Direct and Spontaneous Testimony: ‘Edwin Morgan: The Midnight Letterbox’

Edwin Morgan: The Midnight Letter Box: Selected Correspondence 1950-2010, edited by James McGonigal and John Coyle (Carcanet, 2015)

by William Bonar

James McGonigal and John Coyle, the editors of this “selection of a selection of a selection” of letters from the voluminous correspondence of Edwin Morgan, both knew the poet well. Each was taught by him, albeit in different decades, as undergraduates at Glasgow University and both became teaching colleagues at the same university. In addition, James McGonigal is one of Morgan’s literary executors and his biographer [1]. Therefore both have profound knowledge of the enormous range and volume of Morgan’s creative work as poet, translator and playwright. Moreover they also have had the benefit of many conversations with Morgan over many years that would have leant insight into his creative preoccupations and methods. Therefore few others could be more qualified for the task of producing this volume.morgan-cover-front-final-4-1

The letters are held in the Department of Special Collections in the library of the University of Glasgow. Morgan donated his correspondence in instalments from the late 1980s onwards. The earliest item presented here is a handwritten post card to a friend and fellow undergraduate, dated 29th April 1947, and written in a playful Joycean style:

Dearwisher

Tacks for pinning such
Fine-all washes

The last letter in the volume, dated 7th July 2010, a few weeks before Morgan’s death, is a dictated email to Garry McGregor, Coordinator of the Edinburgh LGBT Age Project, that begins, “The first thing I think about, as a gay nonagenarian, is of being one hundred!” These two selections illustrate both Morgan’s willingness to experiment with form and language and the optimistic, forward-looking spirit which characterised his approach to his creative work throughout his life.

Morgan burned his personal letters in 1940 before entering the Royal Army Medical Corps, so this selection starts properly in 1950. The letters are grouped by decade with each decade given a brief biographical introduction. Morgan’s life (1920-2010) divides neatly into decades, which is something Morgan himself was conscious of in tracing his own personal and poetic development in the course of his life. Brief notes are provided after most of the letters, which clarify points that might otherwise be obscure, or offer useful background information. Occasionally this reader wished for more information but overall the notes are sufficient for understanding.

One of the most interesting correspondences of the 1950s is that with W.S. Graham. Morgan and Graham were almost exact contemporaries. Graham, who served his time as an apprentice engineer in the Greenock shipyards before attending Newbattle College, had left Scotland for London, then Cornwall. Morgan and Graham had been exchanging letters since before the war. A selection of Graham’s letters was published in 1999 as The Nightfisherman [2] and this makes it possible to at least partially see both sides of the correspondence. They each offer criticism of the other’s poems and Graham, at least, makes clear that Morgan’s criticism is important to his own growing confidence.

On 10th April 1949 Graham wrote, “I have been pleased at you reading my poems so seriously and you’ve contributed to a greater feeling of responsibility which I think I now have.” (The Nightfisherman). In the first letter to Graham printed here (30th April 1950), which is the first letter of the 1950s section, Morgan elaborates a ‘Great Flood’ metaphor to describe the alienation he feels from both everyday life and academia in the wake of his war experience. On 29th October 1950, Morgan wrote to Graham in verse at a time when they both had health worries. The letter contains these four lines:

Aberration draws on rebuff, rebuke, contempt.
At thirty one has built a shell or been beaten.
The shell is complex to guard a simplicity
Or hard to guard a reproved gentleness.

These lines, although not specific, are self-revelatory and intimate. They perhaps hint at Morgan’s homosexuality, perhaps his sense of more general alienation, but they do suggest the sort of trust that exists only between close friends.

