Saturday, April 03, 2010

`Unmapped, Unknown, Ourselves'

While packing Friday afternoon for a visit to Portland I paused to read e-mails and found one from a woman who met the poet Herbert Morris in the nineteen-sixties. She worked in a public library in Philadelphia and when Morris came to that city to visit his mother, he borrowed books. With her permission I quote portions of her note:

“I had many oblique conversations with him and meetings to talk in Rittenhouse Sq. I also corresponded with him during that period. Roughly 1963-1967. I have some twenty-five letters and short notes from him. It was always hard to ask him a direct question! Over those years I did learn about his life beyond his poetry. As the Eric Ormsby piece says he is `almost anonymous’ and has kept the facts of much of his life to himself.”

Morris (1928-2001) published four books of poetry. On the basis of their contents I rank him among the foremost American poets of his era and yet he seems to be little read. His name draws blank stares of non-recognition even from ambitious readers. Of late the Poetry Foundation has posted several of Morris’ poems including “Thinking of Darwin” (from Peru, 1983) which concludes with these lines:

“…latitudes of impossible
dimensions bleaching the horizon,
mapping what will not quite stay mapped,
nothing but desert at our backs,
nothing but darkness to advance on,
night on the routes that enter strangeness
more dangerously, in the evening,
than we can bring ourselves to say,
darkness and an interior
for which, of course, there is no name
except, unmapped, unknown, ourselves.”

Like other relatives and acquaintances of Morris who have contacted, my reader guards the poet's privacy, even in death. Such devotion is rare and commendable. She adds in her e-mail:

“His life even beyond his poetry was astounding. He was an amazing, caring man. He gave me time and attention when his life was filled with pain as well as joy. He was meticulous and persistent in his encouragement of others if he saw sparks of `possibilities.’ The more I learned about him the more inhibited (one might say unworthy of his attention) I felt.”

Please look for what’s left of Herbert Morris – his poetry – and savor his gift to the world.


An Anxious Anglican said...

Patrick: Another wonderful introduction to someone I wished I had discovered earlier - thank you. Is there a particular volume of Morris' work that you could recommend (as I cannot seem to find a "collected poems" anywhere)? Bill

William A. Sigler said...

OK, OK, thanks to you, when I was in the used section of the Strand bookstore I bought a copy of "The Little Voices of the Pears."

In truth it was one of only a handful of poetry volumes I perused at random that wasn't some variant of overwrought literary trivia; diary entries broken up into lines and larded with all the precious words seemingly always and only found in poetry books; rhymed jokes that weren't even funny 50 years ago; penny-dreadful and unselfconscious fulminations on death, war and suffering that lack a journalists' detachment, direct experience and clarity of expression; shockingly unmusical explorations of painfully obvious truisms; wooden translations; atheists looking for god in all the usual places (Darwin, Marx, the park down the street); and, in general, gamesmanship in the guise of navel gazing as far as the eye can see. (Others in the not awful category included "After Experience" by WD Snodgrass, "The Collected Longer Poems of William Oxley" and a fascinating book of elegies by Paul Moebius). To think this is where poetry goes to not die, "I must have got lost somewhere down the line."

I'll cleanse my palate and get to Morris. Maybe he can inspire me to think about all this another way.