His name may not cut a dash with the dancehall crowd, but on the local arts scene, poet/author Mervyn Morris enjoys as much adulation as deejays Beenie Man or Bounty Killer. Without the bling and controversy, of course.
Morris, 72, was recently awarded the Order of Merit for ‘distinguished contribution to the field of West Indian literature’ by the Jamaican government.
It is the latest accolade for a man educator Ralph Thompson once said, “is no ivory tower intellectual”.
Morris, a professor emeritus at the University of the West Indies’ Mona campus, belongs to a long list of Caribbean literary heavyweights including C.L.R. James and V.S. Naipaul of Trinidad and Tobago, and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott of St Lucia.
Like many of his contemporaries, Mervyn Morris was partly inspired by classic British writers like Shakespeare and Keats.
But he also admired champions of Caribbean thought, such as commentators John Hearne and Roger Mais, and folklorist Louise Bennett.
His work has a diverse list of admirers which include cutting-edge dub poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka and poet/author Colin Channer, organiser of the annual Calabash International Literary Festival.
Morris says it is good to know that his work and that of his contemporaries, remain relevant.
“We have students going through the educational system knowing who these writers are. This was not so a while back,” he told The Gleaner. He is heartened that events such as Calabash and Bookaphilia attract enthusiastic audiences. “There are a lot of young people there and that’s encouraging,” Morris said.
Born in the Maxfield Avenue community of Kingston, Morris was the last of four children born to Eustace, an accountant and Muriel, a primary school teacher.
He says he was not a voracious reader in his youth, although he was taken with the popular Hardy Boys teen mysteries.
His two older brothers attended Kingston College, but Morris went to Munro College in St Elizabeth and later the University College of the West Indies (now known as the University of the West Indies).
His batchmates at the latter included future prime minister of Jamaica P.J. Patterson and Burchell Whiteman who would serve as education minister in Patterson’s cabinet.
While at university, Mervyn Morris said he discovered Hearne and Mais, two socially-aware writers who penned piercing novels and also wrote for The Gleaner.
His first poems were published in the Public Opinion newspaper, but Morris said it was not until he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University that he began writing seriously.
“Being away from home gives you a whole new area of reflection,” he said. Morris points to ‘The Day My Father Died’ as his first “serious” poem.
He counts ‘Valley Prince’, an ode to trombonist Don Drummond, among his favourites “partly because the response to it has always been positive”.
He has had six books of poetry published including The Pond and Is English We Speaking: And Other Essays.
He has also edited the work of Louise Bennett and grassroots firebrand, Michael Smith.
During his address at the 2006 launch of Morris’ book, I Been There, Sort Of:
New And Selected Poems Thompson praised Morris for his selflessness.
“In addition to his poetry, which has ranked him among the top West Indian poets, he was one of the first academics to espouse the importance of nation language in helping to define in verse important aspects of Jamaican culture,” Thompson said.
Morris has been associated with the University of the West Indies as an administrator and lecturer in the department of English for almost 50 years.
He has been married to Helen for 48 years. They are the parents of three children.
Mervyn Morris is not only respected in arts and literary circles.
He has represented Jamaica in tennis as part of a successful Brandon Trophy team.