BALTIMORE — Reading to a crowd numbering nearly as many as his 100 years at the University of Baltimore Student Center Monday night, Henry Morgenthau III clearly has taken to his new vocation of poetry swiftly, recently and with great success.
Then suddenly on a Sunday,/ talking recklessly while eating brunch,/ a gristly piece of meat lodges in my throat. He continued, reading from “A Sunday in Purgatory.”
I struggle for breath, too annoyed to be scared./ Someone pounds my back to no avail./ Out of nowhere an alert pint-sized waiter/ performs the Heimlich maneuver./ I don’t believe it will work./ It does! Uncorked, I am freed.
“A Sunday in Purgatory” is also the name of a collection of Morgenthau’s poetry published last year by Passager Books, which is dedicated to providing a platform for writers age 50 and older. “I’m qualified twice over,” he told the audience.
A longtime television producer — with credits that include “Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt” and “The Negro and the American Promise” with Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin — Morgenthau first published a work of poetry in the Passager Journal at 96.
“I like the opportunity to use metaphor for truth and narrative that is endemic in poetry,” he told said about his late-in-life foray into the written poetic word.
“That’s the thing about poetry,” said Kendra Kopelke, editor at Passager and director of the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. “It’s there for you your whole life.”
The poems in “A Sunday in Purgatory” range in topic, length and style. Some are short and rhyming while others are longer prose-style poems, all exploring his own mortality, legacy and self.
“We [at Passager] were immediately taken with his work,” Kopelke said. “It was a combination of his advanced age and his youthful introspection — asking, ‘who am I really?’ And that’s powerful. I don’t think we’d ever seen that before.”
It’s clear, even after 100 years, Morgenthau is forging his identity, both distancing himself from the family dynasty he was born into and reflecting on the moments in history he played witness to because of it.
His father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s treasury secretary. His grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, was the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire for President Woodrow Wilson. His New York district attorney brother was the basis for Adam Schiff in “Law & Order.”
“His surgical examinations of self and his unflinching stare into mortality define the unique and honest voice of this remarkable first book of poems,” reads the back of the book blurb from Peter Balakian, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry.
After reading his selections, Morgenthau asked the audience for questions.
In response to a question about FDR adviser Harry Hopkins, Morgenthau reminisced about sitting in front of Hopkins on the steps of the gallery during FDR’s Dec. 8, 1941 before a joint session of Congress in which he declared the previous day’s Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor “a date which will live in infamy.”
With a question about his inspiration in making a book of poems, he took a longer view of poetry, likening it to a private garden for a few that is now becoming more accessible.
“Some people don’t think of hip-hop as poetry, but it is, popular as poetry had been in different times,” he said.
The audience adored him. The praise was audible and heartfelt as the event wound down. Morgenthau enjoyed himself, staying late to sign books and greet his fans.
“It was great,” said Elke Durden, one attendee. “He really has a story to tell. He is kind of a classic intellectual, well-educated and very well-rounded.”
University of Baltimore faculty member Steven Leyva said he saw in Morgenthau’s work a “noticeable lack of fear” that he found inspiring.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” he said, adding that he could clearly hear Morgenthau’s favorite poet, Robert Lowell, in “the way he approaches poems about the self.”
It’s not hard to imagine Morgenthau accomplishing more. But perhaps this will tide him over for now, as ends his collection:
From whence dreams come, my poems,/ inchoate, anonymous, will be recycled/ forever, if we believe our world’s/ forever.
Hannah Monicken is senior reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.