To mark Edwin Morgan’s 100th birthday, we’re lucky to be able to feature an excerpt from the introduction to a new collection of Morgan’s prose pieces In Touch with Language, which is published by ASLS (£24.95). It presents previously uncollected prose – journalism, book and theatre reviews, scholarly essays and lectures, drama and radio scripts, forewords and afterwords – with topics ranging from Gilgamesh to Ginsberg, from cybernetics to sexualities, from international literatures to the changing face of his home city of Glasgow.
What use is prose to a poet? We might think of its everyday uses – to express opinions, to recount, to reflect or argue – although verse might also serve such purposes. Interviewed by Marco Fazzini in August 1988, Edwin Morgan provided an unusual and poetic answer to that question. He was not far from his seventieth birthday in 1990, and Fazzini had asked if he expected to keep writing regularly. His reply focused on a problem with poetry and the potential of prose:
Writing is not regular for a poet because poetry is the most precarious of all arts. If you are a novelist or a writer of short stories you have the chance to have a regular task every day, a certain amount of pages or words. [. . .] In poetry it is very hard to plan things and one must wait. Obviously I try to write something every day even though I am not writing poetry, just to get myself in touch with language.
Getting in touch with language daily, Morgan accumulated a huge amount of prose. For example, Morgan published a great deal of journalism, both as a young man and later as a national literary figure.
Growing up as the only child in a middle-class business family who did not read books, he would have found in the pages of the Glasgow Herald his first insight into a wider world. In ‘Epilogue: Seven Decades’ which closes his Collected Poems, Morgan recalls himself at ten years old, reading about the death of Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose poetry he would later study as an undergraduate and then translate with great distinction into Scots in Sovpoems (Migrant Press, 1961) and Wi the Haill Voice (Carcanet Press, 1972).
It is clear from the subject matter of his reviews that the Glasgow Herald catered for a wide readership, interested in acquiring information at some variety and depth. University education was a privilege of the few at that period, but intelligence and desire for self-improvement were found across social classes and occupations, with quality journalism as a key resource.
The newspaper page has sometimes been related to the rise of Modernism, where a new sense of multiplicity of consciousness, issuing in changes across the arts, might well have been heightened by the speed with which news items could be telegraphed, juxtaposed and printed in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. Information and illustrations clipped from newspapers, among other sources, and then repositioned collage-style for aesthetic, ironic or humorous effect, were crucial to Morgan’s earliest creative project – the substantial Scrapbooks which he began to compile in the late 1930s and abandoned only in the early 1960s as his own poetry grew in confidence and impact.
He continued to experiment poetically with formal elements of the journalistic page: with headlines in Newspoems (1965–1971), with photojournalism in Instamatics (1970), and even with misprints in Interferences (1970).
Morgan’s first post-war publication appeared in the Glasgow Herald. It was a letter of 15 November 1946 on the current and contested literary issue of Hugh MacDiarmid’s use of ‘Plastic Scots’, as it was termed. In later reviews he continued to draw the attention of fellow Glaswegians to artistic matters which they might otherwise miss, with detailed pieces on William Blake and T.S. Eliot, Byron and Mayakovsky. The impression emerges of Morgan as an educator beyond university confines, determined to enlarge perspectives and to share cultural interests that were already engaging him creatively, such as performance poetry.