American poet John N. Morris never achieved widespread public acclaim in his lifetime, but those who knew him well — including some of the nation’s most distinguished poets and critics — expect his star to rise with publication of two books showcasing both his life and his life’s work.
“In Morris’ hands, the innocent activities of everyday life — taking down the Christmas decorations, reading your insurance policy, having a suit altered, buying a house — take on a macabre clarity of outline,” suggests Helen Vendler, one of the nation’s leading literary critics and the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard. “Read him and you cannot live your own life innocently again.”
John Nelson Morris was a professor of English literature in Arts & Sciences for 30 years at Washington University in St. Louis. Among his longtime colleagues at the university was a core group of distinguished writers and scholars that included former poet laureates Howard Nemerov and Mona Van Duyn and novelists Stanley Elkin and William Gass.
To colleagues and others in elite literary circles, it was no secret that Morris had earned a well-deserved niche among leading English-language poets of the last half century. However, Morris died in 1997 before publication of his selected poems and the broad public overview that event would invite. Now, with the publication of Morris’ memoir, Then: Essays in Reconstruction, and a new collection of Selected Poems, this remarkable poet can be fully reviewed and appreciated for the first time.
“These books offer the first chance that many readers will have to really assess the overall work of Morris,” said Wayne Fields, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “As more people are exposed to his work, Morris’ stock in the poetry world should rise considerably.”
Fields and others recall Morris as a quiet, thoughtful poet who never pushed hard to establish his own reputation in the field. Although Morris’ talents drew lavish praise from his colleagues, even they had difficulty pushing him into the spotlight. “No, never heard of him” is the response Van Duyn recalls hearing often when she and Howard Nemerov proposed Morris for some literary honor, prize or membership.
“As Morris’ poetry became even fuller and deeper, this state of affairs became more and more painful to his admirers,” Van Duyn said. “Here, though it is too late for its author, is the proof of my argument.”
The proof Van Duyn refers to is a new collection of Morris’ work, a book titled simply John N. Morris: Selected Poems. It is being issued in conjunction with the release of Morris’ memoir, which he composed in the last year of his life during an arduous battle with pancreatic cancer.
Published by The Press at Washington University in St. Louis, the Morris books represent the second and third volumes in the “Reflections on the American Century” series. An ongoing project at Washington University, the series is sponsored by the American Culture Studies program in Arts & Sciences, the Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Illustrated Book Studio in the School of Art, and Special Collections of Washington University Libraries.
More information on the Morris books, including pictures, memoir excerpts and poetry samples, is available on the American Cultures Studies Web site: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~acsp/Morris.html.
All volumes in the “Reflections on the American Century” can be purchased by calling the Washington University Campus Bookstore at (314) 935-5580. Bookstores, resellers or those requesting a review copy should contact Deborah Jaegers by phone: (314) 935-4912 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.