Nevertheless, in December 1981, Morgan responded to Tony Lopez, poet and academic, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Graham. Lopez had made enquiries about versions of Graham’s work. Morgan wrote:

I knew him [Graham] before the war, when I was in my late teens. We were not close friends in the ordinary sense, in that we did not meet all that frequently (I was in Glasgow, he was in Greenock), but we had a close involvement with one another — conducted largely through letters — as young poets, and each influenced the other. I went into the army in 1940, and he left Scotland shortly after. Since then, we have had bursts of correspondence, but only very occasional meetings, in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Graham died in 1986 and this relatively cool appraisal of their friendship by Morgan, some thirty years on from its peak, is perhaps a reflection of several fall-outs, such as the occasion in September 1954 when Graham arrived very late and drunk at Morgan’s flat to a unfavourable reception. In a letter following the 1954 incident (dated 15th November 1954), Morgan is frank and forceful in explaining his views on Graham’s poems:

You say, ‘Listen!’ but then you have nothing to tell us […] I think what I want to see you doing is assuming communication rather than speaking about it.

Perhaps the harsh wording here indicates that the September incident still rankled. Both poets were in the habit of exchanging frank critiques of each others’ work but usually in less bald terms. Moreover, Graham was a difficult personality and Morgan had his own sensitivities and need for space; perhaps they were never as intimate in person as they appeared to be at times in their letters [3].

Morgan’s letters amply illustrate his wide-ranging international outlook as well as his willingness to engage in literary combat. For example, his letter to John Lehmann (27th July 1956), editor of The London Magazine, in response to an article by Colin Wilson, one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ of 1950s British writing, is a scathing polemic that criticises Wilson as “merely another Western European Provincial, dressed in a new suit of clothes but clinging resolutely to the same old threadbare ragbag of traditions.”

Morgan is unfailingly courteous and generous in commenting on his own work in the sense that he is willing, when asked, to talk freely about his intentions without necessarily offering an interpretation. This is well illustrated by his letter to Eric Marx, publisher (dated 21st August 1957), who had asked for a rationale for Morgan’s long poem “The Whittrick”, which Morgan wrote between 1955 and 1961. In August 1996, Morgan answered with some spirit a detailed enquiry from Steven Small, education development officer. Small was writing a teaching pack on Morgan’s version of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac. It was intended for use with school pupils visiting the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. There are several examples here of Morgan’s frank, unpatronising responses to school pupils themselves. One such is his response to Bobbie Hinson, American high school pupil, in June 1970, in which Morgan gives Hinson a line-by-line explication of his concrete poem “Orgy”. In a letter to the poet and critic, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, in March 1970, Morgan gave a more general, intellectual overview of his approach to making poetry:

…one falls back on a poetry of fact, or a poetry of the emotional impact of scientific theory/’fact’/hypothesis/’discovery’, or a poetry of structural exploration like concrete…

Forrest-Thomson had sent Morgan a draft essay arguing for the place of intellect in making poetry. Morgan was sceptical about her approach, seeing the use of footnotes to ironically comment on a poem as a self-reflexive trope.

Ten years earlier, in June 1960, in a letter to Michael Shayer, editor and poet, Morgan had stated his source of poetic drive. He declares himself as:

…very susceptible to the ‘epic’ feeling, to the idea of exploration, adventure, endurance, discovery and I think this feeling is very important to man as a species.

Of course, what really excited Morgan was that mankind was then on the threshold of the exploration of space. He goes on:

I think poets will and should be offering more direct and spontaneous testimony on our actual human situation […] instead of — as in the whole of the ‘modern experiment’ — trusting that their human concern will make itself felt through an interesting structure of images and words and allusions.

In the light of this declaration of poetic intent, it is no surprise that Morgan’s breakthrough collection, The Second Life (Edinburgh University Press, 1968), was such a heterogeneous mixture. It includes political concrete poems like ‘Canedolia’ and ‘Starryveldt’, imagistic lyrics like ‘Aberdeen Train’, longer poems like ‘The Death of Marilyn Monroe’, which explores the social and political meaning of that event, and poems of Glasgow life such as, ‘In the Snack Bar’ and ‘King Billy’ that do indeed offer “… direct and spontaneous testimony on our actual human situation…’.

There are two correspondences which stand out, in terms of longevity and volume, in The Midnight Letterbox. One is with the poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay and the other with Michael Schmidt, poet, critic and Morgan’s main editor and publisher from 1973 onwards. There are 22 letters to Finlay printed here and reference to him in 40 letters to others; Schmidt receives 27 letters and 23 references.

