Sensible and sensitive
Jess Morton’s transition from physics to poetry
by Bondo Wyszpolski
For half a century, JB Kennedy sold secondhand books, moving from one South Bay beach town to another. My initial encounter with him was in the late 1970s when his bookstore was on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach. He later owned a shop on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo, then went to San Pedro for a few years before ending up in Torrance. It was in the San Pedro store that I first met Jess Morton.
In addition to selling books, Kennedy (who passed away in 2020) was a poet and critic, and a frequent contributor to Random Lengths in San Pedro and Easy Reader in Hermosa. On more than one occasion he suggested that I write a story about Jess Morton. Well, this is that story; a little late for JB but just in time for you.
Although Morton didn’t start out to be a poet, he’s self-published something like 17 books of poetry. These vary from chapbooks to colorful photo-poem volumes. As he writes on the dedication page of “Findings” (2019), “these poems would not have existed but for the encouragement of my poet sister Grace and long discussions of art, music, literature and criticism with JB Kennedy, Bookseller.”
How it all began
Morton’s newest release, “Traces,” is a large-format paperback that fits alongside “Findings” and the earlier “Shorelines” (2017). The latter collection evolved from his chapbook entitled “Cabrillo Beach,” and not surprisingly has been sold at the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro. Together, the three books contain about 165 poems.
“Every poem is an act of love,” he says. “I’ve always thought that, and it seems true for me anyway. In some ways that always is a factor. A strong emotional background produces much better poetry.”
What should the reader expect? Well, Morton’s verse is neither bawdy nor boisterous. It doesn’t do acrobatics and it doesn’t go out of its way to be witty, or clever. Nor does it seem to court beer hall or coffeehouse clientele. What lingers is the scientist (see below) and the keen observer, whether of cicadas, seagulls, or mighty Mount Shasta. These are, largely, the poems of a naturalist, one who takes field notes and records, who mulls over what he thinks and feels. Every poem may be an act of love, as he says, but in these love poems everyone’s cordial and the girls keep their legs crossed.
Morton was born in 1937 and raised in Princeton, New Jersey. He went to Boston, studied physics and math at MIT, and then in 1959 came to California where he worked at Aerojet in Azusa for several years. During the 1960s he lived in Altadena, Sierra Madre, and Echo Park. In 1968 he moved to San Pedro and bought a house on 4th Street, where his ex-wife and daughter now live. Morton himself resides at the far tip of Pacific Ave. If you stood outside his building and threw a stone you might hit the shoreline below. He’s that close to the water.
In the 1990s, Morton wrote about 100 natural history essays for San Pedro Weekly under the heading “This Unknown Peninsula.” That came about in large part because of his involvement with the National Audubon Society. His connection with them goes back 45 years. Not only was he on their board of directors for several years, he also co-founded the Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society and the Endangered Habitats League. Additionally, Morton has served on the board of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy and Terra Peninsular, the latter down south in Baja California.
Some of the essays he wrote for San Pedro Weekly ended up in the Audubon newsletter, which Morton edits. In fact, those initial essays lured him into writing poetry. The first poems, he says, were more along the lines of technical exercises, but then JB Kennedy talked to him about various kinds of poetic structure and introduced him to poets like Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur. But what’s interesting here is that, as a boy and a young man, Morton had nearly zero interest in writing and literature.All hail author E.E. Smith
As a teenager, Morton says, he immersed himself in science-fiction “because it had nothing to do with English class. I was convinced that literature was non-existent, except for a couple of things,” and he mentions “Macbeth,” “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and “The Raven.” “That was it; the rest I couldn’t stand. But science-fiction was so interesting, and there was one particular author, E.E. Smith (whom Morton was drawn to), who wrote the ‘Lensman’ series of novels — and he loved language.
“I grew up in a family that spoke well,” Morton continues. “I was an incompetent writer as a kid, and it wasn’t until I got to work that I was forced to learn to write. Which I did. But because I grew up in a family that had good vocabulary, I [focused] on E.E. Smith, who loved to use purple prose.
“I would actually sit with a dictionary, reading, because I wanted to know what those words meant. So I ended up with a pretty good vocabulary.”
Years later, he says, when he went with his wife and daughter to see the first “Star Wars” movie he had a revelation. “Five minutes in, I said, there will be nine episodes of this, and it’s structured this way, because they’re exactly what E.E. Smith has been doing.” It was the “Lensman” series, he says, modified and recast.
However, Morton then adds, “I ceased reading science-fiction in the ‘50s.”
When he discovered or re-discovered literature it was after he’d come West. A production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” set the ball rolling, and then he told himself, “I will go to the library and [check out] somebody that’s supposed to be really good, and I’ll take one of their books and I will read this book.” Well, Morton had heard that John Steinbeck was supposed to be good, and so he gave “East of Eden” a whirl. Ugh, no. “I will give it one more shot,” he reflected, “but this guy Steinbeck better come across. I got out ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ I’ve been reading ever since.” These days, though, it’s mostly history.
His late-blooming interest in poetry was, as mentioned, nurtured in part by JB Kennedy’s having opened a bookstore in the neighborhood. Those who remember him will recall that Kennedy was also a classical music aficionado who every January 27 celebrated Mozart’s birthday with free cookies and a bowl of punch.
“So I started going in,” Morton says, “and we talked classical music and he of course talked poetry which I had no particular interest in. My sister’s a poet and I’ve always considered her the poet of the family. I’m a scientist, that’s my background. When I went through high school the idea of ever writing a poem would just have been…” He laughs. “How could you possibly do something like that?”
But, as noted, one path led to another and at the end of it Morton was writing poems.
