The Nervousness of the Poetic Life: an interview with John N. Morris
Conducted by: Catherine Rankovic from Issue 47
Poet John N. Morris has built a notable career, starting with poems published in Poetry in January, 1956, and culminating in four poetry books: Green Business (1970), The Life Beside This One (1975), The Glass Houses (1980), and A Schedule of Benefits (1987), all with Atheneum. On the occasion of his retirement from Washington University in St. Louis, where for 30 years he taught literature and poetry writing, Morris granted River Styx the first full-length interview he has ever given, discussing his growth as a poet and what he calls “the nervousness of the poetic life.”
Reserved and courtly, a wearer of bow ties and straw hats, Morris is know for wise and tolerant workshop teaching and for poems distinguished by their economy, bridled anguish, and flashes of wit. Born in 1931 to parents who were soon divorced, he grew up in North Carolina and in cities along the Eastern seaboard. After graduating from Hamilton College, Morrison served in the Marine Corps in Korea and Japan. He taught English at the University of Delaware (1957-58), San Francisco State (1961-62), and Columbus University, finishing his Ph.D work there in 1964. His dissertation was published as Versions of the Self: Studies in English Autobiography (Basic Books, 1966). Hired by Washington University to teach 18th-century English Literature, Morris eventually won a place on its creative-writing facility, completing a now-legendary team that included Howard Nemerov and Donald Finkel.
Morris, father of three, now live in North Carolina with his wife and is presently writing a memoir, part of which has been published in the Contemporary Autobiography series.
Catherine Rankovic: How did you get to be a gentleman?
John N. Morris: Well, first we would have to agree that that is actually the case. But I supposed I was born into it. I come from a family that expected its men to be gentlemen. I can remember as a small child complaining to my mother, and wondering why other people could do whatever it was that I wasn’t permitted to do, and my mother had to explain that I was a gentleman, that therefore there were certain claims I couldn’t make upon the world. It was expected that there might be limitations on my freedom of utterance or conduct. But is it priggish to say that no true gentleman would violate the iron law of genteel reticence by talking about himself as much as it look like I’m about to do?
CR: Briefly, what kind of family do you come from?
Morris: Well, I suppose the simple way is to say, an Old American, prosperous or semi-prosperous, middle-or upper-middle class or bourgeois family with a sense of its own past. A sense of its own continuity. Whole generations of lawyers and farmers and doctors, interlarded with businessmen, an innkeeper or two, schoolteachers, one professional soldier, and in the last century or so a scattering of professors of Greek and Latin and law and German, French, English, geology. Most of us respectable, a few of us interesting, none of us important.
CR: As a child, did you go to boarding school?
Morris: Yes, I went away to a military school when I was 12 years old, and was there for six years. It was called the Augusta Military Academy in Augusta County, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. This was during World War II and I supposed partly I wanted to play soldier. And also where we were living, in the Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, the town was suddenly full of people, and public schools were overloaded. My going away to school seemed a sensible thing to my mother and stepfather and to me.
CR: What can you say about the military and the formation of your poetry?
Morris: Well, people born in 1931, as I was, came to consciousness of the great world in the late ’30s, at a time when the world was at war. I found the military worldㅡsince I was only playing soldierㅡa comfortable one. When I was 17 i joined the National Guard. Then in college, the Korean War came along, and I decided to dodge the draft by joining the Marine Corps program which allowed you to finish college before being commissioned. I gambled the war would be over by the time I finished. I was correct: I graduated in June, and the war was over in July. I then had two years of service as a lieutenant in Japan and Korea, with no risk. My point is that the world of the military was a normal piece of American reality, for a male in any case, in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
CR: What is the major formative influence on you as a person?
Morris: Gosh. That’s hard to specify.
CR: Person, place, or thing? Event?
