Frederick Morgan Essay - Critical Essays

Morgan, Frederick


Frederick Morgan 1922–

American editor, poet, and critic.

Besides being the founder and long-standing editor of the highly respected literary journal The Hudson Review, Morgan has recently been building a reputation as an important poet. He published his first collection, A Book of Change, when he was fifty, and other volumes followed.

Critics praise his lucid style, technical skill, and the sensibility he shows in developing ideas and describing emotions. He uses a wide variety of forms; critics find some more effective than others. However, in his recent Death Mother and Other Poems his focus on death gives the volume its unity.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Guy Davenport

Frederick Morgan's "A Book of Change" was not written to be writing poetry. A great many of these poems were obviously written to shape, explore and understand emotions and thus master rather than be mastered by them. Others are love poems, poems that welled up in memory, and poems that attempt to frame and fix transient meditations. These are the age-old offices of poetry, and Mr. Morgan always writes with the age-old belief that poetry is a social bond, like language itself, and that poetry is the more meaningful for being public, transparent and eloquent.

Mr. Morgan's voice keeps to the tradition which modern poets do not even read, much less imitate … but he does not imitate, nor does he deal in pastiche. His images are as sharp as his language: "The love of the jaybird for the rose," "the Centaur, who had kept watch of the years," "Boy and spirit traveled in a clock." Poems so clear and unassuming are rare nowadays and have the novelty of good wholesome bread appearing amongst the pickled bear's paws and jellied camel's hump of a Mandarin feast….

The strength of Mr. Morgan's poetry is in its brave anachronisms—grief sustained with religious conviction, love, loyalty, death, and all in the poet's own naked voice. For too long now poetry has seemed unavailable as a medium for the intelligent mind. Between the master and the ecstatic amateur there seemed to be no honorable place for the man of sense and feeling who can respond to reality with a poem, for whom, in short, poetry is one accomplishment among many.

Guy Davenport, "'A Book of Change'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 1, 1973, p. 26.

William Heyen

There is some compelling writing in A Book of Change. But what Morgan makes me realize once and for all is that nothing is true in a poem unless the poem makes it true. That is the poem's burden, and always has been, and always will be. Dozens of pages here consist of unadulterated sermons….

There is too much soul here, and not enough body. It is difficult to urge these therapeutic poems toward something else as they cry out; also, the poems believe that they are less important than the transformations they effect within their author. But what they say to me has been said much better, and therefore much deeper and truer, elsewhere. (pp. 238-39)

William Heyen, "Four Realities," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXII, No. 4, July, 1973, pp. 237-40.∗

Laurence Lieberman

On nearly every page of Frederick Morgan's A Book of Change, I feel that I come into touch with a lively, warm human being through the poetry. Though in some sections of this ambitious and expansive poetic sequence the pressure of human feeling overtakes the formal structuring of lines and stanzas, how refreshing it is to read a premiere volume in which the sheer quantity of erupting life overwhelms the literary boundaries, at times….

Morgan, [the] founding editor of The Hudson Review,… has shifted the focus of much of [his] energetic brilliance—in midcareer—from the editorial platform to the swift unfolding of a full-fledged mature poetics of his own. Though for some twenty-odd years Morgan had written, intermittently, successful—if undistinguished—original verse and some passable translations, his poetic art has taken a breathtakingly sudden upswing in the last few years, and he leaps into prominence in this first collection as an important writer in the current scene…. Morgan's zest and unguarded forthrightness of delivery insure the distinctiveness of his voice and measure. He appears to have assimilated an impressive blend of influences and orthodoxies without strain: so many ideas and presences, epiphanies and personages and beings—demonic, angelic, and mortal—are falling all over each other in the struggle to be born, any derivative elements of Morgan's style are burned away as he amplifies his medium and stretches the skin of the work to contain so much eruption of newly awakened life…. (p. 280)

In "The Smile," as in a number of the other best love poems to [his wife,] Paula, Morgan achieves a rare discipline, the power to step back far enough into oneself—during moments of profound intimacy—to pass through the self and move beyond into a condition of spirit in which even the beloved may be witnessed purely, freshly, and accurately. At such moments, a supernatural radiance lifts the usual film of haziness from the lover's eyes, and all is seen with a final clarity—even those humans closest to us—such as we suppose may be afforded only to ghosts returning from the dead. Our eyes seem to pass through themselves into another life, beyond sight into a second seeing…. His abstracted vision is half human, half transhuman, modeled after the smile described. Second sight has...

