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Forms of Feeling: Poetry in Our Lives. Essays & Interviews / John Morgan

Forms of Feeling: Poetry in Our Lives. Essays & Interviews

By: John Morgan

Poetry gives form to our feelings and helps us come to terms with them.  Facing a personal crisis, a poem can be the beginning of healing.  But if poems are good in a crisis, they are also a way of reaching out for new experiences and renewing our lives.  In FORMS OF FEELING: POETRY IN OUR LIVES John Morgan investigates the role of poetry in the contemporary ...
ISBN 978-1-907056-91-8
Pub Date Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Cover Image Judy Orvik (with wood frame by Jim Orvik)
Page Count 166
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Poetry gives form to our feelings and helps us come to terms with them.  Facing a personal crisis, a poem can be the beginning of healing.  But if poems are good in a crisis, they are also a way of reaching out for new experiences and renewing our lives.  In FORMS OF FEELING: POETRY IN OUR LIVES John Morgan investigates the role of poetry in the contemporary world, including where poems come from, what the audience for poetry is, and the ways in which poetry can offer a spiritual path in a secular time. He  also discusses a variety of approaches to writing poems, and spells out the importance of place in a poet's work, focusing on his experiences in moving from New York to Alaska.  At the same time, the book explores one poet's development from a raw beginner to a widely recognized teacher and practitioner of the craft.

"How is it possible to live, in this culture at this moment, a life filled with poetry? John Morgan's essays, meditations, and interviews answer that: like this, like this, like this. Morgan takes us from his student days at Harvard and Iowa to his days as professor emeritus, the span of a life lived in lines, a life of poetry. When the most critical challenges occur, like the terrible illness of a child, Morgan shows how vital precise language can be. Precisely located, mostly in Alaska, this prose is life-giving, grounded and smart."
Peggy Shumaker, author of Gnawed Bones and Just Breathe Normally

"John Morgan’s finely wrought and delightful new book is by turns meditative, confessional, instructional—even cajoling (on behalf of poetry). In the examined life of this thoughtful poet, readers will find solace and meaning and entertainment too."
      Dan O'Neill, author of A Land Gone Lonesome and The Firecracker Boys

John Morgan

John Morgan studied with Robert Lowell at Harvard, where he won the Hatch Prize for Lyric Poetry. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop he earned his M.F.A. and was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. In 1976, he moved with his family to Fairbanks, Alaska to direct the creative writing program at the University of Alaska. Morgan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, The New Republic, The Young American Poets (Follett) and many other magazines and anthologies. He won the Discovery Award of the New York Poetry Center, as well as first prize in the Carolina Quarterly Poetry Contest. In 2009, he served as the first writer-in-residence at Denali National Park.


You catch a whiff of something on the border of consciousness.  A phrase floats into your head and you recognize the voice.  A fly buzzes at the windowsill; you wonder what it thinks it’s doing.  Usually we dismiss such occurrences.  They seem to have no practical use.  But the suspicion lingers that these events may be trying to tell us something, to point out a meaning that, in the course of our busy lives, we’ve been too distracted to face.  Everyone has such moments, but what do you do with them?  What do you make from them?  What purpose can they serve?
Robert Frost called the poem, “A momentary stay against confusion,” and the poet Greg Orr explains: “We are creatures whose volatile inner lives are both mysterious to us and beyond our control.  How to respond to the unpredictability of our own emotional being?  One important answer is the personal lyric, the poem dramatizing inner and outer experience.”
In other words, poetry gives form to our feelings and helps us come to terms with them.  Facing the emotions of a personal crisis, a poem can be the beginning of healing.  The crisis may be small or massive—a cut finger or a child in a coma—but in either case poetry is one possible response.  The widespread rediscovery of poetry after 9/11 illustrates this point.  
But if poetry is good in a crisis, it’s also a way of reaching out for new experiences and renewing our lives.  Poems place themselves between the world of dream and what we might think of as the prose of reality.  Using metaphor, seductive sound and fantastic narrative, poems can evoke mysterious states.  When I’m working on a draft, it’s this feeling of otherworldliness, no matter how ordinary the subject, that tells me I may have a poem going.  
But how do you recognize a poem, when you sense one buzzing around the room?  Well, of course there’s not just one way to go at poems.  A phrase pops into your head, or a rhythm, a mental image, a smell, or sound.  Things are always floating into our heads.  Usually we brush them aside, but maybe there’s a poem there.  Even that fly on the windowsill—as in Emily Dickinson’s disturbing and wonderful poem, “I heard a fly buzz when I died…”  
It’s my contention that poems are happening all the time.  In a quiet moment, you can cultivate one.  I sometimes go out to a spot overlooking the Tanana River near my home in central Alaska and just sit and wait.  Soon I’m noticing things that hadn’t been apparent at first.  And what I see draws new thoughts to mind that I’d been too busy to notice.  I step back and start taking mental notes on what I’m seeing, hearing, thinking, and as often as not these things begin working themselves into a poem.  Here’s an example:

     for the New Rochelle High Class of '61

A crane, in snow showers, drifts above the river
where, this morning, two jet fighters buzzed

the flats. I look for other signs of life.
A scrap of blue-green color on the ground

turns out to be the wrapper of a half-inch
firecracker. Did Jeffrey—ten next Thursday—

set it off? Last fall (as thought steps back)
at our 25th reunion, Molly, now a writer of romances

seemed old in flashy make-up and long lashes.
We danced in the 9th grade to Buddy Holly

holding close, and once, in nursery school
as I recall, we shed our underpants
to have a look. Now 'Muzzy' (John Mazzulo)
is a medical professor, adamantly gay.

