Prestigious Poet Laureate Appointment for Professor Mervyn Morris

Photo: Michael Shaw Tourism and Entertainment Minister, Hon. Dr. Wykeham McNeill (left), speaks with Professor Emeritus, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mervyn Morris, during a recent ceremony at the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ), downtown Kingston, where Professor Morris was announced as Jamaica’s first official Poet Laureate.

Story Highlights

  • On May 21, Jamaica will join several other countries around the world, which have Poet Laureates appointed by their governments.
  • UWI Professor Emeritus, Mervyn Morris, who has been selected for the prestigious position, will receive the official Badge of Office, thereby formalising his appointment.
  • The appointment of a Poet Laureate and re-introduction of the Poet Laureate Programme are consistent with the Government’s priority job creation and economic growth strategy.

On May 21, Jamaica will join several other countries around the world, which have Poet Laureates appointed by their governments.

On that day, distinguished academic, University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor Emeritus, Mervyn Morris, who has been selected for the prestigious position, will receive the official Badge of Office, thereby formalising his appointment.

Governor-General, His Excellency the Most Hon. Sir Patrick Allen, will bestow the award on Professor Morris, at an investiture ceremony scheduled for King’s House.

Professor Morris was chosen from10 shortlisted nominees by a special nine-member Poet Laureate Selection Committee, headed by National Library of Jamaica (NLJ) Chairman, Dr. Carlton Davis.

A Poet Laureate is an honorary national designation or award accorded by a country’s government or a nationally recognised literary institution, to a person deemed to have attained or recorded significant accomplishment in poetry.

In addition to the accompanying recognition, which the appointee receives, the Poet Laureate is also expected to compose poems for special or national events and occasions, as well as promote an overall appreciation of poetry within his or her country.

The criteria for Jamaica’s nominee stipulated that the person must be Jamaican, either by birth, lineage up the level of grandparents, or naturalised; have at least three publications of poetry, excluding anthologies; and be available for at least four official appearances each calendar. The person is, however, not required to be resident in the island.

Professor Morris’ appointment will make him the third Jamaican to hold the position. Preceding him were Thomas Henry MacDermot, better known as Tom Redcam, the first recipient, who was awarded posthumously in 1933; and John Ebenezer Clare McFarlane, who received the award in 1953.

However, while the first two recipients were awarded by local organisation, the Poetry League of Jamaica, Professor Morris will have the distinction of being the first Poet Laureate appointed by the Government of Jamaica. This will see him serving for an initial three years, and being eligible for re-appointment.

This is in keeping with the provisions of the Poet Laureate Programme, which has been re-introduced after a 61-year absence. The re-introduction was organised by the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment, through the Entertainment Advisory Board (EAB); the Ministry of Youth and Culture; and the NLJ.

The appointment of a Poet Laureate and re-introduction of the Poet Laureate Programme are consistent with the Government’s priority job creation and economic growth strategy, focusing on integrating culture and entertainment into the economy.

By virtue of Professor Morris’ appointment, Jamaica will join countries such as England, where the custom was adapted and popularized, as well as Canada, Ethiopia, India, the Dominican Republic, New Zealand, Somalia, Nigeria, and Iran.

This is expected to significantly boost the country’s global profile in the literary arts, specifically poetry, and further enrich the nation’s collection of works archived in the NLJ’s repository.

Based in the extent of his work, which has seen at least six books of poems being published by Professor Morris, the renowned poet is expected to contribute significantly to further enriching Jamaica’s impressive collection of poems, penned by several of the country’s notable poets.

They include: Tom Redcam, John Ebenezer, Clare McFarlane, and the late Louise Bennett Coverley, lovingly remembered as Miss Lou.

Under the Poet Laureate Programme, Professor Morris’ engagements will be financed by the Ministry of Tourism, through the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF), at a cost of $3.4 million.

His activities are expected to mainly include: writing poetry for national events, observances, or accomplishments; creating a publication related to poetry; presenting poetry seminars, readings, and promotions in Kingston and Montego Bay, at least one rural location, and overseas, where required; and participation in at least four official engagements.

These are expected to: strengthen the NLJ’s resources in Jamaican poetry; increase public appreciation for poetry, and develop mass appeal for the art form, and medium for developing and disseminating cultural heritage; create avenues for public involvement in poetry; stimulate poetry writing; and enhance youth appreciation for poetry.

Professor Morris’ biography speaks volumes of his accomplishments in the area of creative writing and West Indian Literature.

His books of poems include: ‘The Pond’, ‘Shadowboxing’, ‘Examination Centre’, ‘Vestiges’, ‘On Holy Ground’, and ‘I have been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems’. His works earned him the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave Medal in 1976.

