The Changes: a memoir of Samuel French Morse.
I met Samuel French Morse by chance, luck or fate. Most of us eventually find our bridges. At any rate, we met in 1963. A friend of mine who studied with Morse at Northeastern began telling me about a biographer of Wallace Stevens. My friend, a history major, knew I was writing poetry, and that I took it seriously. He linked me up with Morse, whom I had never read or even heard of.
I set out to become a poet because I knew I needed an anchor, something that would become my buttress, a way of coping with the world and bringing daylight into it. In a poem, the poet is the arbiter, manipulating the universe in any way he wants. To be a poet requires one to baptize himself in language. It may be a cliche today to say that poetry makes statements against death, a phrase I heard from the lips of Jacques Lipschitz, the noted sculptor. I recall Morse saying "If you can get up in the morning, look in the mirror and not get depressed, you know you have grown up." Morse had the good sense ultimately to know when to draw the line between art and life. He needed no studio, no special sanctuary, and said it was better to write a good poem than to try to write a great one. He was, I believe, referring to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Years later, he admitted he would like to trace the evolution of American poetry minus Eliot and Pound.
When I first met Professor Morse, I saw a man who was getting bald, who sometimes wore glasses, and often conservative suits. A reserved man, his deep patrician voice betrayed a cultivated sensibility. In those days, I perceived him as structured. He behaved as if he had known me all along, and seemed surprised by nothing. Years later, when we met for the last time, I had the same reaction. Everything about him seemed understated, even mysterious. Not that Morse himself had anything of mystery about him. He did not cloak himself as a poet or a critic, and he never made you feel uncomfortable. When he'd read my poems and say, "Good line, I wish I wrote that," I was astonished. I realize now he was trying to make me feel good. Sometimes, during our sessions, he would break off abruptly and say, "I have to go ... come back in two weeks." He would mark down a date and vanish, leaving me with the feeling that I had accomplished something, but with much to learn. At the start, he said, "Read C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters." In retrospect, I think he wanted me to try something humorous to offset my gravity.
For several years, I met with Morse regularly. He was a nurturing force. When he turned me toward Wallace Stevens in 1964, a window was opening on a radiant universe of reality and imagination, what Stevens might have thought of as the "supreme fiction." Stevens changed my way of seeing the world, and my way of writing about it. Before, my focus was more traditional: Wordsworth, Keats, Auden, Eliot, scraps of early Pound, and of course, Marvell, Donne, and all the writers that Eliot liked. Morse, who wanted to do the definitive biography of Wallace Stevens, was never allowed to, because Holly Stevens, his daughter, would not release her father's all-important letters. It is understandable that Morse would became slightly bitter over this loss.
Morse's relationship with Stevens can be traced back to the forties when Sam's first book was published by Cummington Press (1944). In his introduction, Wallace Stevens called Morse "anti-Transcendental", an approbation. I purchased the Alfred Knopf edition of The Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens in paperback, which Samuel Morse had edited but never received royalties from. He simply remarked, "Stevens will never be a bestseller." How wrong he was! The literary industry came to Stevens just as it had to Joyce, Eliot, and Pound. In those days, I got my hands on anything written by or about Stevens. Sam, however, was and will remain my ultimate guide for Stevens, although Peter Brazeau's fine oral biography of Stevens' (entitled Parts of a World after Stevens' collection of the same name), is still highly valuable. Morse's book, Poetry as Life, which was published in 1970, was in its modest way, the most objective and least foolish book on Stevens I have come across. I like Stevens' statement, "Poetry resists the intelligence." Academic critics, however, not satisfied with that, have over explicated Stevens. I no longer read new books about Stevens; I am satisfied with reading his poetry and essays.
In the summer of 1964, I was contemplating attending the New England Conservatory of Music or Boston University. At the time, John Malcolm Brinnin was a professor of literature and creative writing at B.U. and I had a poem (better than most) accepted by a small magazine. I wrote to Sam at Hancock Point, Maine, which was right across from the building where the legendary Pierre Monteux conducted class. Sam knew my youth, and wrote me a warm letter:
I'm delighted that you are to appear in print. This is an important step--one that constitutes a very useful (although not the only) measure of one's seriousness and intention. As you know, I'll be glad to talk with you about whatever you want me to see, whether you are at N.U. or B.U. (August 31, 1964)
One thing to be sure of is that there comes a time--and sometimes the time comes quickly--when a reader is not of any great use to a writer, because, having achieved a certain fluency and excellence and self-propulsion, a writer is a known quantity; and the reader who responds to that fluency and excellence is unlikely to be a useful critic when changes and new experiments are what a writer is interested in trying.
