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The Communist's First Christmas
by Michael S. Collins

It’s often argued that the supreme heights of genius and incomprehensibility are so intertwined that many esteemed writers of our time seem merrily capable of diverting between the two adeptly, often in the same line!. Take Edwin Morgan, who with his cryptic “Computers First Christmas Card” creates a binary code that even Alan Turing couldn’t decipher!

It gives the impression of being a binary example of a “Magic Eye” poster, and is possibly the longest tongue twister in the world. Morgan runs off many variations on his opening line of “jolly merry”. Concretely structured poem takes on ladder puzzle similarities: a transitory structure by which each line slowly changes until the end result. The poet may have got a bit stuck as the closest the computer gets to “Merry Christmas” is “as Merry Chrysanthemum.” A blooming poem perhaps, but what does it all mean?

A crusade against modern technology! Rather than Merry Christmas, it’s assertive that in that ending we get the message Morgan was portraying - a melodramatic point about the usefulness of computers. Warning against such occurrences would seem slightly hypocritical of Morgan, using a computer to perfect the technique! This poem is a startling commentary: on the over reliance on modern technology, the effects of what may happen should our over reliance allow for errors, a call against conformity, and therefore following the same lines (on a less subtle level) a criticism of Communism. Communism as it existed in Russia and other places seen as the ultimate in conformity against the greater flow of individuality that is maintained in the West and, incidentally in the majority of Edwin Morgan's other poetry which irrepressibly experimental in imagery, subject, style and tone (see for example, The Vision of Cathkin Braes). It is indeed a complex poem which can be seen to have many subtexts.

How is this possible? Well, the one thing you could never say about Morgan’s poetry was that it was conventional. You see, on initial glimpses of the text it seems that in his verse Morgan is for conformity (as would be represented at the time by the threat of Communism). However, if we look at the words we see a computer trying to say Merry Christmas. Unfortunately the closest it gets to the phrase is “Merry Chrysanthemum”. Now the flowers Chrysanthemums are associated with a November bloom, so it is possible the computer got so close at the date. And yet therein lies the message of the poet! The trouble with computers is that they are very sophisticated idiots. They do exactly what you tell them to do at amazing speed, even if you order them to kill you, so if you do happen to change your mind it is very difficult to stop them obeying the original order. In his slight poking of fun at the computer who can not get the words “merry Christmas” out of its processor, Morgan is giving his warning of what happens if we place our trust in technology. And with technology being the ultimate base for power (especially during the Cold War with nuclear technology - another computer ran service!) it can be seen that Morgan’s poetry is strictly anti-conformist.