The poem, ‘Urban Gunfire’, is a description of the act of war from the perspective of the poet. There are several grim and disturbing images within the poem as well as a number of strong statements about war and its victims. The poet, Edwin Morgan, incorporates suitable and sometimes, subtle, poetic techniques to put across his point of view in a way that complements the subject matter. Responses to a poem like this are individual to the reader, however, there is an important message in the poem which is universal; war is inevitable and innocent people will get hurt.
In order to understand the poet’s motive for writing this piece, some contextual information is useful. At the outbreak of the First World War, Edwin Morgan was a student of English Literature at Glasgow University. Despite his belief that war is an unnecessary waste of life, he felt compelled to join his peers in the war effort. Instead of becoming a soldier who killed other men, he joined the medical corps and therefore had a hand in helping save lives. When reading the poem for the first time, one may wonder who exactly is speaking.
The line, ‘How great it must be not to be civilian or anything but gun in hand’ indicates that is it not a civilian or soldier speaking. Morgan’s role in the war effort explains how the poem was voiced from the perspective of a ‘bystander’ who also has intimate knowledge of the mind-set of a soldier. Essentially, the poem makes several points. Firstly, it highlights the fragility of civilians during times of war; the idea that ‘they crawl’, compares them with a helpless baby.
Lines such as the opening line, ”Civilians’ are not really, truly people. ‘ And the phrase ‘expendablest of the expendable’ indicate that any human not involved in the war effort was not of any use in society at a time where politics and war were so important. This leads on to the second point, that soldiers were ‘brainwashed. Morgan describes the soldiers as ‘Slogan-fuelled better than machines are’; this conjures up images of hundreds or thousands of soldiers being fed ‘slogans’ or propaganda which encouraged them to kill.
This fact illustrates how even the soldiers, who are the aggressors in the poem, were not strong enough to withstand the force of particular political regimes. The intensity of the relationship between a soldier and his weapon is depicted in the phrase, ‘It’s bullet time between you and your sniper’. This image contrasts with Morgan’s simile of the ‘shattered housewife’ ending up ‘like a clapped piece of tawdry human magic’. The issue of a ‘vicious circle’ of continual war is introduced in the concluding line when the poet says ‘And it goes on as if it could not finish. A possible summary of the poem could be that Morgan highlights the fragility of human life and human will as well as expressing his disgust with the behaviour he witnessed during his time in the army along with pointing out that war, in the end, does not benefit anyone but the world continues to fight anyway. In terms of language, the vocabulary, with the exception of a few words, seems quite basic. However, the simplicity of language should not fool the reader into believing the poem will be easy to understand.
Morgan really forces his reader to think carefully about what he has written. His use of the term ‘Civilian’ not only echoes a newsreader but also hints at irony because the word is derived from the word ‘civil’ which is generally used in relation to people and yet he states that they ‘are not really, truly people’. He does use some traditional poetic techniques, such as, alliteration in the phrases ‘drags them to doorways’ and ‘blood and bags and bread’.
These ‘B’ and ‘D’ sounds sound quite ominous and dull whereas the phrase ‘they slump and shake’ seems bitter. The use of alliteration in this way, coupled with disturbing images, such as, ‘shattered housewife’ add to the overall gloomy and threatening tone of the poem. The form of the poem also plays a part in how Morgan puts across his message. On the page, the poem is one stanza made up of nineteen lines which are all of almost equal length.
The three opening and three concluding sentences are short and to the point; making general statements about war and its effect on mankind. In contrast, the middle section of the poem is one eleven-lined sentence of description. This method of ‘breaking up’ the poem helps Morgan to make his point then provide several images to really draw the reader in and conclude with strong statements about what he is trying to say. In relation to rhyme and rhythm within the poem, there does not appear to be any distinct rhyme scheme or rhythm pattern.
The lack of rhyme stops the reader from reading the poem quickly and not fully understanding it. This, once again, reinforces Morgan’s keen desire for his readers to think about what he has written. The erratic rhythm also helps slow down the poem as well as perhaps being symbolic of the erratic nature of war or possibly even the sound of gunfire. In conclusion, Edwin Morgan uses his own experiences during a traumatic, yet influential, period in his life to write a powerful piece of poetry.
He provides a perspective of the situation of war which incorporates the effect it had on innocent civilians and seemingly menacing, blood-thirsty soldiers. He writes in a way which forces his readers to read and re-read his poem several times in order to begin to understand what he is really trying to say. His gentle use of somewhat disturbing images and the way he forces the poem to even sound ominous, yet powerful, add further to the impact of this poem. As the poem draws to a close, the reader is left to think about why “it goes on as if it could not finish”.