The Edwin Morgan Papers: Ian Hamilton Finlay & the Scottish ‘poetry wars’

To mark the 8th anniversary of the death of Ian Hamilton Finlay on 27th March 2006, this month our series of blogs highlighting gems from MS Morgan D – Correspondence: Named individuals focuses on Edwin Morgan’s correspondence with Finlay during the 1960s.  This was a tumultuous period for Scottish poetry, described as the ‘poetry wars’, when young Scottish writers clashed with the Scottish Renaissance ‘establishment’, and which inspired Morgan to write his essay ‘The Beatnik in the Kailyard’ (Essays 1974: 166-76); and Hugh MacDiarmid to pen The ugly birds without wings (1962).  The latter being directed at Finlay and his partner Jessie McGuffie.

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IHF to EM, 1961, MS Morgan DF/6/1

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006), internationally renowned Scottish poet, artist and gardener, was born in Nassau, Bahamas, but educated in Scotland from the age of six. Initially evacuated at the outbreak of WWII, he later joined the Royal Army Service Corps in 1943.  At the end of the war Finlay worked as a shepherd in Orkney, where he began to write short stories and poems. He published books including The Sea Bed and Other Stories (1958) and The Dancers Inherit the Party (1960).

In 1963, Finlay published Rapel, his first collection of concrete poetry, and it was as a concrete poet that he first gained wide renown.  Much of this work was issued through his own Wild Hawthorn Press.  ‘Becoming his own publisher,’ Cairns Craig notes, ‘was indicative of the ways in which Finlay sought to control the environment of his art.’  Eventually he began to compose poems to be inscribed into stone, incorporating these sculptures into the natural environment.  This kind of ‘poem-object’ features in the garden Little Sparta that he and Sue Finlay created together in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, which in 2004 was voted to be ‘the most important work of Scottish art’.

Married twice, Finlay had two children, Alec and Ailie. He died in Edinburgh in 2006.

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MS Morgan DF/6/14

In his autobiography of Edwin Morgan, Beyond the Last Dragon, James McGonigal notes:

EM & IHF first met in the summer of 1961….  Finlay hoped to persuade EM to do a Selected Poems of Attila Jozef… but admitted at present he and his publishing partner Jessie McGuffie, had no money.  However, he would play him “a lovely Elvis Presley record” when he came to tea. [p.140]

MS Morgan DF/6 (1953-2000) contains extensive correspondence between Eddie and Ian Hamilton Finlay covering a wide range of subjects, including: Wild Hawthorn Press projects; controversies including the so-called ‘poetry wars’; and each other’s work.  In addition the files also include: letters from Jessie McGuffie and Alasdair Gray, regarding the latter’s illustration of EM’s work; press cuttings; typescript flyers for Wild Hawthorn Press; signed typescript poems by Finlay; published poems; and Wild Hawthorn Press catalogues and postcards.

The collection introduces us to ‘Yeddie’ the term of address used by a number of correspondents, but initiated by Finlay after EM had “told him that he was normally Eddie to his friends, but that his Professor, Peter Alexander, always called him ‘Yedward’.  So in letters, he became ‘Dear Yedwin’ or ‘Yeddie’…” or even ‘Everreadyyeddie’.

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IHF to EM, 20 Jun 1967, MS Morgan DF/6/7

McGonigal comments that during the poetry wars  “EM tried to steer a rational course through the values and strengths of various factions.”  By 1962 Finlay had become embroiled in a bitter exchange of  letters in The Scotsman with Hugh MacDiarmid.  Craig states:

Challenged by Edwin Morgan with ignoring the new developments in Scottish literature represented by Wild Hawthorn Press publications, MacDiarmid queried whether ‘progress to any desirable end will be achieved under the impetus of a group of teddyboy poetasters who have in any case written little enough in justification of their own attitude’ (The Scotsman, 18 May 1962).  In return Finlay and Jessie McGuffie accused MacDiarmid of being a Stalinist trying to ignore the thaw represented by younger writers.

With the publication of MacDiarmid’s Ugly Birds, the battle lines were drawn for the explosive International Writers’ Conference later that summer.  EM’s attempt at a diplomatic stance is illustrated both in his correspondence:

You know, I agree with most of what you say about MacThing and his faults.  It’s what happens in spite of the faults…  Something gets through – or at least it does to me. [EM to IHF 7 Oct 1962 – MS Morgan DF/6/2]

and also in his publication The Second Life: Selected Poems of Edwin Morgan (1968), where on facing pages Morgan includes his poems: ‘To Hugh MacDiarmid’ and ‘To Ian Hamilton Finlay’.  However, the views of others remained entrenched, as is evident in MacDiarmid’s letter to Maurice Lindsay, dated 12 April 1965:

Morgan’s prominence in connection with ‘Concrete Poetry’ and with Ian Hamilton Finlay rules him out completely as far as I am concerned.  I will not agree to work of mine appearing in any anthology or periodical that uses rubbish of that sort, which I regard as an utter debasement of standards but also as a very serious matter involving the very identity of poetry.  [Bold (ed), The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid pp 627-28]

In addition to documenting Morgan’s position in Scottish poetry in the the turbulent 1960s, MS Morgan DF/6 clearly demonstrates Eddie’s significant role as a skilled translator, and his pioneering engagement with concrete poetry.

Please note that an appointment is required to request access, please contact Special Collections at special@lib.gla.ac.uk for further information.

James McGonigal Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press Ltd, 2010)

Cairns Craig, ‘Finlay, Ian Hamilton (1925–2006)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2010; online edn, Sept 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/97737, accessed 28 Feb

Alan Bold (ed), The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid (Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1984)

http://www.scotsman.com/news/little-sparta-goes-a-long-way-in-poll-on-scotland-s-greatest-art-1-1400569

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Hamilton_Finlay



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  1. The Edwin Morgan Papers: dsh – ‘Dom Sylverstarre’ « University of Glasgow Library
  2. The Edwin Morgan Papers: launch of the Selected Letters | University of Glasgow Library

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