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Hilda Morley: Fulfilling Possibilities Undreamed of

April 19, 1998|Julia Alvarez | Julia Alvarez is the author of three books of poems including "Homecoming: New and Collected Poems," as well as three novels, including her latest "Yo."

MIDDLEBURY, VT. — I mourn for the poet Hilda Morley, who died March 31, though it is a small mourning, reminiscent of Theodore Roethke's elegy for his student, Jane. I have no rights in the matter. Morley was no relation, no mentor, and only glancingly my teacher. I met her just three times. But she performed a small and generous service to me at a time when I needed such acknowledgment. I remain grateful.

We read together at St. Mark's Place. It was my first big reading after graduating from the creative writing program in Syracuse. I was reading with a poet named Morley whom I had never heard of. My parents came. My father sat in the front row and applauded everything I said.

When Hilda came on and started reading, my father stopped applauding. He came to the edge of his chair and listened. When she was done, he told me he had discovered poetry in English. He bought her book. It was the first book of poetry he ever bought himself in this country.

After the reading, I was spending a few days in New York. Hilda invited me twice to her apartment in Greenwich Village for tea or coffee--I can't remember which.

The refreshment was the pretext. She wanted to go over my poems. She loved their music, she said, but I didn't know what I was doing with the line. She sat me down, and we went over my work, line by line. I read them, she read them, notating them differently with her voice and breath.

You are cutting them up like little sandwiches she said. Try this. And she read the lines so they began to move on the page.

I felt an immense flood of self doubt. I really didn't know what I was doing in this language, I thought. I took the manuscript back with her penciled slashes here and there. She knew I was worried. Just a thought, she said, and then she told me the story of her life as a poet--of the recent death of her husband, the composer Stefan Wolpe, of the things she was still learning about poetry. It never ends, she told me, never ends.

After a second visit to her apartment, we lost touch. From time to time, I would take the poems she had marked with her pencil. I would type them up her way and hear the lines move and shift and dance in a different way. I would hear my poems say things I didn't know they were saying.

I mourn the lovely Hilda Morley who taught me these things. Hilda Morley, who took me seriously as a writer. Hilda Morley, who helped my father hear poetry in English.

And as always with a poet, I mourn that there will be no more poems by her hand. She wrote one of my favorites. Simple and fleeting and musical.

It's a poem I've typed up or written out by hand countless times for friends, for my journals, once for a funeral, once for my father. I know it by heart. It's called the "The Wild Cherry Tree," and it could be a poem about the poet I met, so briefly, 25 years ago.

The Wild Cherry Tree

Why does the wild cherry tree


on the Hudson

make everything

more so

more itself?

So the green

of the elm is greener than

when it stands alone,

the sky


So you

are one of those

who make others

more themselves

more what they


Of those who draw them to

the extreme verge,

the edge

that crackles:

that is

your beauty;

that is what

you do

--Hilda Morley

"The Wild Cherry Tree" from "To Hold in My Hand," published by Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale, N.Y.

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