by Dana Gioia
Most American literati know about the two lives of Frederick Morgan—his two public lives, that is, the editor and the poet. These two active, distinguished, and somewhat overlapping careers mark him as one of the major American men of letters of the past half century. Of these two lives, his role as editor is surely better known. For fifty years Frederick Morgan was the editor of The Hudson Review, the greatest postwar quarterly in U.S. literature.
The history of this remarkably dynamic and independent-minded quarterly deserves its own careful account. Under Morgan's watch, The Hudson Review published writers as important and diverse as T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate, Anthony Hecht, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W. S. Merwin, Wendell Berry, A. R. Ammons, Louis Simpson, William Stafford, and Dylan Thomas, to name only a few of the poets and skip over the scores of fiction writers, essayists, philosophers, and cultural critics who have graced the journal's pages. As he has always reminded critics and journalists, Morgan usually had partners in The Hudson Review. He co-founded the journal in 1948 with two fellow Princetonians—his classmate Joseph Bennett and the slightly younger William Arrowsmith. (Arrowsmith left the editorial triumvirate in 1960, and Bennett died in 1972.) And for nearly a quarter century until his retirement in 1998, Morgan shared the editorship with his wife, Paula Deitz, who now serves as sole editor-in-chief.
It is no secret, however, that for the fifty years of his tenure, Morgan was the Hudson's central guiding intelligence, the prime mover who created, developed, and sustained a major cultural enterprise. Most famous quarterlies have ten years of great influence and cultural prominence before settling into a steady, predictable routine. Great journals like Kenyon Review or Partisan Review articulate and critique the issues of a particular period so powerfully that they often become frozen in their own successful identity, which becomes less relevant with each passing year. Morgan kept The Hudson Review uniquely fresh, alert, and consistently pertinent by subtly reinventing it each decade to address the changing needs of American culture, often bringing a new generation of writers into the journal without losing the best of his established older contributors. The Hudson Review has enjoyed over half a century of uninterrupted excellence and influence, and the reason is mostly Frederick Morgan's high standards, flexible style, and visionary guidance. There is probably no more distinguished literary editor alive in America—and few equals. Ironically, that singular accomplishment has been no small burden for his alternate identity as poet.
Among literati Morgan's second public life is hardly less well-known, but it remains—for a variety of reasons—less well-understood. He has been widely recognized and often honored as a poet, but in sharp contrast to the public recognition of his editorial achievements, the considerable, indeed singular, accomplishments of his poetry have not yet been either properly placed or adequately evaluated. For his many admirers, this situation has been both puzzling and frustrating. And his admirers are numerous, especially among his fellow poets. Substantial appreciations of his work have been published by writers as diverse as Guy Davenport, Hayden Carruth, Sydney Lea, Alfred Corn, Richard Tillinghast, Emily Grosholz, Louis Simpson, and R. S. Gwynn. Although unanimous in their praise, the many individual tributes—including my own early assessment—have not yet created a critical consensus on his work. It seems not only fair to say, but virtually unavoidable to observe, that Morgan's poetic achievement has utterly outstripped all critical accounts of it. His individual volumes of poetry have been discussed intelligently and favorably, but there is not yet either an adequate appreciation or even cogent description of his total poetic career. His work has never been convincingly placed in relation to his contemporaries or explained in relation to its own complex variety.
Why would a poet who has had every stage of his career discussed intelligently by some of the most articulate poet-critics of the period currently exist in a critical vacuum? Is his work, so seemingly direct, somehow covertly dense or obscure? Does his wide-ranging poetry lack any identifiable center, but exist only as a collection of isolated achievements? Is Morgan perhaps a poet's poet, as Elizabeth Bishop was in her lifetime, or the late Weldon Kees continues to be—a writer, that is, whose qualities speak strongly mostly to fellow practitioners of the art? Or, in Morgan's case, is something complex, singular, and elusive at work? The last hypothesis, I suggest, is closest to the truth. There is something unusual in Morgan's poetry that makes it difficult to understand, given conventional critical categories, and these intrinsic qualities are compounded by certain extrinsic issues that have made it doubly difficult for critics to assess his particular achievements as a poet.
