Frederick Morgan Richard Tillinghast

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Richard Tillinghast

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 sensuous evocative quality of language that can take a reader deeper than the intellectual level of communication found in good prose. Perhaps Morgan writes too fluidly and too discursively when he writes of things like "a certain hard knowledge/that has kept me from yielding spirit or mind/to hopeful assumptions of man's native goodness." Lines like these also lack a certain rhythmic interest.

Among many talents that he has, Frederick Morgan does well with the long poem…. The title poem, "Death Mother," is the most ambitious venture of this kind in the book. Morgan evidently knows Hindu mythology, because his "Death Mother" has much in common with the goddess Kali…. I do not think that the poem successfully fuses the mythological elements with its other features—for example, first-person accounts of killing a rat in a garage, and of soldiers burying bodies in a mass grave, suggestive of Nazi atrocities. But many parts of the poem are fine, including [the] dream of the black goddess…. Morgan does not shy away from making statements, and it deepens the impact of his poetry…. (pp. 488-89)

While I have some reservations about Morgan's poetry, particularly as regards the texture of his language, he is a poet whose continuing development should be watched by anyone who is concerned about the future of American poetry. Frederick Morgan has particular gifts that are noticeably lacking on the contemporary poetry scene. He attempts the long poem at a time when poetry has been limited, not to say trivialized, by excessive emphasis on the short lyric. Through those attempts Morgan has developed a rare sense of architectonics, which enables him to work out complex ideas in extended structures. He has a historical sense, which I perceive as dangerously lacking in American culture, particularly now. Most of all he thinks in verse; while this process is not all there is to writing poetry, we could use more of it. When the literary establishment sees poetry as a marginal genre—a kind of decoration or filler—and when literary criticism, particularly structuralism, denies poetry its moral function, it is hard for poetry to fulfill its historical role of commenting on culture and enriching language and sensibility. Morgan has not forgotten these things. (p. 490)

Richard Tillinghast, "Poems of Imagination and Fancy," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1980 by The University of the South), Vol. 88, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 488-91.∗