The Pond (1973; second edition 1997)

The Pond was the first published collection by renowned Jamaican poet, Mervyn Morris. Its themes of childhood, education and youthful discovery are coupled with a lyrical voice that is gently humorous and wrought with carefully crafted irony. The poems express subtle moments of individual experience and the yearning to clinch a means with which to convey those fleeting moments.
 
The Pond was New Beacon’s second poetry publication after Foundations. La Rose wrote regarding the print-run: “Our initial print run will be 1,000 hardback, 2000 paperback. This is a lot for poetry, but we believe in poetry” (Letter 22.2.72 JLR to MM, NBB/1/13). The dedication to Morris’ poetry directly alongside the political work of educational campaigning is testimony to La Rose’s belief in poetry in and of itself, not only, or even primarily as a tool for political struggle. Poetry-publishing is a notoriously uncommercial pursuit and often depends on the work of small independent publishers, not confined by demanding profit margins.
 
Mervyn Morris (1937-) was born in Kingston, Jamaica. He studied at the University of the West Indies and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He has taught at UWI, Mona since the 1960s and also worked as a broadcaster and journalist. His other anthologies include Shadowboxing (1979) and Examination Centre (1992). He edited the collected poetry of Louise Bennett as part of his commitment to legitimising the use of Creole in Caribbean literature. He was recently writer-in-residence at the Southbank Centre in London and has worked at the British Library to promote West Indian writing.
 
 
The Pond (1973; second edition 1997) by Mervyn Morris. 45pp.

Content

 
Morris has been described as a less overtly political “protest” poet than his Caribbean contemporaries. His work may also be thought of as a reinsertion of personal experience into a progressive view of society. Some poems in The Pond do speak in a tone of protest (see “To An Expatriate Friend”, “I Am The Man”), reflecting Morris’s experience of post-independence politics in Jamaica and the influence of black power in the late 1960s (Morris, interview in Wasifiri, 18). Others refer to the situation of those with limited means, as in the elegiac “To a Crippled Schoolmaster”; or ruminate on life, love, family bonds, and death (“The Day My Father Died” – one of Morris’s earliest poems; “The Outing” – an account of a drowning during a school trip).
 
Morris’s verbal texture shows the influence of the Metaphysical poets and his fondness for comic verse and lampoon. The poems may seem neutral or relatively plain on their surface, avoiding the grand scope of Derek Walcott or the complexity of Brathwaite’s rhythm. Instead the use of Jamaican speech patterns is almost prosaic at times, with little sustained imagery and few recurring motifs. As Morris has noted, the emphasis is on the line break throughout.
 
 

Production

 
Morris first contacted New Beacon about the possibility of publishing a volume of his poetry in November 1970. La Rose immediately accepted, though the project was then sidelined somewhat by the “blizzard” surrounding Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian Child is made educationally sub-normal in the British School System (1971) (20.5.71 JLR to MM, NBB/1/13). The possibility of a co-edition with Jamaica-based Savacou was mooted, as the second book in their poetry series (the first being McNeill, with introduction by Dennis Scott), but the idea was not taken forward (EKB to JLR, 9.1.72, LRA/01/0143/4). 
 
Letter from Edward Kamau Brathwaite to John La Rose, dated 9 January 1972. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0143
 
La Rose consulted with Morris about the possibility of finding a Jamaican artist to design the cover:
Do you have any friends who might like to offer a sketch? The difficulty of course, will be distance and an artist at hand is worth more to us that one who is thousands of miles away. (Letter JLR to MM, 3.8.71, NBB/1/13)
 
Morris suggested Errol Lloyd as a possibility, if he liked the poems, and this marked the beginning of a longer-term collaboration between New Beacon and Lloyd, a Jamaican artist based in London, who had been part CAM (MM to JLR, 25.10.71, LRA/01/0237/36). Lloyd provided some ethereal photographs of outer space with painting over as possible covers for Morris’s book. The one chosen was a Moon surface with ghostly white figures in one corner and the barest elements of a larger face with its eyes as moon craters. Errol Lloyd explains that the cover was based on the poem “The Pond” itself and “The idea of looking down into something which was a bit mysterious in itself, and a bit murky. Made you feel that you had to do something which reflected that. You didn’t want something which was pretty.” He likens the figures in the corner to cherubs and to a certain idea of cultural conflict:
I thought fear of self or fear of the Pond or fear of your own reflection was at the heart of the kind of anxiety that people in the Caribbean or any kind of colonial situation would experience. Because one of the most difficult things is to make a realistic assessment of your own culture and what are the things that are valuable. The language for instance. Is it the base language? It’s difficult to hear it for what it is. Because it’s always a kind of value is imposed on it and sometimes it prevents you from hearing things. Like music you can’t hear it because the models of excellence you have are different you see. And that’s one of the reasons why those ghostly figures there represent a kind of European imagery of cherubs and part of European culture which conditions to a certain extent what you see in terms of your own reflection. And I think those were some of the issues which I thought Mervyn Morris was dealing with in the poem. (Interview with Errol Lloyd) 
 
Draft Book Cover by Errol Lloyd. Archive Ref: GB 2904 NBB/1/13 (uncatalogued)
 
