Nationality: American. Born: Hendersonville, North Carolina, 3 October 1944. Education: Emory College, Oxford, 1961–62; North Carolina State University, Raleigh, 1962–63; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1963–66, B.A. 1965; University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 1967–68, M.F.A. 1968. Family: Married Nancy K. Bullock in 1965; one son and two daughters. Career: Teaching assistant, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 1967–68; instructor, Salem College, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1968–69; lecturer, 1971–73, assistant professor, 1973–78, associate professor, 1978–84, professor, 1982–92, and since 1992 Kappa Alpha Professor of English, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. McGee Visiting Writer, Davidson College, 1998. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1968, 1974, 1981, 1987; Southern Poetry Review prize, 1975; Eunice Tietjens award, 1979; Jacaranda Review fiction prize, 1988; Guggenheim fellowship, 1988–89; Amon Liner prize, 1989; James G. Hanes Poetry prize, 1991; North Carolina award in literature, 1991. Address: Department of English, Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca. New York 14853, U.S.A.
Zirconia Poems. Northwood Narrows, New Hampshire, Lillabulero Press, 1969.
The Voice in the Crosshairs. Ithaca, New York, Angelfish Press, 1971.
Red Owl. New York, Norton, 1972.
Land Diving. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1976.
Trunk & Thicket. Fort Collins, Colorado, L'Epervier Press, 1978.
Groundwork. Frankfort, Kentucky, Gnomon Press, 1979.
Bronze Age. Emory, Virginia, Iron Mountain Press, 1981.
At the Edge of the Orchard Country. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1987.
Sigodlin. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1990.
Wild Peavines: New Poems. Frankfort, Kentucky, Gnomon Press, 1996.
Topsoil Road: Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
The Blue Valleys: A Collection of Stories. Atlanta, Georgia, Peachtree, 1989.
The Mountains Won't Remember Us and Other Stories. Atlanta, Georgia, Peachtree, 1992.
The Hinterlands: A Mountain Tale in Three Parts. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin, 1994.
The Truest Pleasure. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin, 1995.
Gap Creek. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin, 1999.
The Balm of Gilead Tree and Other Stories. Frankfort, Kentucky, Gnomon Press, 1999.
Good Measure: Essays, Interviews and Notes on Poetry. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1993.*
Bibliography: "Robert Morgan: A Bibliographical Chronicle, 1963–1981" by Stuart Wright, in Bulletin of Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut), 39(3).
Manuscript Collections: Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Critical Studies: "Land Diving" by William Matthews, in Meridian (New York), 1980; "Robert Morgan's Pellagian Georgics: Twelve Essays" by William Harmon, in Parnassus (New York), fall/winter 1981; "A Conversation with Robert Morgan" by Suzanne Booker, in Carolina Quarterly (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), spring 1985; "Recovering Pieces of the Morgenland" by Robert Schultz, in Virginia Quarterly Review (Charlottesville), winter 1988; "At the Edge of the Orchard Country" by Ted Kooser, in Prairie Schooner (Lincoln, Nebraska), summer 1989; chapter in Looking for Native Ground: Contemporary Appalachian Poetry by Rita Sims Quillen, Boone, North Carolina, Appalachian Consortium Press, 1989; "Pieces of the Morgenland: The Recent Achievements in Robert Morgan's Poetry" by P.H. Liotta, in Southern Literary Journal (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), spring 1990; Robert Morgan issue of The Iron Mountain Review, summer 1990; "Coming Out from under Calvinism: Religious Motifs in Robert Morgan's Poetry," in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), summer 1992, and "He Hoes Forever: Robert Morgan and the Pleasure of Work," Pembroke (Pembroke, North Carolina), March 1999, both by John Lang; Robert Morgan and the American Romantic Tradition (dissertation) by Suzanne R. Booker-Canfield, Greensboro, University of North Carolina, 1998.
Robert Morgan comments:
Since I was in college I have been writing both poetry and fiction, but all my first seven books were volumes of poetry. Like many of the poets of the 1960s, I began writing in open forms and only started experimenting with rhyme and traditional form in the mid 1970s. Many of my poems have been concerned with the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where I grew up, but I have also written about American history, upstate New York, where I have lived since 1971, the sciences, and about family stories and characters. I especially like to write about machines and gadgets.