There are at least three obvious reasons for the delay in Morgan's work achieving a proper estimation. The first has already mentioned, namely the difficulty in American intellectual and artistic life of gaining prominence in a second field after one is already well-established in the first. Ambidexterity is not prized in our cultural life, which thrives on specialization, and versatility is often unjustly dismissed by specialists as amateurism. A career like T. S. Eliot's, with its almost equal distinctions in poetry, criticism, editing, and drama, seems inconceivable in contemporary letters. The overestimation of specialized accomplishment reflects the influence of academic culture, and it often leads to odd distortions in critical reputations, especially those of writers outside the university where the pragmatic versatility of both public intellectuals and literary bohemians still necessarily prevails. Contemporary critics don't merely underestimate the wide-ranging careers of writers distinguished in multiple genres, they seem honestly baffled by them. Multi-talented writers like Howard Nemerov, Fred Chappell, or Weldon Kees seem genteelly punished rather than generously rewarded for their ambition. The implications of much criticism is that such promiscuous creativity seems unserious, unfocused, and indeed, almost improper. Despite the examples of Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, William Blake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, or D. H. Lawrence in English (not to mention the signal achievements of Goethe, Hugo, Pushkin, or Michelangelo in European literature) the assumption seems to be that serious artistic endeavor demands artistic specialization. Consequently we underestimate W. H. Auden's criticism, Robinson Jeffers's drama, Vladimir Nabokov's poetry, and Frederick Morgan's poetry.
The second extrinsic impediment to assessing Morgan as a poet comes from his extraordinarily late development as a writer—both in absolute terms and in comparison to his long-standing editorial career. By the age of thirty, Morgan was a notable editor; by forty he was a famous one. In contrast, he did not publish his first book of poems, which was significantly titled A Book of Change (1972), until he was fifty years old (and The Hudson Review was almost half that age). Despite our cult of youth, important American poets often delay their debut volumes until middle age. Robert Frost was thirty-nine when A Boy's Will (1913) appeared. Wallace Stevens was forty-three when Harmonium (1923) came out. William Stafford was forty-six at the time of his first book, West of Your City (1960), and there are many other examples. But these were inevitably poets who had written and published for years before bringing out a volume. After all, "A book of poems," as Wallace Stevens remarked, "is a damned serious thing."
Although Morgan had published a few poems in his early youth, he had essentially stopped writing verse by his mid-twenties after returning from his military service in World War II. He only began writing again a few years before A Book of Change—a gap of one quarter-century. In public perception his literary personality was already well formed by the time he emerged as a poet. But in a deeper sense there is something quite singular about a poet who emerges so late in life—well after youth, and well beyond even what Dante termed nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. The consequences of this late start are everywhere apparent in Morgan's poetic career—for both good and ill, this late start counts as one of the central facts of his poetic career.
On the negative side A Book of Change is very much a beginner's volume—clear, heartfelt, well-shaped, but often under-realized. It is the work of a mature mind but not yet a mature poet. While the poems are never bad—Morgan's sensibility is too intelligent and well-governed for that—they are mostly not good enough. Much of the work in this thick, 160-page collection lacks resonance. But two things—to credit the positive side—are now obvious in retrospect. First, all of his later themes and concerns are already present in this debut volume. Second, the book demonstrates the stylistically diverse approach that would be the hallmark of his later work. A Book of Change contains everything from haiku-like short poems and triolets to prose poems and lyric sequences of unrhymed sonnets—a highly unusual approach for any book of that decade.
What no reader or critic could have predicted from A Book of Change—perhaps not even the poet himself—was the huge explosion of creativity that would follow over the next decade as Morgan made up for lost time. In order to understand that phenomenon, however, it is helpful to return to the oddity of his late development. There are two obvious questions to consider. Why did Morgan stop writing for twenty-five years? And why did he suddenly resume? As for the first question, in the absence of a biographical study, it is impossible for a critic to state conclusively the psychological or social forces that inhibited Morgan's poetic energy in the first part of his literary life (though common sense suggests that the rigors and displacement of military duty in World War II, the pressures of creating, building, and sustaining a major literary journal, and the responsibilities of raising a family of six children would not have aided poetic contemplation). But, if the sources of his long silence remain beyond accurate speculation, the causes of his poetic rejuvenescence seem indisputable. Two crucial events, one tragic, the other joyful, released Morgan's creative energies—the suicide of his son John in 1968 and his marriage to Paula Deitz in 1969. These events not only inform A Book of Change; they resonate through every subsequent volume. It is surely neither accidental nor insignificant that every book of poems Frederick Morgan has published from A Book of Change to the present volume, The One Abiding (2002), bear a similar dedication, namely "To Paula." Nor can any critic miss the obvious fact that Morgan's central poetic themes—early and late—have been love and death.
