This page contains four different reviews of the work of the American poet, essayist, novelist, scholar and critic Richard Moore. The reviews are by Jan Schreiber.
LEARNING TO HEAR
Review by Jan Schreiber
Richard Moore, The Rule that Liberates: New and Previously Published Essays. University of South Dakota Press, 1994, 124 pp.
Readers wary of the dry and recondite literary critic have my full sympathy, but they should put aside preconceptions long enough to give Richard Moore's lively book an openminded try. It will reward the time spent with it. Here are the contents and a brief synopsis:
Milton, Satan, and Now
Poetic Meter in English: Roots and Possibilities
The Balancer: Yeats and His Supernatural System
Classicism in Poetry: Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Yvor Winters
Fanatical Poets and Reasonable Poets
Of Form, Closed and Open: With Glances at Frost and Williams
Seven Types of Accuracy
Words and Healing: What's in It for the Poet?
Poetry and Madness
In “Milton, Satan, and Now” Moore seeks to understand the relevance of Milton's Satan, and of his vision of evil, to our contemporary perceptions. He urges us to appreciate Milton's capacity to hold complex, even contradictory views of a universe both mechanical and arbitrary, offering at once free choice and inevitable disaster.
“Poetic Meter in English” opens by observing that readers' attitudes toward formal metrics are largely determined by their attitudes toward the monuments of English verse: Shakespeare, Milton, and other mainstays of the curriculum. In this brief essay Moore surveys a panoply of English and American verse examples from Chaucer to Yeats and Frost and observes the endless influence of classical Greek meters on the metrical procedures of these poets. Along the way he makes the acute observation that the native four-beat line coexists with and is superimposed on the pentameter line, so that any five-foot verse will likely contain four strong stresses and one scarcely perceptible stress, irregularly distributed. The variations in treatment of this nearly unstressed foot are a source of considerable power for poets working in meter.
This theme is carried forward (in time) in “Of Form, Closed and Open,” in which Moore shows the close relationship between Williams' poem “These” and Satan's address to the sun in Paradise Lost. The essentially tragic character of Williams' poem is illuminated by this observation. Moore goes on to offer a convincing demonstration that Williams' rhetoric and even his verse form have much in common with Milton's practice. The larger purpose of this essay is to contrast prosody in traditional and “modern” verse, the latter governed by the wish to avoid meter or consonance.
The essay on Yeats takes the romantic visionary celebrated by much of the academic community and rehabilitates him as a modern classicist—without denying his fundamental romanticism. In other words, Moore wants us to understand Yeats in both ways at once, and by this shift in emphasis, by giving Yeats credit for wisdom and sanity as well as mysticism and naive politics, he brings the poet into the fold of writers whom even a hard-headed modern ought to take seriously.
Classicism recurs as a theme in the next two essays. Yvor Winters predictably comes off rather badly in the company of Shakespeare and Aristotle, but the essay dealing with the three of them makes the important point that most definitions of classicism leave out what can often be the chief joy of poetry: the sense of wildly lucky invention that is recurrent and imponderable in Shakespeare. The essay celebrates Keats's observation that writing well is a matter of nerve, and the following essay (“Fanatical Poets and Reasonable Poets”) goes on to probe the quality of headlong, blind enthusiasm (“fanaticism”) in romantic writers, some of whom tended, in Moore's phrase, “to draw back into reasonableness,” and some of whom, to their own detriment, did not. “Nerve,” Moore seems to say, is a fine quality when balanced by a true understanding of the way things are; without that understanding it can be disastrous for the poet, however morbidly intriguing for the reader.
“Seven Types of Accuracy” takes aim, of course, at Empson's famous treatise and celebrates the poetic quality opposite to ambiguity, that of precise, unmistakable language. With characteristic inventiveness, Moore uses supposedly primitive compositions from Scotland and the Congo to make his point. Oddly enough, however, a certain ambiguity of tone permeates this essay, leaving the reader uncertain how much faith and credit to place in the author's own apparently straightforward argument.
“Words and Healing” is a little meditation on the not always comfortable relation between art and life, and particularly on the unease felt by poets who perceive that they may have told more truth in their poems than was good for them. Moore's point is that poetry is fundamentally a social act, one whose consequences may overtake an incautious poet whose readers are perspicacious.
Finally, “Poetry and Madness” brings the thinking of Plato and Aristotle to bear on the baldly put question: “Is art made by mad people?” As you might imagine, the answer hinges on definitions, and the question remains unresolved.