In some half-dozen letters from Samuel French Morse, poignancy runs like a deep stream. Re-reading his letters so many years later makes me realize that men like Morse are getting ever harder to come by.
I decided finally on attending Boston University, believing that John Malcolm Brinnin, the man who wrote Dylan Thomas in America, would be more worthwhile to study with rather than studying the violin at the New England Conservatory. I was a nineteen-year-old freshman, but I was not about to break my ties with Professor Morse.
Around this time, 1964, Samuel French Morse had his third collection of poetry published, The Changes (Allan Swallow Press, Denver, Colorado). I had been reading his poems in the Sewanee Review, Poetry, and other prominent literary journals, but seeing his work in a 91-page book was different. Morse had kept harping on advice like remembering "locale" and to "consider the reader". He wanted to be known he said, as a New England poet, as he loved the subtlety of Robert Frost's poems for their wryness and empirical data of the senses. On the surface, he did not seem to write like Stevens, although I once heard Robert Lowell say that Sam wrote Wallace Stevens "imitations"--an untruth. Sam considered Stevens an aesthete, and frequently quoted Stevens' phrase, the "ferocious egotism" of poets. What Morse shared with Stevens, as Professor Guy Rotella of Northeastern University has stated, was a "consistent attention to the particulars of the time, change and subjectivity" which also applies to Thoreau's empirical data of the senses. In speaking of Morse, Rotella refers to the "ordering power of the imagination and poems that assert and celebrate the power of the consciousness to give shape, briefly or not, to that world, and so to itself." ("A Certain Doubleness", Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1983)
I understand now why Samuel French Morse was so exigent. He wanted precision, and part of that requires writing in traditional metrics. He could write a sonnet about a basketball game, or a frightened pilot landing at Logan Airport; he could write villanelles, and what not. And never did he try to force his consciousness on mine. He urged me to examine what I was doing. I knew, even in those early days, that I would never be the kind of poet he was--which was fine because Samuel Morse respected other people's sensibilities. He was helping me develop along my own lines, and when we met, he wasted no time. I would anxiously watch him take out some mental scalpel, his head down, face expressionless. He gave my poems his full attention. Perhaps he shared a similar acumen with his illustrious relative, Samuel F. B. Morse (who died in 1872), an artist and prominent inventor (with others) of the telegraph. Sam could always articulate what he was searching for in a poem--the solid basis, something the reader could get a handle on. There was never any mush in his conversation or his poetry or his literary criticism. Only in retrospect have I truly appreciated what Sam gave me: a way of getting into and tapping my own mind. Unless it began with something firm and concrete that the mind could grasp and come to grips with, he did not like to see much abstraction.
However, if Morse shares with Stevens the awareness of shifting particulars, of the permanent gulfs between self and object and between the self and other selves, he also shares with him the joy this circumstance permits. For it is precisely change and subjectivity that allow each man, however constrained, to make and make again his own connections, orders, patterns, and relations, to make meaning, to make a world. (Rotella, p. 155)
Samuel French Morse, who held a philosophical view about poetics, published only four collections of poetry in his lifetime. There was a life to be lived and values to be passed along. Perhaps that was idealistic yet he was ever aware of present realities. He was devoted to his wife Jane and Sam Jr., about ten when Morse and I first met. He told me of his frustrations in teaching literature. One hot day, in a roomful of young students, a crew out on Huntington Avenue repairing trolley tracks, captured the class's attention. "I threw that damn textbook across the room--," Sam told me, laughing about it, but serious, too, "but at least I got their attention for awhile."