Morris: I supposed one could speak of the fact that my mother and father were divorced when I was young, and at a time when that wasn’t nearly as usual as it is now. I spent a good deal of my childhood being brought up virtually as an only child. Even though I have two sisters, they are significantly younger than I so that is some ways I grew up alone. I was the oldest child on both sides of the family in my generation, and so received a lot of attention. I spent a long time with my maternal grandparents. And a lot of time in the country in North Carolina. Insofar as we’re interesting in me as a writer of verse, it may matter that I come from a bookish sort of family. None of them literary in the sense of being writers, but all readers. On my father’s side, my father was attempting to get a Ph.D in English, and I probably decided to pursue that as if to do what he didn’t quite manage to do. I missed my father. My father had gone mad, though I didn’t know it at the time. When I did in later years become aware of it, that was always sort of interesting fact. And I suppose not exactly a worrisome fact, but sort of a dramatic fact. Perhaps even glamourous? He eventually recovered, but I never saw much of him except in the summer I spent with him in 1945 in a boarding house in Savannah.
CR: Does anyone know what the nature of his madness was?
Morris: I’m not quite sure what it was; some sort of delusional madness. I seem to remember being told that he fancied that he had committed a murder, which he wished to confess to. Of course he’d done no such thing. That eventually passed over, but then there were recurrences of similar episodes.
CR: That must have been very frightening.
Morris: For him certainlyㅡthe unhappy young man. I wasn’t aware of it. My mother and I were up north, and my father was in Washington working at the Library of Congress on some sort of graduate work, when this episode overwhelmed him. I never saw him through a spate of his mania, or at least I don’t remember. He was always ever afterward nervous about its effect on his children. When I had neurotic difficulties of my own, and was psychoanalyzed for a couple years, he worried about that. And of his several children by his third marriage, one was mad, and has been locked away for, now, 30 years. Again, exactly what the nature of that illness if, i’m not sure. My father had the best treatment in the world. No whips and scorpions, anyhow, though the usual regime of straitjacket and padded cell were in force for a time. He was at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where eventually Ezra Pound was locked up. And there was Dr. White who was at the time the best thought-of such medico in the country. But there wasn’t much Dr. White could do about it. My father was one of those lucky one who just got well, or at least relatively.
CR: How did you begin to write poems?
Morris: Well, my mother used to remember that when I was two or two and a half, and could barely speakㅡwhen we were living in Charlottesville, and my father was a graduate student at the University of VirginiaㅡI used to say, “Mother, take a song,” and I would dictate three or four lines of verse. Luckily none of these artifacts survive. I don’t know where I got that notion. That ceased. And I don’t remember ever attempting it again until I was in college, when in Freshman English for a couple of week we read Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the professor said to us, no, class, go and do likewise. So we all went and didn’t do likewise, but in any event I managed to write a sonnet, and I discovered that it was immensely difficult, and somehow very gratifying to do, however badly. And that encouraged me. I think I had know for a long time that would want to do something in the way of writing, but I had no clearly formed or even unclearly formed particular ambitions. But it seemedㅡand in my family it was felt to beㅡa perfectly respectable and in some ways sort of obvious kind of thing to wish to do. Coming from a bookish family and being much read to, and finding certain kinds of things ravishingly delightful;, it’s hardly surprising. Then, too, any sort of writing is a way of imposing yourself on the world, of courting approval and drawing attention to yourself. It’s perhaps an embarrassing fact, but it’s so, and it seems to me to be a part of a writer’s ambition.
CR: But it takes a long time to develop into a real poet, going from imitating Shakespeare’s sonnets to being able to write your own, good, poetry. You must have at some point decided to apply yourself strenuously.
Morris: Most of the time in college I thought of myself as a writer of stories and eventually, I hoped, of novels, that being the mode of literature I knew best. I had read more fiction than I had poetry. And I wrote one or two stories in college which were pretty good, for a college boy. But the thing I began to noticeㅡthis puts it all too schematicallyㅡwas that i had great difficulty with certain aspect of stories: getting people in and out of rooms, doing all that dull mechanical stuff, it seemed to me; and dialogue was impossible. And when you find those things difficult, you being to say, well, gee, why do this? But what i did find was that at some point in any story I wrote these would be a paragraph which had about it come heightening, perhaps even some slight degree of intensity and eloquence, and it appeared to meㅡnot quite so cold-bloodedly as I now put itㅡbut it did occur to me, why not write the paragraph rather than the whole damned story?