Although these are quite diverse essays, written for various occasions and published in various journals, they can be read as a kind of extended meditation on some closely related themes: the virtues of complex thought, the rejection of simple dichotomies, sound as a shaper of sense in poetry, balance as a poetic ideal, the stabilizing force of tradition, and the emotional power of precision. It is hard not to see these themes as collectively comprising a brief for a classical approach to the reading of poetry. The stress on tradition, balance, clarity, and the close affinity between the sound of a poem and its emotional import puts one in mind of Aristotle's Poetics—not surprisingly, since that work is invoked at various points in Moore's book. I want to elaborate on and respond to these themes, for it is in them, rather than any single essay, that the heart of Moore's critical method lies.
To take the most sensuously immediate issue first, consider Moore's discussion of meter in poetry. He is keenly aware of the effects of metrical variation on the emotion of the poem. Having observed that most pentameter lines actually have four strong stresses and one weaker one, he examines a famous exception from Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, in which Faustus, having just kissed a palpable vision of Helen of Troy, comments: “Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies!” Moore calls this line “one of the most crucial in the play.”
Faustus has just sealed his damnation by having carnal relations with an apparition from Hell, and the meter makes us feel the event. The repeated “s” sound forces a pause between “lips” and “suck” which, in turn, makes us feel “suck forth my soul” as one agonizingly long beat, recording the precise moment of Faustus' doom.
In short, the meaning of the line comes alive when we hear it.
Or consider Frost's lines from the poem “'Out, Out —'“:
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
The first pentameter ... is in two rhythms: spondaic for the saw when it is cutting wood—“The buzz saw snarled”—and lightly tripping for when it is running free—“and rattled in the yard.” The second line (iamb-trochee-spondee-spondee-iamb) is musically brilliant in its thumping clumsiness. (The wood falling to the ground is “stove-length:” short pieces as opposed to the longer fireplace length.) But the most expressive effect in this passage is the way in which the first three halting endstopped lines, which describe the work, contrast with the easy run-on rhythms of the next three, which open the view into the countryside and its excitement of color and depth at sunset. The whole theme and effect of the poem are prefigured in this simultaneous juxtaposition of rhythm and imagery.
A good critic points to the felicities he admires, and helps us see why they matter. This is a genuine service, and for a serious reader it is genuinely exciting.
I wish, as I often do in discussions of prosody, that the author had paid some attention to the effect of writers' performance practice on their writing. Those who read in what I call the Russian manner, adopting a quasi-religious chant, are most apt to impose a regular iambic pattern on everything. Those who carry an idiomatic quickness and elision into their readings, along with wide variations in pitch and intensity, will speak, and often write, a verse in which metrical substitutions play a much greater role. So Philip Levine cites the line of Barnaby Googe, “Believe me well, they are not to be found,” and notes that for him it contains trochaic substitutions that allow it to echo speech while for Yvor Winters, who “whenever he read poetry ... pitched his voice at its lowest and chanted in a monotone, always coming to a heavy pause at the end of the line,” the line was perfectly regular.
Moore's observations on meter are of a piece with his complex and well informed views on poetic craftsmanship. He brings considerable erudition to his task. As I have indicated, he knows classical meters enough to understand how English meter was influenced by them and departs from them. Furthermore, he knows the poets that matter and why they matter. He can identify unusually good Yeats, but he also knows good Hardy from bad Yeats. He has read the important German and French poets in the original. He knows the relevant criticism, whether by Empson, Blackmur, or Gary Snyder. He can (and does) quote the Pygmies’ Elephant Hunting Song, though not in the original.
Beyond all this, he understands how poems are made, how experience is transmuted by words into something well beyond autobiography. He understands, further, the moral complexities of poetry and its real dangers, which have been the undoing of far too many writers in our time. These dangers lie in the nature of the craft, which demands of its practitioners an imaginative devotion to symbols (words and sounds) so intense and exclusive that the world they evoke can come to supplant the world perceived as “real” by most people.
The tension between tradition and rebellion, still a driving force in our time, Moore treats with good, even broad, humor. His discussion of Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” for example, while not really reinterpreting this chestnut of modernism, illuminates the poem’s structure and formal elements and leads to an amusing set of riffs on an imagined argument between defenders and detractors of the poem. Moore shows us how Williams in other poems rewrites not only Milton but Marlowe and Pound as well. Again and again the staples of our literature are seen in a new light, while the once shocking contributions of the twentieth century are shown to be steeped in tradition. Insightful readings of Frost’s “Range Finding,” Yeats’s “The Dolls,” and even the hoary “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” crop up in this book, though the latter is presented rather tongue-in-cheek, as if the author were conscious of taking the poem slightly more seriously than it deserves. (But he can’t help himself. He’s having a good time with his high-falutin’ interpretation and he wants us to enjoy every syllable of it.)
