Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Edwin Morgan Collection At The Scottish Poetry Library

After Robert Burns, Edwin Morgan is Scotland's most famous poet.  Born in 1920, he began writing poetry in his teens, with the earliest known published poem occurring when he was 19 (at least from what I found).
Morgan's poems are voluminous and immensely varied.  I have an entire shelf filled with just his work, and it ranges from sonnets done in his own version of Petrarchan to sound poems, from concrete poetry to Hungarian translations.  (Morgan was a polyglot and translated from many languages.)  Much of the time he wrote in English, but he frequently used Scots as well.  (He translated all of Cyrano D'Bergerac into Glaswegian Scots, for example, and also translated Lady MacBeth's soliloquy into Auld Scots.)
I've always loved poetry, and I've even dabbled in writing some of it myself.  Before 2002, my favorite poet was Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I still love her work, but now she comes in second to Morgan.
In 2002, through quite a series of events, I ended up taking a course in post-modern literature at the University of Edinburgh's SUISS (summer school) program.  My tutor ("instructor," in American terminology) was a Greek Cypriot gal named Charris, and she just happened to assign me to teach the class on the day we did Edwin Morgan.  I, armed with a copy of Selected Poems, dived in -- and fell in love instantly.
It also so happened that Mr. Morgan was still healthy enough then to travel from Glasgow, and we had the incredible chance -- as a summer school group -- to hear him read his own work.  I will never forget how he acted out "The Loch Ness Monster's Song" for us.  :D  I also got the chance to speak with him for a moment and get his autograph.
And I was hooked.  Hooked on Scotland, hooked on the university, hooked on Morgan.
The year 2003 found me back at the summer school, taking two other courses, and again listening to Prof. Colin Nicholson, the world's foremost scholar on Morgan, present to us.  I bought more of Morgan's books and soaked up every second of Scotland I could.
Through a happy turn of events, in 2004, I was able to take an unpaid leave from my teaching and move to Scotland for a year to earn my MSc in English literature (really Scottish literature, but my diploma says English) from the University of Edinburgh. We had two semesters of classes and then five months in which to write our dissertations ("theses" for Americans).  Really, there was no question for me; I would write about Edwin Morgan under the direction of Prof. Nicholson (aka "Nick").
At Nick's suggestion, round about February of 2005, I visited the Scottish Poetry Library in Crichton's Close, just off the Royal Mile, to find some recordings of Morgan reading his own poems.  While I was there, a man I never saw again afterwards enthusiastically told me that the SPL had just acquired boxes of stuff that had been Morgan's and that I should come back the next day and ask about it from those who knew more.  I did.  I spoke with a young, enthusiastic librarian named Iain (sadly, I can't be certain of his last name now, but I think it was Young), but he told me the stuff was just in boxes and completely unorganized.  They didn't even know what they actually had and no one had the time to sort through it.
I made him a deal right then and there.  I would sort through every box, every book, and catalog the whole thing for them -- for free -- if they would allow me to use the sources for my dissertation.  It was a win/win situation, and Robyn Marsak, SPL director, agreed.
From April to August, I spent 2-3 hours per day in the basement room (then leaky and full of extra stuff), seated at Morgan's own desk  (click to see a sketch of it), with my laptop, typing and cataloging madly.  The SPL's only way to pay me for this was to allow me unlimited photocopies of what I found.
And what finds I made!  It was like an archeological dig!  I found that first published poem from Morgan when he was 19.  I found first drafts of Sonnets From Scotland, typed, with penciled in corrections.  I found Morgan's handwritten comments in the margins of every anthology in which his work appeared, including his irritation when people didn't print "The Computer's First Christmas Card" in its proper column style.  And I took everything to Nick, and with it, he wrote the section on Morgan in Fivefathers.
At one point, Nick told me he was going to go to Glasgow to interview Morgan, who was by then very ill with spinal cancer.  I wrote a letter to Mr. Morgan, explaining what I was doing with his boxes of books and ephemera.  I was thrilled when he wrote me back!  A personal note from Scotland's Makar!  Wow!
In the end, I had 99 A-4 typed, single-spaced pages listing the items in those boxes, and Iain was able to get them into the SPL's system.  Robyn Marsack presented me with a CD of Morgan's poetry before I went home.
But a year or so later, I had an e-mail from Julie Johnstone at SPL.  Would I help again?  Would I write a letter to help them get the funding?
I was in a unique position, for I could view the Edwin Morgan archive from both the point of view of a student AND as a teacher.  And so I wrote, explaining how helpful it had been for me to research those boxes and boxes of stuff and how much I would love to take students to use it, how much my own American students loved Morgan's poems -- and how much I thought Scottish kids would benefit from it.
The letter campaign worked.  They got the funding.  And when I visited Scotland again in 2008, Robyn proudly showed me what had been done with the messy store room, how it was now beautifully shelved, with all Morgan's things properly itemized, and his desk -- where I'd spent many hours -- as the centerpiece of it all.
Helping with that, folks, was my gift back to Scotland.
And if you ever visit Edinburgh, be sure to find Crichton's Close (just across from Dunbar Close and down just a titch from Cannongate Kirk on the opposite side of the street), find the SPL, and ask to see the Morgan Archive.  And tell Robyn Marsak I sent you. :)

P.S. If you've never read any of Morgan's work, New Selected Poems is a good place to begin.


  1. WOW. That's like itemising Isaac Asimov's library to an SF fan.

    Is it legal for you to post a copy of one of his poems (or an extract) on here? I'm not a poetry fan, but there are poems that appeal and having seen that he wrote a set of ten about earth from the big bang to Copernicus, I'm curious. Not just about the poems, but about the man too.

    Being able to do so many different creative things is what a lot of authors dream of. He did it.

  2. You can go here to read some poems online:

    One set that comes to my mind that you might enjoy is Sonnets From Scotland, which is the one where he traces the history of Scotland from the Big Bang into the future with space travelers landing and trying to determine things about the place. Does your local library have interlibrary loans? They might be able to get it for you. Anyway, you'll probably enjoy "The First Men On Mercury," which I notice is on this link.

  3. Lisa here's the link for my statue friend, and his faithful dog!

  4. That is a great story! What an incredible opportunity!r