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Closet Correspondent – Scottish Review of Books
by Zoë Strachan

Closet Correspondent

May 30, 2015 | by Zoë Strachan


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MY O Grade English class did not respond well to a recording of Edwin Morgan’s ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’. Chairs were scraped and faces pulled, until all succumbed to outraged laughter. Needless to say, they didn’t start us on Kurt Schwitters anytime soon. On we plodded, believing ‘My Last Duchess’ to be the zenith of prosodic accomplishment. If only we had known we could write to the poet to demand an explanation, as did American high school student Bobbie Hinson when bemused by the poem ‘Orgy’: ‘The poem is about an anteater eating ants,’ Morgan replied, kindly, before providing a lucid and utterly uncondescending explication of Concrete Poetry.

Morgan often kept carbon copies of letters in which, ‘he was conscious of making a strong and reasoned statement of his position, as if to preserve it for posterity,’ writes James McGonigal in his 2010 biography, Beyond the Last Dragon, ‘although it may also have been part of the normal self-reflectiveness of the artist’. From the late 1980s onwards the poet sent these copies to Special Collections in Glasgow University Library. For The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950 – 2010, McGonigal joins John Coyle of University of Glasgow to present a good deal of the source material for the biography, arranged by decade with biographical and bibliographical notes. While Morgan kept ‘much that a weaker personality might have concealed’, it does amount, of course, to another authorized version; he burned all personal letters before leaving to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1940 (he was a conscientious objector but wanted to contribute in a non-violent capacity).

Back then he was likely thinking of his parents rather than future biographers. The Midnight Letterbox offers ample reminder, if any is needed, that even those considered major writers today struggled to see their work in print. We see Morgan smarting from TS Eliot’s response that he isn’t sufficiently well-known to attract sales of a translation of Salvatore Quasimodo, and in one letter he tears a strip off book dealer Kulgin Duval for not going into publishing – ‘I think it is terrible that you should sink back into that artificial rackety world of fine bindings and t.e.g. [top edge gilt] when you might have been launching out into something that would have been of service to Scottish literature’ – while at the same time insisting Duval helps in getting his poems published elsewhere.

Although a socialist by inclination, Morgan was brought up in a middle class household and for the majority of the time covered in this collection he is either a lecturer or professor at his alma mater, Glasgow University. The urgency is not that he needs to place a poem to pay the gas bill (and, as is evinced here, he tended to support those who did) but because he wants to add his voice to a wider conversation opening up in poetry. The passages that discuss what he is reading, writing or translating sparkle amongst more mundane lists of those to whom review copies must be sent and complaints about academic workload: ‘Life is really very difficult – one in the morning, two in the morning, trying to catch up but never quite making it . . . And even though it is the Easter vacation, I have 200 papers to mark.’

Writers and academics alike will recognize Morgan’s frustration, but the earlier letters are thrown into sharp relief once the Swinging Sixties exert their liberating effect. In 1962 Morgan began a relationship with John Scott, whom he had met at Green’s Playhouse; clearly a landmark on the gay map of Glasgow, if the sign from the management recalled in Enricco Cocozza is to be believed: ‘Patrons Who Persist In Changing Their Seats Will Be Ejected’ (and Morgan was). He also moved to the balcony flat at 19 Whittinghame Court where he was to live alone, and write, for most of the rest of his life. By the 1970s, his tone is positively chirpy. Editor Robert Tait is told about an entertaining supper in Edinburgh at the Festival Club: ‘I love men dressed as animals, don’t you? No need to answer that kinky question!’ Particularly of note are the letters to Morgan’s supportive new publisher and sometime collaborator Michael Schmidt at Carcanet. At one point Morgan agrees that ‘it is hard not to fall into [Laura Riding Jackson’s] extraordinary prose style when writing to her’, and I wonder if something similar happens with Schmidt. Puns and pet names abound, and Morgan loosens up considerably. On preparing new lectures on Swinburne, he observes with glee: ‘Switch to Swinburne, ha . . . And so he adjusted the gas jet, poured himself a stiff absinthe, and pulled down his Lesbia Brandon . . .’ He likes Carcanet so much, he buys shares in the company.