The fundamental insight of Moore's book, however, is dead serious. It is contained in the book’s title and elaborated in a paragraph of his chapter on form:
In general, the only way to be free and original is to try to be conventional and controlled, and this, in general, is what all sonnets, all forms of art, tell us when we read them. It was through the discipline and conventions of speech that we left the world of beasts and gained our freedom as human beings; and it is through submission to the additional stricter discipline and conventions of the art that the poet gains his or her powers of wisdom and prophecy.
This is not a wholly new wisdom, of course, but it may be surprising to the young, and it needs to be put into new words at least once a generation. I have not heard it stated better.
It is one thing to champion the tenets of a classical aesthetic, another to justify them on social and ethical grounds, something Moore does in this book with more success than many of his predecessors. Moore views poetry as a public act, whereby the poet submits himself to a set of common responses governed by the conventions of language. These conventions include both sound (rhythm, pronunciation, tone) and meaning. The experience of poetry is therefore the opposite of a hermetic experience occurring strictly between a reader and a text; it is a manipulation of the reader’s associations within a world of shared understandings. Some of the reader’s associations will of course be private, but most are not, and it is the unprivate associations that are the poet’s chief business.
Further, as between the fanatics of feeling who must pursue an idea to its intense extreme and the “reasonable poets” with a broad tolerance for ambiguity, Moore clearly sides with the latter, while remaining guardedly responsive to the seductions of the other side.
[T]here are those like Blake, Hölderlin, and Eliot who must have certainties and those like Keats, Goethe, and Frost who say there is a virtue in doing without them. You cannot have certainties without clear and rigid distinctions, and distinctions in every quarter have been collapsing and washing away for a long time now. I strongly suspect that the future belongs in large measure to the Aristotelians. Let us hope so: for the alternative is an ever-deepening hysteria.
Many readers will not agree, of course, but all will understand the perspective from which the author makes his judgments, and when he picks his way through the fantastic landscape of Yeats’s work to identify what he considers the solid poems, all will know where he is coming from and whether they wish to trust him or resist him.
Yet after this eloquent defense of the sane and reasonable poet as against the fanatic whose passions drive him toward madness, Moore in his final essay perversely argues that perhaps there is really no difference. “The term ‘mental illness’ is a metaphor and like all metaphors limited in its application. When pushed beyond its limits, it breaks down, becomes meaningless.” But while the notion of madness surely has political uses, only a willfully obscurantist argument would hold as Moore does here that the “severely disturbed” are perhaps not mad but “highly capable.”
That said, I hasten to point out that Moore’s vision of literary history is sweeping and sound enough to recognize how one conception of poetry has fed off the notion of madness from Blake through Lowell. The loss of talented writers along the way is sobering testimony to the destructiveness of that conception. Whereas mental health practitioners hope that the creative act (as they construe it) is a form of healing, some poets see it as fraught with destructive possibilities, depending on the self-images and theories of mind that inform it.
These excursions into what might be called the sociology of poetry are not a major part of Moore’s book, and even if one takes issue with the author they serve to remind us that poetry is a complex human endeavor rooted in our social selves; we must be as cautious with generalizations in this social sphere as with sweeping critical statements. On its native turf—the discussion of the sound and sense of poems of the canon—the book is persuasive, wise, and engaging.
That phrase—“of the canon”—leads me to a hope and a request born of admiration. Moore’s book shows him to be a superbly sensitive and thoughtful reader of poems, but his energies here have been focused entirely on the canonical writers, the “dead white males” so excoriated these days by the politically correct. I’d like to see the same penetration devoted to writers now applying for admission to Parnassus: Heaney and Walcott and Clampitt and Rich and Fillin the Blank. It’s a bigger challenge to judge one’s contemporaries, and for a practicing poet one more fraught with hidden traps for the ego. But in the arid landscape of today’s criticism we need help, and if I were to set off through (to change the metaphor) the overripe jungle of modern poetry, where I have planted a few vines and shrubs myself, I could ask for no better guide than a critic who can sing the Pygmies’ Elephant Hunting Song.
MOORE (AND BETTER)
Review by Jan Schreiber
Richard Moore, The Naked Scarecrow. Truman State University Press, 2000, 67 pp.
There’s an insufferable arrogance in the enterprise of reviewing a book of poems. As if the earnest struggles of a writer attempting to impose clarity on his most complex thoughts and emotions could be given, in effect, a grade, a rating. It is perhaps that recognition, conscious or not, that leads many reviewers to express merely routine appreciation or to respond to the poems they like and ignore the rest. The only justification for a more rigorous approach is that this is ultimately the stance of stern posterity, which is for many poets the audience that truly matters.
As a teacher of poetry, Robert Fitzgerald was reputedly chary with praise for his students’ efforts. Frequently, a grudging “not bad” was the only accolade a poem received, often abbreviated to “NB.” A really extraordinary effort might merit “not half bad” or “NHB.” That was about as good as it got. I find this a useful shorthand, and a good way of avoiding the excesses of review-speak. If I apply such terms to Richard Moore’s poems, I do so not because I have arrogated to myself a status as his teacher (the reverse is more appropriate), but because it is better to be quick and brisk rather than ponderous and lapidary.