And most bizarre—John Seeman, our
annual class president, still "a real

nice guy", has made himself a star
in porno flicks. But look at me. With hair
down to my shoulders, back east from far
Alaska and a poet—I'm one of the exotics

of the class. We sat on the grass beside
the whitewashed Tom Paine Cottage—kept

as it was by those radical D.A.R.s—and talked
about the ones who weren't there. Steph,

my hopeless crush in the third grade,
dead of a brutal tumor these ten years,

and Andy Miller, 6-2 white point-guard, who
turned to drugs and dealing, and got blown away.

I said we'd put on masks: balding, gray,
and wrinkled "monster" versions of ourselves.

And now banning that thought, knitting
my brows, I spot a spider netting two

spruce bows. What's near at hand grows deeper
in the evening light. Beyond her web

the mountains darken under storms. A crescent moon
flies suddenly among the splotchy clouds. The river's

mud-green current swells under thinning ice.


Most poems don’t give their full meaning away easily.   It can take a week or a month to bring one to completion.  I spend some time every day working on a draft, and this daily contact is renewing, as the poem grows and shapes itself.  In the course of revision I’m learning from the poem what it really wants to say. 
And along with writing poems, I read them.  If reading poetry seems hard at first, it’s probably because you’re out of practice.  Like anything else, it gets easier the more you do it.  Find an anthology and check out some old favorites.  Then read around in the book and see if you can make new discoveries.  When you find a poet you like, check in the library for a collection of his or her work.  
For some, poetry expresses itself through dance or music, but in its root form, of course it’s language.  Language that dances.  Language that sings.  Poems remind us, consciously or not, of our first burblings and vocalizations and the pleasure they gave us as infants.  Then came nursery rhymes and the jingles of jump rope and hopscotch.  As we grow up, we ask other things from poems, but we should never forget that first sensory intoxication. 
That’s why, even when it shocks us or brings us close to tears, one underlying theme of every good poem is a celebration of human experience.

Copyright John Morgan 2012
Review: Forms of Feeling: Poetry in Our Lives reviewed by Cheryl Wright-Watkins for (September, 2012)

This book is ostensibly an essay collection, but poet and creative writing teacher John Morgan has also filled the pages with poems, biographical information, journal entries, book reviews, interviews, and reading and writing instruction. These various elements within the same volume combine to create an intimate portrait of the poet and his spirituality, teaching methods, family life, writing practice, and interactions with nature and place.

Morgan’s credentials include a BA from Harvard, where he studied with Robert Lowell, an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and several prestigious literary awards and fellowships; however, despite his impressive accomplishments, Morgan frequently reveals his humility, exalting the book’s veracity and the writer’s authority. For instance, in the essay “Why I Am Not a Novelist,” in which he explains his arrival at poetry after two failed attempts to write novels: “You see before you no superhero—just an ordinary, striving, fatherly, husbandly figure, trying somewhat bumblingly to make his way.”

In this expansive portrayal of a poet, his life, and his work, the reader understands that for Morgan, poetry is a way of life. He reveals how writing poetry has helped him emotionally deal with several difficult events, including his wife’s miscarriage. He includes three of the twenty-four sonnets he wrote in response to his son’s sudden, serious, chronic illness to demonstrate the “true sonnet feel of powerful emotions being controlled by form.” He explains his affinity for poetry: “Poems are like messages in bottles hurled into the sea from a cliff and we may never know when one reaches some distant shore and is taken into a reader’s heart.”

Morgan shows a number of his poems in various stages of revision, explaining in detail how and why he made particular changes. He generously shares his philosophy about poetry and includes detailed accounts of his writing process, quoting classic and modern poets as well as his own original work. As a bonus, he suggests several writing exercises.

One of the most instructive essays is a close reading exercise. The essay opens with William Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark,” which Morgan recommends reading several times before beginning the exercise—a reading guide composed of twelve questions, followed by Morgan’s expansive answers to these questions. These questions encourage the reader to examine word choices, tone, mood, sensory details. I’ve never studied poetry, but I found this exercise helpful to my creative nonfiction writing.

Morgan confesses that during the four years he spent writing his failed novels, he took LSD on two occasions, the second time two weeks after the first. He describes the experiences in explicit, agonizing detail—the terror, hallucinations, physical collapse, and the fear that his mind wouldn’t find its way back. This event becomes a metaphor for the shift in Morgan’s writing focus from novels and fiction to poetry: he converts a short story to a poem, finding his way back, as his mind found its way back from the LSD trip, to the practice of poetry.

Morgan’s letters and journal entries chronicle his journey from his childhood in a Jewish family in New York City to teacher of creative writing graduate students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Much of his writing focuses on his strong sense of place and his relationship with Alaska, demonstrated in the two book reviews—one on a book about the catastrophic Exxon-Valdez oil spill and the other on a collection of Koyukon Indian tales. Morgan ends the book with a passage about the importance of place, “the most profound use of which is as a metaphor for the self in its deepest, meditative self-knowing. All places used in this way are mythological and reach between people, across decades, across continents.”

This unique book appeals to a diverse audience. Writers of all genres will find the book informative and instructive as well as entertaining.

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