by William Baer
For fifty years, Frederick Morgan has been the guiding force behind the prestigious literary quarterly, The Hudson Review. He is also a distinguished writer and translator, and, as Daniel Hoffman has written in The Southern Review, he is "one of our most original and accomplished poets."
Born and raised in New York City, Frederick Morgan studied under Allen Tate and R. P. Blackmur at Princeton University. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army's Tank Destroyer Corps; and after the war, in 1947, he co-founded The Hudson Review which quickly became one of America's foremost literary periodicals, publishing, among others, Pound, Eliot, Mann, Williams, and Stevens.
In 1972, his first collection of poems, A Book of Change, was published by Scribner and nominated for the National Book Award. His subsequent books include Poems of the Two Worlds, 1977; Death Mother and Other Poems, 1979; Northbook, 1982; Poems: New and Selected, 1987; and Poems for Paula, 1995.
This interview was conducted during the Exploring Form and Narrative Poetry Conference at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
One of the most recurring images in your poetry is that of someone, often a young boy, looking out a window and reflecting on—or fantasizing about—the world outside. Is that an image of childhood in general or does it refer to a specific autobiographical sense of loneliness?
FREDERICK MORGAN: I think I've generalized from an actual, pervasive feeling of loneliness which I had as a young boy. I was an only child, and I grew up surrounded by adults in my parents' house on West Eleventh Street in New York City. Aside from my parents, there were two or three servants in the house, and my father's mother would join us for a couple of months each summer when we moved out to vacation in the "country"—what is now suburbia. So I was a solitary child surrounded by older people; and although I had some opportunities to play with other children in both the city and the country, I still spent a great deal of time alone. As a result, I did a lot of reading. I was able to read at a very early age, and I read a tremendous amount of children's literature, especially fairy tales and fantasies of various kinds. So I had this highly developed interior life along with an undeveloped social life, which seems to have worked both ways. On the one hand, I could be very lonely, and I was even subject to depression from time to time, but on the other hand, I greatly enjoyed the reading, and it created a valuable resource which I've always been able to draw on. So I think that's the source of that particular image in my poetry—which no one has ever commented on before except my friend Emily Grosholz who once said, "You know, you're always looking out the window."
It's a very powerful image, not just in poetry, but also in film—with its sense of separation, and maybe longing or imagining, all kinds of things.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, exactly.
As an undergraduate at Princeton University, you studied under Allen Tate who was a new instructor at the time. Did you get to know him well? And in what ways do you think he might have influenced you?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Allen Tate arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1939 as the university's first teacher of creative writing, and it was the same semester that I arrived there for my freshman year. The university didn't call him a "professor" at the time because the traditional departments, displeased with the idea of creative writing classes, looked down on Tate as an intruder. So I was a member of the very first creative writing class at Princeton which was one of the earliest in the United States. Back then, it was an experiment which, of course, would later mushroom out of control. There were about twelve of us in the program including Joseph Bennett, and we felt that we were a special group, which, in truth, we were, because Tate had chosen us from a large pool of applicants. As it turned out, he was a marvelous teacher. I found him opening doors with every session because he introduced us to modern writing—to James and Joyce and Eliot and Stevens. These were all writers who, in 1939, were only on the fringes of recognition in typical university English departments. When I was at Princeton, for example, the English Department didn't go beyond the end of the nineteenth century, and that was one of the reasons I became a French major, because there were French courses that covered Valéry, Gide and Proust. At the time, we felt the English Department was hopelessly retrograde. It taught according to the old-fashioned methods of biography and literary influences, and we had a youthful contempt for that outlook. I now feel that that contempt was unwarranted and not entirely fair because I can see a great deal of merit in that approach. Personally, I think we should have another look at those methods now. But at the time we were very excited by Tate and the New Critics. He introduced us to the critical writings of Eliot, Empson, I. A. Richards, Winters, John Crowe Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, and the whole New Critical gang. Through Tate, and through these readings, I first seriously studied the metaphysical poets. Up until then, they always seemed like some odd people in the anthologies, but now they suddenly came alive. I also studied the French Symbolists, and got a great deal out of reading Baudelaire and Rimbaud. So I owe a lot to Tate since he helped form my intellectual outlook. He explained, for example, how Flaubert was different from Dickens, and we learned to put tremendous value on le mot juste—and on writing with a very careful, self-conscious point of view. Unfortunately, that was, I must admit, accompanied by an undue feeling that Dickens wasn't really a first-rate writer because he wasn't as meticulous; but, of course, as I've gotten older, I've developed enormous admiration for Dickens, without losing my admiration for Flaubert. So our approach to literature was definitely one-sided, as I think many new and exciting literary ideas are. As we became focused on certain aspects of literature that had not been fully appreciated in the past, we tended to overlook the merits of what was being displaced, but historically, of course, they both performed a crucial service. So I was taught to see things from a new and exciting point of view by a marvelous teacher.
