You are here

Mervyn Morris: Advice to Aspiring Poets (Sort Of)

Professor Mervyn Morris Poet Laureate of Jamaica

Professor Mervyn Morris’ witty speech at the JCDC 2014 literary awards should not be missed by anyone aspiring to call themself a poet nor by many of those who already do.  Shrouded in Prof Morris’ guise of humility, the speech is a poet's guide to understanding craft, housing meaningful statements about poetry and language.

“Some of you are here to receive awards, some to honour those receiving awards, some because you were invited or were curious, and some the find out why your entry has not been mentioned.  I been there, sort of,” Prof Morris began, making an allusion to both his most recent collection of poems I Been There Sort Of as well as his life as a judge, poet, academic and critic. 

His address was couched in a clear understanding of the vagaries of literary competitions. But it’s most important feature was the gems about writing embodied within as he presented a cogent and engaging lecture on poetry in which Prof Morris broke apart several poems so their mechanics could be better understood. 

He turned to the works of Philip Sherlock, Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison to show how structure can inform meaning in good writing. 

“The most fundamental point to make is that if you think you have something important to say, that’s good.  If you are committed to tackling social or political problems, or to arguing your religious or political convictions, fair enough.  But there is more than that to consider.  If you are trying to be a writer, you have signed on to a struggle with form.  The poet, the writer, is a maker. The serious writer cares about the shape of what s/he has made.  You should be trying to improve what you have drafted.  Which may involve removal of a word or passage here or there, expansion of a passage here or there, rewriting of a passage here or there.” 

“Good writing is meaningful, is significant; and it also gives pleasure.  Aesthetic pleasure.  Pleasure in the beauty of it, the efficiency of it.  Pleasure in the recognition of efficient shaping.”

Prof Morris also looked at the multiplicity of meanings that can reside within a poem and the ways these meanings can ride the rhythms found within the poems. Here he turned to the works by Louise Bennett, Mikey Smith, Dennis Scott and Edward Baugh.

“Poems work not just by what they say but by how they say it.”

Prof Mervyn Morris sits with two emerging poets Ann Margaret Lim and Millicent Graham at Calabash 2014

“Poems often mean more than they directly state.  Poetry usually generates a buzz of implication, often by its use of figurative language and allusion:  something is being represented as something else (metaphor), or something is like something else (simile), or something is referring – making an allusion – to something else, often with no clue that says it is.” 

And of course, this all boils down to the use of language...

“Good poems tend to do more with language than its ordinary, everyday use.  Everybody has something they want to say.  The poet is also very much concerned with the means of saying it.” 

Recognizing that the aspiring poets may be in need of further guidance he also recommended a few texts as well as underscoring the importance of reading to a writer.

Prof Morris closed by turning to the criticism...

“When you have written a number of poems you might find it useful to join a workshop, if there is one available.  In a bad workshop people keep saying nice things about your work.  That’s not much help.  In a good workshop, participants tend to give their honest responses, and these are sometimes painful to the author of the work critiqued.

“Don’t be crushed by criticism.  No matter who is giving it, some of it will be mistaken, but not to worry.  Listen thoughtfully and see whether there is any of it you can use to make your work better.  You need to achieve a balance between ignoring criticism and letting it get you down. 

“In my experience, misunderstanding is often illuminating:  when you think your work has been misunderstood, it may be a good idea to examine the work closely to see why this has happened.  Then you may know what, if anything, to do. “ 

His parting words were in the value of remaining true to oneself...

“No matter who you are, some people would happier if you were somebody else.  The more you monitor responses the sooner you will notice that some of them contradict each other.   In the end – while always giving thoughtful attention to how your work is received – you have to settle for being your own person, whoever that may be.”

And with that Prof Morris closed with his own poem ‘Advisory’ which ends with the lines:

Remind them you’re committed

to the line

that saying what you feel

is fine,

positive or negative

or in-between.

Don’t let anybody

lock you in.