As noted earlier, Morgan's late beginnings as a poet was followed by an extraordinary explosion of creativity—a level of activity more typical of youthful frenzy than mid-life deliberation. It would be fair to say that during the 1970s between the ages of fifty and sixty Frederick Morgan became one of the most interesting and ambitious young poets in America. In that remarkable decade, he published no less than five full-length collections of poetry, two smaller fine-press editions, a book of translations, and a superb book of prose parables. These books chronicled his rapid maturity and growing mastery of the art culminating in Death Mother (1979) and Northbook (1982), two of the finest collections published by any member of his generation. These books showed Morgan defining his personal voice, testing individual themes, and experimenting with various styles, displaying the energy and audaciousness that has characterized his work ever since. "One must shoot the works and not hold back," he remarked in a poem, and that statement might serve as a motto for his astonishing transformation into a poet of power, independence, and originality.
It is however, precisely this originality that has represented the third impediment to Morgan's proper assessment. Just as The Hudson Review maintained its importance by remaining engaged but non-partisan in the political and ideological battles that dominate New York intellectual life, Morgan's poetry reveals a complete independence from the aesthetic and ideological conflicts that have typified American poetry over the past thirty years. His poetry has never chosen one approach to the exclusion of any other, nor positioned itself in one tradition to the exclusion of another. From the first, Morgan has written simultaneously in free and formal verse, in both impersonal and confessional modes, in narrative or lyric genres, in long and short works, in both verse and poetic prose. This situation renders most conventional critical approaches useless. Morgan simply cannot be placed by linking him reflexively to established writers. He belongs neither to the tribe of Wilbur nor Bly, Lowell nor Ginsberg, Sexton nor Merwin, Ashbery nor Ammons. He must be evaluated on his own terms—or not at all. This quality means that to describe his work a critic must build a definition from the poems themselves without recourse to the standard-issue ideologies of contemporary poetics. Under any circumstances, such studious assessment is a difficult and demanding task, but in a divisive and hyper-politicized literary age like ours, it appears almost impossible.
What then are the proper terms by which to discuss Morgan's work? What qualities seem intrinsic to his poetry? As a departure point, consider this eight-line poem from Morgan's 1977 volume, Poems of Two Worlds.
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.
By contemporary literary standards, this provocative short poem is highly unusual. First, it is extremely brief, but not in the purely imagistic or aphoristic way that today's short poems tend to be. Second, it carries a clear, indeed unambiguous and paraphrasable message—namely the imminence of death in daily life. Third, the poem, moves logically rather than associationally by stating and refining a single proposition that is offered simultaneously as an idea and an image.
"The Step," in fact, suggests something that might seem either na´ve or even absurd to most poetry critics—namely that Morgan is more interested in what he is saying than in how he says it. Rather than style being the poem's central concern, instead it is the philosophy that the poem espouses. In this sense Morgan's poetry—with its starkly philosophical content and its unavoidable sense of spiritual urgency, curiously resembles another singular outsider in American poetry, Stephen Crane, whose compressed and imagistic existential parables seem equally rooted in real philosophical conviction.
Stark and compressed, "The Step" offers the advantage of presenting Morgan's work with an almost abstract clarity. But usually his poems move with slow and elegant elaboration. Listen to the mysterious delicacy of "Three Children Looking over the Edge of the World" from the 1979 volume Death Mother and Other Poems:
They came to the end of the road
and there was a wall across it
of cut stone—not very high.
Two of them boosted the third up
between them, he scrambled to the top
and found it wide enough to sit on easily.
Then he leaned back and gave the others a hand.
One two three in a row they sat there
staring: there was no bottom.
Below them a cliff went down and down for ever
and across from them, facing them, was nothing—
an emptiness that had no other side
and turned their vision back upon itself.
So there wasn't much to do or look at, after all.
One of them told a rhyme, the others chimed in,
and after a little while they swung around
and let themselves back down.
But when their feet touched solid road again
they saw at once they had dropped from the top of the sky
through sun and air and clouds and trees
and that the world was the wall.