(The entire section is 968 words.)

Hayden Carruth

Frederick Morgan's poems are gratifyingly miscellaneous and adventuresome, both in content and form, but they are almost all easy to read, open, clear. They themselves contain what information is needed to understand them, and they are not cluttered with metaphor. Yet at the same time, they are poems, not the versified prose we see so much of today. They are 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.

Beyond this, what kind of poet is he? I suppose if a label must be chosen, that of "religious poet" fits Morgan better than any other, though only if one makes immediate qualifications. He is not ideologically minded at all, for instance, not in the high-pressure convention of Newman, Hopkins and Eliot, and hence never speaks with their tone, unmistakable if unintentional, of condescension and assertiveness…. Instead Morgan's religious feeling, as nearly as I can make out, is undifferentiated Protestantism of the gentler sort, though he has his dark side too and at times can write in the voice of the avenger. Mostly my impression is of a man settled in his faith, and happy in it. He is a poet who can write good-humoredly about almost anything, even cataclysm…. Sometimes Morgan's willingness to account for cataclysm seems even complacent, at least to a reader whose religious orientation is different from his, until one sees that Morgan is working—and living—in an order of sensibility foreign to ours. Yet it is not unfamiliar. After all, the downfall of this world, soon or late, has been accepted as the inevitable and proper order of things by human beings of every time and place except our own….

Morgan accepts it, and he accepts much else as well. He can even contemplate good-naturedly the thing that has been anathema to other poets since the beginning, viz. the termination of his own poetry…....

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Thomas Lask

The two worlds of Frederick Morgan's ["Poems of the Two Worlds"], though they have geographic boundaries, impinge on each other in symbolic ways. Things of this world offer glimpses of another, and that other, often hallucinatory, surreal, nightmarish, even angelic, invades this one…. There is a kind of pantheism in these poems. Every moment, every experience has its significance and the poems record the search for these meanings even when they can't be precisely defined.

From the past the poet summons up memories of youthful erotic encounters, the sleaziness of a small Portuguese village, the procession in a Greek Orthodox Easter rite, memories of Maine autumns and city snows. They are all...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Chad Walsh

[Frederick Morgan] is a poet of extraordinary human openness and perception, with technical skills ranging from free forms to effective rhyming. [In Poems of the Two Worlds he] explores with deceptive ease the great contraries of life and death, body and spirit, nature and city, youth and age, the human and the transhuman.

An accurate realism and touch of the surreal infuses his poetry, as he speaks from the observation post of his own consciousness…. His imagination and memories encompass the ugly as well as the lovely…. He travels with poetic grace from one realm of experience to another, scattering light on scenes that in lesser hands would be merely pedestrian. At times his skill does...

(The entire section is 169 words.)

James Finn Cotter

Frederick Morgan's new book, Poems of the Two Worlds, comes as a welcome surprise after the success of his first collection, A Book of Change. The mature religious outlook, emotional honesty and clarity of style show up again, but with them we find a new range of insight and subject matter. The prospect is breathtaking, the achievement unique in contemporary poetry. Morgan is a master of vision and verse; with things to say, he speaks right out: "The book of the world has opened to my page."

Like Walt Whitman, Morgan is a poet of the body and the soul. Without adopting Whitman's mannerisms, as some poets unfortunately have tried to do, he sets out on a Whitmanesque tour of the physical...

(The entire section is 318 words.)