This is a difficult book to describe, let alone review. It ranges widely in subject matter and style, and over a full half century in composition dates. Yet it is the proverbial slim volume of only 67 pages. Its diversity in little reveals much about its author’s own complexity, his multifacetedness. Are all the poems and styles equally successful? Of course not. But there are gems, and the pleasure of looking for them is enhanced often enough by the delights of finding them.
The book is divided into four sections, the first (“Withered into Art”) sprinkled with the author’s early poems, some of which have been revised within the last few years. The second section (“The Giant Redwood”) includes several political poems commemorating situations and events that people under fifty are unlikely to understand without additional commentary. The third section (“Seeming to Live”) includes satirical poems of a different type, evidently influenced by the Roman satirists; and the fourth section (“The Veil”) brings us up to the present day and contains several meditations on age and time.
The title poem, which precedes all four sections, is an invocation embodying Moore’s characteristic complexity. He yokes together high and low, seeking aid for his literary undertaking in words but also in a scarecrow he has constructed of wood and rags. The scarecrow sings, asking the wind to tear the rags from his wooden limbs, that the crows (readers?) will “come to roost / at last on sticks.” This would seem to be a celebration of the plain style, which eschews verbal figures (“frills, tricks”) in favor of unadorned statement. But the poem is itself an elaborate figure, an exceedingly artful construction that implicitly refutes the austerity sought with such apparent earnestness.
A poet with decades of poems behind him can scarcely resist the occasional impulse to rekindle an old flame—to take up a poem written long ago and revise it with the superior artistry of maturer years. This impulse is evident in the book’s first section, in such poems as “The Defense,” dated 1950-1993, or “Man, Boy, Birds,” dated 1958-1990. One cannot know from the texts at hand what wiser second thoughts have supervened, but both poems lack the lucidity of the author’s later writing. In the first, the characters are an unnamed “she” and the narrative “I.” We meet the female character in the first stanza, when she calls the narrator “mad” and he responds,
I’d only glimpsed what shined
through endless folds of sanity,
a glance she had
before her mind
got there with yards of drapery.
Then we lose sight of her till the end of the poem, when the narrator reflects:
Yes, it was madness, I
moon-struck, loose in the night—
I only wished pain, labor, birth,
wished her to lie,
like the moon white,
naked on black and fertile earth.
There’s considerable feeling, but the situation is murky. Young persons’ poems are often obscure, not because the writers lack the technique of clear description, but because they cannot decide how much of private experience they can appropriately confide in the public forum of a poem. The result is frequently an excess of art.
They’re a motley group, the poems in this first section, comprising as they do satirical essays, elegant whimsy (“Variations on a Dog”), and allusions to a disintegrating marriage. The last poem of the section, “Epilogue,” from which the section title is taken, is worth quoting in its entirety:
As painters might arrange still life,
so I, decades of daughters, wife,
me with them, playing my bit part.
Then it all withered into art.
One makes art of what presents itself, but often one would rather have the life. Still, not bad.
I cannot leave this section without calling attention to one of Moore’s metrical achievements, a poem called “Depths,” based on Horace’s Fourth Asclepiadean Ode. The poem is unrimed, and the four stanzas all follow the same metrical pattern. I quote the third:
New waves out of the night’s mist and obscurity
lunge up high on the beach, spending their energy,
each wave angrily dying,
all shapes endlessly altering ...
The trick here is to fix the pattern in the mind, so that the stanzas, though natural-sounding, achieve a kind of “rhythmic rime” with each other, provoking recognition. Moore keeps his language both idiomatic and dignified, producing a poem that, if not overwhelming (I’m not sure about that “angrily”), is nonetheless one to which a reader happily returns.
Political satire of the kind Moore presents in the second part of his book is not easy, and in any case its effectiveness depends on two imponderables: the political or social sentiments of the reader and the currency of the subject matter. Not all these poems, which tend to simplify issues for the sake of comic effect, are to my taste, but others may find them witty, topical, and irreverent. One poem, a dimeter sonnet, ends: “and God made man—/ and man went BOOM.”
I’ll move rather quickly through the brief third section of the book, with its brisk, slightly cruel epigrams and a poem in six-foot lines (“The Time”) offering crannies for too many adjectives. Occasionally one feels the pressure of a mania for rime, as when, in “April is the Cruelest Month,” Moore tells us that “Thrusting weeds throttle / the old Lord Calvert bottle.” Throttle means choke. Its associations can certainly be extended, but it will carry a connotation of stopping a stream of something (air, water, life). Is it the right word to use with an empty whisky bottle? Some readers will be troubled, others will marvel at the poet’s resourcefulness.
