Dialogue For One
(for the NDTC)
the bodies imitate
Mervyn Morris, from I been there, sort of.
In May 2014, poet, critic and academic Mervyn Morris was appointed the official Poet Laureate of Jamaica. This may be regarded as further public symbolic recognition of one of the Caribbean’s outstanding writers; admitting him into the order of an old and noble tradition.
This tradition originated with the classical Greek practice of crowning poets, heroes and athletes with a laurel wreath (a crown fashioned from the leaves of the laurel plant) as a championship prize or as a great honour. It was continued by the Romans and might even have been practiced in academic university circles in the Middle Ages. However, it was significantly resurrected at the beginning of the Renaissance in 14th Century Italy. The most famous act at that time was the ‘crowning’ of Francesco Petrarca in 1341 as the second Poet Laureate of Italy. This great Renaissance poet, known to us as Petrarch, is important because of the founding of many literary traditions, including the sonnet form, attributed to him.
The idea of a laureate is therefore the recognition for exceedingly high achievement, as is seen in the use of the term Nobel Laureates for winners of the prestigious Nobel Prize. Poets Laureate are recognised and appointed, usually by governments or national literary bodies, because of their high standing in poetry, their achievements and excellence. They are expected to promote poetry and the nation at home and abroad, and this may include composing verses on or for prominent national occasions (this last among their duties has not been looked upon with enthusiasm by some poets who believe poems should come to them naturally and not by ordered prescription or duty). However, the list of Poets Laureate includes a number of outstanding names.
England has continued this tradition very faithfully for several centuries. Sources contradict each other as to who was the first British poet to be made a national laureate. One gives that distinction to Ben Jonson in 1616, but Wikipedia identifies Bernard Andre as the first to be appointed by King Henry VII, while another names the great Geoffrey Chaucer as one of a number of impressive holders of this office. That list also includes the likes of John Dryden and William Wordsworth. In more recent modern times, Ted Hughes and Andrew Motion have served the United Kingdom in that capacity. The current Laureate is Carol Ann Duffy. It seems different states in the USA have named their own appointees, but there is still a national USA appointment and holders of that office have included Robert Frost and Robert Lowell.
While this was earlier on a European practice, an extremely wide range of countries today have laureates from India to Canada, from African nations like Nigeria to Korea. In the Caribbean, St Lucia has named Derek Walcott in that position, while Jamaica has just revived the tradition after a vacancy of several decades. Again there are conflicting records, but it is certain that Morris is the third in the country’s history. The first Jamaican Poet Laureate was Tom Redcam (1870 – 1933), a poet and editor of Irish descent whose real name was Thomas Henry MacDermot. He wrote under the pseudonym formed from Macdermot spelt backwards. Although he belonged to a period of imitative colonial poetry, so prominent was he in Jamaica’s literary history that the street in Kingston on which the national library stands (Tom Redcam Avenue) was named after him, and, of course, he was declared the first Laureate. The second was another prominent pre-Independence Jamaican poet JE Clare McFarlane.
Professor Morris, however, has a further distinction in this regard, because he is the first to be named by national public acclamation. This is because he emerged from a public process in which there was the opportunity for public consultation. This therefore shows the high esteem in which Morris is held nationally, and is only another symbolic gesture of his recognition, since he has already distinguished himself in national letters in many ways.
He is a graduate of UCWI at Mona, Jamaica from where he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and began writing poetry seriously. Most likely, as well, that is where he honed his proficiency in tennis because he became a champion in that sport, representing Jamaica for many years and being appointed captain in the Caribbean Brandon Trophy. He was a striker in hockey, representing the UWI at one time and called to national trials. While the way this history has been fashioned might have cast Morris in a very Oxbridge setting, his development and important contributions were decidedly towards decolonisation. In this respect he is like another distinguished Renaissance man, Rex Nettleford, a sound UCWI and Oxbridge education, but an even more pronounced Creole and indigenous consciousness.
In literature, he rose to prominence after his prize-winning essay in the Jamaica Literary Festival of 1963 – ‘On Reading Louise Bennett Seriously’, later published in the Jamaica Journal. This paper opened the gates for the way West Indian literature was to develop after 1970. First, it was a catalyst contributor to the admission of Louise Bennett from a “dialect poet” and “humourist” into the mainstream of West Indian literature. This happened not only for Bennett, but for creole poets generally, and the advancement of the use of the creole language, oral forms and oral influence in the literature. Edward Baugh admitted in his West Indian Poetry 1900 – 1970 (n.d. ) that there were limitations to Bennett in the literature because of the way she had been confined to humorous treatment of local issues in her style of verse.
It was Baugh who first recognised Morris (in 1970) as one of the poets of the future and who was helping the establishment of Caribbean poetry as work with its own identity, its own voice, with a confidence that does not have to compare itself with British or any other verse for acceptance. He identified Morris along with Denis Scott, Anthony McNeill and Trinidadian Wayne Brown. Derek Walcott and Eddie Kamau Brathwaite he had already placed in a more advanced class by themselves.
We have already made reference to the way Morris made such contributions to Caribbean literature. His paper on Bennett was extremely influential. However, he was also among the first to recognise the rise of such new forms as dub poetry, which first came to prominence with the publication of many new radical writings in the UWI, Mona publication Savacou, Volumes 3/4, 1971. Gordon Rohlehr was quick to recognise the importance of these rising forms and placed them in the context of the advancement and place of reggae and the yet un-named ‘dub poetry’ which arose out of rock steady and reggae and the social background and urban sub-culture in Kingston and Port of Spain that created them. Morris did studies of primarily Mikey Smith, but also other dub poets which assisted in their contribution to the literature. Morris also joined with Rohlehr and Stewart Brown in the publication of Voiceprint (1979) which also went a very long way towards the unquestioned inclusion of the oral forms in West Indian literature. Significant is the way critic and editor Paula Burnett championed the same cause in her anthology of Caribbean poetry in 1986.
But Morris’s contribution was equally telling in his writing and performances as a poet. Contrary to a general trend, he is an excellent and effectively dramatic reader of his own poetry and has been in demand and well received in public readings for decades (so is Edward Baugh). In the cultural upheavals that followed the expulsion of Walter Rodney from Jamaica in 1968 there were several cultural events in ‘Yard theatre’ and literary readings at a variety of venues around Kingston. Morris, Brathwaite and to a lesser extent Denis Scott, were very prominent in performing their work at these readings. This led to a reaffirmation of the oral and performance quality in the poetry that was to develop over the next five years, in not only the work of Morris and Scott, but generally across the Caribbean region.
Morris works very effectively in Standard English, his more dominant medium throughout his verse. But these have to a great extent, always had a strong sense of voice and rhythm – and oral qualities. Increasingly, he produced poems in Creole voices, using the language in addition to applying many more oral qualities that drew on the Dread Talk of the Rastafari or the language of the likes of Don Drummond in “Valley Prince”, the poem dedicated to the great, if tragic, trombonist. With the appearance of his successive books of poetry it gets progressively more difficult to sum up Morris or (may it never happen) categorise him.
He did, however, develop the reputation of writing these very brief, short poems – well honed and stripped down to a characteristic economy of words, prompting Mark McWatt to produce a small collection playfully called poems after the fashion of Mervyn Morris. Morris’ collections of poetry include The Pond (1973), On Holy Week (1976), Shadowboxing (1979), Examination Centre (1992) and I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems (2006). Other publications include a collection of papers titled, with characteristic irony, Is English We Talking.