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‘Creating Space and Time for Well-Crafted Poetry’: Mervyn Morris Installed as Poet Laureate of Jamaica

Professor Mervyn Morris Poet Laureate of Jamaica

With his clear, insightful speech that was to the point yet engaging, Professor Mervyn Morris exemplified the reason he is an excellent choice for Jamaica’s first officially declared Poet Laureate. Prof Morris was officially installed in the post at Kings House, on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Prof Morris' address, which came at the end of the ceremony, at which Fae Ellington was the evening's Master of Ceremonies, outlined the ways he will furnish the post with meaning. 

Morris makes a particularly striking choice for Poet Laureate because he has such a great understanding of genre, form, the value of poetry to the society as well as its development. And it helps that he’s charming and dashing to boot. 

Certainly a tweet worthy moment, but fortunately there were no selfiesAs a poet, academic and critic his involvement in the genre has been multi-dimensional. Additionally, as Hon. Minister Wykham McNeil pointed out during his address, noted that Prof Morris has been doing the duties of Poet Laureate for years.

“I am pleased that  many Jamaicans, including several of our other notable poets believe that Professor Morris has been executing the duties of Poet Laureate for decades, so this appointment now makes it official,” Minister McNeil said. The evening had also Investiture remarks by His Excellency the Most Honourable Patrick Allen, Govenor General of Jamaica as well as a citation read by Winsome Hudson, National Librarian and head of the National Library of Jamaica where the post will be housed. 

Minister of Culture Lisa Hannah was notably absent but Principal Director of Dahlia Harris represented her well with a speech which bordered on the poetic.

“Conceptions of what Jamaican poetry is and what it can be has evolved and is evolving daily,” Prof Morris said. Fae Ellington, Master of Ceremony, and Winsome Hudson, National Librarian

Prof Morris, pointed to the island’s two Poet Laureate’s before him Thomas ‘Tom Redcam’ McDermott and JE McFarlane, and noted that it is more than the span of 60 years that separates us from the poetry of the early 20th century. Pointing to McFarlane’s declaration that Jamaican Creole cannot be used to express fine feeling, and noting that the iconic Louise Bennett had never been invited to become a member of the Poetry League, Morris spoke to Bennett’s impact on the development of Jamaican poetry.

The phrase “Before Louise Bennett freed us up” became a minor refrain as he extolled her impact which extends far beyond reggae and dub poetry, where many often draw the boundaries for her influence. He highlighted his point by showing how Louise Bennett’s treatment of Jamaican language as a tool for authentic expression impacted on his own poetry. 

Publisher Ian RandleMorris’ speech was remarkably nuanced and shone light on fact that investing the arts with tangible recognition is long overdue. While he made no promises of singing and dancing for the lovely tourists basking in rays, reggae and Red Stripe, he had already begun to create a list of achievements, that can significantly develop the island’s literary landscape.

With his signature humour, he explained that one of the questions that now often greets the news that he has been dubbed Poet Laureate, is what will he do. Explaining the remit of the Poet Laureate, which is includes encouraging the enjoyment  of poetry, he noted that he would like to arrange a school tour which would allow children to enjoy poems without it being toward sitting an exam and “free from the routine of naming literary devices.”

“I’m keen to arrange readings outside of Kingston,” Prof Morris said. He also noted that he would be attempting to stage self-financed workshops as well as trying to get the media to pay greater attention to poetry.Emerging writer Ann Margaret Lim

“I’m going to try to convince some of the media houses to give space and time to well-crafted poems,” Prof Morris explained, suggesting possibilities such as a ‘Wednesday Poem’ in one of the national papers. He also spoke about the possibility of creating an anthology with the poetry produced over the three year tenure.

The insignia of the Poet Laureate of Jamaica is the Coat of Arms framed by breadfruit leaves. Despite the possibility of its leading to badly crafted puns that “man shall not live by breadfruit alone”, the insignia is a fitting one, and Morris’ address certainly gave us food for thought.

Additionally, as highlighted by Ann Margaret Lim’s ode to him, Prof Morris has provided sustenance and succour for many of the island’s poets. Even so, Prof Morris pointed out that his own poetry would not be limited to his role as Poet Laureate. 

“A Poet Laureate is still a poet trying to be true to feeling,” Prof Morris said. And to the rest of us, watching him sashed and pinned was such a fine feeling, a moment of deserving of a ‘Mervyn poem’.