But I’ll admit that one silly and ingenious rime lodged in my memory and nothing I can do will shake it out. It’s in a sort of parody called “The Passionate Shepherd’s Return,” which starts out, “Come live with me / in ancient Moscovy. / I got a little hovel / near Yaroslavl.” Moore’s rimes are nothing if not inventive, and one could well imagine a lady of a certain verbal disposition quite beguiled by this.
The poems in “The Veil,” the book’s fourth and last section, are poems of winter. They celebrate a time when “Sun-softened hills harden to amethyst” and “A new world comes—its glitter and its cost.” As we age, every natural detail in the passing of the seasons becomes a metaphor.
In Moore’s hands the metaphors are deftly controlled. One of the best poems in this section, in my judgment, is “In Future Time.” Its four stanzas depict the advance of winter, seen as steely and tuneless. The very moonlight is “gun-blue,” the pond has a “coarse, metallic surface.” Lights like piano keys “bite through the trees,” but one hears “Only the dry-leaf rattle of the wind / undisciplined / and unrecorded.” I do wonder why the wind “whistles to summer’s acorns,” and why the acorns are “darkly” hoarded. Control seems to waver here, though I may be missing something. However, the last line, “spring brings the plough,” returns us to the full force of Moore’s irony and ambiguity. Spring will come, and with it the preparation of fields for new growth. But it is implacable metal that prepares the ground, and to plow up new clods is also to plow under the remnants of life that failed to survive winter’s ravages.
A companion piece is “The New Order,” which seems almost to celebrate the numbing power of cold: “the clean sheet glosses the lost ground.” The ground is lost because it has disappeared beneath the snow, and we have metaphorically “lost ground” because life has been stripped away from us. The snow glosses the ground by turning it smooth and white, and it interprets (glosses) the ground by giving us a somewhat inaccurate representation of it. This multi-layered, contrapuntal quality of language is pervasive in Moore’s best poems and fuels the irony behind the statement a few lines later: “A sovereign power / brings peace on earth.” “Thus comforts cold,” Moore observes. “Nothing is strange / when nothing is felt.” The poem concludes that only by becoming numb, imperceptive, in effect dead, can one avoid the effects of years “in whose dread change / imperiums melt.”
About 800 years ago the German poet Walther von der Vogelweide wrote a poem that might well be the ancestor of these two. It begins, “Now has stark winter brought harm to us all,” and it challenges winter’s right “To spread his dark power so wide and so tight.” Moore, who is familiar with a wide range of German poetry, may well have had this poem in mind when he wrote his verses, which, however, are informed by a modern sensibility and the disillusionment of a perceptive man in his later years.
“The Veil,” the poem that gives the section its title, is written in rimed iambic dimeter couplets. It is, if anything, more complex than the “winter” poems that went before it, because it messes up the neat dichotomy between life and death, summer and winter, illusion and reality. The poem’s focus is a tree, seen in winter and in summer. The poem acknowledges the “deep confusion” that the differing aspects engender. The observer stares at the naked tree in winter and says,
Thinking I’ll prove
it real, I move
my head south, north,
to bring it forth
and so, reveal
its depth, its feel.
Despite all these views, “beneath the Many, / it is the One,” and it remains undefinable. The problem is compounded when the tree puts on the leaves of summer and we are met with “a strange scene / of savage green.” (Nice adjective—connoting wild, uncontrolled, primitive, even violent foliage.) Thus, Moore suggests, the tree charms the eyes in the same way that poets, by their “lies,” charm the ears. And yet, in these rapidly superseding views, “in greenery / in sun, in gale” we see after all the tree’s “truest shape.” What does that mean? That the truth lies in multiplicity. That any one view is a lie, and that in scanning a scene we see at once “its face, its veil.” Like a Zen master, Moore has cautioned us, “If you believe what I have just told you, you are only getting part of the story.”
A writer of tremendous versatility, Moore has at times characterized himself as primarily a comic poet, a writer of mock epics (The Mouse Whole). Others think of him as a satirist, a writer of metrical curiosities, a perverse classicist, or (as I labeled him in a previous review) a prophet. Save only the writer of mock epics, one can find each of these Richard Moores in the present book. But he remains also a writer of serious and well crafted lyric verse of notable complexity and power. There is enough excellent and evidently recent material in this book to convince a thoughtful reader that, as he starts his eighth decade, Moore is at the top of his game. For this, his readers should be properly grateful. Not half bad, Mr. Moore!
POET AMONG INCHLINGS
Review by Jan Schreiber
Richard Moore, Pygmies and Pyramids. Ochises Press, 1998.