Soundtracks of his life
Despite his “I’m a scientist, that’s my background,” Morton’s early years weren’t devoid of art, and music has been an interest of his since childhood. More than an interest now, a passion in fact, but after an attempt at mastering the violin, “I did end up singing in a church choir and was quite good at it. By the time I was coming into my teens my interest in popular music had simply faded away and I was just listening to classical music. By the time I got to college I was listening to Bach, and still am every morning. I have a couple of thousand records and CDs, some thousands of hours of stuff and now I can barely listen to all of them. But some pieces I listen to all the time.”
It won’t be out of place to mention that, over the years, I’ve encountered Morton at Long Beach Opera, a company that, while always flying by the seat of its pants, has often staged little-known or neglected masterworks.
“I attend a lot of new music events; some of it’s quite good and some of it’s pretty dreadful.” And one of the best? That was in 1959 when John Cage spoke at Pomona College: “Of the thousand lectures I have attended,” Morton writes in “Traces,” “the one titled ‘Where Are We Going? and What Are We Doing?’ stands out among them.” He remains a Cage enthusiast to this day.
In the 1990s Morton and his then-wife created a commissioning organization for new music called Coretet. The tagline was Making Tomorrow’s Music. And they’re still running it. The way it works, a composer is paired with a particular trio or quartet, both relatively professional and established or at least critically recognized; and to further ensure the collaboration the composer is given money in the range of $5,000 to create a work for the group. And, of course, hopefully it’s not a one-time thing. As Morton says, “With Coretet we’d like to see the premiere, but we also want to see the 100th performance.”
One such pairing was between the Calidore String Quartet and Caroline Shaw. Shaw later became the youngest person ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and is even cited by Lydia Tár in the movie “Tár.”Prose and poetry: the great divide
“I try to listen to what a poem wants to be,” Morton says. “You can only fight with a poem so much. The poem as it wants to be is back there somewhere” — and he taps his head for emphasis.
“When I start to write a poem I will have ideas about what it is, and usually what I do is just start typing it out.” He won’t edit or revise at this point, just allowing the words to flow and pool and take shape.
As for his subjects, Morton says they haven’t changed over the years. “In a way it seems I’m writing the same poem every time.” Broadly speaking, Morton’s poems explore natural history, and there are poems that skirt the edges of human sensibility, along the lines of, he says, What are our limits? One poem that exemplifies this is “Sense of Being,” “because in a way it sums up my view of what we are.”
It’s a ruminating self-dialogue that ends like this: “…if my fingers and mind can only be attuned/ to some limited fragment of this resonant universe,/ it is in this way of having and not having/ that all are kin, sensing something of the whole,/ defined into each alone, living out this one audience.”
Then there are poems like “Distance,” in which a point in life has been reached where it’s time to divest oneself of a large collection of Scientific Americans, 502 magazines that Morton had been saving for over 40 years. One day it dawned on him that he probably won’t ever return to them. In a metaphorical sense they don’t belong to him anymore and he doesn’t belong to them. It’s time to let go.
Morton says he tries not to put too much into a poem, just enough for the reader to grasp what it’s about but not so much that he or she is being led by the nose. Actually, Morton has solved this in an interesting way by providing nearly every poem with a backstory: “Poems are supposed to stand on their own, but poems are never isolated. They’re always a product of the poet’s contemporary circumstances or what they were doing at the time, so they’re affected by these things. And to read about that I think enhances the value that is there.”
Well, that’s the case here. The expository note for “With Sunrise Then” begins like this: “The creative spirit does not go away with age, but the mental capacity for it may. For a writer, the worst part of aging is to know deep down that there is no more ink in the pen.” That sets up the poem, or vice-versa.
Morton elaborates on the differences between poetry and prose. “In prose,” he says, “particularly technical prose, you have to tell the reader everything. You have to be very specific so that they do not make a mistake about what you’re saying.
“In a novel, the reader is allowed to make a mistake. Mysteries, you probably want them to make a mistake, but still in a novel you describe the situation very thoroughly, and you talk about how the characters are to be understood.
“With a poem, every word you put down limits the reader’s imagination in some way. The trick of a poem is to have enough words so it’ll make some sense and the reader gets an idea of what you want the reader to take from it — but not so much that it places limits on how the reader understands it in terms of their own life.”
As to where he’s going from here, well, there’s a folder called “Scraps,” a metaphorical atelier of unfinished poems, torsos, as Morton calls them, that need more carving, polishing, whatever, and which may one day emerge as a companion to “Shorelines,” “Findings,” and “Traces.”
“Surrealizations” is another project in the wings, because for about 20 years Morton was creating collages by combining disparate images, generally clipped from magazines and journals, in a manner that recalls the Surrealist mindset of the last century.
He also has hundreds of photo-poems, as in his book “The Gate.” In 2007, Morton says, “I was at Cabrillo Beach on January 1 and I took a photo of this pelican just as it was getting ready to dive.” He wrote a haiku to accompany the image, and then “I decided that I would do a new photograph and poem every day for the entire year.” He allowed for travel days and so forth, but the end result was still around 340 poems — short poems, of course, no “Idylls of the King” in that series.
Something I found wonderfully evocative were the black and white photographs that Morton had taken of the outdoor stairs and stairwells in the hills of Echo Park during the 1960s. Each one is a visual poem in itself, but with a splash of text or verse they might glimmer with a new, far-off light.
Morton the author is far from finished. “I think about other books,” he says. “I have all these essays that I did on natural history, and I’ve got photographs that can go with most of them. That,” he adds, almost casually, “could be another photobook.”
His passion and drive is impressive. We don’t often expect that of our elder writers. But as Morton said earlier, the creative spirit doesn’t go away with age.
Jess Morton can be contacted by email, email@example.com. One can find a couple of his books at lulu.com, and for more information about Coretet, which commissions new music, visit coretet.org. PEN