In a philosophical sense, this poem articulates an almost identical worldview to "The Step," but, as a poem, its occupations and effects are entirely different—just as its relaxed but concise style marks a departure from the austere minimalism of the earlier poem. "Three Children Looking over the Edge of the World" is a gently allegorical lyric, a poetic coming-of-age parable about first glimpsing oblivion and death and how that primal insight changes everything in one's worldview. Once the children climb down from the wall after viewing nothingness, the entire cosmos is different.
Before trying to offer a preliminary description of Morgan's poetic sensibility, let me quote one more poem—which is both similar and distinct from the other two. Here is the fourth section of "The River," a sequence of short love poems written in 1980 (and dedicated, of course, "to Paula").
Now you are holding a book:
intelligence there with passion
surviving the individual brain and hand—
and when you speak of it tellingly
as we walk beneath the trees
a living ghost stirs
in the world where all our thoughts are trees and rivers.
In some essential sense the worldview reflected in this short love poem is identical to that of the other two poems. Twice in this brief, eight-line poem the speaker alludes to our mortality—noting that the book his lover holds contains both intelligence and passion that survived the individual brain and hand that created it, and later in the paradoxical image of the living ghost. In other words, it survived the death of its author. But here those mementi mori are refracted by the lyrical joy of being alive and being loved in the physical world, and expressed in an intimate style slightly reminiscent of Chinese or Japanese lyric poetry.
To use these three poems as a starting point to develop a description of Morgan's work already suggests certain difficulties in definition. Although all published in a four-year period (between 1977 and 1980), the poems exhibit astonishing differences—at least in formal terms. They show three distinct styles, three differing tones, and three separate points of view, linked only by a common worldview or philosophy. A reader might initially believe that Morgan considered poetry primarily a philosophical vehicle and had little interest in language per se as a poetic medium. For reasons that will be explained in a moment, that is a superficial and mistaken assumption, but this misapprehension has probably clouded some discussions of his work. In our period, poetry has so often announced its aims and allegiances through style, sensibility, and form that it is difficult for many readers to conceive of other qualities informing and unifying a body of work.
Any ambitious poet faces a serious challenge in trying to expand his or her imaginative concerns without compromising the creative authenticity or individual sensibility of the work. How does a poet—in other words—grow honestly into new modes of expression, new forms, new styles, new genres, and new subjects? How does the writer change—or at the very least—expand without losing the genuine creative impetus that inspired the earlier poems? There is always the very real danger of faking inspiration or borrowing the modes and manners of other writers.
This dilemma is surely heightened in Morgan's case by his quite sensible belief that inspiration is involuntary. "The poem comes as a gift," he has remarked, "I can only see it that way . . . you can't force a poem." Morgan has solved this challenge—perhaps unconsciously—by cultivating at least three different points of view in his poetry, all of them personal, if not always autobiographical. If Frederick Morgan has had two public lives (as editor and poet), he has also led three poetical lives in his work. He has cultivated side by side in his work from his first book to the present, three versions of himself—the child, the lover, and the philosopher.
All three personalities reflect a certain point of view, all philosophically consistent but poetically diverse. The child in Morgan's poetry greets the world initially in joy and wonder but inevitably gets a glimpse of the terror of extinction. These contemporary poems of innocence are often autobiographical as in "The Turtle" or "Washington Square." But they are just as often impersonal, even mythic, as in "The Ghost" or "Captain Blaze," where the protagonist is not a child, but the sensibility comes from the horror or adventure stories of childhood. (Morgan has more than once listed the pulp journal Weird Tales as a decisive early literary passion.) Morgan's encyclopedic interest in mythology, including Norse, Greek, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist lore, is surely one distinctive feature of his work. His characteristic treatment of mythology almost inevitably reveals that youthful sense of awe and pleasure in the characters and stories, especially violent stories, so often found in boyhood books of myths and legends. That fascination with violence and violent ends is not tangential because Morgan's most recurring, indeed most obsessive, theme is death. His child's perspective is simply the most distant and detached observer of human vulnerability and mortality.
The second perspective is the lover—a person closer to death because he is older but also one farther from death because he has found life's greatest consolation. There is no assurance of the afterlife in Morgan's worldview. His religious vision is closer to Buddhism than Christianity. Whatever consolation one secures, therefore, is achieved here and now with personal extinction always in the background. This perspective, of course, is not unusual for lyric poetry. It is the same insight found in Horace's carpe diem ode from two thousand years ago and all its myriad descendents. It is no surprise, then, that Morgan, whose poetic character is so nobly stoic in the Roman manner, would develop the Latin lyric tradition in his love poetry. Andrew Marvell's famous formulation, "The grave's a fine and private place / But none I think do there embrace," might well also serve as the motto of Morgan's amatory verse.
