UNFOLDING: A RECOVERED APPRECIATION OF
FREDERICK MORGAN’S POETRY
Frederick Morgan, poet and long-time Editor-in-Chief of The Hudson Review,
died on February 20th, 2004. Like many others, I received the news
early on the following Monday, by way of a link to The New York Times provided
by Poetry Daily.
I was one of many people lucky enough to count Fred as a friend, and to have
had some of my work published by him in the pages of what we simply refer
to as “The Hudson.” All that day, and into subsequent days, I felt
a sense of heavy grief. Fred lived so long and did so much and was
so vital, it is almost impossible to imagine him and his wonderful voice
somewhere other than on this particular planet. His kindness and his
courtesy and his warmth were surpassing, his whole body and mind energy eager
Asked to write about him, I found myself in the basement of my house, my
wife and I rummaging in old boxes for an essay-appreciation I’d written on
Fred’s new and selected poems in the years before I had a computer (Poems:
New and Selected. University of Illinois Press, 1987). Fred
had seen the essay, wrote that he’d much liked it, and I’d attempted to place
it as a review for a while, but after a year the review dated and it was
I’ve found all but three pages and have retyped what’s here, modifying slightly.
As I recall, I began by making the case that Frederick Morgan had been unfortunately
neglected as a poet, his poetry too often overshadowed by his groundbreaking
and very influential work as an editor, and that the key to understanding
his central body of work was to recognize his mysticism. I’m doing
this as I pick up the review:
In “Bianca,” Morgan writes,
It’s purgatory, perhaps,
This being born again life after life—
in the same form or almost, with the same eyes
reflecting a deep underworld of meaning.
And from “Poems of the Two Worlds”:
It all unfolds, by chance, just as it had to—
just as it must, though no one made it happen:
is a retaining Mind
and Not-mind, and what exceeds those both.
Finally, from countless lines to choose from throughout the book, these from
The point is rather
whether, in someone’s life, it
may come to pass that the Self
reach a place of high vantage from which,
as from a mountain meadow,
future and past recede, and
the road itself lose its reaming. . . .
Kind reviewers, perhaps worried that Morgan’s expression of such beliefs
will subject him to the kind of criticism often rightly directed at “New
Age” Pop-mystics, have not dealt heavily with this core element in Morgan’s
work. Rebirth-mysticism embarrasses many of us. It is something
subject only to Gallup polls and whisperings at night. Yet there is
no good reason why a matured religious and transcendental mysticism, not
disguised by surrealism as it is in scores of other admired poets’ work,
should not be accommodated as easily as Hopkins’ or Merton’s Catholicism.
Sometimes it’s a jolt to remember that it is no more strange to believe—as
much of the oriental world does—in the soul’s rebirth on the planet than
it is to believe in the Christian heaven.
Morgan’s poetic stance seems to have been decided
on early. He is a poet who holds back and looks out (no accident that
trochees and spondees are so common in his lines). His narrative poem,
“The Turtle,” is instructive. It tells of a ten-year-old, accompanying
his mother on a Sunday drive. They get out of the car and stretch and
the boy finds “a big patient box-turtle, withdrawn into his fortress // It’s
hard to describe the love I felt for him, / love and fear too, in the freshness
of wonder / as I touched the smooth hardness of brown patterned carapace
/ sensing beneath it a life somehow my own.” An “old Model-T with two
young men in front” comes, swerves, and deliberately runs over the turtle.
Mother and son drive home in silence. The poem ends, “I’ve sheltered,
since then, a certain hard knowledge / that has kept me from yielding spirit
or mind / to hopeful assumptions of man’s innocence.”
This “hard knowledge” is pervasive in Morgan’s poems.
He is the observer, in “The Christmas Tree” wondering “if there’s more to
know // than one poor child
can learn. . . and wonders how he’ll ever know.” In “The Past”:
“I spoke to the self within: / Freeze now and be still—unyielding as this
glass / then , feel pain no more.”
From his posture of looking out, of keeping himself
in an often dreadful calmness, Morgan uses poems for searchings, as ways
to teach himself and others. They attempt unlockings and advancement
of the soul. Because such searching cannot only include the Yin, in
many poems Morgan not only can accept the sorrows and horrors attendant upon
human life, but he must contemplate them. These contemplations range
from two of his most strongly moving poems, “Canandaigua” and “Two Poems
to a Dead Woman” to the extended meditations of “Death Mother.”
In “Canandagua” (its refrain, “Lake of green—Iroquois
dawns”), a man describes his wife as “You were small and beautiful / and
a hater of life always, / retaining in every word and act / bitterness far
too precious for you to surrender it.” By the closure of a poem telling
about what seemed to be a calm summer when “Every evening was finally itself,
/ and ourselves were not ours, perhaps, but part of time’s / endless elaborations
of nothingness,” the family returns to the city “and a larger home in time.”
Then: “none of us ever went back to Canandagua / except you—who are
buried now / in the graveyard looking down on the lake from the top of the
The first of “Two Poems to a
Dead Woman” begins:
Lady, the strange malignancy
which you called “love”: in two more years
or three, it would have finished me.
The second has the poet waking:
My soul seemed not my own
so mixed it was with every form
of man and woman I have known:
It lingered in that shapeless swarm.