This is a book with a protagonist and a hero, but they are not one and the same. The protagonist is the meter in which the poems are written: a dactylic hexameter capable of remarkable transformations and appearing in ever new and surprising guises but never eluding our view. The hero is the author, who wields this meter with ingenuity, grace, and persistence, demonstrating its vigor and capacity to carry contemporary American idiom through high diction and low, through fast-paced narration and philosophical meditation.
Consider the following opening to a poem entitled “Poets”:
Scientists seldom are born, but the poets come one in a hundred,
which is too many: it suits
tribal conditions at best.
Picture America’s vast population, and think how it harbors
two million possible bards.
Talk about oversupply:
One, maybe two to a language, as everyone knows, is sufficient—
This is so idiomatic, so near conversation, that many innocent readers might think it was generic free verse—of the sort that populates our trendy conventional journals and is distinguishable from prose by the eye (because of eccentric lineation) but not by the ear. But it is neither free verse nor prose; it is a rigorous meter built on the following model:
'-- '-- '-- '-- '-- '-
'-- '-- '
'-- '-- '
The meter is, as Moore points out, an accentual adaptation of a classic elegiac couplet. When used in a sentence whose natural rhythms place pauses within, not between, the feet, as in the fragment I have quoted, the form fosters the illusion of rapid, extemporaneous speech. What appears to be prose can on a second glance reveal itself as verse, though not necessarily in the high style. I, for example, cast the first part of my sentence immediately following the quotation in the same meter, which you probably did not notice but can observe when I point it out:
This is so idiomatic, so near conversation, that many
innocent readers might think
it was generic free verse—
Keep reading Moore—soon enough you will be doing it too. (Sorry.)
We are used to reading iambic verse; even in these days of anarchy, iambic feet glide smoothly off the tongue. (See?) Such verse might be called the default metrical norm. If a line has meter at all, it is probably iambic. Thus when we encounter a poem operating against a different norm, we’re inevitably hyper-aware of it. Consider the word “population,” which appears in the quotation. It consists of four syllables: stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, with the second stressed syllable receiving slightly more emphasis than the first one. If we speak of a “vast population” we emphasize “vast” and the following “pop” about equally. It takes a conscious reference to the dactylic norm to remind us that, in order to fit the pattern of this verse, the first two syllables of “population” must be treated as unstressed, while the syllables preceding and following them must be considered stressed.
The default iambic norm makes us want to consider the first two syllables a normally inverted iamb and say:
' - - ' - ' - ' - ' - ' - - ' - - ' - - ' -
Picture America’s vast population but instead we must say: Picture America’s vast population
Small wonder that the meter (if we're listening as we read) remains prominent in our consciousness.
But as the cited example shows, Moore is capable of catching and couching the locutions of ordinary speech in his chosen form, and the strain shows only occasionally, as in the first line quoted, where idiom would omit the article before “poets.”
Once the meter is established for the reader the poet can throw in an occasional substitution: a single stressed syllable instead of two unstressed ones. So in a poem called “Two-Part Invention” we have:
Spring nears; under the old snow, heaped in the alley, yet older
snow shows through, like the raw
flesh when the covering skin
In the first line quoted, “nears” and “snow” each replace double unstressed syllables, as does “shows” in the second line. These alterations correspond to substitutions of a long syllable for two short ones in classical verse. Moore’s masterly use of the technique in English keeps the rhythm from becoming dogged and fixed.
So much attention to the meter should not be taken to indicate that the poems are merely show-pieces for a prosodic acrobat. They are thoughtful digressions on a variety of subjects, some rather uncommon among the self-engrossed poets of our day: sociology, anthropology, politics, and even mathematics. The poems inclining toward sociology or anthropology tend to concern themselves with an artist’s (specifically a poet’s) place in society, and a marginal place it is, we all know. The pygmies of Moore’s title (and of the first poem in the book) are there because they effectively combine a poet’s function with a basic necessity of life: hunting. It seems a song is sung as the pygmies set out on an apparently quixotic hunt: “Elephant hunter, your stout spear’s tipped with the seed of our daring.” And Moore asks, “was there ever a poet who caught something living and lasting?” He imagines a celebration after a successful hunt and, in a beautiful phrase, he goes on to reflect, “What is the mind like then, but a clearing where spirits are dancing?”
Now, it is just possible that pygmy civilization, which Moore hopes will outlast ours, is no happier or more peaceful than our own. Pygmy lives may be as short, nasty, and brutish as any in the shadow of our dark satanic mills or among our silicon gladiators. But if the function of a poem is to envision a better reality and to create a metaphor guiding us toward that vision, then this poem works better than most.
