Between the mid-1950s to the late-1990s the poet Edwin Morgan undertook a number of professional tours abroad, which are documented in his papers MS Morgan H. Quite often Edwin kept a journal during his travels, and in some instances he wrote reports or articles about his experiences of the country. He also kept an assortment of ephemera, including flyers and newspaper cuttings. His tours span the globe, and this series of records not only captures Edwin’s experiences, but often the political and cultural atmosphere of the places he visited as well.
For this blog post I have decided to primarily focus on his tours in Eastern Europe with the British Council, an organisation which was founded in the 1930s to promote British interests through various cultural programmes. Morgan’s first tour with them was in the autumn of 1966 when he joined a group of writers attending an international poetry conference in Hungary. He met with the Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres in Budapest; presented a paper on translation at the conference; gave various lectures on modern British poetry; and was interviewed for radio and television programmes. While there he kept a daily diary in a notebook, with long detailed entries for each day.
On the back of a page in the middle of his entry for October 19th, his third day in Budapest, he wrote some random notes capturing snapshots of what he had seen from: ‘Shrine in street…’ to ‘Police w/ revolvers in holsters’…
Later that day he was invited for supper by Weöres & his wife to a ‘famous old literary café’ and he recorded in his diary: ‘Here was Hungarian atmosphere! – gypsy band, candelabras, mirrors, moulded ceilings, engravings of romantic/revolutionary prints on walls… Fantastic scene.’
Edwin thought Weöres to be an: ‘extraordinary man – small, puckered face, young-looking though about 50, great sense of fun (hence concrete & phonetic poems). Mrs Weöres ‘mothers’ him & is a most kind person….’
The next day’s entry opens: ‘20 October: Conference drones on, but I missed some of it by being interviewed for TV & for radio….’ He found the contrast between the ‘utterly dead official public conference’ and the ‘lively warm personal contact’ extreme.
A decade later, in 1977, Edwin was invited to visit what was then Czechoslovakia under the British Council’s programme of Cultural, Educational and Scientific Exchanges. The following year he travelled once again to Eastern Europe this time touring Universities, where he would give lectures on Modern British Poetry and Drama.
In MS Morgan H/4 Czechoslovakia: British Council tour 1978, there are numerous press cuttings from 1977 discussing the movement Charter 77, indicating Edwin’s interest in the country’s politics prior to his application to undertake the lecture tour. In addition the collection holds: correspondence, primarily with the British Council; itineraries and schedules; ephemera from his travels; a notebook in which Edwin Morgan recorded a daily diary; and a report titled, ‘Edwin Morgan – Visit to Czechoslovakia 4-15 April 1978’, with additional sections marked ‘Confidential’ and ‘Strictly Confidential’. The ‘Confidential’ section has the sub-heading ‘Accommodation, travel, money’ where Edwin notes his difficulties in Bratislava; while the ‘Strictly Confidential’ section was sub-headed ‘Academic conditions’, in which he noted the difficulties in acquiring British and American texts, concluding: ‘The general picture was of potential held in check, under the conditions of a difficult moment in the country’s history.’
In his biography of Morgan, Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan, James McGonigal noted that:
Czechoslovakia in … proved less engaging than reading or translating the poetry of embattled writers under Communism. He found the people he met difficult and uncooperative, with little interest in contemporary British or American writing.[p252]
Over the subsequent years Edwin visited numerous countries with the British Council including Turkey, the Netherlands, Israel and Italy. Then in January 1998 Edwin was invited to help celebrate 60 years of the British Council in Poland by giving poetry readings in Kraków, Katowice and Warsaw.
In addition to the correspondence, itinerary, postcards, ephemera, guidebooks, maps, and a Polish press cutting, MS Morgan H/17 also includes three publications: The Only Signal/ Jedyny Sygnal a book of poems by Morgan in English and Polish translation, published in 1998 by the British Council Poland to mark their 60th anniversary; Letter from Lódz (for Adam Wattam) by Cathal McCabe (1996), who worked for the British Council in Poland as Assistant Director of English Literature; and a Polish literary translation magazine, Przekladaniec (No.2, Kraków 1996), which later went on to publish a transcript of Edwin’s meeting with Translation Students at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków.
While the vast majority of Edwin Morgan’s tours were arranged by the British Council, he was also invited abroad by smaller organisations and in some instances individuals who wished to have him come and read his poetry. Thus MS Morgan H/10: Concorde to Lapland 22/12/1985 is perhaps somewhat of an anomaly in this series of tours, as Edwin spent no longer than a day in Lapland and he gave no lectures or poetry readings, instead he met Father Christmas. However, the trip was made possible by the prize money he received when he won the Soros Translation Award in 1985 and presented with such an opportunity the elegance and speed of Concorde could not be resisted.
I’d never have another chance to do it, so I went. Yes, Santa Claus is a very tall, six-foot six Finn… (James McGonigal, Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan 2010 p273)
Edwin Morgan never left his home town of Glasgow for any more than a few months at a time, but his interest in diverse cultures is clear and was mirrored in his poetry, especially his translations, which made him very much the International Poet. For further informatin on his translation work please see MS Morgan E.
Please note that an appointment is required to request access to MS Morgan, please contact Special Collections at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
James McGonigal Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press Ltd, 2010)
Categories: Special Collections