Review: The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950-2010 by Edwin Morgan
Never Not Sending Missives
Edwin Morgan was not only one of the greatest Scottish poets of the twentieth century; he was also among the most fastidious when it came to cultivating his archive for the benefit of future generations. It is remarkable that for a poet so modern – so enamoured of the now – Morgan always kept one eye on posterity, but it should not be surprising. After all, as his famous poem ‘Archives’ inversely testifies, a generation can only be measured by what it has preserved.
The Edwin Morgan archive is shared among several libraries in Scotland, with the present volume – the first collection of Morgan’s letters but not, one hopes, the last – drawn from the University of Glasgow’s portion. As its editors James McGonigal and John Coyle concede, it is ‘a selection of a selection of a selection’. Even so, it is an impressive volume, covering the sixty most active years of the poet’s career. It is a revealing and, at times, moving journey, from the prologue of the poet’s ‘second life’ in the 1960s through to his coming out and instatement as makar in the 1990s, and the slow decline of his health over the following decade. It is not only a valuable scholarly resource, but an illuminating portrait of a singular figure and his extraordinary generation.
As the editors attest, Morgan was always a chameleonic figure – ‘there is a mimic quality to his letters: while the voice is always his, it also bends to the frequencies of his correspondent’ – and the book’s 500-odd pages give plenty of scope to show the poet at his various ‘frequencies’. Recurring topics include concrete poetry: discussing possibilities with fellow concretists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, for example, or defending the form against the reservations of his academic peers. The modernist tradition in Scotland is also a common theme, with Morgan reacting to the limits of the Scottish Renaissance even as he asserts its successes (especially aspects of Hugh MacDiarmid’s work). The letters also chart the trials, tribulations and triumphs of publication, especially in the extensive missives to Michael Schmidt, his major publisher throughout his life and after. At times the level of detail may have more appeal to scholars than to general readers, but as testament to both the brightness of Morgan’s voice and McGonigal and Coyle’s selection process, such detail is rarely a turgid affair. The editorial notes, which appear after each letter, are perfectly pitched: brief and informative, but peppered with charming anecdotes and a touching pithiness befitting of its subject.
Morgan is at his most enjoyable and infectious when talking about the things he loves. By his own late admission, these are ‘love, music, science, a new time’. Of science, the poet has a great deal to say, his palpable excitement sometimes verging on vertigo, as in a 1968 letter to Robert Tait:
“The smell of a burning TV is out of this world. Quite unlike anything else; hot; acrid; intense; pervasive; frightening. It’s when it smells that you feel its power for the first time. Talk about Pandora.”
Of love, Morgan initially says less – a measure, no doubt, of the difficulties faced by a closeted gay man in twentieth-century Scotland, ‘a new time’ or no. It is sheer delight, then, to find the septuagenarian poet in the 1990s musing “Two loves at my age, isn’t it absurd?” One of these loves (though their relationship was not sexual) was with twenty-four year old muse Mark Smith, whom Morgan met at the Edinburgh Science Festival in 1998 (“I was shaking (like Sappho)” he tells poet Richard Price). The few letters to Smith are the most joyous of the book. Love intensifies the qualities that shine throughout elsewhere: Morgan’s candour, his generosity, his wit, his knowledge and, above all, his unbounded enthusiasm and excitability. In the final letter to Smith published here, the poet also reflects on his encroaching mortality:
“I don’t feel that particular desire for – next card! // personal immortality because of the feeling that if a few poems survived it would be enough – I’d be in the poems – anything else would be defying the law of death. I also have the stubborn irrational belief (but is it wholly irrational) that everything we do is somehow written into the fabric of the universe and cannot be destroyed even if it cannot be accessed.”
Thanks to the work of McGonigal and Coyle, now a little more of Morgan can be accessed, irrationality notwithstanding. It is an important volume, and a fascinating portrait of a restless and remarkable mind.
The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950-2010, Edwin Morgan, (Editors) James McGonigal and John Coyle
Caranet, RRP£19.99 534 pp