-oriented patterns of behaviour, and thus to propagate a kind of egalitarian political programme, was turned towards the ends of post-colonial state-building.
In short, as the critic of Brazilian concrete poetry Antonio Sergio Bessa notes, ‘[t]he radical views on urban planning that swept Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century encountered a blank slate in a country striving to overcome its colonial past’.3 The Noigandres’s famous manifesto ‘Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry’ (1958) namechecked, as is widely known, Costa’s ‘Pilot Plan’ for the new city, built over the period 1956–60.4 And the Noigandres poets – the brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and their friend Décio Pignatari – often sought to emulate the sleek efficiency of modernist architecture in their poetry. They did this both at a literal, visual-figurative level (by composing poems whose verses slotted together like building blocks, for example) and through the analogous linguistic efficiency implied through minimal semantic range, copious use of white space and repetition of words.
Back on the west coast of Scotland, Morgan was still compiling his amazing scrapbooks of collaged words and image, which he had begun as a pre-teen during the 1930s and continued making up until the mid-1960s. Rooting through the volumes he created at that time (now stored in Glasgow University’s special collections), we find them crammed with images of modernist architecture from around the world, many of them post-war projects in ex-colonial states such as Brazil partaking in the great second wave of modernist architecture. One colour photograph featured in an arrangement in Morgan’s fifteenth scrapbook shows a futuristic sweep of city highway in central São Paulo. In scrapbook nine we find Lúcio Costa’s Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio de Janeiro, a forerunner of the Brazilian modernist heyday constructed during 1939–43.5
The graphic compositions in Morgan’s scrapbooks created prior to his concrete phase seem to capture a half-developed sense of the relationship between architectural modernism, a form of visual-linguistic compositional sense and a certain post-colonial national buoyancy: the same sentiment Bessa alludes to above and which Morgan probably connected with partly on the basis of his anti-imperialism and Scottish nationalism. Moreover, the landscape and skyline of his home city was changing with dynamic speed during the 1950s and 60s, through the construction of huge swathes of social housing on increasingly vertiginous scales. If not the expression of a new cultural nationalism per se, these projects articulated a spirit of social change and optimism comparable in limited ways to that found in Latin America – even a utopianism – which stirred the poet’s sense of civic pride.
Sure enough, in the scrapbooks alongside images of Sao Paulo, Mexico City and other metropolitan sites are newspaper clippings documenting the many construction projects underway in Morgan’s home city in the post-war decades, and particularly from 1954 onwards, when high-rises increasingly became the go-to architectural option for Glasgow’s town planners. Morgan’s twelfth scrapbook features a panoramic shot of a new high-rise council estate at Moss Heights in 1954. Another newspaper image, showing tower blocks under construction in Paisley in 1959, gives a sense of the dizzying pace at which Glasgow’s skyline and street-map was changing, the caption announcing ‘15 storeys completed in 30 working days’. Morgan the collagist, the picture-diarist, was documenting a housing revolution.
Introducing their co-authored book Glasgow: High-Rise Homes, Estates and Communities (2020), the historians Lynn Abrams, Ade Kearns, Barry Hazley and Valerie Wright note that, despite the later association of Glasgow’s high-rise housing with deprivation, crime and intergenerational trauma, at the time they were built they partly manifested ‘a utopian vision for communities and families’. True enough, this was accompanied by a basic, ‘urgent need for new housing’, (Glasgow was chronically short of inhabitable urban dwellings) and by ‘hubris on the part of some politicians and officials at how quickly the city’s housing problem could be fixed’.6 Famously, a Glasgow City Council delegation visited Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille in 1954. The site’s influence found its way into many projects, most infamously at the Hutchesontown C district of the Gorbals, whose centrepiece of Brutalist slab blocks designed by Sir Basil Spence – demolished in 1993 – borrowed various design elements from the master.
