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Emerge: 'Message Clear'

'Message Clear' by Edwin Morgan

The poet says...

'Message Clear' really forced itself on me as an experience. It was almost written involuntarily. That is most unlike the usual method of writing a concrete poem. It came to me in the old sense in which poems were said to be inspired. (...) This poem was written when my father was very ill, dying of cancer, and I was coming home from the hospital. Suddenly this line 'I am the resurrection and the life' came into my head and then the poem began to emerge from the line. I think about half of it was in my head going home of the bus and I had to come in and write down as much of it as I could right away before it disappeared.

Nothing Not Giving Messages (1990), pp.59-60



The final line of 'Message Clear' is taken from the New Testament, John 11:25. It is part of the story of Lazarus, who Jesus resurrects from the dead. Lazarus' sister Martha believes that he will only rise again 'at the resurrection on the last day', but Jesus replies, 'I am the resurrection and the life'.

An Edwin Morgan poem which makes similiar use of type to convey a visual message is 'Archives'.


Teaching ideas


Sound and Vision

  • Look at the poem.
    • How would you describe its visual appearance?
  • Read the poem aloud.
    • How would you describe the rhythm of the poem?
    • How does reading this poem aloud differ from reading more conventional poems aloud?
  • Does the way the poem is presented on the page affect its meaning?
    • What difference would it make to the poem if it was presented like a conventional poem, with no gaps between the letters of words?
  • How would you describe the character of Jesus, as presented in the poem?
  • Why do you think the poet gave the poem the title 'Message Clear'?
  • Consider the poem in the context in which it was written, that of a death – can it be described as a comforting poem?

A comparison

  • Read 'Seven Headlines' (in The Second Life, Collected Poems or New Selected Poems).
  • How would you describe the differences between the two poems?
    • Think about aspects such as
    • rhythm (when spoken aloud)
    • sentence structure and length
    • vocabulary
    • tone of voice
    • emotional impact
    • the relationship between the original text and those that have 'emerged' from it.
  • Which do you think is the more successful poem? Why?


A letter-grid

/Download emergent poem activity

  • Choose a phrase from a text you know fairly well.
    • It should be about 40 characters long (including spaces).
    • It doesn't have to be a text that you agree with – it might be more interesting to choose a text you disagree with.
  • You could choose:
    • another verse from the Bible
    • a sentence or phrase from a book, essay or poem you have been studying
    • a newspaper headline
    • a line from a poem by Edwin Morgan
  • Write it down at the bottom of a sheet of graph paper, one letter per square.
    • Highlight all the vowels.
    • Look at the consonants either side of the vowels, and see which new words start to 'emerge' from the line.
    • Short words, like 'a' and 'the', can be useful, as well as linking words like 'and', 'of', 'when', and so on.
  • Write these up the page, as they emerge. (Don't worry about linking them at this stage).
    • Once you have a good number of words, look at how you might link them.
    • Remember you can run a phrase or a sentence over more than one line.
  • As in 'Message Clear', try to use just a few letters at the top of the page.
    • Make the lines more dense as you move down.

Once you have done this, read your emergent poem aloud to yourself, or a partner.

  • See if there are any parts you would like to change or move around, so the poem sounds better.
  • Read the poem aloud to the class.
    • What new ideas emerge from the original phrase?
    • How do they change your understanding of the original phrase?
    • How do they change your understanding of the subject the original phrase deals with?

Religious and moral education

Reading and discussion

Read the story of Lazurus from the New Testament in John, chapter 11, 1-44. (Verses 40-2 of chapter 10 set the context.)

  • Think about Jesus' actions, and reactions.
  • Where are Jesus and the disciples before they visit Lazarus?
  • Why does Jesus wish to go to Judaea, against his disciples' advice?
  • Why does he delay going to Bethany?
  • When Jesus says, 'I am the resurrection and the life', what kind of 'resurrection' does he mean? And what kind of 'life'?
  • Why does Jesus weep when he is with Mary?
  • Why is Jesus so certain that Lazarus is alive?


Retell the story from the point of view of one of the characters in it:

  • one of Jesus' disciples
  • Martha
  • Mary
  • Lazarus

Remember not all the characters experience all the events – for example Martha and Mary enter the story at different moments – and that each experiences what happens in their own way.

Think about where they are; who they meet, and when; their feelings (about Jesus, about Lazarus, about the crowds); their relationship to Jesus.

Have each character sum up their experience:

  • in writing
  • in a short paragraph, say 100 words
  • in a single sentence
  • as a text message to a friend
  • in a single word
  • spoken
  • in 30 seconds, for a TV or radio broadcast
  • visually
  • in a short sequence of drawings
  • in a single drawing.

Further reading

'Message Clear' – written on 16 August 1965 – was first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 13 January 1966. It led to a lively correspondence on the letters page over the following weeks. The poem was included in Futura 20: Emergent Poems, alongside five other 'emergent poems', based on texts taken from Brecht, Burns, Dante, Rimbaud, and the Communist Manifesto. It was first anthologised in Worlds: Seven Modern Poets (1974), which also reprinted the TLS correspondence.

Morgan, Edwin. Futura 20: Emergent Poems.
1967. poster. 'Message Clear' has inked-in corrections.

Morgan, Edwin. The Second Life.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1968.

Worlds: Seven Modern Poets.
Geoffrey Sumerfield. Ed. Middlesex: Penguin, 1986.
pp. 227-259 bio, photos, and poems by EM

Vol. VIII. No. 20. November 1993.
pp. 35-39 Message Clear' in English & Italian.
pp. 37-39. EM essay 'Tradurre Poesia' trans. by Emma Sdegno.

The Norton Introduction To Poetry 7th Edition.
J. Paul Hunter. Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998.
pp. 284-286 'Message Clear' p. 263 'Opening The Cage'

Other poems about Lazarus include:

  • 'Lazarus' in The Hoop (1991) by John Burnside
  • 'Mrs Lazarus' in The World's Wife (1998) by Carol Ann Duffy
  • The Lazarus Poems by Heinrich Heine, translated by Alistair Elliot (1990)

    Resource written by Ken Cockburn, April 2009




    Languages (English), Religious and Moral Education


    1960s, religion, faith, Christianity, Bible, death, rebirth