FAIRBANKS — Often, when I meet non-writers, they have the same question: Where do you get your ideas? I have to admit, I kinda hate that question, partly because it’s so cliché, but mostly because I never have a pithy or snarky answer on the tip of my tongue. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time trying to get the words out of my head and onto paper before they’re lost forever — there are always so many words in there I fear I’ll never catch them all — that I don’t have time to stare into my navel wondering from whence they come.
Thank the universe for John Morgan. One of Alaska’s premier poets, Morgan’s new book, “Forms of Feeling: Poetry in Our Lives, Essays and Interviews,” explores the whole notion of where the words come from, how they get into our heads and how we use them to maneuver through life.
From the back cover blurb: “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.”
A combination of narrative, personal essays, letters, and poetry, Forms of Feeling is an illuminating look into the way a poet’s mind works. Divided into four sections: “Poetry in our Lives,” “Becoming A Poet,” “Feeling Into Forms,” and “A Poet in His Place,” the book explores Morgan’s growth as a poet, from his days at the Robert Lowell Writing Seminar to his life in Alaska, his experiments with mind-altering drugs (not a good trip) to his son’s devastating illness. Morgan takes us through the wild ride that turned him from a novelist to a poet with an incredible eye for detail and imagery.
In the chapter titled “Firstlings,” Section 2, Morgan details how he went from wanna-be fossil hunter (“once I’d retired from playing first-base for the Brooklyn Dodgers) to poet. It all began in junior high, he recalls, ninth grade, to be specific. His voice had changed, girls seemed more interested in showing off their clothes than actually wanting to spend time with him on dates, and hormonal mood swings and identity issues ruled the day. “My main extra-curricular activity was the science club.”
An English assignment led him to Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” and he spent hours listening to the recording, trying to “imitate Dylan Thomas’ stirring delivery.” After that, he picked up a “fat Louis Untermeyer anthology” of British and American poetry, working his way from Chaucer to Eliot, learning about style, alliteration, rhythm, and other poetical flair.
“The first poem I ever wrote spilled over from the reading and from my muddled emotional life. It described a wild team of galloping horses — not a subject I knew much about firsthand, but of course the point was symbolic. The apocalyptic horses were compared to a racing heart and stood in my mind for death and for sexual passion, and the rhythm tried to imitate their thunderous headlong rush. Putting it through several revisions allowed me to relive the experience of creating the poem in the first place and the whole process gave me something to do with my turbulent feelings, which otherwise threatened to run away with me like those galloping horses.”
Morgan shows, in this one paragraph, what makes him such a good poet — he doesn’t just write a poem and call it good. He works on his poems for long periods of time, re-writing and revising, striking whole parts and substituting other images — pulling from the landscape, his life, his past, his copious reading of the classics and other poets, until it becomes a piece that only he could have written. And he revels in the revising, unlike many poets — myself included — who see revising and rewriting as a necessary chore to get through. Morgan enjoys every single piece of the puzzle – gathering images, finding words, putting them together, rearranging to enhance and augment the picture — his pieces read smoothly, flowing logically and unerringly in the direction you know they were meant to go.
At times, Morgan’s poetry and essays are searingly personal — his moments of doubt, poems written to his wife, his son — and they’re hard to read, because they evoke the same emotions in the reader, and these are usually the emotions we run from, hide from, ignore, pretend don’t exist.
This is an excellent book for those who want to know where writers get their ideas, or for writers who want to know how a good one doers what he does. It’s a glimpse into a soul, delving into the creative bent. And it can serve as an impetus for stalled poets or those who think they could write a poem, if they had the right inspiration:
“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?”
The answer, Morgan finds, is in poetry.
Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.