What was Tate like personally?
FREDERICK MORGAN: He was a man with marked opinions, with a very strong and individual personality. He was warm-hearted and generous but, at the same time, quick-tempered and slow to forgive. He was quite easy to offend, and, if you did so, he tended to stay mad at you for a long time. But Bennett and I responded to him very favorably, although not all members of our group did. The following year, 1940, R. P. Blackmur joined Tate at Princeton and eventually took over the program. Blackmur was a very different kind of man: extremely secretive. He liked to draw the students out and have them confide in him, but he never revealed very much of himself. Of course, many students were quite willing to confide in Blackmur—not only their academic problems, but their personal ones as well. But I always shied away from that kind of involvement because I felt that he was getting vicariously involved in the lives of his students. Tate was never that way; he was totally professional. If somebody had a domestic problem, he'd be very sympathetic, but he never encouraged his students to talk about the details of their personal lives. He kept things focused on the literature, and I preferred it that way. In those days, of course, the relationship between teacher and pupil was much more defined than it is now. Yet despite that natural separation, he was very generous. Later, after the war, he greatly encouraged us when we started up The Hudson Review. So looking back, I feel that I owe more to Allen Tate than to any other teacher I ever had, although I had other very good teachers in both high school and college.
What writers from the past do you feel have most affected your writing and critical thinking? Some critics have suggested Catullus, Lucretius, Blake, and Mallarmé.
FREDERICK MORGAN: All those writers have definitely influenced me. I've read Blake with great admiration and attention, and I've similarly read Lucretius at various intervals in my life. But I would have to add Yeats to the list. Yeats means an enormous amount to me.
Were you reading him as an undergraduate?
FREDERICK MORGAN: I first read him as an undergraduate, but the real impact of Yeats's poetry didn't hit me until the early Sixties. He means a great deal to me now, as does Byron. I particularly admire the verve, passion, and elegant jauntiness that Byron achieved in his later work.
While you were at Princeton, World War II broke out, and you served as a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army Tank Destroyer Corps. Where were you located and what were your responsibilities?
FREDERICK MORGAN: I was sent to Texas for basic training, to Camp Hood, as it was called back then. My assignment was decided by a lottery, by chance. I could have been sent to artillery school or an infantry post or whatever, and Camp Hood just happened to be the tank destroyer center, a special branch of the service which has not survived as such. It was the brain child of some high Army officer who believed that a special weapon was needed to counteract Rommel's Afrika Korps in North Africa. I had no particular expertise or aptitude for being assigned to that particular group, but I was, along with some of my Princeton classmates who were called to active duty at the same time. Like a number of other students at Princeton, I'd enlisted in the army about a year earlier, nine months before my scheduled graduation, on a plan that allowed us to continue our studies and get our degrees on an accelerated schedule, with the understanding that we'd be called into the army at any moment thereafter. And that's what happened. I was called about three weeks after graduating, in January of 1943, and I did my basic training in Texas—including artillery training and training for armored vehicle combat. But when it was over, instead of being shipped to active duty in one of the combat regiments overseas, I was kept at the tank destroyer center to train other soldiers. Part of the reason for that, I suspect, was my vision. I wore glasses then, as I do now, and I remember that my service record was stamped with some kind of limitation. I can't remember the exact initials, but it meant that I shouldn't be considered immediately qualified for combat duty because of my eyesight. So I remained at Camp Hood throughout the time of my service and ended up in charge of the files of the entire organization.
