Wednesday, June 18, 2008

`House of Words'

A writer must work hard in the age of celebrity to remain quietly, contentedly obscure and not become famous for not wishing to be famous. If that sounds convoluted, consider the fate of American fiction’s Howard Hughes, J.D. Salinger. I refer, instead, to Herbert Morris, author of four books of exquisite poetry, about whom I know almost nothing. He has had worthy admirers – Anthony Hecht, Cynthia Ozick, James Merrill, John Hollander, judging from blurbs – but I have been unable to learn anything of his vitals -- age, place of residence, occupation. Judging from internal evidence in the poems, he was born in the Northeast, probably in or around New York City. Unlike many contemporary American poets, he appears not to be associated with a university and actually works for a living. We know of Morris all he wishes us to know: the poems, published in Peru (1983), Dream Palace (1986), The Little Voices of the Pears (1989) and What Was Lost (2000). I own the second and fourth volumes, and neither includes an author photo or biography. I’ve never even seen the other two and have never met another reader who recognized Morris’ name.

I first heard of Morris when Counterpoint published What Was Lost with “Portland Place, London, 1906,” a photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn, on the cover. The first poem in the collection, “House of Words,” is narrated by Henry James shortly after Coburn had photographed him at Lamb House, in Rye. James included some of Coburn’s prints in the New York edition of his work (“Portland Place” shows up in James’ masterpiece, The Golden Bowl), and it was the James connection that initially attracted me to Morris.

Little seems to have been written about him until, in the April 2004 issue of The New Criterion, Eric Ormsby published “Of Lapdogs & Loners: American Poetry Today.” The essay is largely a reasoned assault on the poetry industry—workshops, prizes, foundations, the Poet Laureate and the other high-minded silliness that surrounds the art. Ormsby eviscerates Rita Dove, Robert Bly, Sam Hamill, Lucille Clifton, Jorie Graham and other non-poets, largely because of their career-building narcissism and the “weird sameness of tone” he hears in their work:

“Earnestness is a splendid virtue; while essential to social workers and scoutmasters, it is, however, of limited value to poets who usually prove to be better writers when they are shifty, unscrupulous, and shamelessly insincere--in matters, that is, unconnected with their craft. Earnestness, by contrast, deadens; it homogenizes the sentiments; it may flirt with irony but never dangerously so; it subordinates magic to agenda; it seeks to please rather than to charm; it hankers after acceptance and respectability, however much it may squawk the opposite--and was any great or good poem ever truly respectable? “

As a counter-example to this depressing trend, Ormsby cites Morris as an almost anonymous, quietly hard working practitioner of the craft:

“Though he favors the dramatic or interior monologue, Morris is difficult to categorize. Eschewing rhyme and metaphor, his verse gives an unadorned impression; at the same time, it is musical and densely textured. His true Penelope, we might say, is Henry James, and, like James, he accumulates clauses within clauses, like some sly lasso virtuoso, to achieve his unusual effects, at once Ciceronian and Prufrockian. Overlapping repetitions, variations on phrases, spilling rivulets of hesitancy, and asseveration, lend serpentine momentum to his lines. The result is a kind of verbal impasto which, fused with an uncanny ear for cadences, creates an incantatory, rather mesmerizing pattern.”

Ormsby declares “House of Words” and another poem from What Was Lost, “To Baden,” masterpieces. I concur but would put “Opera” and perhaps a few others in the same category. The distinctive quality of Morris’ poetry is difficult to convey in brief quotations. He’s not an aphorist, not conventionally “quotable,” in part because of the “verbal impasto” Ormsby mentions, and because most of his poems are densely woven monologues. Given what preceded it, the final stanza of “Opera,” filled with the “variations on phrases” Ormsby notes, is sad and powerful. In isolation it is merely beautiful:

“…that sea Father would have us hold a glimpse of,
If we are to hold anything, light pouring,
Broadway darkened, stations shuttered, gas rationed,
The Italian dense, rich, resplendent, flowing.”

It’s probably not necessary to point out that the final four adjectives neatly describe Morris’ verse. “House of Words,” a 657-line dramatic monologue, is a nightmare of regret. James has examined proofs of his portrait taken by Coburn. He is depressed. At age 63, he suspects his best work is finished. Since the turn of the young century he has written and published The Sacred Fount, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl and The American Scene (to be published in book form in 1907). James has a dream: he is in the 1880s again, the early years of his London life. He boards a carriage, assuming it bound for a dinner party in Mayfair. Instead, he enters a hellish London, the “City of Regret,” a reimagining of Eliot’s Unreal City. Morris uncannily echoes James’ halting, obsessively qualified syntax as the Master questions the decades he has dedicated to words:

“I, finder of refuge, maker of refuge,
in words. Whose life, indeed, was spun of words,
spun and respun, spun once more, then respun,
a life which has itself become a refuge
(words, in a world bordered by blood, on one side,
by the tumult of passion on the other;
the thinness, yes, the thinness of one’s life:
what has one built if not a house of words?,
ill-at-ease in the presence of that mingling,
those lights, that clamor, that life of the streets,
yet has not once flinched from such confrontation,
not once, on behalf of those many figures
of one’s invention, social creatures each,
however great the distance from the center
at which their author stood, preferred to stand…”

Even for readers unfamiliar with James’ prose, the effect is hypnotic and immensely moving. Like one of James’ late protagonists – Lambert Strether, John Marcher – Morris’ James questions the worth of the life he has lived. Like most writers, he regrets, at least for this moment, “the thinness of one’s life.”

ADDENDUM: A Canadian reader who wishes to remain anonymous tells me Herbert Morris, born in 1928, died in 2001. R.I.P.


Anonymous said...

Oh, oh, oh! I must look these books up. Thank you. Marvellous.

I have also written a poem in the voice of Henry James, though I make few claims for it.

And does he remind you of Gjertrud Schnackenberg? I love her, and she's an other one - the real deal, I believe.

Anonymous said...

I operate the online bookstore known as THE HERBERT MORRIS COLLECTION. I am his nephew and I am maintaing his collection. I also have copies of his works including the many that have been printed in poetry periodicals dating back to his college days at Brooklyn College.
For anyone interested in locating his works, The Berbert Morris collection has a bookstore on ABE. Check the catalogues or email me to answer any questions.

Steve Rubinstein

Anonymous said...

Terrible to hear Morris is no longer with us. I've enjoyed the four books for years, but was just as unlucky as you finding any information online or off, although I did note a few years ago that at least one of the books (Peru, I believe) was on the shelves in Merrill's flat in Stonington. Revisiting the old favorites from these volumes will now be bittersweet.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this. I too just read one of his poems "Opera" and went in search of more information about this poet. Your blog came up and I thank you for it.