Finlay is first mentioned in a letter to Michael Shayer (9th December 1960), in which Morgan acknowledges receipt of Finlay’s The Dancers Inherit The Party published in the USA by Migrant Press. The first letter to Finlay to appear here is dated 10th April 1962. Typically, Morgan seeks to mollify Finlay’s ire at the description of his work in a review by a third party as “gauche and sly”). Morgan also apologises for perhaps having misinterpreted Finlay’s attitude to the use of Scots in writing. Morgan had taken for granted that Finlay was not “in favour of Synthetic Scots” as developed and used by Hugh MacDiarmid. He asks Finlay to clarify his position on “the language situation”. This initial letter sets a pattern of Morgan seeking to maintain a fruitful exchange of ideas with Finlay while refusing to side with him in his frequent literary and artistic battles. Morgan, as always, was determined to keep his interests wide and his options open.

Michael Schmidt is a publisher, poet and critic. He is the founder and chief editor of Carcanet Press and, along with Brian Cox (neither the actor, nor the TV science personality) founded the magazine Poetry Nation, now known as PN Review. Until recently, he was professor and convenor of the MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University.

The first letter to Schmidt printed here is dated 11th September 1971. It is a formally worded business letter about Carcanet’s publication of Morgan’s translations of Mayakovsky’s poems and Morgan’s contribution to a volume of essays published by Carcanet called, British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey (1972). The salutation is “Dear Mr Schmidt” and the sign off is “Best wishes, Edwin Morgan”. By 20th November the salutation is “Dear Michael” and the letter contains a brief, jokey pastiche of Basil Bunting’s work. Morgan signs off, “Yours ever, Edwin, (do please drop the Mr!)”. By April 1972, Morgan writes a long jokey, newsy letter, quite obviously from one friend to another. In it, he commits to buying £100 worth of shares or “Carcashares”, as Morgan playfully calls them [4]. The Morgan-Schmidt correspondence continues to be frequent and they appear to have shared a number of interests beyond poetry itself. On 14th April 1972, Morgan addresses Schmidt as “Dear Mustafa” and writes, “How strange that we should both be feluccaphils. Or Middle Easters.” In the same paragraph, Morgan voices his disapproval of the State of Israel and summarises his war experience in an alliterative list as, “…sun and sand, camels, crusader castles and conjunctivitis”. Morgan and Schmidt were also engaged in a joint writing venture. Morgan had undertaken to complete a number of unfinished, abandoned poems by Schmidt and some of these were published. In short, the friendship with Schmidt seems to have been a jolt to Morgan’s creativity and previously low mood.

No review can do justice to the sheer variety and interest of Morgan’s correspondence. These letters provide a revealing window into not only the poet’s creative creed and process, but also into the post-war world of poetry in Scotland and beyond. This volume ought to be essential reading, alongside McGonigal’s biography, for all admirers of Morgan’s work. This selection is a marvellous taster but, of course, what is now required is a comprehensive, fully annotated, multi-volume edition of Morgan’s complete correspondence. It is to be hoped that the necessary arrangements are already underway at Glasgow University. Morgan’s stature and achievement demands such a major work of scholarship.


Endnotes:

[1] Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press, 2010, Revised edition 2012).

[2] The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham Editors, Michael and Margaret Snow (Carcanet, 1999).

[3] Comparison of The Midnight Letterbox and The Nightfisherman illuminates an interesting error in the latter. Morgan wrote to Graham on 26th December 1969 (TML p240-42) enclosing a copy of the magazine Scottish International. Graham’s reply appears in The Nightfisherman (p227-28). Graham thanks Morgan for the magazine and makes reference to several other points in Morgan’s December 1969 letter, yet Graham’s letter is dated 4th January 1969. It seems likely that Graham made the common error of writing the previous year in early January and that this has been taken at face value by the editors of The Nightfisherman.

[4] £100 was a lot of money at a time when the average weekly industrial wage would have been around £25.


All works published by the Glasgow Review of Books are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License and the journal reserves the right to be named as place of first publication in any citation. Copyright remains with the poet. http://www.glasgowreviewofbooks.com


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