Laurence Lieberman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968

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….

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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 sprung up within love, but passes beyond into a solitary and lonely life of its own. The poet has witnessed this capacity for purely independent self-possession in the beloved, of which her smile is both manifestation and emblem. The poem had begun by ridiculing Byron's betrayal of his true affections in poetry by a heavy-handed submission to convention. Dante's adoration of Beatrice is the closest prototype in literature for the exalted love portrayed, but for all Morgan's struggle to escape the falsities of convention, he establishes a more subtle artifice in which the relation between lines of verse and human moments they mirror approach photographic realism. However, his warring against the inbred artificialities of the medium infuses most of his poetry with the quality of utmost ingenuousness.

Morgan's plain, lucid style—all openness and transparency—endures the infrequent occasions of modest stylistic glamor with surprising power and resonance. His relaxed highlighting is always suavely compatible with the prevailing forthrightness of voice, virtues of a kind that the density and compression of a grand style could never support…. His many poetic forms, like his style, approach the purity of a natural expressive instrument superbly well synchronized with the widely varied dimensions of his mind and art.

Though Morgan has a strong predilection for condensed nuggets of wisdom—the axiom, the age, the proverb—his comic spirit saves him from any learnings toward pedagogy…. Much of the thematic content of the book is presented in the form of refined epigrammatic thought-capules, but Morgan always escapes self-conscious didacticism, since his philosophic baggage is lightly held. His voice has, unfailingly, the authentic ring of a man thinking on his feet, soliloquizing in the heat of passion, or conducting a sensual wrestling bout with his god, displaying all the tactile intimacy of Donne's Holy Sonnets…. (pp. 281-82)

Throughout A Book of Change Morgan's late-blooming youthful exuberance, surging as if for the first time in a man of fifty, combines freshness with reserve, lighthearted optimism with an earned austerity of command in drawing upon his prodigious reservoir of neglected intellectual resources: he both achieves an attractive synthesis of wisdom of the ages—extracted from classical works of theology, philosophy, and mythology—and produces a full-scale self-portrait…. The book's overall design unfolds by such a natural rhythm of disclosure of key moments and upheavals, selected from the flux of ongoing human experience, that the semi-narrative episodic form wears the guise of conventional autobiography. But the thin veneer of chronological narration masks a consistent grasp of inner spiritual cycles which truly dominate the vision, and which are skillfully reinforced by the internal arrangement of poems within each of the four sections.

The slow, irreversible growth of a second mental life—the fruition of a totally new sensibility—hiddenly evolving within the dried-out husk of a middle-aged man's former collapsed identity is the remarkable adventure recounted in A Book of Change. If the book's formal design seems scattered, from time to time, its level of craft and style of execution uneven, with each re-reading of the work one is inescapably struck by the cumulative power of a sustained vision of human regeneration. This is a book of awesome metamorphosis. (p. 283)

Laurence Lieberman, "William Stafford and Frederick Morgan: The Shocks of Normality" (originally published as "The Shocks of Normality," in The Yale Review, Vol. LXIII, No. 3, March, 1974), in his Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review 1964–1977 (© 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1977 by Laurence Lieberman; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1977, pp. 272-83.∗

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