No one has yet discovered a culture without poetry. Language itself was probably a discovery of the poetic imagination and only later put to use for practical ends, as pure mathematics can be used for physical description and problem solving. And while it is true poetry is a medium of the gut as well as the mind, it is also true poetry is rarely just a secular art. The subject of most poems is rediscovery of spiritual desire. Poems work by stirring memory, by unexpected connections, accuracy of naming, delight in wordplay. And the music of poetry comes as much from the quickness of what is said as from the pattern of syllables.
When I was about fifteen, I wanted to write some epic work, poem, or musical composition, as grand as the Cicero Mountain across the river from our house. But later, as I actually began writing verse, I became more interested in compression, indirection, in the use of simple language to embody complex experience. My ideal was to write poetry accessible to everyone but tough enough, and rich enough, to reveal something on each successive reading. That is an ideal I am still working toward.* * *
In a period when disconnection, disaffection, and disaffiliation seem the coin of the poetry realm, it is a pleasure to read a poet as connected as Robert Morgan. His poetry is connected to a particular place, the Blue Ridge Mountains of his native North Carolina, and it explores his ties to the people of that region, to generations of family, to the earth and natural process, to animals, plants, and things, to the historic, prehistoric, and geological past. His poems, as well as his stories, reflect the strengths of these deep connections, this rootedness. Together with his fine sense of craft, his allegiance to his native area gives his writing a quiet power and universality.
The titles of Morgan's collections, along with several luminous lines and images, signal his allegiances. At the Edge of the Orchard Country reveals a regional tie but implies a universe beyond; Groundwork suggests the native soil that he works, even mines; the title poem of Land Diving dramatizes an important Morgan principle: "The meaning is the closeness"; the concrete Trunk & Thicket includes a telling prose memoir titled "Homecoming"; and Red Owl contains the short poem "New-Plowed Ground" that features an apt metaphor for Morgan's poetics: "You can't navigate without / getting dirt in your shoes."
In the essay "The Cubist of Memory" Morgan claims that as a southern poet he decided to reject Faulknerian rhetoric and "go off in an unknown direction … toward plainness, compactness, simplicity…. To help free myself from myself—from ego, ambition, self-consciousness—to get on with the work, I tried to be true to objects, and to the verbal objects that measured and enacted world and thought." In many of his poems, especially those collected in At the Edge of the Orchard Country and Sigodlin, he does indeed achieve a southern lushness of detail, tempered by what one might ordinarily consider a Midwestern reserve and plainness of language. In these poems there is a balance between the concrete and the abstract, the romantic and the classical, the scientific and the literary, the head and the heart. His poem about a treaty with the Cherokees, "Ninety-Six Line," ends with an image of Morgan poised standing in different worlds: "I grew up," he says, "with one foot in the English / country, one in the high dark / hunting ranges, and felt a chill / when stepping across to either / imaginary dominion."
It is hard to think of a contemporary American poet with a deeper sense of family ties, customs, and lore than Morgan. The ordinary, everyday rural objects he looks upon constantly reveal traces and residues of former lives. He loves to tell the stories, some eccentric, that open up the lives of parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents. He is haunted by the uncle, after whom he was named, who died in England in World War II. One of his best poems, "White Autumn," a classic "portrait" poem, celebrates the life and world of his matriarchal great-grandmother. Morgan's loving detail brings to life not only the individual woman but also several generations of family, the history of a region, and layers of the collective past. We see the matriarch rocking in her chair on her mountain porch: "The cats passed through her lap and legs / and through the rungs of her seat," as "she rode that upright cradle to sleep / and through many long visits with tiers of family, / kissing the babies like different kinds of fruit." We can see the independent, strong-hearted leader of the clan "bath[ing] / in a warm river of books and black coffee." Like any fine poet, Morgan makes us enter into many lives by taking us within one individual life deeply lived: "On that creaking throne she ruled a tiny kingdom / through war, death of kin." Kinship is Morgan's major theme and deepest metaphor.