Maybe Sam Morse saw me just as an attentive student. Maybe he understood that I was thirsting for nourishment, badgering him about Stevens and his opinions of the West Coast Poets. He once declared that "Rexroth was the granddaddy of it all." Call it personal sensibility, but he didn't like Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac. He was not especially fond of the Black Mountain School either. He liked Robert Lowell to an extent, Yeats, Auden, Karl Shapiro, Randall Jarrell, and, of course, Robert Frost, but, no question, he was simply not on the same wave length as the Beats. I never asked him about Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, or Charles Olson, probably because I was still in the groove of Stevens, Eliot and, later, Pound. I had not yet arrived at the point of readiness for receiving and thinking about Kenneth Rexroth in his Assays, pouring it on about people like Corso, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, how they blew the lid off convention, how they freed poetry from the doldrums of Eliot's ex-cathedra pronouncements. Still, Eliot remained the literary dictator until his death on January 4, 1965.
Morse admired Denise Levertov but declared Anne Sexton a "mess". He was never in the John Hohnes Tufts University professor/teacher crowd either. Today, I believe that the Beat Movement was responsible for more bad poetry than good, but, at the time, academia simply wasn't producing anything better in its staid structures. One of the long poems in my first collection was dedicated to Morse. The poem he particularly liked, however, was the memorial for Eliot, "The Seasons". I, however, discarded all but several poems that I wrote in the 1960s. Trying to be romantic or cavalier, I stuffed all my early work into the rubbish bin of my apartment building in Brighton, Massachusetts and watched the clinkers float through the air and above the roofs--in those days, burning rubbish was still permissible. So much for youthful indiscretions--or should I say stupidity. Now, forty years later, I think it would be informative to review those early efforts.
Right up until 1967, I was still seeing Morse, although not as frequently. I was involved with literary matters at Boston University, but I harped on Elizabeth Barker (who knew Morse very well), to invite him to read at Boston University. Although Morse could be congenial in public, he didn't look like a poet and, like Stevens, he was a private man. In a medium-sized room at Boston University's Sherman Union, with its grays and strips of red, signifying the University's colors, a decent crowd showed up for Morse. (I had earlier presented Kay Boyle (1908-1992) to an audience of only twelve people. That noted novelist/short story writer was somehow unfamiliar to the generation at BU, so the fact that there were fifty people for Morse was encouraging.)
Morse had an understated sense of humor, and could be teasingly ironic, with a twist of lemon. He began reading poems out of his recent book, The Changes (Alan Swallow, 1965). As a way of introduction, he made an anecdote about the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum, calling it "a collection of junk." That aroused a bit of mirth in an audience made up mostly of students and a few faculty. Although Sam was overstating his case, one could tell he did not especially like the place. Years later, when I discovered that Bernard Berenson had peddled forgeries to Mrs. Gardner, I began to sympathize somewhat with Morse's reaction. His sonnet "Museum Concert" which was part of a five-poem sequence tells the story:
The solemn girls in gowns beautiful and tall Listen a little to the blazing brass Before they give their glances to the wall Or see their turning image in a glass Entranced to silence like the dancer there In Sargent's portrait. Someone coughs (again). The whispers echo down the marble stair, Piano, pianissimo. And when A pause comes in the piece, the very light Glows with the purple bougainvillea caught Like a torn scarf blown out against the white Mosaic wall. The fountain stirs, distraught, And Gabrielli's music of the spheres Falls from the courtyard window on deaf ears. (p.22)
Samuel Morse preferred an honest landscape to pretentiousness (however innocent), to lack of attention, or to blindness to the beauty of music--and those distractions set up the pervasive ironies in the poem. Here, he shared something with Stevens' sensibility; one thinks of "the slime of men in crowds" in "Farewell to Florida". Morse was definitely cut from a New England cloth. He yearned for the minute particulars, his base for everything. The sensual didn't bother him; it was the admixture of beauty and vulgarity in the quotidian worlds, which caught his fancy. "Museum Concert" is not a poem of passion as much as it is a humorous indictment of Philistinism. And the irony of its title, "Museum Concert" suggests the mustiness of the past, the dilettantism of Mrs. Gardner and her ghost hovering over that Venetian-style palazzo. The Gardner Museum, with its marble columns, fountains and courtyard and its Roman mosaic floor, was a gathering place for artists of its time; John Singer Sargent had a studio there; Mrs. Gardner was a serious supporter of the arts.
