Hilda Morley, Poet Was 81

Robert Long | April 2, 1998

Hilda Morley, a widely honored poet and longtime Sag Harbor resident who moved to England last year, died at Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead Heath, London, on March 23, of liver failure following a fall in her house.

Ms. Morley was the author of six books of poems, and her work appeared in numerous prestigious journals, including Poetry, The Paris Review, and New Directions. She began writing at an early age but did not publish her first collection until she was 60.

The Imagist poet H.D. praised Ms. Morley's poetry while she was still a college student, but cautioned her against "publishing too early" - advice the young poet took to heart.

In later years, her own work took a back seat to her support of the career of her second husband, the German avant-garde composer Stefan Wolpe. But in 1976, when her collection "A Blessing Outside Us" was published, it immediately drew the notice of other poets.

Ms. Morley was born Hilda Auerbach in New York City in 1916, to Russian-emigre parents, Rachmiel Auerbach, a physician, and the former Sonia Lubove Kamenetsky. Her mother, an early feminist and a Labor Zionist, enrolled her in the progressive Walden School. At 15, she moved to Palestine with her mother. She learned Hebrew, French, Italian, and Latin, and later took a degree at London University.

During the blitz, Ms. Morley returned to America, and worked for the Committee to Aid Jewish Refugees from Germany. In 1945, she met and married the painter Eugene Morley, who introduced her to his Abstract Expressionist artist friends. Her poetry, she wrote, was partially shaped by the vision of these artists.

Following a divorce, Ms. Morley met her second husband. They were married in 1952.

The novelist and critic Erika Duncan, Ms. Morley's companion for the last 11 years, wrote that Ms. Morley absorbed from Mr. Wolpe "the notion of a dynamism based on new ways of looking at motion and space," which found its way into her poetry.

Ms. Morley taught at various times at the Walden School, Rutgers University, Northeast Missouri University, where she was poet in residence, and, in the early 1950s, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she and Mr. Wolpe joined an illustrious group of teachers and students who included Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov.

Her third book of poems, "To Hold in My Hands: Selected Poems," won the Capricorn Prize for Poetry. She was the recipient of numerous other awards, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy.

"No one has a more precise and eloquent sense of what a line can do than Hilda Morley," wrote Ms. Levertov of the collection "Cloudless at First." Ms. Morley's poems were distinguished by "a light and mobile syntax, exquisitely sensitive to modulations of pitch and pace," wrote Mr. Kunitz.

Ms. Morley's last collection of poems, "The Turning," will be published in June. At the time of her death, she was working on a biography of Mr. Wolpe, who died in 1972. She will be buried next to him at Green River Cemetery in Springs.

She is survived by a stepdaughter, Katherina Wolpe of London. A memorial service will be announced in the near future.