‘The first feature of Glasgow’s encounter with high-rise living’, Abrams et al note, ‘was how sudden it was’.7 Mirroring that view, architecture critics Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius surmise that ‘if Manchester had been the ‘“shock city” of the Industrial Revolution … Glasgow was the new “shock city” of the Modern housing revolution. Nowhere else, at such an early date, were so many large, high blocks completed or under construction at once’. They note that ‘in Glasgow from 1961 to 1968’, multi-storey flats ‘accounted for a staggering 75% of all new public housing’.8 This was a uniquely high figure within Britain at a time when public housing in general was undergoing rapid, state-wide expansion.
The optimism about these changes, at least amongst much of Glasgow’s progressively minded intelligentsia, was often expressed in marvel at the height, grandeur and sheer number of new buildings. It is epitomised in a 1970 quote from Ronald Miller, Professor of Geography at Glasgow University: ‘the city which once had a monotonous skyline of four-storey tenements is now punctuated by over a hundred blocks of towers and slabs soaring to 10, 20 and even 31 storeys high’.9 Morgan’s correspondence from this period fizzes with a similar excitement at the idea of a possible urban utopia being constructed in his home city – or at least at the strain of utopian optimism in the work underway.
This much is clear in a letter Morgan sent on Christmas Day 1966 to his friend, the concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, responding to Finlay’s poem ‘Arcady’, which consisted simply of the lower-case letters of the alphabet arranged in a line on blue card. The work seemed, to Morgan, to sum up Finlay’s postlapsarian sense of a lost, classical golden age. In his reply Morgan mused that, while
[s]ome of the associations of ‘roaming in Arcady’ are pleasant, […] others suggest artificiality, conventions, classicism in a bad sense, faded shepherds and feeble pipes, & perhaps above all the idea that a Golden Age has existed in the past, which I do not believe […] The word Arcady chills me, whereas the word Metropolis – even as I type it here I feel it – stirs my blood.10
Though Morgan never lived in a tower block, he did move in 1962 to a newly built, low-rise flat in Glasgow’s west end, buying in, literally, to the new architectural paradigm. Glasgow University librarian Sam Maddra’s short article ‘The Edwin Morgan Papers: 19 Whittingehame Court’ uses information from Morgan’s papers held in the university’s Special Collections to piece together the story of the move. Significantly, Morgan bought off-plan, before his block was built, and during its construction he eagerly scoured local shops and businesses to gather furnishings and fittings. Such details suggest not only the pace at which new flats were becoming available in Glasgow at the time but the excitement with which Morgan embraced this three-dimensional expression of the new.11
Just as the concrete poets of Brazil were inspired in their literary endeavours by the construction of Brasilia during the late 1950s, Morgan’s work often implies a connection between the rebuilding of Glasgow and his contemporaneous poetry, both facets of the same ‘concrete revolution’. In his retrospective poem ‘Epilogue: Seven Decades’, he recalls how he:
sent airmail solidarity to Sao
Paulo’s poetic-concrete revolution,
knew Glasgow – what? – knew Glasgow new – somehow
new with me, with John, with cranes, diffusion
of another concrete revolution, not bad,
not good, but new […]12
Composed in 1990, this poem reflects back on an earlier interest in Glasgow’s concrete revolution without manifesting the kind of architectonic form that the poet was utilising at the time. But we have already seen that Morgan wanted to pay homage to architectural form through the look, rhythm and sound of his words as well.
One interesting source for gauging Morgan’s sense of the connection between concrete poetry and modernist architecture is a transcript for a talk he gave in the autumn of 1964, now stored with his Glasgow papers. This document shows Morgan’s alertness to the ways in which writing and reading concrete poetry might correlate with the new forms of perception and sensory awareness invited by modern architecture and wider design culture:
The battle between linearity & spatiality which concrete reflects is something that is in life itself and is going to have far-ranging consequences [for example] when you enter a very modern newly designed shop or a large open-plan house you may have feelings of unease, you don’t see the familiar signposts & you don’t quite know where to go or what to do – this is because the concept of space has taken over and it needs some adjustment on your part […] The problem of concrete then, is not hard to relate […] to changes that are going on in our society. And if it is important that the arts should be sensitive to these movements of thought & movements of perception […] then concrete poetry has its place.13
The term ‘spatiality’ is probably borrowed from Marshall McLuhan’s writing, and alludes to a form of multi-media or simultaneist expression combining different symbolic channels or registers (say, language and image). The communications theorist McLuhan saw this kind of spatiality as uniquely characteristic of the contemporary age of electronic mass media. For Morgan, modernist architecture, with its capacity to open up simultaneous views and vistas, multiple possible routes through the built environment, activated an aptitude for this kind of spatialist expression. It is that aptitude, in part, which he sought to use concrete poetry to express.