“Pyramids,” the poem forming the other part of the book’s title, is a little harder to summarize. Part comparative religion study, part meditation on the vanity of our own nation and its obtuseness vis-a-vis Chinese civilization (yes, we start with the Egyptian pyramids, but we move on), it is, I would say, a cautionary tale about overweening pride and cultural arrogance. My only reservation stems from the observation that the closer Moore’s attention comes to his own time and place, the more scornful his tone; conversely, distant peoples and times acquire in his poem a luster proportional to the effort we must make in imagining them. There is something to be said for taking one’s own contemporaries to task; that is the role of a prophet, after all. But I think I would be more convinced by an equal opportunity lambaster.
But there are times when the sardonic observation of a culture and its foibles strikes just the right note. In “Poets” Moore speculates on the reasons there were fewer poets in less affluent times:
Back when humanity started its age-long quest for abundance,
scarcity was the result.
Man grew obsessed with this seed,
planted his fields and his women. The women were always more fruitful.
Babies grew faster than beans;
someone, of course, had to starve.
Why not the poets? For tilling recalcitrant fields they were useless,
troubled by notions that God’s
earth had a life of its own.
That’s how it went for millenniums down to Imperial England,
home of our colonists, stout
murderers, shipped overseas,
loosed from the gallows in London, where many a poet had perished.
Morals inspired the laws;
it was illegal to starve.
How to suggest the range of this book.... From historical generalization the poems swoop into political satire and the analysis of material progress. As an example of the former, consider “Nosegays,” a poisonous little bouquet tossed out to Ronald Reagan at the time when he was governor of California. Moore sets the tone by referring to his subject as “Ronnie” or “our Ronnie” throughout:
Surely it’s proper to have a reality; but is it proper,
Ronnie, to pester and bug
innocent students with yours,
till they oblige you and riot, so then you can call your police, whose
truncheons have made you the most
popular man in the State?
Reading this poem in its entirety, along with many others in the book, one comes to see Moore clearly in his self-defined role as prophet. We scarcely understand the concept today, having replaced prophets with pundits. A prophet stands to one side of the events of his times, but he registers them, understands them, weighs them on an ethical scale, renders a judgment, and tells his hearers what they are overlooking, to what ends their current vanities will lead them, what is being missed and who is being destroyed by the blindness of the present. There are many styles of prophecy: one can fulminate, thunder, call down the wrath of the Lord, or one can by wily and humorous insinuation sow the seeds of dissent and social deviance. In our recent history, Malcolm X was a prophet of the first type, Lenny Bruce of the second. It is not an altogether safe profession.
Judging by these poems, Moore finds a third approach most congenial. He appears to be lost in his own reveries. He does not shout, but he invites us to overhear. What we overhear is often wry and amusing, disarming our defenses. We find ourselves assenting to a world view because it seem wise, sensible, humane. Only after we have signed the contract do we recognize that we have agreed to the fine print, which calls for rejecting much of the comfortable hypocrisy and hypocritical comforts of modernism. In a poem ironically called “Progress,” Moore tells us:
Even in buying an old dishwasher for thirty-five dollars,
all of our pleasure is spoiled:
new ones cost five times as much;
look, though, the model is different: they’ve added an add-a-dish feature.
Men will develop a false
view of the world when their hot
water comes out of a faucet.
Then, having compared pop tunes on the radio to potassium cyanide, he checks himself:
O I exaggerate! What
harm can a radio do?
What harm comes to the souls of our TV-mesmerized children?
Shall they not shine in the Tube’s
bilious glow in the night?
And the reader is left to decide how serious the prophet is, how far to go with the wholesale rejection of contemporary comfort and convenience.
There are many other delights in this quirky book, too many for adequate coverage in a review. Let me call attention to a six-page verse essay improbably titled “The Abacus: A Rhapsody.” In the midst of this celebration of numbers, counting, and the means of bringing ordered thought literally into human grasp, come these lines:
Think how the deer leaps, levering gracefully over the meadow,
stuffed with mechanics, with joints,
swivels, the pump of his heart,
rhythms in balance.... Yet nothing is accurate, never precisely
fits into symmetry. Life’s
always just slightly askew.
Moore’s distinction is that he can recognize the unique and singular qualities that cannot be encompassed by number, and yet can submit to the virtues of number—both mathematics and meter. The result is usually not the sort of spine-tingling insight we seek but only occasionally find in our most revered poets; instead it is a kind of calm wisdom illuminated by lightning flashes of wit and reassuring us that poetry can speak, when it will, in recognizable accents.
Are the accents too recognizable? Aware that his disquisitions are not quite the essence of modern lyric, Moore pre-empts objections by disarmingly asking,
Friends, have you noticed I’m not
really a poet at all?
Critics sufficiently learned to tell what meter I’m using
call these nonsensical lines
cleverly versified prose.
