Firstlings: A guest post by John Morgan

After readings, when I take questions from the audience, I’m likely to be asked how I became a poet in the first place. It seems like such a wildly impractical choice, and yet somehow appealing as well. I tell them that in my case (as, I suspect, with many other poets) it goes back to junior high.

By eighth grade my sweet boy-soprano had given way to a croaking baritone and I dropped out of choir. I went on several dates, but these were far from satisfactory, since my motives were suspect and the girls seemed to be chiefly concerned with showing off their fancy dresses. My main extra-curricular activity was the science club. And then somehow, amid the push and pull of hormonal mood swings and identity issues, I discovered poetry.

For an English assignment in ninth grade, I memorized and recited “Fern Hill.” We had the recording at home and I tried to imitate Dylan Thomas’s stirring delivery. Then when my mother took me to a bookstore to pick out a birthday present for myself, I surprised us both by choosing a fat Louis Untermeyer anthology of British and American poetry. I worked my way forward from Chaucer through Shakespeare, Keats, the two Brownings, Dickinson, and Eliot, before settling for a while on Algernon Charles Swinburne for his hypnotic rhythms, gaudy alliteration and morbid sentiments.

The first poem I ever wrote spilled-over from this reading and from my muddled emotional life. It described a wild team of galloping horses–not a subject I knew much about first-hand, 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. The poem could hardly be called a success though. Its far-fetched diction had more to do with Shelley and Keats than with the language I actually spoke and might have been able to handle. But 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.

I felt encouraged enough by the results to try again a few months later. My second poem was about a star. It had regular rhyming stanzas and used the obscure poetic word “dartle” to describe the distant stellar object, which stood for the girl–was it Susan or Stephanie?–I was secretly in love with at the moment. Edward Hirsch has pointed out that for some poets, the beloved becomes a “celestial light, a cosmic force” which the poet “absorbs into himself, a power that counters the evil in history.” No doubt this account approximates what I was striving for as I invoked the “dartling star” as the ideal object of my aesthetic and emotional longings.

I took the project seriously enough to fill several notebook pages with alternative versions. It was, to my mind, a more sophisticated effort than the wild horse poem though perhaps not as spontaneous. I hoped to create a crafted object external to myself, something that might be of interest to other readers of the Untermeyer anthology. But inevitably my efforts were spoiled by the poem’s outlandish diction and adolescent sentiments. Still, I remember having the sense that writing poems was a skill I could master eventually if I put my mind to it.

I don’t think my motives for writing poetry have changed very much over the years. Poems still help me work through my mental morass and reach out to others with an artful presentation of my emotions, thoughts, and dreams, hoping for a response. The poems themselves improved as I developed a better ear for tone and got a handle on some of the formal elements of verse, but the essentials were there from the start, particularly a willingness to look over what I’d scribbled in a frenzy and try to make it more coherent and aesthetically pleasing. And somewhere behind this obsessive activity it seems that what I was revising was myself.

3 thoughts on “Firstlings: A guest post by John Morgan”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    This was wonderful! What a great glimpse into the heart and mind of a young writer swept up by the emotional energy and promise of poetry. Thanks, John.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top