The editing process was crucial to Morris’s work, as described in his interviews and as seen in the archived correspondence detailing several small changes to his poems (unpublished manuscripts file). This is seen most obviously in the two editions of The Pond published by New Beacon (25.2.73 MM to JLR, 541/1). These edits were done largely without La Rose’s input, and Morris even went to the printers in person to check the corrections had been implemented. He wrote to La Rose as publication date neared: “I like the look of the book, so far. One day you must tell me what you like and what you don’t like so much in the book. You’ve never said.” (25.2.73 MM to JLR, LRA/01/0541/1). Morris was pleased with the book, expressing his enthusiasm in characteristically measured tone:
Thank you for sending me two paperback copies of The Pond, received on Wednesday. I am delighted with the look of it. The few people who have seen one of my copies like Errol Lloyd’s cover very much – is it credited? – and so do I, now. I always thought it very striking, and now I think I like it. I hope some people like the poems! (8.12.73 MM to JLR, LRA/01/0541/1)
 
Letter from Mervyn Morris to John La Rose, dated 8 December 1973. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0541/1
 
 

Reception

 
La Rose was keen to publish all of Morris’s poetry, but aware of New Beacon’s limited resources (JLR to MM 14.11.75, NBB/1/13). The Pond received an encouraging critical reaction, aided in part by the 40 review copies sent out. Mervyn Morris was also an active promoter of his work, noting the absence of the book from certain booksellers and writing to La Rose to help smooth the perennially difficult logistics of distribution. As part of this promotion strategy, Morris entered the now-defunct Commonwealth Poetry Prize. La Rose wrote to him explaining how to enter the prize, accepting to enter the book although “I don’t personally go for the commonwealth thing” (JLR to MM, 17.11.73, NBB/1/13). Morris eventually replied that he would like to enter this competition, run by the Commonwealth Institute, for purely pragmatic reasons: “You did mention that you didn’t (don’t) personally go in for the commonwealth thing (I don’t know that I do, but there’s £250 there for whoever gets the nod)” (20.5.74 MM to JLR, LRA/01/0541/1).
 
The archive includes Morris and La Rose’s comments on reviews of The Pond which appeared in the Sunday Gleaner and Race Today. Morris found the review in the former “not very penetrating” and suggested that “the terms of his praise should indicate to possible readers that they needn’t be frightened by the poems – that they might (think they) understand the poems” (11.2.74 MM to JLR, LRA/01/0541/1). La Rose, in line with his dedication to developing new critical frameworks, thought it “pedestrian and superficial. The kind of review that got stuck somewhere in the 1940s” (16.3.74 JLR to MM, LRA/01/0541/1). Similarly, Lindsay Barrett’s review in Race Today raised what La Rose saw as broader weaknesses in the critical tradition for Caribbean writing:
Like you I thought the review by Lindsay Barret muddled and rudderless. Criticism in England is very weak. It’s like in the U.S. The creative work is running ahead of critical perceptions. Even worse is the current ambivalence in the search for a method. It may well be because the old critical methods are inadequate and a new x-ray has not been discovered. When this is clarified or resolved intuitions and insights will be stated with greater freedom. (14.4.74 JLR to MM, LRA/01/0541/1)
 
New Beacon published two further volumes of Morris’s poetry: Shadowboxing (1979) and Examination Centre (1992), as well as a revised edition of The Pond (1997).
 
Cover of the revised edition of The Pond (1997)
 
Morris sent the manuscripts of two further collections: “On Holy Week” and “Asylum” (unpublished manuscripts). “On Holy Week” was eventually published elsewhere, while “Asylum” became Shadowboxing after substantial revision:
The book of poems I had tried on you has undergone metamorphoses, as usual. It’s fairly different from the one you had. My typescript is now called Shadowboxing. I may yet be taking you up on your generous invitation to let you see it again if I liked. In fact I haven’t had any rejection since I let you see it first. A typescript of Asylum was with Heinemann (Caribbean) from early last year, and is with them still. No answer, yea or nay, forthcoming. Three weeks ago I sent Shadowboxing to Faber with Hugh Dunphy, their rep in Jamaica. If they don’t like it, I shall try to keep the typescript moving now. I’m confident it’s a good book, as my readers (Dennis Scott et al) say. I’ll try and let you see it in July/August, whatever the state of its progress round the houses! (25.4.77 MM to JLR, LRA/01/0541/1)
 
La Rose had turned down the manuscript the previous year because of lack of resources, but later decided it could be accommodated and accepted the book for a May 1978 publication (JLR to MM, 23.11.77, LRA/01/0541/1). Morris’s reflection on his choice of quotations for the cover indicates his wry distance from the critical reception of his work:
Preparing the extracts from the critics has been fun, in a macabre kind of way. I hadn’t realized for example, that Ken Ramchand had been quite so devastating about what he considers my limitations […] I was tempted also to include “an accomplished poet” – Lindsay Barrett, Race Today; but since he was being nasty about the implications of the term – he actually wrote “what is commonly known as an accomplished poet” – I thought perhaps I’d better not. (18.3.78 MM to JLR 541/3)
 
 

Further reading

 
(includes recordings of Morris reading his work) [consulted on November 20 2013]
James, Louis. “Mervyn Morris in Conversation”, Wasafiri, 26.3 (2011) 16-19.
Morris, Mervyn. “Interview”, in Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews With Anglophone
Caribbean Poets ed. Kwame Senu Neville Dawes (2000) 47-60.