Edwin Morgan, Hugh MacDiarmid and the Direction of the MacAvantgarde

By McGonigal, James | Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Edwin Morgan, Hugh MacDiarmid and the Direction of the MacAvantgarde


McGonigal, James, Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature


Despite their shared commitment to a poetry of ideas, to republican socialism and to Scottish nationalism, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan disagreed significantly on how these values related to avant-garde writing from America and Europe and, more broadly, on how Scottish writers should respond to cultural and social changes that were international in impact. In early 1960s Scotland, an ostensible literary quarrel on the uses of Scots language revealed deeper tensions of rural and urban perspectives, of generational difference in moral attitudes, and of artistic responsiveness to non-standard city dialects and contemporary working-class life.

Keywords: language, identity, social class, experimental writing, internationalism.

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) and Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) command attention as the most significant Scottish poets respectively of the first and second halves of the twentieth century. Each is admired in terms of thematic range, variety of form, intellectual toughness in pursuit of his own artistic path, and marked influence on younger poets coming to terms with such a powerful precursor. Both were radical socialists, although Morgan's modest demeanour tended to disguise the extent of his commitment. But both differed radically in their attitude to the kind of Scots language that could best express and creatively explore the concerns of Scotland in the modem world, and its relation to that world. Theirs was a struggle for direction in both its main senses. For MacDiarmid, probably uppermost was a determination to control the cultural advance he felt himself to have achieved for Scotland; Morgan's main interest was in new directions of travel, whether in time, space or poetic form.

Perhaps it is not all that surprising that they would come into conflict with each other, given their differences of age, personality, social background and academic training, and indeed of their approach to poetic experiment and the avant-garde. This chapter will describe the most public definition of their differences, at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1962, when they shared a platform in the McEwan Hall during a five-day Writers' Conference (20-24 August) on The Novel Today} The topic for discussion was 'Scottish Writing Today', and the substantial Conference Programme & Notes (Price five shillings) already contained brief contextualising essays for an international audience and contributing authors from Europe, Asia and America. In the Programme entries for 'the Scottish day', the second of the Conference, David Daiches outlined 'The Scottish Literary Tradition' and David Craig 'Scottish Literature This Century'; Walter Keir then provided a creditable attempt to encapsulate 'Hugh MacDiarmid' in several pages, which was followed by Edwin Morgan's own analysis of the problems facing 'The Young Writer in Scotland'.

In August 1962 MacDiarmid turned seventy, and Morgan was forty-two years of age. We might not now consider him a 'young writer', but he was still six years away from his first substantial collection, The Second Life (1968), and he identified strongly with the frustrations experienced by younger experimental writers working within a literary Scotland which MacDiarmid's 'Renaissance' had done so much to define. The language of Lowland Scotland, 'Lallans', was still felt by many poets influenced by MacDiarmid to be crucial to that Renaissance, even although their mentor himself had largely moved on from Lallans to emphasise a restlessly wide-ranging poetry of fact, using recondite terminology from science and world history in an attempt on heroic form by cerebral means.

The account of the Conference in my recent biography, Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan was shaped by the many newspaper cuttings that Morgan had kept of the event, by his exposition in the Programme and elsewhere of the problems facing younger Scottish writers, by his uneasy role in a cross-generational 'pamphlet war' that broke out just prior to the Conference, and by two reports that he gave of it: one creative ('The Fold-in Conference') and the other a plain account given to a local group of business-men in his home town of Rutherglen near Glasgow. …

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