Poem I Love: "For Julia, In the Deep Water" by John N. Morris

The first real live poem I ever remember hearing aloud is "For Julia, In the Deep Water" by John N. Morris. It's about my friend Julia. Her dad was a poet, which was weird when you were a kid. If memory serves, Dr. Morris came to school and read this poem to our sixth grade class. The poem was first published in the New Yorker in 1976 and later in the volume "The Glass Houses", after which I thought Billy Joel named his album. Although Morris published quite a bit in Poetry, he's not in our online archive yet.

For Julia, In the Deep Water

The instructor we hire
because she does not love you
Leads you into the deep water,
The deep end
Where the water is darker—
Her open, encouraging arms
That never get nearer
Are merciless for your sake.

You will dream this water always
Where nothing draws nearer,
Wasting your valuable breath
You will scream for your mother—
Only your mother is drowning
Forever in the thin air
Down at the deep end.
She is doing nothing,
She never did anything harder.
And I am beside her.

I am beside her in this imagination.
We are waiting
Where the water is darker.
You are over your head,
Screaming, you are learning
Your way toward us,
You are learning how
In the helpless water
It is with our skill
We live in what kills us.

—John N. Morris

Originally Published: July 9th, 2009

Catherine Halley is the editor of JSTOR Daily, an online magazine that draws connections between current affairs, historical scholarship, and other content available on JSTOR, a digital library of scholarly journals, books, and primary sources. She is the former digital director of the Poetry Foundation, where she served as editor...

  1. July 9, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    I always start like this: my advantage is the antipodes!\r

    You're certainly right up on the really busy threads, Cathy, the ones where the sore spots are most open, the windows highest, the muse richest, and the lion never done.\r

    You know what's hard about a poem like this? It really doesn't matter how good or not good it is anymore, or how it's written. It's what it says! What it says!\r

    Thanks yet again, Christopher

  2. July 10, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    How did the sixth grade class respond to this frightening poem?

  3. July 12, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Yes, how did they, Cathy, and how did you? \r

    And why do you think her father wrote this poem for little Julia, and why do you think he chose to read it amongst her friends at school like you?\r

    Of course, little children are often more able to deal with the realities than the grownups, having been so recently and so grievously betrayed at birth by their mothers.\r

    That's just an image to help us.\r

    I say that thinking of Directive---we never quite got there on FISH II, though we tried.\r


  4. July 19, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Am I the only one interested in talking about poetry? I still have on-going proposals and questions about Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish and Jane Miller's Miami Heart (she replied herself, but there's more!), among others, and now this one just sitting here all alone by the wall.\r

    You should be ashamed to permit such neglect, ye Harriets!\r

    So I'd like to say that "For Julia, In the Deep Water" is a very peculiar poem, perverse even, and that its perversity is such an obvious ingredient right from the second line that it simply has to be the poet's specific intention--reinforced by John N. Morris' decision to read it in the class of his own daughter! We don't know how old Julia was, but if this is the first poem she ever heard read out loud she's got to have been fairly young. But no matter, even at 16 this poem would be a shocker. I mean, it is for me right now. For anyone!\r

    I said just above that young children can understand this poem because they have been so recently betrayed at birth by their mothers. Not even that horrendous statement got a rise from you all. Am I really that off-putting?\r

    But quite seriously, getting born is no piece of cake, getting squeezed out like that to be hung up upside down in the cold, and then trained to sit up straight and beg. And boy do we shout--and if we didn't we wouldn't be able to breathe!\r

    Of course that's the human condition, to be abused and alone, and of course understanding that is the first and last lesson we learn. To be sure our children get it we even hire the instructor that does NOT love them, the poem tells us--I was sent to schools where I was beaten and when I became a prefect I had to beat the other boys in turn. As I grew older and wiser I thought that was a terrible way to educate, so when I taught at a school in Scotland I refused to use the government issued "belt." Well, my students systematically and with great pleasure destroyed my classes until I did--and then we all knew where we stood, and got on with it!\r

    Oh dear. Did you get that?\r

    Like the poem, such an image is extremely difficult to grasp, the degree to which our love and care may at time be best expressed by putting our children at risk. Children who are sent to "perfect" schools, like my own at one of the best Rudoph Steiner Schools in the world, miss somethig that I got at musty old Winchester, and that was surviving the cold, the sharks and the bends at the very deep end. \r

    That's a perverse thought I know--that we also do damage to our children by educating them too "well." Does the poem help us with the dilemma?\r


  5. July 19, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Of course it's Cathy Halley who for the first time heard a poem read out loud on this occasion--but she was presumably the same age as Julia.\r

    I don't think age really matters, except that if you conclude that John N. Morris read the poem out loud in a school for his own satisfaction, a very real possibility, then the older the better. High school students would certainly be interested in him as a poet even if they didn't understand a word that he said!