One of the few poems that you've written about your wartime experiences is "I Call It Back . . ." from your recent book Poems for Paula (1995) in which you write of "the war":
with all its cruel rituals of loss—
the horror that had overhung my youth
full-blown at last and ready to devour.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes. That poem actually refers to my time at Princeton immediately before being called into service, and I wrote the poem to convey the exact experience. Years later, Paula Deitz and I were having dinner in a New York restaurant—it was candlelit, with a pleasant atmosphere—and they played "Blues in the Night" over their sound system, and it all came back to me.
A popular song of the time?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, "Blues in the Night" by Johnny Mercer. I think it's a masterpiece—a pop masterpiece—and it was out in late '41 or '42. So the song tied the present to the past in the poem, one that was revised many times and took a long time to complete. As for my army experiences, I once wrote a sequence of poems about life at Camp Hood, but I'm not fully satisfied with them yet. They're on my agenda of projects to work on.
After the war ended, what inspired you to create The Hudson Review?
FREDERICK MORGAN: When we were still undergraduates, I remember Allen Tate saying, "Now, some day you boys ought to start a literary magazine of your own." "You boys" was the way he referred to us collectively, but in this particular instance he was addressing Joe Bennett and me. Tate knew that we'd been working on the Nassau Literary Magazine which was a very important experience for Bennett and me. We'd met in creative writing class, but it was while working together on the Nassau Literary Magazine that we became close friends and first had the actual experience of editing a literary magazine. It was an invaluable experience.
After you founded The Hudson Review in 1948 with Joseph Bennett, it quickly became one of the most important and influential literary journals in America. Looking back, as you celebrate the journal's fiftieth anniversary, have your objectives changed very much from those early days in 1948?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Not very much at all; they remain pretty much the same. The chief difference is that in 1948 we only had a vision—one that lacked substance. We didn't have the writers yet—I only knew one or two personally—and our aims were all directed towards what we hoped to accomplish in the future: discovering new writers and so on. So now, fifty years later, I feel that we've accomplished some, at least, of our objectives, and that we've accomplished them reasonably well.
What was William Arrowsmith's role in the beginning?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Bill joined us before we actually published the first issue, but he wasn't really there at the very beginning, during the long formation of our plans. Bill joined us in '46 or '47, at Joe's suggestion, so I don't think of him when I remember the actual beginnings of the magazine when we were still envisioning the future.
The Hudson Review established itself very quickly.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, and I suppose by the 25th anniversary I could have said that we'd already done what we'd set out to do; but it was still very exciting to continue, especially since more and more interesting younger writers kept popping up all the time. That's what makes editing the magazine such a rewarding job, and that's why Paula is so excited about carrying on. Just this morning, she's already read a couple of new manuscripts, and we were discussing some new writers before you arrived.
Unlike most journals, The Hudson Review has been justly praised for its various endeavors: its poetry, its fiction, and its commentary. Looking back, what were some of the more gratifying publications?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Joe and I were very excited in the early years to get our first piece from T. S. Eliot, and we felt the same way when Thomas Mann sent us an excerpt from his latest novel for our third issue.
Which novel was that?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Doctor Faustus. I had this very lucky and special relationship with Thomas Mann, and he told Knopf that I could have any chapter of Doctor Faustus I wanted for The Hudson Review. They didn't like the idea, and, now that I'm older, I don't blame them at all. We were certainly stealing a bit of their thunder, but Thomas Mann wrote his own ticket and got whatever he wanted. He had a soft spot for Princeton, and I'd written him when I was an undergraduate, and he remembered that when we started the magazine. He was very generous, and it was a real thrill.
How about Pound?
FREDERICK MORGAN: That started, amazingly enough, when I went down to visit him at St. Elizabeth's, and he handed me something for the magazine. It was quite overwhelming.
Didn't he start writing you every day for a while?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, and he got to be a real pain in the ass.
