Esther Morgan is the author of three books of poetry, of which the third, Grace, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize in 2011. Her poetry is subtle, quiet, delicately paced. Concerned with absences, small moments, things we barely register, her poems creep back up on the reader with lingering resonances.
Esther Morgan was born in 1970 in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. After a childhood of writing poetry, she took it up again seriously in her early twenties, while working as a volunteer at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, Cumbria. An MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia followed in 1997, and she received an Eric Gregory Award (for promising poets under 30) in 1998.
During this period, Morgan taught creative writing at UEA. After taking part in an exchange with Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, she returned to UEA and edited four editions of the poetry anthology Reactions.
Her first collection, Beyond Calling Distance, was published by Bloodaxe in 2001; it won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Its poems are full of silence, with short lines and spare stanzas surrounded by reverberating white space.
and searches for it everywhere
(‘The Lost Word’)
The silence leaves me
with something just beyond my reach
All summer she listened to the heat-stilled world,
her thumb resting on the rusted bell
They’re full of people who struggle to speak, to give themselves a self to speak with. In ‘Self Portrait’:
her skin sore from erasure.
There is a sense of space – wide landscapes, and time, and the smallness of people within them, intensified by close attention to prosodic detail.
The Silence Living in Houses, her second collection, came out with Bloodaxe in 2005 – inspired by time spent as caretaker of an unrenovated Edwardian house in Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. In it, the house is the active agent, and replaces those open spaces with its enclosure, both physical and emotional. Houses have spirits, and in this collection the poet both wonders about and then invents a ghost:
so I can sleep safe at night,
her footsteps light on the stairs . . .
The issue of existence hasn’t disappeared, however; a few poems later, “The ghost of this house/ is forgetting to believe in me” (‘The Ghost of This House’). The ghost is a ‘she’, and elsewhere Esther Morgan has written of being interested in the “hidden lives” that occupy a space. Mystery, not knowing, is also a kind of enclosure. In the second section of the book, a sense of menace builds which has far more to do with the enclosures and traps of domestic violence than with ghosts. It feels like an external haunting: “You wake bricked up inside his house”, it reads (‘House-bound’) and “a flight of stairs throws you full length,/ a door walks into your face” (House Rules’). The atmosphere is almost tangible, and the poems are completely assured.
In 2010, she won the Bridport Poetry Prize for her poem ‘This Morning’, which appeared in book form the following year in her third collection, Grace (Bloodaxe). Grace was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. In this book, the balances and abeyances of the previous two collections seem to become even more refined. The ghosts of The Silence of Living in Houses were one form of grace, and here the emptiness itself grows a capability – that of receiving the grace of the title.
In the title poem, the vase – with its “cut flowers” – “or the thought of them” – takes on a role rather like that of the roses in Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’, signalling the mystery of the difference between inside and outside. The light is fading;
the circle of white plates on the kitchen table
the serious chairs that attend them
even the roses on the papered walls
seem to open a little wider.
without knowing it, strangely and lightly
as a flurry of snow in the night
touches the stone kings and rough sleepers.
George Szirtes has written about the risks poems can take, in relation to a poem by Esther Morgan called ‘The Long Holidays’. He writes:
Morgan’s poem does that despite its small, apparently narrow compass. It is short but its power is substantial.
Currently Esther Morgan is combining freelance teaching and editing work, and her role as Historic Recordings Manager for the Poetry Archive, the world's largest online collection of poets reading their own work, and working on her next collection.
After four years in Oxfordshire, she moved back to East Anglia, and now lives in Suffolk.
Grace, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, 2011
The Silence Living in Houses, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, 2005
Beyond Calling Distance, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, 2001
Esther Morgan and Moniza Alvi, eds., Poetry Review, The Poetry Society, 2013
Reactions, ed. of vols. 1-4, Pen & Inc, 2000-2003
Morgan’s author page at Bloodaxe
Morgan reads poems from each of her three collections as part of the filming for Bloodaxe’s DVD-book In Person: 30 Poets
Morgan’s page at the Poetry Archive
Morgan’s page at the British Council website
George Szirtes discusses Morgan’s poem ‘The Long Holidays’ on his blog