And then I saw your shade that stood
naked and hateful in the gloom,
a beast from sleep’s foul underworld
astir in the uncertain room:
the stabbing serpent-breasts outthrust,
the unceased-glitter in the eyes,
the belly-fold and wicked tuft
of jungle-black between the thighs.
What need I now of death (I thought)
who used to hold this fatal thing,
this corpse, in love’s embrace? But then
the soul itself began to sing
a cool refrain of chiming verbs
austere upon the rising day—
and you, poor brute, spat out once more
your futile curse, and fled away.
Horror, too, in “Death Mother,” but also reconciliation: “the lovely
body is composed of what was dead / and will be dead again. Death /
gives us birth, we live in her.” In Section 8 of the poem, Morgan writes:
of continuance build up in us expectancy—
and that is perhaps the answer: life
as lived, responsive to its fiercest songs,
assumes its own indefinite extension. . .
He has not fully lived, Lorenzo de’ Medici said,
who has not felt that other life to come—
and yet one must not dwell on it too much
or put on airs. . . .
The poem ends, “Black one, / naked dancer on corpses, / with you as Mother
/ how shall we fear death.”
For contemporary readers, quoting such lines brings
us to what is perhaps an even more difficult aspect than the mysticism of
Morgan’s poetry: its didacticism. But didacticism need not have
a negative connotation.
Traditionally, didactic poetry is work whose main
purpose is to guide or teach its readers. Such work has been out of
fashion since the 19th century, seemingly dealt its death blow with the 20th
century attack on Victorian sentimental verse. Yet strains of didactic
intent are always present in major poets’ work, most evident in the previous
century in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and in our century in the work
of Robert Frost, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and Robinson Jeffers. Didactic
intent, the teaching element, animates much of the strong religious poetry
of the world. Granted, if the didactic element in a poem overwhelms
its imagery, its music, its stories and drama, the poem becomes merely propaganda.
But when such intent is embedded in a poem, when the telling does not supercede
the showing, it can provide a main element in making the poem more than just
rendition. A moment’s reflection will recall to most readers that many
lines they carry with them are likely to be as much didactic as imagistic:
Frost’s “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” or Pound’s “Pull down
thy vanity” or Stevens’ “Death is the mother of beauty,” for instance.
In fact, the absence of didactic intent, the refusal to express beliefs in
much Modernist poetry, has likely contributed to its lack of relevance for
many modern readers.
Morgan, however, risks much telling. In the
very moving “Sometimes I hear. . . ,” he writes, “Sometimes I hear my father’s
voice, sometimes my son’s, in mine.” Both have died, and yet Morgan
Both images are strong in me today,
more real than half the people whom I meet,
as if their being, somehow, is in very loss confirmed.
Reality may be enclosed in mind
for who knows at what point the mind has end?
The world that is not here may be a world of several trees,
a world of man’s potentialities;
our absences may there be presences.
In “Autobiographies,” we are advised
To hold to the simple present.
A meal of vegetables,
soup of boiled greens, will do:
the mind, cleared of sediment,
resting on its emptiness
mastering the great principle—
shoes of coarse hemp
robes of coarse cloth
granting body such ease as it requires
until its day of death.
Morgan has written poems in many modes, and
Poems: New and Selected gives a fine sample of their rich variety.
Besides a short masterful section of translations from Catullus, Asklepiades,
Baudelaire, Mallarme and others, there are reminiscences, songs, narrative
ghost stories, dramatic monologues, erotic poems. But it is in his
short lyrics and meditative sequences where Morgan is at his best.
Four of the sequences, the six-part “Poems of the Two Worlds,” the eleven-part
“Blue Hill Poems,” the fifteen-part “Orpheus to Eurdice” and the ten-part
“Death Mother,” must be counted among the finest contemporary poetry in America.
And the short, often imagistic lyrics, “1904,” “The Night Skater,” “Song,”
“The Past,” “Maitrea,” “Winter Poem,” “The Step,” “Three Children Looking
Over the Edge of the World,” “Alexander,” and “Metamorphosis” among them,
again and again illustrate the religious apprehension of “there’s no meaning
in [God’s] great name: it’s all in the glimpse.” Two of these
poems will illustrate:
The Night Skater
Relishing this health, this singleness,
I reach myself out along the surface of a crystal
that cleaves clear down to me own cold roots.
I am the chill wind, passing . . .
How simple this motion, how free of life and death,
how like a god’s in his changing.
It fantoms me: ten thousand stars have scattered
glistenings of midnight all along my veins.
From where you are at any moment you
may step off into death.
Is it not a clinching thought?
I do not mean a stoical bravado
of making the great decision blade in hand
but the awareness, all so simple, that
right in the middle of the day
you may be called to an adjoining room.
The difficulty in dealing with Morgan’s poetry comes,
I’ve been trying to indicate, because in reading it one must not only deal
with the poems themselves but with Morgan’s lifetime contemplation of “right
in the middle of the day / you may be called to an adjoining room.”
The wavering zone between Life and Death is the mystic’s zone. Its
exploration is what makes Frederick Morgan’s Poems: New and Selected,
in the welcome guise of superb and varied poetry, a book of wisdom.