I'm sure he wanted to take over the journal.
FREDERICK MORGAN: At first, I was very flattered. I thought, "Wow, here's this great man writing me all the time!" and I worked hard to decipher all the arcane references in his letters. But I couldn't make heads or tails out of a lot of them. He was mostly talking about monetary theorists and that sort of thing. Eventually, he started telling me to "do this" or "don't do that," and I found him rather tiresome.
You also published William Carlos Williams.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, that was also very exciting. Williams had been avoiding The Hudson Review at first because he felt that we represented people who didn't like his work. So in the fifties some time, I wrote him a letter, and he responded very generously. We published a number of his late poems and a wonderful story called "The Farmers' Daughters." After he died, his widow, writing in response to my letter of sympathy, said that The Hudson Review was Bill's favorite magazine in his last years—the one he most relied on. So we were very fortunate over the years. I still remember the excitement of discovering Anne Sexton's first poems—and Louis Simpson's. I believe that we were the very first magazine to publish Louis Simpson, and we published both Anthony Hecht and James Merrill early in their careers. We also published Malraux. In the late fifties, while I was on a flight to Rio de Janeiro, I read his excellent piece about T. E. Lawrence in a French literary magazine. So I wrote him, and said, "If we have it translated, may we publish it?" and he agreed. I ended up doing the translation myself. That was great fun. And so was publishing Mark Twain. About twenty-five years ago, I read in the Times that a critic named Charles Neider was collecting various works of Twain, and that a selection from these writings about religion had been accepted by the Atlantic Monthly. But the Atlantic reneged on the agreement because they had decided the material would be too offensive. I thought, "Well, let's have a shot at this," and I managed to reach Charles Neider by phone. He was down in Florida at the time, and he sent the piece to me, and we published it. It had something in it to offend everyone!
You were always regarded as an editor who would tolerate a wide range of strong opinions from your contributors. Did that cause problems?
FREDERICK MORGAN: In the early years of the magazine, Bennett tended to be conservative in his views and Arrowsmith tended to be anti-establishment. This was intriguing—because Bennett was conservative but not part of the literary establishment, whereas Arrowsmith was very anti-establishment, yet constantly receiving prestigious academic positions. It seemed the more he kicked the academy, the more they offered him special professorships of this and that! At any rate, the two sometimes had major disagreements—which was very interesting, too, since it was originally Bennett's idea that we involve Arrowsmith in The Hudson Review. At the time, I thought it was a good idea, but now the two of them began fighting occasionally, and it was generally right-wing versus left-wing. So I found myself in the mediating position, which also gave me the swing vote on a lot of decisions, which was fine with me. I could always appreciate their different points of view, but I've never been a very ideological person, and I've never been able to get worked up about political programs. There are certain matters, of course, that I can get angry about, but they have to be pretty gross and extreme. So I guess there are some limits to my editorial tolerance. But within a certain spectrum, I feel that all opinions should be expressed, and I've enjoyed letting that happen. In the early days, we got a lot of heat when we published Ezra Pound. There was a barrage of hate mail from people who'd decided that since Pound was anti-Semitic and Fascist, that made us anti-Semitic and Fascist as well. Then, around the same time, we published a piece by Eisenstein on film, translated by Jay Leyda, which ends with a brief paean to the Communist party and "our great leader" Joseph Stalin. Leyda said, "You can cut that if you want," but I felt, "No, he wrote it that way, so why cut it?" But it certainly didn't make us Communists! So we did what we thought was best. Most of those kinds of difficulties took place in the early years when I was younger and less experienced and less thick-skinned about it. Nowadays, in all honesty, I just don't care. Someone's always accusing you of being this, that, or the other thing. You just can't worry about it.
From 1948 to 1968, you published occasional poems, but your first collection of poetry, A Book of Change (1972), wasn't published until you were fifty years old. Is it true that during those two decades, you abandoned your own poetry for your editorial responsibilities at The Hudson Review? And is it true that the shock of your son John's death in 1968 rekindled your interest in writing poetry?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, both are true. Inescapably true. At the time of my son's death, I went through such an emotional crisis and upheaval that it resulted in breaking up my marriage. Not long after that, I became very close to Paula, so a great deal was happening in my life during that period. It was, without doubt, the greatest personal crisis of my life—the crucial watershed—and I was very grateful in those years to have The Hudson Review, because I could always stick to that when everything else seemed to be falling apart.