Other publications, which Professor Morris has authored include: ‘Is English We Speaking’, ‘Making West Indian Literature’, and ‘Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture’.

Books, which he has edited include: ‘Selected Poems’ by Louise Bennett; ‘It a Come by Michael Smith; and ‘After-Image’ by Dennis Scott. He also co-edited ‘Jamaica Woman’, an anthology of poems by Jamaican women, who had not previously had individually published collections; and ‘Voiceprint’, an anthology of Caribbean poetry.

A native of Kingston, Professor Morris studied at Munro College, the University College of the West Indies, and was a Rhodes Scholar at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University, England.

He served on the staff of the University of the West Indies (UWI) from 1966 to 2002, retiring as Professor of Creative Writing and West Indian Literature.

Professor Morris, who has given poetry readings in many countries, and conducted poetry workshops in the Caribbean, United States, and United Kingdom, was awarded the Order of Merit (O.M.) by the Government of Jamaica in 2009.

In 2011, the Poetry Archive in London, England, produced a compact disc in his honour, entitled: ‘Mervyn Morris Reading from his Poems’.

Minister of Tourism and Entertainment, Hon. Dr. Wykeham McNeill, who announced Professor Morris’ selection as Poet Laureate, during a recent ceremony at the National Library of Jamaica, said the Poet Laureate Programme will help to “positively position” Jamaica as a key cultural tourism destination. This, he stated, “by helping to revitalize the arts and preserve our rich literary history.”

He pointed out that the programme “dovetails perfectly” with the Ministry’s efforts to use a range of programmes, such as ‘Arts in the Park’, ‘90 Days of Summer’, and ‘Reggae Month’, to increase support for and give exposure  to Jamaica’s art forms, while using the country’s cultural strength as a tourism attractor.

“It is a truism, that a country that does not embrace its culture will never be economically prosperous. Our Ministry is mindful of this, and we are continuously working to strengthen the linkages between tourism, entertainment, and culture.  Cultural experiences, including craft, food, literary and music festivals, help to make Jamaica an even more attractive place to live, work, raise families, do business, and visit,’ the Minister said.
He added that recognition and enhancement of Jamaica’s cultural offerings form part of the Ministry’s ongoing initiative to diversify the tourism product. This he said, will give Jamaica a competitive edge in the face of global competition.

Dr. McNeill said Jamaica, through its exploits in music, dance, and athletics is deemed by many around the world to be “poetry in motion”. He noted that Jamaica has produced many great poets “who have explored the essence of our culture and given voice to the aspirations of our people.”

Some of these, he noted, include: Claude McKay, Jean Binta Breeze, Edward Baugh, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lorna Goodison, and Miss Lou.

In commending Professor Morris, Dr. McNeill expressed the hope that he will continue his “outstanding contribution to local and Caribbean literature…and, hopefully, inspire a new generation of writers.”

In his reply, Professor Morris said he anticipates fulfilling the expectations of the position.

“I am especially keen to help to put many poets in closer contact with the potential Jamaica audience…that is, certainly, my priority. I look forward to learning, just how any work that I do and can arrange to have done, can assist in promoting tourism and entertainment,” he stated.
Principal Director of Culture, Ministry of Youth and Culture, who represented Portfolio Minister, Hon. Lisa Hanna, Dahlia Harris, commended Professor Morris’ appointment and also welcomed the re-introduction of the Poet Laureate Programme.

“The Poet Laureate Programme is a significant display of how the Government, not only intends to preserve and archive national memory, but will also be instrumental in how we develop and encourage the talents of poets islandwide…how we inspire Jamaicans to express themselves,” she said

Vice Chairperson of the NLJ, Kellie Magnus, described the Poet Laureate Programme as a “strong fit” with the entity’s role, “which is to collect, catalogue, preserve, and promote knowledge.”

She advised that documents emanating from the Poet Laureate’s activities will be added to the institution’s collection of poems, which will be useful for study and research for academics “for years to come.”

Chief Executive Officer of the NLJ and National Librarian, Winsome Hudson, argued that the appointment of a Poet Laureate “allows Jamaica to rub shoulders with the countries…that have a long tradition of active Poet Laureateship.

“I am convinced that Jamaica is going to be a better place…because of this Poet Laureate Programme (as) Jamaicans will have more opportunities to share the joys which poetry brings,’ she stated.

Chairperson of the EAB’s Literary Arts Sub-committee, Justine Henzell, said Professor Morris’ appointment  will see him “standing on the same stage (as his peers), with the same recognition, where he deserves to be.”

JIS Social