The legalisation of homosexuality between men in Scotland in 1980 makes a difference too. For much of his career, Morgan was at risk of losing his job or worse. By 1981 Kulgin Duval (who was also gay) is privy to delighted little boasts: ‘at the moment I wouldn’t dare take my shirt off, being black & blue with bites from a friend who got slightly carried away on Friday’. Once Morgan takes early retirement at sixty to concentrate on his writing, it is onwards and upwards. When he is almost seventy, he uses an interview with Christopher Whyte to speak openly about his sexuality, writing in gratitude: ‘I owe it to you that I found it so easy to talk about things I hadn’t talked about in that way before. It was strangely liberating, once I had made the decision to do it.’ There is a temptation to see Morgan’s coming out as overdue, but it was six years later, in 1995, that Whyte made his famous observation that, ‘to be gay and to be Scottish, it would seem, are still mutually exclusive conditions’. The Midnight Letterbox makes various fleeting references to the Scottish men who were forced to live their sexual lives on the frontline – Robert MacBryde, Bill Gibb, Eddie Linden and others – reminding us that there is a larger story still waiting to be told.

Morgan remained productive in his later years, even after being diagnosed with cancer. He was also able to fall in love with a vigour that should impress even those in the first bloom of youth. He writes to Richard Price in 2001 about meeting twenty four-year-old Mark Smith, who asked a question after an event: ‘Even from a few yards off I was hit by that old bolt, that coup de foudre, and I was shaking (like Sappho) as he began to talk to me. I never thought it would happen again at that age.’ The one complication, that Smith was not gay, didn’t matter; they managed ‘quite an intense relationship’ all the same, with Morgan confessing his feelings and Smith taking it ‘in his stride’. Being in love seems to have suited Morgan creatively, and in 2003 he thanks Mark for ‘a new lease of life . . . without you there wouldn’t have been the last book or the recent sequence’.

At the beginning of Beyond the Last Dragon, McGonigal says that he decided to call the biography ‘‘a life’, but not the full or only life’, noting that the title of Morgan’s final major collection (A Book of Lives, 2007), ‘reminds us that no-one’s life is simple, but a creative person’s life is often multiple’. The Midnight Letterbox is intended as ‘an intellectual biography’, but it is at its most engaging when the intellectual blends into the emotional, in responses to poems, in letters to Mark Smith and others to whom, perhaps, Morgan felt he could reveal more than one side of himself at a time. Back in 1960 he had written to Michael Shayer, the editor and poet, that while he was sure ‘there is a lot of truth in your suggestion that organic creative activity and wholeness of character (“acceptance of oneself as a sexual being”) are connected’, a writer might overcome in his work the ‘deficiencies and frustrations . . . in his private or sexual life.’

The Midnight Letterbox suggests he became more convinced of this connectedness as time went on, but one of the reasons that Morgan is such a compelling figure is that often he does hold himself at arm’s length, displaying the ‘gift for warm and humorous contact at a distance’ that the editors pick up on in their introduction. In Sandy Moffat’s painting ‘The Poet’s Pub’ he sports a white suit and sideburns and sits quietly aside from the fervent conversations fuelled by pints and pipes. For every correlation with his peers there is also a potential difference, be it to do with sexuality, poetic form, politics, an enthusiasm for Alexander Trocchi, or his more temperate tastes; he didn’t smoke and ‘I never saw him drink more than a half pint,’ wrote Angus Calder, in an obituary for the Independent.

The final letter in The Midnight Letterbox is to the LGBT Age Project: ‘The most important thing now is to see things clearly, and to discuss things openly’. Anyone in doubt should read the chapter appended by McGonigal to the paperback edition of Beyond the Last Dragon. On a reconnaissance trip to Cathkin Braes to prepare for the scattering of the Makar’s ashes, he was accosted and questioned by policemen who suspected him of cruising. Morgan did title his first collection The Vision of Cathkin Braes for a reason, and as we imagine him in that ‘endyir starnacht black and klar’, we might recognise that if we want to get closer to the man, we need only read his work. A letter to Mark Smith dismisses the idea of needing ‘personal immortality’: ‘if a few poems survived it would be enough – I’d be in the poems.’

The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950- 2010

Ed. James McGonigal and John Coyle

Carcanet, £19.99, ISBN 978 178100797, PP534

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