Well, yes, we are dealing not with intense epiphanies in allusive metaphoric language, but with meditative essays in verse. In the great house of poetry there should be a place for both.
THROW AWAY THE CHART
Review by Jan Schreiber
Richard Moore, Sailing to Oblivion. Light Quarterly Imprints, 2005, $12.95, 64 pp.
This is an aptly named book. A poet, like a sailor, has a breeze and a destination. His breeze is the sound of the words in his ear, driving him forward as he pays exquisite attention to all the qualities that make them memorable and delightful. His destination is the point in his mind that he steers for, the goal that causes him to choose some words over others, to accept or reject certain lines of thought prompted by the echoes in his mind, as the sailor tacks or jibes, hauls in canvas or lets it out, so as to catch the wind that keeps him on his course, and not be deflected, though the complexity of the course itself is much influenced by the vagaries of the breeze.
But unlike the sailor, who can soon founder on rocks if he abandons the helm and lets his boat rush on unguided before the wind, a poet may choose to care less about his destination than about the sounds of the words propelling him. When he allows his rimes to steer his course, readers are quickly aware that they have entered a different realm: decadence, burlesque, wordplay, “light” verse—something other, at any rate, than the territory of the typical mainstream poem.
For a writer with a finely tuned ear, part of the delight in letting his rimes guide him, unfettered by reason, is the sheer technical challenge. It’s not enough to find unexpected monosyllabic rimes (Keats / tweets, which / kitsch, saint / ain’t) or to find them in fours as well as pairs (cracks, lax, backs, tax). One must find them for feminine (disyllabic) line endings as well, which are inherently funnier, especially if the poet pairs high with low (Viking / biking, Plato / [po]tato). Comic riming also encourages the writer to match two words with one (hate your / nature), or part of a word with a whole one (jeopar- / [dizing] … pepper).
And if two syllables rimed with two are funny, three with three must be funnier still, or at any rate a more formidable challenge (Ptolemy / follow me, [im]prison us / business). Then surely four will take the prize:
… Harry’s tot’ll
Or, for a tour de force, make all four syllables identical, though they belong to different words:
but was that gladiator
glad he ate her?
Who in fact cares what the poem says, when the manner of saying evokes such applause from the groundlings?
Indeed, a reader who abandons himself or herself to the whim of words, and who cares not a fig for decorum, will find here treats (if that’s the word) like the following:
De gustibus est disputandum
when there’s a puncture in the condom.
And so forth. Other writers, of course, including some of high talent, have succumbed to the attractions of sound untainted by sense. But Moore, going farther, makes a virtue of excess. The wonder is that, with the restraints of intellect and super-ego so loosened, anything of enduring interest should find its way into this book’s pages. Yet on occasion it does. So perhaps the siren-tranced sailor was not altogether asleep at the helm. For amid the irresponsible rimes and rants, little gems like these appear:
For a Friend Who Worries Too Much about Himself
O miserable lepton,
you fear being stepped on.
I don’t understand your
delusions of grandeur.
In all the history of satiric invective, has any butt of wit up to now been called a lepton? Yet what entity other than this impossibly small subatomic particle could better embody insignificance? And what mean status, at least from a human perspective, could be farther removed from grandeur?
Is this book, then, a delight and a superior amusement from start to finish? I suppose that depends on your mood and your disposition. Many of the poems have a peculiar tone that comes from a choice of cloying words used in a somewhat sarcastic manner:
My life’s totally peachy.
I’m luckier than Nietzsche.
. . .
“paradise” by the sea. O nice!
The dead man is in paradise.
My death and I—bless us! are so chummy.
A strange cold comfort. Like sherbet. Yummy!
Certain high-minded readers may feel that this sort of thing palls rather quickly. The writer is posing, they will say, and the poses are childish when such folk would prefer them to be clever. Yet Moore is clever, at moments, as when he writes of “The Codger in the Blizzard”:
When the cold winds shall freeze us,
of our pains they will ease us.
Pretty soon I’ll be dead now:
will become unaware
of the absence of hair
on the top of my head now,
and through Death’s dreary Atlas
travel happy, though hatless.
There the tone is still informal, a mite self-deprecating, but not jejune. The poem is saying goodbye to both creature comforts and vanity, while embracing an uncertain consolation. We’re not embarrassed by silliness, but sympathetic and amused.
Every so often in this book, the diligent reader encounters one of these charmers. For many they will be worth the price of admission. I have already cited a couple. Here, as a fitting farewell, is Moore’s anticipatory epitaph, in the last lines of the final poem, “The Cyclist’s Psych List”:
… “Like good King Wenzel,
I wrote my life in pencil
and never feared its end.
When it appeared, my friend,
I reached out and embraced it;
then God kindly erased it.”
Less transient than he’d think, long may he live in ink.