In that late 1960s' reading, Morse, a music lover, was trying to both entertain and instruct his audience. I myself had spent much of my childhood at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum--a cousin gave recitals there, accompanying performing artists. I loved basking in the paintings by Sargent, Rembrandt, and Titian. Some say that Mrs. Gardner had the museum sent to Boston block by block from Italy but that was mostly apocryphal. The museum is not "a collection of junk" but a melange of many things. Could it be that Morse's calling it "junk" was simply an attempt to get the audience's attention and set them thinking? At the time, I was astounded that my teacher could utter such blasphemy. But Sam didn't care. Years later, he called John Ashbery's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Reflections in a Concave Lens, Wallace Stevens "put through a Moog Synthesizer".
At that Boston University event, Morse also read a wonderful poem, "A Soldier", which gives anthropomorphic power to an aging monument. One of the subtlest anti-war poems I have ever come across, its tragedy is captured when a lifeless monument speaks to us, the soldier being almost allegorical: "Soldierly still, and young,/My knapsack at my feet,/I try to dress the wound/From which my life is wrung/I stand forever here/Where past and future meet." A chilling poem, it is made poignant because the soldier never changes except, perhaps, for his rusting knapsack. The viewer, at the center of perception, is the one who changes. Morse might have denied that "The Soldier" was an anti-war poem. But here is the chilling side of wrestling with the empirical data of the senses: Nature will transform the soldier, and the elements will eat away at him, man being powerless in the symbolic sense. That poem makes me think of Tennyson's "Tithonus", who did not have the power to die, which was his tragedy; the "changes" never come. He wants to be with the happy dead, with the transformation, with life itself. Morse seems to suggest that, without change, life loses its meaning.
That was the only time I heard Samuel Morse read in public. I enjoyed listening to him reading his own poetry in that deep but non-dramatic voice, which allowed the words to speak for themselves. Like Stevens, he lived with words. But Morse never indulged in abstraction and philosophizing. The complexity is in his poetry, bound up in its deceptive simplicity. Frost was more his master than Wallace Stevens. But Morse loved Stevens' work, its intricacies, and its transformations. Stevens wrote in In the Necessary Angel, a collection of essays, "It is a violence from within that protects us from violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality." Words to ponder for a lifetime. And that is why Sam kept writing about Stevens, kept going back to him, devoid of hero worship--because he had spent time with the real man, and had erected no myths. "We do not talk poetry here," Stevens told him before entering the Hartford Canoe Club. Many are still confused about fusing Stevens, the lawyer and insurance executive, with Stevens, the poet. The two worlds were separate but interconnected. It is useless to call Stevens a snob because a major poet transcends personality and temperament; he speaks in a universal voice; and the stories about Stevens' imperiousness toward his colleagues are mostly irrelevant. He was in many ways an introverted man, trying to create his own world. As he said in "The Comedian as the Letter C", he was an introspective voyager.
After I graduated from Boston University in 1968, I left Boston for close to nine years but kept in touch with Professor Morse. He sent me this note when I was living in Reno, Nevada, in 1969:
We are off to Japan for a year--we leave at the end of August. I have a sabbatical, and shall be teaching there. Meanwhile, I am up to my ears in a book on Stevens for Pegasus, and although it probably will disappoint those who want literary gossip only less than those who want literary metaphysics, I like what I am doing. I hope once this is out of the way, never to have to write about W.S. again except for pleasure. And perhaps I can do some writing and reading of my own.
I wonder what Samuel Morse thought about those who wrote about Wallace Stevens and the hermetic tradition. For me, Morse was on a different path, that of the empirical data of the senses. As Thoreau, whom Sam quoted in his last book, said, as an epigraph, there is a "Certain Doubleness", in nature as in society. That same principle is at work in Sam's literary creations and his fascination with Japan, as he stated in a letter to me, dated November 11, 1970, when I was living in San Francisco, and studying at San Francisco State University:
Our year was superb; and although I came back knowing almost as little as when I went, the Japanese were warm, friendly, hospitable and tolerant, as only a people sure of their cultural inheritance, perhaps, can be. When you come, I'll bore you with some of the details. Suffice it to say that we're already working at ways to return to Japan.... I shan't continue this now, but will get it into the mail so that we can continue in the future and when you get to Boston....
But I didn't immediately return to Boston.