Up until that time, was it always a plan in the back of your mind eventually to give more time to your own writing?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, but I kept postponing it. I would always say to myself that "next year" I'll arrange my schedule in such a way that I'll have more time to write, but it never happened. I was enmeshed in so many different things at the same time. Besides The Hudson Review, I also had children to raise and, after my father's death in 1964, I had family business responsibilities to manage. There were a number of important financial obligations involving other family members that I had to deal with, so I kept putting off the poetry until after John's death. Then my life fell into chaos, I somehow began writing, and that resulted in the publication of my first book.
As a number of literary critics have remarked, your poems are clearly unafraid of the grand themes that we traditionally relate to poetry: love, death, sorrow, redemption, and eternity. One of your most important poems, which seems to touch upon all of those themes, is "February 11, 1977" in which the narrator, nine years after the death of his son, reflects on his own mutability versus the permanence of his son. The poem ends, powerfully:
and so I age from self to self
while you await me, always young.
In this poem, as in many of your poems, there's a "message" or truth that the narrator can't quite grasp, yet it still doesn't seem totally unattainable.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Well, I think that's the ambiguous, ultimate question which all religions try to cope with—and many non-religious people as well. I've had a few experiences in my life which I could call—which, in fact, I do call—timeless moments: moments in which one reaches a certain kind of awareness of a state of being of which one is a part. It's unclear whether this state of being is an aspect of one's self, or outside one's self—whether it's the transcendent self or the transcendent power behind the universe, or both somehow merged together. Those are wonderful moments, but they're also, in a way, always beyond one's grasp. They can only be apprehended briefly, at least in my own case, but they're profoundly affecting. One sense that you have is that there's really no great hurry about anything in life, and another is that there's an aspect of one's self that's permanent, that's there all the time. And these ideas, as you've pointed out, have clearly influenced a number of my poems like "February 11, 1977," "The Breathing Space," "The Summit," and others.
Why do you think that so many contemporary poets avoid subjects like spirituality, prayer, and the notion of redemption?
FREDERICK MORGAN: That's a difficult question to answer because I can't speak for other people, but maybe most of them haven't felt the urge or the need for these things. Maybe many poets, like many other people, feel that they're beyond discussion right now, or that there's something pretentious and self-regarding about even attempting to understand them. Or maybe, for some people, they imply an unhealthy need for some kind of bogus emotional reassurance.
That such an interest might indicate a personality weakness?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, and I can understand that point of view. Maybe my own sensibility along these lines is something that's becoming obsolete in human life.
In human life?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Well, not really in human life. Just in poetry. And if it's still part of the human frame of possibilities, then it should be perfectly acceptable as subject matter for poetry. My own belief on this subject was best expressed by something that Lorenzo de' Medici once said. I got it from Goethe who quoted Lorenzo. Lorenzo said that the person who hasn't contemplated eternal life and immortality hasn't really lived, but one mustn't put on airs about it because death is certain. And that's how I feel. I think he got it exactly right. It's part of being a human being to have such aspirations.
And sense of wonder?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Exactly. There's a great mystery there. A few years ago, I read a marvelous collection of essays by Martin Gardner, the masterly popularizer of science. Have you ever read him?
Yes, the mathematician and skeptic. I've been reading him since I was a kid, and I was astonished to learn that he wasn't a complete materialist—that he had religious views.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, he's very open about things, and I think that's the most honest way you can be.
One of your most famous poems is "Hideyoshi." It's about a brutal Asian warrior, who, after a battle in which his enemies have been "cut to pieces," tries to clear his mind before deciding the fates of the vanquished by making a flower arrangement. Where did the idea come from?
