‘In effect the single word is a new reading process; like electricity – instant and continuous.’
Aram Saroyan to Vito Acconci, Sept. 1967
When I was asked by Julie Johnstone and Greg Thomas to contribute to their ‘101 Words for Edwin Morgan’, marking the end of his centenary celebrations, I was at a loss for words. Suddenly, as I stared at the invitation, one came to mind: ‘glow-worm’.
The more I thought about it, the more luminous it became. There was a subterranean connection to Eddie, happily. When he visited New Zealand in 1992, Marshall Walker and Alan Riach took him to the Waitomo Caves to see the glow-worms. He later wrote:
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.*
For me, there’s a connection with my Wellington days. The Botanic Gardens were at the bottom of our road – Glen Road, a neat intimation of Scotland there – and on the mossy bank of the left-hand path leading down to the duck pond, the glow-worms would flicker and shine if you crept up on them, silently. I suppose that I was taken by my mother first, as a night-time treat (as I took my daughter); later it was part of a romantic itinerary in spring. There was no gate to forbid entrance: you could simply wander in and wait for the bank to be strung with ‘courteous lights’.
That’s Marvell, of course, in his ‘Mower to the glow-worms’. In my first term at Oxford I wrote an essay on his mower poems that – amazingly, reassuringly – was liked by my tutor. I can’t recover what I wrote, but I still love that poem, particularly for its quietly despairing close. It is Marvell’s 400th anniversary this year, and a few weeks ago I found this very poem prompting responses from three poets in the TLS. Julie replied to my suggestion with Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Mower is less’: years ago I used to have it pinned up on my wall in its one line of green, looped handwriting. It seems to resonate with Morgan’s thought that the less written about glow-worms, the better.
Just let the word glow.
*Reprinted in Edwin Morgan: In Touch With Language: A New Prose Collection 1950–2005, eds John Coyle and James McGonigal, ASLS, 2020.