In 1975, I wrote to Sam from Brooklyn Heights. At least we were getting geographically closer. I had had the opportunity to move back to Boston, even though I was partially content working in New York but, then 31, I could not resist a large scholarship and stipend to do a Ph.D. "We were supposed to meet in Boston, a few years back," I wrote, "but something or other came up, and I never made it." When Sam answered, he apologized for waiting three months to acknowledge my letter. That was typical. He was very conscientious about his relationships with people. "We'll be able to pick up, if not where we left off, at least without any great difficulty, I am sure" And we finally did, in 1976, despite all the "changes" I had undergone.
Our reunion took place with no dramatics at all. Sam had aged only slightly, and acted as if there were no gaps in our relationship. We were just there, together, and that was it. Before we stepped into his office, Sam made a few remarks to the faculty secretary of the English Department, and off we went. I brought no manuscripts, probably afraid to show him anything for fear of disapproval. For the first time, I called him Sam, but I was uncomfortable with it. I was back in Boston and related the story of how I became an English teacher and how I was invited to Boston University to work on my Ph.D. Nothing seemed to surprise him, although a feeling was creeping up on me that I was trying to retrieve something from the past.
We made small talk, and he reached over to his bookshelf and gleaned a passage out of Stevens' The Necessary Angel and recited it. The theme was change, and the rhapsodic prose of Stevens went right to the center of it. I cannot remember a line of the passage, but l know Sam read it to me for a purpose, something to stimulate me. Perhaps I'll go back to that collection of essays and find the passage, almost as if nothing has changed. But it was very Stevensonian of Sam to do that. Much of our visit was taken up by chit chat. So much had happened in the long interval. In a way, I thought that I had moved away from Morse, that he had done all he could for me. The story goes back to 1967 and I quote again from his letter:
One thing to be sure of is that there comes a time--and sometimes that time comes quickly--when a reader is not of any great use to a writer, because having achieved a certain fluency and excellence and self-propulsion, a writer is a known quality; ... Again, it seems to me that Auden's "Making, Knowing, and Judging," is the best that I know.
Although anti-climactic, our encounter that day in 1976 meant something to me. I keep thinking of Stevens' "As you Leave the Room", and Sam's elegy for Wallace Stevens, "The Poet Who Lived with His Words". The latter is a poignant piece and shows the depths of feeling that Sam contained within himself, but only allowed to trickle out in conversation. When I first read The Changes, I was disappointed. I kept thinking, "All this metric, so many sentences hung over and running on to the next line." At times, it got in the way of his verse. But when you read the words aloud, or hear them read, Sam's metric conforms to Richard Wilbur's ideas that the metric scheme, the iambics, are part of the "house" that contains the poem. But I also saw it as a prison. Although many of my poems utilized rhyme, even to the writing of a Petrarchan sonnet, I liked the organic form. The truth is that a poem works or it doesn't. And my poems of that era were very far afield from the kind of work Morse was doing. But that was all right.
I was in Boston, again, comfortably settled, studying Greek, Heidegger and Pound and the Concord Group (the Alcotts, Emerson, Hawthorne, Hoar, Thoreau, et al). I put a distance between Sam and me, yet deep within me, I felt a need to go back to him. I had my Ph.D. in hand and little to show for it, except a somewhat respectable pile of publications. Slowly, I understand what Morse had said to me so many years before. My last communication came in the form of a postcard, dated November 14, 1983:
It is good to hear from you--as you can see, we've moved, though we're still in Milton and I'm still at N.U., though only once or twice a week. We'll be away, unfortunately, this weekend. But perhaps we can get together at N.U. later on.
But I never took Sam up on it. It was just another lost opportunity--one that never comes again. Things change. We oscillate between the past and the future, and sometimes fail to see the present. In his "The Poem" (from The Changes), he wrote: "Not what the word must mean, but what it is." He closed with, "Whatever runs between? Your fingers may be lost, but still you touch/The fragments of the world, for what they mean."
My parting shot: I entered a poetry competition, The Samuel French Morse Prize, but failed to place. I had wanted to please my former teacher, and that loss was a sobering experience. I learned that it is not always possible to change the world, but only to "patch it up as best [you] can." (Wallace Stevens)
It was then Fall 1985 and I was studying to be a librarian while working at the Massachusetts State Library on Beacon Hill. I had a question about Northeastern University Press and phoned the University and was handed over to someone at the Press. I mentioned Samuel Morse, feeling that such people were always around and always would be around. The great human delusion. A woman with a young voice said, "Didn't you hear? Samuel French Morse died last spring."