FREDERICK MORGAN: I read the story in a book about Japanese history which I borrowed from someone years ago. The anecdote explained that Hideyoshi was just as brutal as the other warlords, but had, in addition, a great political talent, and actually began the process of unifying feudal Japan. One of his principles of action was that after battle he didn't automatically humiliate or kill his vanquished enemies. He would try to judge the situation calmly and make efforts to arrange for a lasting peace. This statesmanlike aspect of his personality was implemented by the Japanese ritual of flower arrangement, and that practice—like the tea ceremony and the arts of archery and swordsmanship—was a traditional Japanese ceremony ultimately related to the Zen discipline.
So it's something he really did after battle?
FREDERICK MORGAN: It's a story about him, at any rate. Maybe it's like George Washington and the cherry tree, but I think it has more substance. I found it fascinating, and I tried to tell it in as concise a form as I could manage.
It's a wonderful poem. I'd also like to ask you about the source of your narrative poem, "The Trader," in which a Western trader, who has "married" a native in a bogus wedding ceremony, comes to appreciate her love after she nurses him through an illness. Where did that idea come from?
FREDERICK MORGAN: From a story by Robert Louis Stevenson called "The Beach of Falesá." Actually, there's a section of the poem that's a direct quote from Stevenson about seeing the natives in their colorful garb. But, if I remember correctly, I made up the parts about the fake wedding ceremony and the woman nursing him back to health. I'd have to reread the short story to see exactly where the story ends and my invention begins.
It seems appropriate that Daniel Hoffman once praised you as an excellent translator of some of Baudelaire's more horrific poems since you've written so many creepy poems yourself: like "1904" where the children did something unmentionable many years ago, "The Body" where a corpse floats up in a lake, or "The Skulls" who rattle on about what they seem to know. Is Poe a possible influence here? I know that as a child you read Weird Tales, and even attempted to write one.
FREDERICK MORGAN: I'm sure Poe influenced me. It might be very submerged, but it's there. When I was young, I read Poe with horror and fascination, and, off and on, I still take a look at him. Some of his best work still connects with me. "The Body," however, came directly from a trashy piece of pulp detective fiction that I read in paperback years ago.
So you were reading pulp novels at some point.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Oh, I've read more trash than you could load into twenty-five huge trucks. I've read all kinds of junk, especially when I was younger. Science fiction, thrillers, stuff like that.
In 1995 you published something very different—a collection of love poems, Poems for Paula, dedicated to your wife and co-editor, Paula Deitz. It's a wonderful book, of a kind not often attempted any more—direct, unabashed, and sincere. I wonder if you found it hard to celebrate, so publicly, your personal feelings for your wife? It's something that people tend not to do anymore, or at least, not while both parties are still alive.
FREDERICK MORGAN: I was aware that I was putting myself on the spot, and I weighed each poem in the book very carefully. I'd had the idea for the book in the back of my mind for at least twenty years, and, when it was done, it was rejected by a number of publishers. This was while I had an agent who thought she could market the collection as a sort of beside-the-cash-register book. She worked hard at it but eventually gave up, and I told Robert McDowell about the book. When he read the manuscript, he offered to publish it at Story Line Press, and I was delighted. So I'd given the book a great deal of thought over many years. I wanted it to be a combination of outspoken, direct poems—more or less intimate stuff, without going over the edge—with other more abstract, thoughtful poems in which the connection to Paula might only be apparent to her and to me—poems that had a particular meaning for her. For example, "The Summit," which I repeated from an earlier book, has always been one of her favorites because of a shared philosophy. From my point of view, it has always been associated with her. Then to give the book structure, there's a seasonal progression, ending up with an Easter poem, followed by a final section which goes off into that timeless region that we were discussing earlier—and which climaxes with "The Summit."
So you felt confident about your individual choices?
FREDERICK MORGAN: By the time the book was published I did. I'd lived with those poems for many years, and I'd eliminated some that were, in my opinion, too outspoken—that might have been considered in poor taste. I also circulated the manuscript among a few close friends who gave me good advice and helped me see certain weaknesses in earlier versions of the manuscript.
The overall structure is very tight and helpful.
