Sometime in the early 1990s, a friend and I visited Robert Creeley at his house in Waldoboro to hear his rowdy stories about postwar poets. You know who I mean — Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, that irreverent crowd. In the middle of one of these raucous recollections, I had an astonishing realization. Wait a minute, I thought. These youth-movement guys are actually older than Don Mortland.
For Unity College professor Donald F. Mortland, aka Mr. Mortland, was born in 1927 (Creeley and Ginsberg were born in 1926, Kerouac in 1922) in Searsport, took degrees in literature from Bowdoin and Yale (Creeley dropped out of Harvard), and became famous locally for his old-time Ivy League sense of decorum. Authentic decorum, I should say, which unassumingly transcended the hollow rules of etiquette that Creeley and his ilk (including me) rejected, and created out of thin air an uplifting sense of social grace. And more.
The recent news stories about Mr. Mortland, who died last month at the age of 87 (Creeley died nine years ago this month at the age of 78), mentioned the great respect people felt for him, but they neglected to indicate he was also a man of letters, in the best sense of that antique phrase.
Literally, he wrote probably thousands of letters. At the memorial service in Searsport this month, one appreciative former student claimed to have shoeboxes packed with 30 years of letters from Mr. Mortland, and everyone there believed it.
He also wrote short stories, some collected in his 1997 book “The Merry Widow Fox-Trot,” others published elsewhere. “Thoreau and Martin Manor” appeared in a 1992 edition of Kennebec, UMA’s widely respected literary journal of the time. He edited “Sea Stories from Searsport to Singapore” by Lincoln Colcord, and Colby Quarterly published his cornerstone biographical article on the old-time sea captain. The article was afterward reprinted as a monograph. He wrote on Ruth Moore (“Piles of books have been written about the Maine coast and its people, some of which are sentimental slush, and some simply wrong … Ruth Moore does not idealize either the place or its people”) and edited a collection of family papers, “Dear Ones At Home and At Sea: The Pendleton-Park Papers,” published by the Penobscot Marine Museum. He gave entertaining lectures up and down the midcoast on Colcord, Edna St. Vincent Millay and others.
Entertaining, I say, because Don Mortland also had a wry, dry, Down East sense of humor. He and I shared an office and hundreds of terrible puns for some years at the college. He found it hilarious when I told him my 3-year-old son, Jack, had asked, “Is Mr. Mortland a city or a guy?” and I said, “That’s a good question.” While he seemed to some rather startlingly dedicated to social decorum, on the other hand he had proudly grown up on a farm and was quite conversant with what he called the barnyard elements of life. Conversant, and accepting, and amused by its ironies, of whatever tint. He and his somewhat unlikely close friend professor John Sanborn shared measured reverence for both the graces and the bawdy bits of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
The decorums of rhythm and rhyme were to him the essence of poetry, and so he did not think much of modernist poetics. He was quietly a local expert on traditional Maine writers like Longfellow and Sarah Orne Jewett. He told me that his encounters at Yale with the eminent postmodern literary critic Harold Bloom were characterized by, well, disagreements. He expressed a kind of embarrassment over Carolyn Chute’s “Beans of Egypt, Maine,” saying it just seemed unnecessary. When I was advising the student literary magazine at the college, he once asked me to explain why a Creeley-like poem’s lines broke where they did. I said it developed from the student’s sense of rhythm. “It’s just a stunt,” he said.
This was his sense of decorum speaking, both literary and personal. D.F. Mortland was Bob Creeley’s junior in years, and his elder in taste. Authentic taste, I should say. The kind of authenticity whose good language and good spirit uplift even its opponents. What the world lost on his retirement from teaching, and then from writing, and at last from life, was a link to the grace that pervades all the ages.
Dana Wilde writes the Backyard Naturalist column for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel and runs the Parallel Uni-Verse website for Maine poetry at www.dwildepress.net/universe.