Certainly one of Morgan's central enterprises has been the reinvention of the contemporary love poem. No other major poet of his generation has written so many direct and (to appropriate a delicious word from the current academic lexicon) unproblematicized love lyrics. In his last collection, Poems for Paula (1995), Morgan even arranged the poems not overtly about love in such a way that they served as philosophical commentaries on the love poems around them. For Morgan's oeuvre, love is not a youthful distraction or sensory escape in his, it is the summit (with art itself) of human aspiration, and to express and commemorate love in poetry represents for him a great human gesture. Love is, to borrow phrasing from one of Morgan's poems:
. . . a place of high vantage from which,
as from a mountain meadow,
future and past recede, and
the road itself loses its meaning.
as from a mountain meadow,
His definition of love implicitly restates the traditional aims of religious mysticism in secular experiential terms. The mention of mysticism and its longing to escape the prison of temporal existences suggest Morgan's third poetic life—the philosopher.
In terms of age, Morgan's philosopher is the oldest of his three poetic incarnations. The philosophical persona seen so vividly in poems like his powerful sequences "Death Mother" and "Orpheus to Eurydice" or his great lyrics, "The Summit" and "February 11, 1977," is a man who has known love—both erotic and familial. He is also a man who has seen war, destruction, disease, and age. He knows—indeed physically feels—the imminent and unavoidable presence of death. Few contemporary poets have ever conveyed the horror of that realization more vividly than Morgan. (Just try to read "Death Mother" without flinching.) Fewer still have reached the liberating joy beyond that existential and physical horror that emerges in Morgan's finest philosophical poems.
However rooted in its own stoic perspective, Morgan's philosopher is never a man who denies the wonder and delight of the child or the comfort and ecstasy of the lover. It is precisely the imaginative ability to create those three persona or life stages in his work, and to explore their distinct qualities without losing the subtle harmonies of their co-existence, that is Morgan's artistic triumph. Publishing his first book at fifty, and reaching poetic maturity as he approached sixty, he found the poetic means to recapitulate his life experience in his work, without ever sacrificing the hard-won wisdom of his age. John Keats once famously praised a poet's "negative capability" to extinguish his own personality and become someone else. Frederick Morgan deserves praise for his positive capability—his power not to extinguish himself but to rediscover and reanimate each stage of his life in his poetry. This positive capability allows him to summon the child, the lover, and the philosopher, each to tell his story or perform his song.
There is more to be said about Morgan's poetry—his distinctive and pervasive use of mythology from the classical Greek and Roman to the unusual Norse and Hindu; his masterful mixture of Western and Eastern poetic technique (that intermingles American, European, Chinese, and Japanese styles); his bold reinvention of the supernatural narrative poem (that combines the tradition of Coleridge and Keats with those of H. P. Lovecraft and Sheridan LeFanu); his austere and steady religious vision (that begins in Mediterranean Stoicism but rises to Eastern transcendentalism). But one must leave something for future critics. Although Morgan's work stands outside the conventional explanations of contemporary American poetry, it is sufficiently strong and enduring that those explanations will need to be reformulated to account for his accomplishments.
It seems appropriate to end on the humane and enlarging notion of positive capability. Morgan's particular power has been to summon three voices to articulate one philosophy, to transcend time in a mysteriously Trinitarian feat of imagination, to cultivate self-extinction in the service of self-discovery. So that by assuming three lives, he vividly expresses one complete life. One can't help reflecting that his remarkable poetic ability to escape the pressures and particulars of the self in its present moment and condition is also part of the same genius the made Morgan a truly great editor, one who could recognize, develop, and refine the strong and even unruly talents of other writers. So, it appears, my entire line of argument has been mistaken. There are not three Frederick Morgans, or even two. There is only one uniquely gifted, indomitably imaginative, and inimitable man whose life work has enhanced and enlarged our literature.
The Introduction by Dana Gioia was originally commissioned as an Aiken Taylor lecture and delivered at the ceremony honoring Frederick Morgan as the fifteenth Aiken Taylor poet, University of the South, December 2001.