David Morley, an ecologist and naturalist by background, is one of the most linguistically invigorating poets currently writing in Britain: a poet for whom science, language, and the natural world all meet at a point we might call ‘meaning’. Part Romani, he makes extensive use in his work of his double heritage of Romani and English – two conduits of the secret knowledge, or lore, that makes a culture. His poetry collections and digital projects include translations of Mandelstam, explorations of scientific method on language, projects based on natural history and the environment, and poems written half in Romani.
David Morley was born in Blackpool, read Zoology at Bristol University, researched acid rain until the research institute was closed down, and then travelled in Europe, reporting the revolutions of 1989. Since 1996 he has run the writing programme at Warwick University, developing and teaching new practices in scientific as well as creative writing.
It is easy to trace all these interests and forces in Morley’s work. His 2002 collection Scientific Papers says:
To this end, poems in this book include blacked-out sections and mathematical symbols, two devices by which – along with more complex concrete poems – Morley interrogates the poetic line and the limits of language.
The quotation above amounts to something like a manifesto of Morley’s poetic approach, especially if you add into it the abiding importance of Romani language and lore, and its intersection with English poetic tradition.
‘Clearing Your Name’, from Scientific Papers, begins with lines that pull in several of these strands:
Spindrift across Stalmine, a place you won’t know.
Reedbeds, gyp sites: flat Lancashire’s Orinoco.
I watch a mistle-thrush on a blown telegraph wire,
leave my car by the dead elm above the river.
The camp is two caravans. The police have just left.
Two blu-tacked Court Orders this wind can’t shift . . .
Morley’s use of Romani dialect in The Invisible Kings becomes, as Tim Liardet wrote in The Guardian, a sort of new universe, “sufficient unto itself” and “bound together by language”.
Don Paterson has written about how sound and sense are inseparable in a poem – how if you sort one out, you sort the other out. And the long, swooping lines in these poems are, if (like the vast majority of English readers) you don’t know Romani, made of pure sound. Indeed, a preface to his long sequence, ‘Kings’, says: “In this poem, the Romani language offers an opening, not a fence, between fields of language. Romani contains so many words from other languages; language is absorbed as it is travelled through.” This is, of course, also very true of English itself, a great magpie language.
The forthcoming collection The Gypsy and the Poet – “inspired by a real-life encounter between the poet John Clare and a gypsy named Wisdom Smith” – explores this double heritage, sometimes with puns: “‘What I want’ – Clare pounds the deal table – ‘is more scale.’/ Mishearing, the landlord stumps across with a brimming jug.” (‘A Steeple-Climber’)
The section ‘I: 1933’ from ‘Kings’ begins:
made up of the tamar, true twisters of sàstra, sras or srastrakàni,
who jam the jagged sras in the jaws, the chamàhoolya,
of their kerpèdy, and ply it, plume it polokès then plakomè
that way and this, rotating it like wire, until it’s rinimè,
arced into white rings, into angroostì, necklaces, into the bright
This is a form of exactitude and attention. And it affords a pleasure – the sheer pleasure of words we don’t understand, rich with meaning that is for us still all possibility – that most people probably remember best from childhood.
Other projects take different approaches. Morley is also known for his ecological poetry installations within natural landscapes and the creation of ‘slow poetry’ sculptures and I-Cast poetry films. Eighty poems, including ankle-high haikus, and longer poems on fabric and wooden easels, form a ‘Slow Poetry’ project run by Chrysalis Arts, which creates public art aimed at expressing and reinforcing local identities and sense of place. The poems are in place along a nature trail, intended to be taken in slowly, in context, and to remain there until they fade naturally.
David Morley has won many writing awards and prizes, including the Templar Poetry Prize, the Poetry Business Competition, an Arts Council of England Writer’s Award, an Eric Gregory Award, the Raymond Williams Prize and a Hawthornden Fellowship.
He writes essays, criticism and reviews for the Guardian and Poetry Review. A leading international advocate of creative writing both inside and outside of the academy, David wrote The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing (2007), which has been translated into many languages, and recently co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing (2012).
He was one of the judges of the 2012 TS Eliot Prize and is judging the 2013 Foyle Young Poets of the Year run by The Poetry Society.
He currently teaches at the University of Warwick where he is Professor of Writing and Director of the Warwick Writing Programme.
Enchantment (Carcanet, 2011) was a Sunday Telegraph Book of the Year, chosen by Jonathan Bate. The Invisible Kings (Carcanet, 2007) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and TLS Book of the Year, chosen by Les Murray. His forthcoming collections are The Gypsy and the Poet (Carcanet, 2013) which is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and Biographies of Birds and Flowers: Selected Poems (Carcanet, 2014).
Biographies of Birds and Flowers: Selected Poems, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2014
The Gypsy and the Poet, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2013
Enchantment, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2010
The Night of the Day, Nine Arches Press, Rugby, 2009
The Rose of the Moon, Templar Poetry, Derwent, 2009
The Invisible Kings, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2007
The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007
David Morley and Philip Neilsen, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012
David Morley and Chandani Lokuge, eds, The Voyage: Adventures in Creative Writing, Silkworms Ink, London, 2011
Dove Release: New Flights and Voices, The Worple Press, Tonbridge, 2010
The Greatest Gift, National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth, Warwick, 2007
Geoffrey Holloway: The Collected Poems, Arrowhead Press, Darlington, 2007
David Morley and Leonard Aldea, eds, No Longer Poetry: New Romanian Poets, Heaventree Press, Coventry, 2007
Morley’s Writing Challenges
Morley’s Poetry Challenges
Morley and Slow Poetry
The Warwick Writing Programme
Review of The Invisible Kings in the Guardian