Edwin Morgan: MSLC 2022 – ‘literature is half words, half life’

A guest blog post by Laura MacDonald, from the Memorialising Scottish Literature & Culture placement, working on MS Morgan G/7-8 in Archives and Special Collections

Over the course of five weeks, I had the pleasure of cataloguing boxes 7 and 8 of MS Morgan G: reviews, essays and talks, by poet, academic, and literature enthusiast, Edwin Morgan, spanning from 1970-1976. The files within capture Morgan’s passion for the arts, and demonstrate that as a writer, reviewer, and general source of literary knowledge, his opinion was sought after by a variety of interested parties. This blog will focus on two files from box 7 – ‘Creative Writing and the University’, and an essay for The Review which discusses features of poetry of the past and future decades – which highlight Morgan’s belief that literature and life are entwined, and that this connection should be used to encourage individual direction and experimentation.

‘Creative Writing and the University’ was written in 1971 for College Courant, the University of Glasgow’s alumni journal, at the request of the journal’s editor, Elizabeth Meldrum. Morgan’s essay endorsed the the new position of Creative Writing Fellow at UofG.

Extract from University of Glasgow press release on 'Creative Writing Fellowship' dated 17th Mar 1971
MS Morgan G/7 – File 9: Press Release

Although he made a living through teaching himself, Morgan viewed the fellowship as a role which would benefit from not being about instruction, but instead one that helped guide talent which was already inherent in the students. He expressed concern at approaching creative writing as a discipline which could be taught as though genre and content was confined to certain parameters:

we have to face the fact that fashion exists, and where fashion exists, formula can be extracted, and where formula can be extracted, elegant variation can be taught and practised. […However,] would teaching make books better or worse, more or fewer?

In Morgan’s opinion, it could hinder the output of creative writing to promote the discipline as formulaic, although he notes that such an approach would be possible. He thought it better for the fellow to guide students by showing them many ways in which they could approach the act of writing: whether through studying other writers or by paying close attention to the lives they found themselves to be living. In his words, ‘literature is half words and half life’, which places the emphasis equally on both the act of writing and on experiences which inspire subject matter. He argues that what should be nurtured in the students is personal expression, the more experimental the better. This elucidates as to why, when asked to write about how the fellowship role should function, Morgan avoided attempting to produce a formula for success in the job, and instead opted for suggestions at how the post might be fulfilled.

Extract of letter received by Edwin Morgan from Elizabeth Meldrum, editor of 'College Courant', dated 2nd Apr 1971
MS Morgan G/7 – File 9: Letter received from Elizabeth Meldrum

Meldrum’s letter of thanks for Morgan’s essay, in which she highlights that it was ‘exactly what she hoped for’, demonstrates why people reached out to Morgan for his well-articulated and considered opinions: he understood his audiences, and they respected and enjoyed his point of view. The inclusion of such examples of correspondence, meticulously documented alongside copies of his critical writing, emphasise the meaningfulness of his words, as these letters record the personal reactions his work evoked.

In the following year, 1972, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of The Review, Morgan wrote an essay concerning what he saw as the encouraging and discouraging features of poetry in the last decade and the developments he hoped to see in the subsequent decade, as requested by the editor, Ian Findlay.

Graphic image of typescript pages written by Edwin Morgan, with annotated note 'Proof'
MS Morgan G/7 File 12: Review article typescript

He once again shows his appreciation for the non-formulaic as, regarding the previous decade, he argues in favour of the experimentation of the avant-garde, and for the rediscovery of voice: public poetry readings reminded audiences of the importance of oral culture, including the promotion of regional accents. Regarding recent poetry’s discouraging features, he could only bring himself to be as negative as warming against perspectives which limit appreciation of innovation:

‘I don’t propose to take up too much space with “discouraging features”, as I have always preferred positives to negatives. But one thing I would say: British poetry reviewers seem in recent years to have become dangerously parochialized and deintellectualized.’

As for the upcoming decade, he wanted to see an extension of the positives and a correction of the negative. This is a personal, but not a limiting, view, as his opinion allows for plenty of scope regarding voice, form and content of future poetry.

In the critical prose and personal correspondence contained in these files, there is a clear sense of warm encouragement. Morgan articulated what he would like to see in the study and creation of literature, and carefully explained his opinions in a manner designed to support the audience’s personal creativity, rather than stifle it by enforcing his beliefs on what must happen.

Bibliography:

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

Edwin Morgan, In Touch With Language, ed. by John Coyle and James McGonigal (Glasgow: ASLS, 2020).



Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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