At the same time, Morgan was always sensitive to the limits of the minimalist project implicit in concrete poetry’s responsiveness to architecture. He sought to test its boundaries through the incorporation of surprisingly dense swathes of semantic reference into his concrete poems. That much is clear in the description of his ‘Brunel’ poem in the 1964 transcript quoted above:
I thought concrete technique would suit [the poem] – hard solid object – I decided on a roughly imitative form of a bridge since he was most famous probably as a bridge-builder. […] I built up a series of approximations to [Brunel’s name] which would all suggest by their associations something relevant to Brunel and his work. Eg Brumel the Russian high jumper leaping across … [in orig.] Boommill because he made the mills boom … Brunelleschal because there’s something of Brunelleschi’s strong roman quality and approach about his work … Bluemezzo because [of] the bridge in the middle of the blue sea or sky … These references are not straightforward or linear, they’ve all been welded together spatially to give impression of a man’s whole integrated lifework.14
Though Morgan begins by emphasising the piece’s mimetic visual qualities, what comes across ultimately is his interest in embedding cultural and historical allusions in the ‘spatially welded’ verse. For Morgan, concrete poetry was never linguistically stultified by its visual form, and for that reason, the utopian spirit of modernist architecture was not something that could be emulated precisely.
By the 2000s, the much-loathed high rises of Glasgow’s social housing revolution had mostly been demolished. They have left gaps in the city’s urban fabric which survive to this day, and the social problems that have been blamed too readily on their sudden and jarring appearance endure, too. But there was a time when these projects stood for something like a utopian modernism, and it is this spirit that Edwin Morgan partly sought to capture with the rigid yet wriggling forms of his architectonic concrete poems.
- Edwin Morgan, ‘Construction for I.K. Brunel’, in Link, 8 (1964), p. 12.
- Dom Sylvester Houédard, [‘puffpuffpuffpuffpuffpuffpuff ’], in Link, 8 (1964) p. 12.
- Antonio Sergio Bessa, Öyvind Fahlström: The Art of Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press), p. 8.
- Noigandres, ‘Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry’ (1958), reprinted, translated by the authors, in Concrete Poetry: A World View, ed. by Mary Ellen Solt (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1970) [Reprint of a special issue of Artes Hispanicas, 1.3–4 (1968)], pp. 71–72.
- Edwin Morgan’s scrapbooks can be found at University of Glasgow, Archives & Special Collections, GB 247 MS Morgan C/1–16.
- Lynn Abrams et al, Glasgow: High-Rise Homes, Estates and Communities in the Post-War Period (Abingon: Routledge-Taylor & Francis, 2020), p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 1.
- Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 220, p. 4.
- Quoted in Abrams et al, pp. 1–2.
- Edwin Morgan, letter to Ian Hamilton Finlay, 25 December 1966: University of Glasgow, Archives & Special Collections, GB 247 MS Morgan DF/6.
- Sam Maddra, ‘The Edwin Morgan Papers: 19 Whittinghame Court’, University of Glasgow Library Blog, 11 September 2014.
- Edwin Morgan, ‘Epilogue: Seven Decades’, in Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1990), p. 594. ‘John’ refers to John Scott, Morgan’s long-term partner during the 1960s and 70s.
- Edwin Morgan, ‘Concrete Poetry’ (1964) [lecture transcript], University of Glasgow, Archives & Special Collections, GB 247 MS Morgan L.