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Mervyn Morris

b. 1937


An engraver in short, sharp slashes that go deep. Andrew Salkey


About Mervyn Morris

Mervyn Morris (b, 1937) remains one of the most resourceful and technically brilliant of Caribbean poets. After studying at the University College of the West Indies, and winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, he embarked on an academic career which would eventually take him back to Mona as a teacher and later Professor of Creative Writing. Alongside his own collections he has written extensively on West Indian literature, and edited various anthologies, as well as the selected poems of Louise Bennett, the iconic Jamaican Creole poet ‘Miss `Lou’. In 2009 he was awarded Jamaica’s Order of Merit.

In the Sixties and Seventies he belonged to a small group of young poets who met up in Kingston, reading each other’s work, exchanging political and poetic ideas, ambitious for the future and struggling to get noticed and published. Thus most of Morris’s literary life has been lived in the post-colonial era of independence and its subsequent political struggles, characterised by tensions and choices between personal and collective commitment which are explored in a variety of ways throughout his work. Despite a keen awareness of continuing injustice, he has always taken a philosophically long view, bound by “smouldering restraint”, convinced that discovering or reinventing identity is better than shackling it to a disinterred tragic past. So he is probably less popular with angrier figures, and never writes the big political poem, the propagandist’s occasional poem or the slogan-filled doggerel of the uncompromising activist. He often tells painful truths, but without rancour.

His poetry eschews obvious historical causes, rather taking up the abiding concerns of all men: sexual desire and spiritual love; mutability and mortality; friendship and betrayal; joy and grief. He is a supreme poet of the everyday, the potency of the familiar with its safety and its limitations, its disappointments and consolations. Many of his poems are shards of personal memory, fragments of autobiography. Like a melancholy comedian, he moves from social observation to fleeting introspection with ironic detachment, his craft and intellect joined in refining language and feeling to tellingly spare effect. His poems of domestic life compel with their familial routines masking deeper frustrations; yet his intimacy avoids sentimentality, pares down the emotional truth, always alive to the ambiguity in close relationships. This is especially revealing in his sequence of poems On Holy Week, where the Crucifixion is flecked with Caribbean colour, and peopled with locals. Turning from sacred to profane, Morris inhabits his amorous verses with intense self-awareness and erotic power, which is to say he writes sexy poems about lust. love, seduction, deception and conquest. And of course he has a fine ear for nuanced shifts from Standard English to Jamaican Creole, transpositions which give locality and music to those poems at once linguistically conscious of their origins yet unconstrained by them.

But although he is a serious poet, Morris is also a performer, a wisecracking cynical versifier with a sharp wit and a sparkling gift for ingenious rhymes. He conjures resolution out of tension with satisfying aplomb. In telling his brief narratives he can be a subtle, even sly, master of tiny, wounding reversals. He can also shift from satirical flair to magical reflection with sureness of delicate touch, as in the haiku ‘Garden’: “after a shower/ blackbirds preening on the grass/ dressing for heaven.” Complex simplicity, with faint echoes of Blake and Clare, captures a moment of epiphany in this exquisite Franciscan benediction.

Mervyn Morris has chosen a dozen poems from his recording specially made for the Archive, and they give some flavour of his marvellous facility and range. The Creole comicality of ‘Peelin Orange’ dissolving into bitter resignation, the surprising epigrammatic depth of ‘Walk Good’ and the wonderful Caribbean Garden of Eden hinted at in ‘Eve’ – these wryly amuse where ‘Cabal’ appals, with its conversational cruelty, a bleak morality tale about cronies and corruption. Among the rest, ‘Casanova’ is a perfect exposure of the vanity and self-delusion mingling in the damaged heart-throb, while ‘The Day My Father Died’ speaks of death’s finality and the birth of grief, a new life for the living to bear, especially so for the poet’s mother. Morris reads his work beautifully, with memorable clarity, in a warm, richly hued voice, colloquial, declamatory, always attuned to music as well as meaning. The recording was made for The Poetry Archive on September 7th, 2010 at The Audio Workshop, London, and was produced by Richard Carrington.
 

Additional material and useful links

Caribbean Poetry Project

This pioneering collaboration between the Cambridge University Faculty of Education, the Centre for Commonwealth Education and the University of the West Indies aims to help teachers develop their...

http://caribbeanpoetry.educ.cam.ac.uk/

Carribean Poetry Conference, Cambridge

A conference on Caribbean Poetry will take place in Cambridge from 20–22 September 2012. Speakers and performers include John Agard, Beverley Bryan, Christian Campbell, Kei Miller, Mervyn Morris,...

http://caribbeanpoetry.educ.cam.ac.uk/conference/

Selected bibliography

Mervyn Morris Reading from his Poems, The Poetry Archive...

I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems, Carcanet...

Buy

The Pond (revised edition), New Beacon Books, 1997

On Holy Week, a sequence of poems for radio, Dangaroo...

Examination Centre New Beacon Books, 1992

Shadowboxing New Beacon Books, 1979

The Pond New Beacon Books, 1973

Prizes

Order of Merit (Jamaica), 2009 For his distinguished contribution to the field of West Indian Literature

Links

Recordings

Mervyn Morris Reading from his Poems

1On Holy Week, a sequence of poems for radio

2Examination Centre

3Muse

4Peelin Orange

5The Pond

6Mariners

7Valley Prince

8Dadd, Poor Dadd

9Tutorial

10Journey into the Interior

11Cave

12Windscreen

13Stripper

14Shadows

15Birthdays

16Literary Evening, Jamaica

17Toasting a Muse

18Gaffes

19To an Expatriate Friend

20To the Unknown Non-Combatant

21Grounation

22Cabal

23The Roaches

24Case-History, Jamaica

25Nursery

26Afro-Saxon

27For Consciousness

28Jamaica 1979

29Meeting

30Data

31Dreamtime

32Short Story

33Walk Good

34Moment of Truth

35Persephone

36Narcissus

37A Voyage

38The Lovers

39Critic

40Peacetime

41Family Pictures

42Sister

43Seen

44Connection

45Pussycat

46Version

47Memento

48In the Garden

49Eve

50Happy Hour

51Casanova

52North Coast Hotel

53Little Boy Crying

54Proposition One

55Togetherness

56Give T'anks

57Love Is

58There was a Young Poet

59Departure Lounge

60To a Crippled Schoolmaster

61The Day My Father Died

62Granny

63Hey, Ref!

64Outing

65Postcard

66Pre-Carnival Party

67Danse Macabre

68Diptych

69Garden

70Birthday Poem

71Terminal

72My Rodney Poem

73Historian

74Checking Out

75Palimpsest

76A Chant Against Death

A tour of the Archive with Dr Rowan Williams

Poetry happens at a sort of junction in the mind when new combinations start up, words and pictures start connecting...

Featured Guided Tours


Books & cds by Mervyn Morris