FREDERICK MORGAN: I hope so. Tightness was something that I was very concerned about because I feel that my earlier collections suffered from being so diverse. That diversity made it hard for readers and critics to grasp an overall direction in those books, which I think suffered as a consequence. They were so diverse that they were hard to describe as a whole, and I didn't want that to happen with Poems for Paula.
Aside from your own poems, you've also done a wide range of excellent translations from Catullus, Dante, Baudelaire, and many others. You said earlier that you were a French major at Princeton. Did you begin translating poetry at that time?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Not at Princeton. After the war, I taught myself to read Spanish, which was a pretty simple matter since I already knew French and Latin. I got hold of a Spanish grammar, subscribed to a Spanish newspaper for three or four years, and at one point started reading a little anthology of Spanish poetry which a friend of mine had used as a textbook at Princeton. Just as an experiment, I started to translate some of the poems into English. It was simply an exercise to help me learn the language, but I enjoyed it very much. Then, around the same time, my friend Francis Mason, the dance critic who was then ghost writing a book for George Balanchine called 101 Stories of the Great Ballets, asked me to do a translation of Mallarmé's "L'Après-midi d'un faune." What a challenge! I said, "But Francis, that'll take me years. Have you looked at that poem? Do you know what you're asking me to do?" And he said, "Yes, I do, Fred, and Doubleday will pay you quite well for it." I can't remember the exact fee, but it was quite substantial for the time. So after a lot of hesitation and more reservations, I decided to give it a try, and I became absolutely fascinated and engrossed in the work. There was no rush, and I took two years to do it, and Francis was very pleased with the result. Ironically, although I got my fee, the poem was never published in the book because his manuscript came in at 1500 pages, and Doubleday insisted that he cut out a third or so. Naturally, Francis was very embarrassed, but I assured him it was okay, and I stuck the poem into The Hudson Review with Joe Bennett's approval. I've revised it over the years, and it's something that I feel very good and confident about even though it doesn't follow Mallarmé's line exactly. I did something unusual with that poem, something I've never done since. I translated the French alexandrine line of 12 syllables into English tetrameters. So, roughly, that comes to 3 lines of my translation to every 2 lines from Mallarmé, and I'm very pleased with the result. That was the project that started me translating from the French and re-reading all the Symbolist poets, notably Baudelaire and Verlaine and Mallarmé. I became especially fascinated by Baudelaire's "Un Voyage à Cythère" which Angel Flores used, along with a few other of my translations, in his Anchor book of modern French poetry.
He used quite a few of your translations in that anthology. It's a wonderful book.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, but it's out of print now, unfortunately. I owe him a lot because of his encouragement, and I loved doing those translations.
Your New and Selected Poems has a wide variety of your translations. Do you have enough for a book of selected translations?
FREDERICK MORGAN: I do if I could persuade a publisher to do a book of scattered translations—a handful from French, a handful from Latin, and a handful from classical Greek, etc. But publishers, understandably, don't have much use for that kind of a book because it can't be marketed the way a more focused book can—like Charles Martin's translations of Catullus, for example. Over the years, I've been asked a number of times to do such projects, but I've always had to decline. Years back, it was suggested that I translate all of Paul Valéry's poems. This offer came from Jackson Mathews, the great editor of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, published by the Bollingen Series. More recently, I was tempted by an offer to translate the poems of du Bellay, but I was just too busy at the time to attempt those projects. In recent years, I have had to reserve my limited writing time for my own poems and not for translation.
Hayden Carruth once wrote of your own poems that they're "musical, rhythmic, inventive. In short they are well-written, in the sense once common among people who knew something about prosody—literate people—but now often ignored." You also write in a wide range of forms: quatrains, cinquains, blank verse, villanelles, even triolets. But you've written very few, if any, sonnets. Have you never felt the impulse? Or are you avoiding them for some reason?
