Hilda Morley was born Hilda Auerbach on September 19, 1916, in New York City. The daughter of Russian-émigré parents, she began writing poetry as a child and studied Hebrew, French, Italian, and Latin. At 15, she moved to Palestine with her mother before going on to study at London University. While in England, she met the poet H. D, who is said to have praised her poetry but cautioned her against publishing too early. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that she began receiving wider recognition for her work.
She returned to America during the Blitz to work for the Committee to Aid Jewish Refugees from Germany, and she married Eugene Morley in 1945. A painter with a circle of Abstract Expressionist friends, Eugene Morley introduced her to a vision of art that would influence her poetry’s detailed attention to the world around her. In her words, “From the Abstract Expressionists I discovered a way of seeing the modern world in its totality, finding meaning in what was defaced, injured, dishevelled, torn, eroded and disfigured, without rejection. To transform or transmute these elements but still to embody them was my task as a poet.”
Hilda and Eugene Morley divorced a few years later, and she went on to marry the avant-garde composer Stefan Wolpe. This relationship too greatly affected the trajectory and tenor of her career, beginning with their move to Black Mountain College in 1952, where she taught English literature. Her time working with the Black Mountain poets proved formative to her poetry, as she developed a more deliberate use of spacing, breath, and line breaks. This understanding of stress and movement comes across more subtly in her work than in other poetry of the Black Mountain School; Stanley Kunitz describes how her “characteristic line breathes naturally and is not conspicuously self-important.” According to a close friend, the novelist Erika Duncan, Stefan Wolpe’s music also influenced Morley’s poetry by introducing to her “the notion of a dynamism based on new ways of looking at motion and space.”
Morley’s first published collection of poetry was A Blessing Outside Us (Pourboire Press, 1976). Many of the poems in this volume are elegies to Stefan Wolpe, who passed away in 1972. Stanley Kunitz describes the poems Morley wrote after Wolpe’s death as “born of an obsessive grief” while simultaneously “celebrative, almost ritually so.” After What are Winds & What are Waters (Asphodel Press, 1983), she received the Capricorn Prize for Poetry for her third book of poems, To Hold in My Hand: Selected Poems 1955-1983 (Sheep Meadow Press, 1983); much of the work in this collection had previously only existed in manuscript form. She went on to write Cloudless at First (Moyer Bell, 1988) and The Turning (Asphodel Press, 1998), which follows the poet’s trajectory into healing out of grief.
Hilda Morley was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983, and she taught at New York University, Rutgers University, and Black Mountain College, among other universities. She also served as Northeast Missouri University’s resident poet in 1992 and taught English literature at private schools in New York and England.
In a tribute to Hilda Morley, Robert Creeley wrote, “You have held to those you’ve cared for with great compassion, let them be actual, made them present in your love. Your poems take them from your heart into that same world you have so honored by seeing it is there.” Hilda Morley spent her last few years in Sag Harbor, on Long Island, before moving to London in 1997 to work on a biography of her late husband. She died on March 23, 1998.
A Blessing Outside Us (Pourboire Press, 1976)
What are Winds & What are Waters (Asphodel Press, 1983)
To Hold in My Hand: Selected Poems 1955-1983 (Sheep Meadow Press, 1983)
Cloudless at First (Moyer Bell, 1988)
The Turning (Asphodel Press, 1998)