A Tribute to Mervyn Morris, O.M.
by Fragano Ledgister
Mervyn Morris has been the face of Jamaica’s academic and scholarly poetry for more than four decades. His voice and pen, more than any others’ has come to define a large part of the national literature of Jamaica since independence.
From his office at the University of the West Indies, he has been able not only to send forth to the public collections of his poetry, but some of the most important anthologies of West Indian literature published since the 1960s. He has been friend and mentor to more than two generations of writers, not only at Mona but throughout and beyond the region.
In Jamaica, through the 1960s and 1970s, however, he was better known as a champion tennis player. I recall a piece in the Gleaner, in the early 70s, perhaps by Cedric Lindo, the tone of which indicated that readers might be surprised to learn that in addition to being one of the country’s top tennis players he also enjoyed a reputation as a poet.
That he was. He was also willing to read the juvenilia of students who begged for his time, and asked for his opinion of their work; even if, as in my case, they weren’t his students. He was a ferocious and firm critic whose love of language communicated itself very clearly. So did his humour: of one frankly sexual metaphor in a poem of his he quipped “I took the image from quick-drying cement.”
His first edited volume of poetry, Seven Jamaican Poets, an anthology published in 1971 was a kind of history in miniature of post-World War II Jamaican poetry. It included work by R.L.C. McFarlane and Basil McFarlane, both undeservedly forgotten these days, who were already established figures in the 1960s, and the magisterial A.L. “Mickey” Hendricks, a man whose poetry absolutely deserves re-examination, then the elder statesman of Jamaican letters. It also marked the entry onto the literary stage of Mervyn himself, Dennis Scott, and Tony McNeil, the three most important poets of the early post-independence era; the men whose work at least one foolish youth hoped vainly to emulate.
Mervyn’s first collection, The Pond, published in 1973 marked him as a serious, lyrical writer. His poetry was spare, taut, tight, each word doing multiple duties, each word almost bowed beneath a freight of meanings. The language, whether Oxonian or Kingstonian, managing to be both bright and wry.
I would not have expected a poet who celebrated the senses as thoroughly as Mervyn does to have written his next collection, On Holy Week. The punning title is wholly Mervyn, however. Each of the poems is written in the voice of a participant in the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. These are poems intended to be read, and Alma MockYen was able to corral an extraordinary range of people to record the poems for broadcast on JBC over Easter 1977. I recall Hugh Morrison as Pilate, Leonie Forbes as Pilate’s Wife, a young dread from JBC as the Malefactor on the right, and me as a priest (“The chap’s a madman rather than a liar”).
The collection that followed, Shadowboxing published in 1979, has a title that is, again, punning. Mervyn takes language very seriously, and plays with it with extraordinary skill. I enjoyed his explanation, after the book came out, of what a shadowbox was, and the meaning of curiosa, one of the words in the title poem. Such subtleties were lost on the Trinidadian critic Victor Questel, who found the collection wanting. Questel’s review, which relied on the best-known meaning of “shadowboxing” as its operating metaphor, led to a poetic reply, using the same metaphor. With a punning title: “For Q.” One best read aloud. In private.
Such publications as the anthologies Jamaica Woman, published in 1980, co-edited with Pamela Mordecai, and Focus 1983, which brought to the public eye a new (and sometimes not so new) generation of writers not to mention the academic writing, and the prose anthologies, such as West Indian Short Stories, meant that Mervyn published no book of his own poems during the 1980s.
Examination Centre, which came out in 1992, takes up the threads of his earlier work, with taut reflective poems, and sharp wordplay. Though now there is in the verse less humour (although the humour is there) and more sadness. As the closing poem in the book notes “memory ketch yu/ like a springe.”
His most recent collection, published in 2006, I Been There: Sort Of, is both a new work and a selected poems. It demonstrates that he has not lost his touch, nor his sure sense of language, either standard or Creole. It also includes a bow in the direction of the new formalism, a demonstration that he could be a deft hand with the heroic couplet.
What I wish, and I hope Mervyn will indulge those of us who know about them, is that his limericks (to speak about another traditional form) might be preserved. I grant that the limerick is not the most exalted of forms, and is frequently associated with vulgarity, but these were clean enough to be published in the Sunday Gleaner; under a pseudonym, true, but still available for all to read.
I’ve mentioned Mervyn’s role as a mentor, for myself and others. Perhaps his most important act of mentorship was the launching of the Creative Arts Centre Arts Review, when he was Acting Secretary of the CAC (now the Sir Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts) while John Hearne was on leave in 1976. In today’s Jamaica where the internet is increasingly available, and where the Calabash Festival and Small Axe both do a great deal to promote serious writing, it may be hard to appreciate how few outlets there were for the young writer back in the 1970s.
Mervyn’s generosity with time, energy, and friendship to young poets – and to a wide variety over the years – has been truly legendary. The pleasure he takes in his friends and the enduring nature of his friendships is also the stuff of legend.
From the 1960s to the twenty-aughties, from Tony McNeil to Kei Miller, Jamaican poetry has been stimulated, encouraged, and awed by Mervyn Morris. When the Jamaican government got around to granting him the Order of Merit, the question on my mind was not “Why?” but “How dem tek so blasted lang?” As a poet, as a scholar, as a teacher, Mervyn has made an immense contribution to Jamaica’s cultural and intellectual life.
Fragano Ledgister was born in London, moved to Jamaica at the age of 12, and was educated at St Elizabeth Technical High School, Munro College, UWI Mona, New York University, and the University of California, San Diego. He has worked for the Jamaica Daily News, The Gleaner, CANA, Efe News Agency, as an office temp, as a college professor, and, once upon a time, as a radio actor.