Sydney Lea

The very title of his first collection of verse, A Book of Change, implies Frederick Morgan's attraction to the notion of metamorphosis, and that of his second, Poems of the Two Worlds, suggests precisely how quotidian life may transform itself into something richer and stranger. So, too, does The Tarot of Cornelius Agrippa…. (p. 1052)

If it is the self in its fullness that The Tarot of Cornelius Agrippa seeks (in the manner of classic occultist works, of which Agrippa himself, a contemporary of Luther's, was a master), the book also seeks to prove that one cannot scheme one's way to it. Any effort to foist allegorical structure on the passages, then, quickly reveals its...

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Robert B. Shaw

I have rarely read a book of poems as eclectic in style and as uneven in achievement as Frederick Morgan's "Death Mother."… In this, his fourth book, a beginner's awkwardness crops up unpredictably to startle a reader who has just been admiring something finely turned. Certain modes (and Mr. Morgan tries just about everything) are simply not for this poet. Some "confessional" poems about a previous marriage do not work; neither do a pair of dramatic monologues spoken by an early American colonist and a Caribbean trader. Other narrative or meditative poems begin promisingly only to founder in passages of didactic moralizing. Some are unintentionally comic, such as a poem on the Wedding in Cana….


(The entire section is 266 words.)

Alfred Corn

Henry James praised his Americans for their "accessibility to experience," and this is a phrase that fits Frederick Morgan's poetry. His is an esthetic of inclusions. At the round table of his imagination, many impulses, personal histories and anonymously authored myths are given voice and substance. Morgan has avoided the cage of a single stylistic manner or presentational format; instead he allows his poems to write themselves, with the metric, diction and tone that fit each case. The variety of [Death Mother and Other Poems] is impressive.

The title poem is at once the book's most ambitious and most original. It is written in 10 sections, each taking up some perspective on our earthly end....

(The entire section is 281 words.)

James Finn Cotter

Poets have always known that life tells a story and that the story is the stuff of myth. Poetry long embodied what theology and psychology only now begin to describe: the inner journey from within the world, midway between its beginning and its end. In his fourth book, Death Mother and Other Poems, Frederick Morgan continues to find incidents and images to body forth his journey and its sure but shadowy destination, "that other life to come."

Plainly and figuratively, Morgan writes of his own unfolding story, its emptiness and moments of fulfillment, its angers and affections, its pain and exultation. Each poem compels our attention for its autobiographical truth or its spiritual significance....

(The entire section is 362 words.)

David Sanders

The majority of poems in ["Death Mother and Other Poems"] center on the "primal recognition," the Lear experience, the death consciousness that must eventually come to all of us, but Morgan distances himself from morbidity by carefully considering how to live life with this awareness. The long title poem, "Death Mother," begins with the speaker's conversational acknowledgment to the ultimate femme fatale that whether she appears as sleep, night, or dreams, she does indeed have dominion. The poem moves mostly in free verse through bits of narration, conversation, and generalized comment, in an intellectual wrestling match with the Angel of Death. The odds of the match are overwhelming but the necessity of it is...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

Richard Tillinghast

Death Mother and Other Poems is an impressive … book of poetry by Frederick Morgan. In the richness of contemporary American poetry there are many poets of interesting sensibility; Morgan is that rare thing—a poet of intelligence who is also a good writer. His admirable variety of style and theme contrasts markedly with the monochrome of many of his contemporaries. This is not just a collection; it is a book, moving through a cluster of themes held together by a central concern—death…. Morgan, while achieving the clarity suggested by the adjective simple, does not communicate the intense passion found in poems by (to name three among many) Yeats, Lowell, and Kinnell; his lines often lack...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Dana Gioia

Having made his literary debut at fifty, Morgan lost no time in catching up to his contemporaries. He published widely, and like a young poet trying to define his personal voice, he tested many themes and styles with an energy and audaciousness that has characterized his work ever since. Like a young poet too, Morgan published many unsuccessful attempts in the process of discovering himself, but he never stopped to count his losses. He was always at hand with something new. (p. 667)

Death Mother and Other Poems is Morgan's best collection to date and confirms that he has become a stronger poet with each succeeding volume. More importantly, Death Mother is the first collection in which...

(The entire section is 884 words.)