FREDERICK MORGAN: I published some fourteen-line, unrhymed poems in A Book of Change, but I don't really think of them as sonnets. In recent years, I've only written one real sonnet, "May Night," which appeared in The New Criterion and should be in my next collection. I believe it's the only sonnet that I've done since those early pseudo-sonnets. "Winter Poem" is a thirteen-liner which I thought might turn out as a sonnet, but I didn't want to pad it, and it ended up at thirteen lines. Your observation is correct, and I'm surprised myself when I think about it. Sonnets are something I should write more often. Now that I expect to have more time for my own writing, I intend to follow up on more "formal" projects. That's my plan, and I'm looking forward to carrying it out.
You once said that, "different poems come with different rhythms. It's like the color of their eyes." Could you describe how you find those rhythms?
FREDERICK MORGAN: Almost inevitably, a poem starts for me in one of three ways. The first is with actual phrases and lines that appear in my head, touched off by idle thoughts, reflections, something I'm reading, or something I've heard somebody say. Since these are actual phrases, or lines, or fragments of lines, they already have a certain rhythm that I can work from. This is true even if they're fragmentary—the beginning or the end of some statement—something with dot dot dot in front of it or dot dot dot at the end. The second way a poem can begin for me is more ambiguous and somewhat formless. It's a kind of a rhythmic agitation. I don't know quite how to describe it. The words aren't clear yet, but some kind of emotion has been stirred up, an emotion associated with a certain rhythmic but wordless feeling. The third way is a kind of "forced labor." You say to yourself, "I've got this form, and I'm going to fit something in to it and make a real poem." That can be very risky because you may grind out something trite and uninspired. But it can also be very successful. So that's how they start with me. Usually after I've worked on a poem for four or five days, I pretty well know whether it's working and where it's going—and whether it'll be a tightly formal poem like "Washington Square," or a sort of relaxed pentameter like "The Trader"—which seemed appropriate given its prose derivation from the story by Stevenson.
But "The Trader" has a definite rhythm.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Yes, and there's a lot of rhythm in Stevenson's original prose. That's one of the things that attracted me to it. I said right from the start, "It's going to be a narrative, and he's going to talk in a prosy blank verse."
You also mentioned "Washington Square." How did that come about?
FREDERICK MORGAN: It's the most ambitious poem, and certainly the longest poem, that I've published since New and Selected Poems over ten years ago. It has a very elaborate and formal stanza pattern with rhyme and meter, and I set about it quite deliberately. It took me over a year to write the poem, concentrating on nothing else, and I discovered, as I wrote it, the truth of James Fenton's words which Wendy Cope quoted last night: that the discipline of following the demands of the form will help the writer zero in on exactly what he wants to say. I certainly found that to be true in the case of this poem which began in a casual sort of way as I began searching for an appropriate content for this pre-determined format—something I seldom do. When I recalled a childhood event in a park where I used to play when I was a little boy, several lines arose in that format, and I said to myself, "All right, you're really on the hook now because you've started this poem in this difficult form, and now you've got to finish it"—which wasn't easy. After many halts and wrestling matches with myself, I managed to break through various blockades and press on. There would be long periods that lasted weeks and weeks when I couldn't move on to the next stanza, but I'd finally get it going again and move forward. Then I revised, and revised, and revised, and, eventually, the poem came out to my satisfaction. Later, having done such a long and intricate poem, I wrote the sonnet "May Night." There I wanted to capture a certain flavor of what downtown New York was like, specifically Greenwich Village, years ago, immediately after World War II. I also wanted to paint a vivid yet somehow ambiguous scene involving two lovers, so I tried it in the sonnet form, and I enjoyed it very much.
I'd like to finish up today with the last few lines of your excellent "Winter Poem," which also begins with two lovers in the city, but after they awaken from their rest, they discover that their room has been magically transported to a "dark woods frosted in snow." In amazement, they stare out through the windowpanes:
No men there—some small animals all fur
stared gently at us with soft-shining eyes
as we stared back through the chill frosty panes.
Absolute cold gave us our warmth that night,
we held hands in the pure throes of delight,
the air we breathed was washed clean by the snow.
Thank you very much for your time today and for your poetry.
FREDERICK MORGAN: Thank you.
From Fourteen on Form: Conversations with Poets by William Baer © 2004 by University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permission of University Press of Mississippi.