Issue 15: Attila Dósa
The Fabric of the Universe
Edwin Morgan 2015. The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950–2010. Eds. James McGonigal and John Coyle. Manchester: Carcanet, 534 pp., ISBN 978-1-78410-079-7.
University of Miskolc, Hungary
One cannot but speak highly of Edwin Morgan’s poetic work and, thankfully, the same applies to his selected correspondence, The Midnight Letterbox. Editors James McGonigal (Morgan’s literary executor and biographer, author of Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan, 2010) and John Coyle of Glasgow University have selected his letters with the utmost economy and focus. The result is a book of manageable size which at the same time gives a comprehensive representation of Morgan’s remarkably long and active writing career. At first it seems a chunky volume of 520 pages, yet it makes ideal bedside-reading: somehow, it even feels right to read it in bed given that numerous letters were composed nighttime, as it turns out. Printing on finer and less bright white paper would have made the book more attractive, nevertheless the cover illustration looks very inviting.
Morgan’s famed fervour for technology filled not only his poetry but also his life: as we discover, he was among the first to own a colour TV set and had a Bose in his home. However, his delight in scientific headway seems at odds with his charmingly old-fashioned ways of communication: he used carbon paper (and later a Xerox) to copy his typewritten letters, which he often dropped off at night (hence the book’s title) to ensure early collection. And though a whole series of “computer poems” show his fascination with how messages are (mis-)transformed in electronic communication, he never used digital technology for writing or correspondence. But, luckily for posterity, Morgan was an avid archivist; he kept hard copies of his letters and, from the 1980s on, sent them to the Special Collections of the Library of Glasgow University.
In a way, the editors had an easy job, since both are attached to Glasgow – McGonigal as Emeritus Professor and Morgan’s former student; Coyle as Senior Lecturer –, and did not need to look for material outside the university thanks to the massive collection held there. (The correspondence kept at Glasgow alone is estimated to run at least thirtyfold of what has been included – and those with further interest may dive into other archives of Morgan’s papers, such as the one held at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.) On the other hand, editors setting themselves such tasks are under enormous pressure – remember the outcry caused by Motion’s Selected Letters of Larkin –, but McGonigal and Coyle have avoided the pitfalls that may go along with delving into the private life of a public person, and successfully draw a round and honest though considerate picture of Edwin Morgan. The impression that remains after reading the book is consonant with that which those who knew him in person have of “Eddie”: well informed on literature and generous with his knowledge; enthusiastic about pushing at the limits of poetry while intent on bringing the pleasure of reading to the masses; a creative genius with a charming personality.
At last, here is a “selected correspondence” which is both relaxed and considerate. The introduction to this much anticipated volume is short and to the point, and though the editors are there to help readers out with useful comments on individual letters, these rarely exceed a few lines so that their presence remains unobtrusive throughout the book. Likewise, they economize with greetings and technicalities to give as much space to Morgan as possible. Although what we have in hand is “a selection of a selection of a selection”, there is plenty to read, savour, reminisce about and ponder upon for not just those who met him person but also those who only know him through his poems. Even the list of addressees is staggering, ranging from international literary luminaries like T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Salvatore Quasimodo and Sándor Weöres (misspelled on page 53) to schoolteachers and students in Brazil and the Soviet Union. The letters that trace Morgan’s life, intellectual biography and career turns take a multitude of forms: official and private letters; travel reports; criticism; epistles; notes; postcards; love letters; and even nonsense poems, many signed with his familiar calligraphic strokes. His on-going ambition to engage with writers, readers, and life in general, within and outside Scotland becomes visible from the variety of topics he discusses or touches upon: translating foreign writers; taking snapshots in Russia; literary anecdotes; pornography in the novel; guidance to teachers and young writers; spoken and written Scots; achromatopsia, dyslexia and cancer; defence of homosexual artists; life in Glasgow; travels to Germany, Russia, Hungary and elsewhere; science and literature; and of course love.
