Morag Morris and the History of Poetry Performance at Surrey
The University of Surrey has a very long and significant history of involvement in the post-war British poetry scene - and this is the result of one woman’s belief in the centrality of poetry to Higher Education.
Morag Morris was born in Glasgow and studied Science, French and Philosophy at the University there from 1940. Having taken the unusual step of enrolling at aged sixteen, in response to fears of an imminent German invasion, Morag’s time at the University was much disrupted by wartime conditions, and her passion for making Higher Education the adventure it should be can in part be explained by her sense of what she had missed during her own time as a undergraduate. After graduating in 1943, Morag working at Bletchley Park with a team of code-breakers led by Alan Turing, participating in one of the most secretive, and most important, operations in the fight against Fascism. Morag worked in the now famous Hut 6, with a team of young women on Enigma Machines, looking for crucial patterns in units of five-letter blocks. The messages Morag helped to decode would have been sent by the Luftwaffe, and were therefore of great significance for the defence of the United Kingdom, and for the formulation of Allied plans to invade Nazi-occupied Europe.
After the War, Morag worked for the Director of the Features Department at BBC Radio in Rothwell House. Here Morag would meet and support prominent writers such as Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas. She was present when Dylan Thomas handed over his sole copy of the script for the radioplay Under Milk Wood before leaving for America never to return. Here Morag was immersed in an environment that was committed to exploit the full cultural potential of radio-broadcasting and in so doing rediscovered / reinvented the performative aspects of poetry. No dead letter on the page, poetry was meant to be read aloud; if poetry was to be a living force again the text could no longer be seen as the end-product – but as a musical score intended to facilitate performance. This insight would underpin everything Morag would later do at the University of Surrey. In this, as in many things, Morag was well ahead of her time.
Morag started working for the University of Surrey shortly after its establishment in the early Sixties. Morag had been appointed “Poetry Tutor” within the General Studies Department by the first Vice-Chancellor, Peter Leggett, apparently stung into action after Morag had suggested (as a guest at an evening soiree to launch the new university) that the University would not last very long – if it had no soul.
On starting, that rainy summer, Morag took the daring step of committing herself to teaching only twentieth-century poetry in the belief that only an innovative and up-to-the-minute syllabus was appropriate in a scientific university, one that ought to look forward not back. It is hard to realise just how radical her decision to focus on Poetry of WWI, Interwar Poetry, and the Movement, must have appeared back in the Sixties, because Morag had precisely anticipated and to some extent helped to mould the public’s perception of what happened in twentieth-century poetry in the UK. To see how original Morag’s approach in fact was, one need only compare it with that of F.R.Leavis, for instance, a famous pioneer of the study of twentieth-century verse, who had no place on his syllabus for poetry of WWI or W.H. Auden. Together with guest-speakers John Stallworthy and Ted Hughes, Morag did much to promote the former. In the thirties Wilfred Owen had been considered a poet’s poet. In the sixties, thanks in no small part to enthusiasts based around Guildford, the poetry of Wilfred Owen entered the public consciousness and is a staple on all reading-lists at GCSE and A-level. The impact that this may have had on the British perception of war – and the willingness of the British electorate to endorse armed conflict – should not be underestimated.
Morag also took the novel step of inviting contemporary poets to come and read their poetry and to present lectures on the work of other poets. The list of those invited now reads like a Who’s Who of late-twentieth-century poetry. Her guests include Stephen Spender, Christopher Fry, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Bernard O’Donoghue, U.A. Fanthorpe, Paul Muldoon, Andrew Motion, David Constantine, Sean O’Brian – and many many more. Working closely with the Guildford School of Acting, Morag would train students to read poetry at these events and invite visiting poets to present prizes for the most successful performance. She would also collaborate with the Music Department, exploring the performative potential of poetic texts by having these set these to music. Another particularly far-sighted project begun in her later role as Literature Coordinator for the Arts Committee is the exchange program negotiated with the universities of Moscow and Leningrad in Soviet Russia. At the very height of the Cold War, Morag worked hard to ensure that channels of communication, crucial if catastrophic conflict was to be averted, remained open. Morag would travel beyond the Iron Curtain to Leningrad to tell Russian students about modern poetry in English, and professors and poets from Russia would come to Guildford to deliver lectures and readings. Among the most famous of these visitors was celebrated poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the poet remains a favourite with Morag.
Alhough Morag is retired now she is very much the inspiration behind everything that the new School of English and Modern Languages at the University of Surrey now do in relation to poetry. Morag’s October Lecture is still a regular event, and speakers in recent years include: – Iain Sinclair, Michael Horovitz, J.H. Prynne, and Rod Mengham. Poetry is a strong component in our overall teaching program and is taught in an innovative and adventurous way that seeks to build upon the spirit of Morag’s syllabus and approach to teaching. In recent years the English School has been able to expand its calendar of poetry events. In addition to the October Lecture there is a New Year Poetry Event, and, in May, the Surrey Poetry Festival. A new poet-in-residence is also appointed annually and the position has attracted two of the most exciting and inventive young poets currently operating in the UK.
For further details on our poets-in-residence, and on our events, past and coming, please explore these pages.