The decade-by-decade plan might appear too simple at first but Morgan’s creative periods do coincide with the decades, and are briefly described at the start of each section. Moreover, in every decade a correspondent stands out: the fifties saw a mutual flow of literary advice between him and W.S. Graham, the sixties a steady exchange of thoughts on shared passions for concrete poetry with Ian Hamilton Finlay, and the seventies constant negotiations with Michael Schmidt on publication matters. Morgan had returned to Glasgow in 1946 after his Middle-East war-service to finish his studies. He had destroyed his war letters, so the story begins in 1950 when he took up teaching at the university, and published his first works of poetry and translation (his Beowulf was to sell 50,000 copies and remain in print to 1999). His fifties trade-off of criticism with Graham gives a sense of immediacy and makes one feel like one is sitting in a poets’ workshop, as do his letters on translation which profess that “the greatest poetry does in fact survive translation better than we might expect”. A month-long trip to Russia in 1955 reported with enthusiasm signals his lifelong commitment to socialism and Russian constructivist poetry, and we learn about his habit of wearing a kilt on foreign tours. He gives a lovely report of MacDiarmid’s sixty-fifth birthday celebrations (at once embarrassing and entertaining), and we get to know that, “with all his faults”, Hardy was his favourite writer.
The sixties are his “period of liberation” and his creative re-boot is signalled in the title of The Second Life: “I could almost date my life from 1960 instead of 1920”, he writes in a letter. So much happens then that it comes as no surprise that the sixties section contains 200 pages in contrast to the seventies and eighties which get 80 and 60 pages respectively: he takes up residence in Whittingehame Court (where I interviewed him in 2001); engages with avant-garde and becomes the figurehead of the Glasgow Renaissance; publishes Sovpoems and Emergent Poems; increasingly participates in literary life as editor (“anyone who has talent has responsibility”); and, meeting John Scott, establishes a long-term relationship. Watching the moon landing live on TV confirms his belief that we are “on the threshold of a great epoch in history” and poetry should be “susceptible [. . .] to the idea of exploration, adventure, endurance, discovery”. At the same time, letters show his irritation at how profit determines poetry publishing, his exasperation with how academic workload drains creative energy, and his frustration by failures such as Eliot’s refusal to publish his Quasimodo translations. But there were many successes as well, and one especially stands out, one that also shaped his Glasgow poems: the fine translations of Attila József. His interest in József’s socialist urban modernism was first raised in the fifties, and was strengthened on a 1966 trip to Hungary which led to a lasting dedication to translating not just József but also many other Hungarian poets.
But every further decade is as least as fascinating to read about. His seventies correspondence shows his growing commitment to Schmidt’s Carcanet while declining offers to publish in PNR due to political differences, and is warm with calamities both personal (John Scott’s death) and public (the failed referendum). The eighties witness his early retirement to become a full-time writer (there is a touching report of clearing his desk at the university), receiving honorary degrees and giving reading tours, and his coming-out at the age of 70. The nineties letters show Morgan at the peak of his public career during a time of Scotland’s cultural recovery (see his lists of “doings, comings & goings” sent to Marshall Walker) when the “last dragon”, cancer, unexpectedly strikes. Also unexpectedly, at the age of 78 he is “hit by that old bolt” when meets Mark Smith (a heterosexual young man then aged 24) with whom he maintains a friendly correspondence to the end. He stays productive throughout in spite of painful medical treatment, publishing major new works while typing and faxing responses to queries received through the website maintained by Claudia Kraszkiewicz, which can be accessed at www.edwinmorgan.com.
The final letters are heart-rending and not because he ever complains: in fact, an apparent non-believer, he finally seems to have found his own version of afterlife which he describes in a hand-written letter to Smith: “I don’t feel that particular desire for [. . .] personal immortality because of the feeling that if a few poems survived it would be enough – I’d be in the poems [. . .]. I also have the stubborn irrational belief [. . .] that everything we do is somehow written into the fabric of the universe and cannot be destroyed even if it cannot be accessed.” Both his friends and his readers can be grateful to the editors for retrieving and giving us access to more of what Eddie has written into the fabric of the universe.
Attila Dósa is associate professor at the University of Miskolc and is the author of Beyond Identity: New Horizons in Modern Scottish Poetry (Amsterdam: Rodopi,2009) which contains in-depth interview with thirteen of Scotland's foremost poets including Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard and Kathleen Jamie, complete with headnotes and bibliographies.