Interview with Richard Moore, by Mike Burch

Picture by Simon Rogozin

Picture by Simon Rogozin

A Yogi Sees The Light

That lady has learned Hebrew, gung-
ho to greet God in His own tongue.
And I?  I'm one whom God will notice
because I'm sitting in the lotus.
Silly! A God who deems it fitting
to see me won't care how I'm sitting.

Published in Light Quarterly, Number 20, Autumn 2000

Picture by Simon Rogozin

Morning Yoga

The laws of night slowly repealing,
relaxed deeply, you get the feeling
you're floating quite close to the ceiling.

Mix it all day with other noting,
the memory of that sweet floating.

Hard fact, vague feeling, where's the key?
Change thought: no fact remains to see.
The feeling's the reality.

That thought sustains you as you grope
into the day's kaleidoscope.

Published in Cumberland Poetry Review, Spring 2001, Vol. XX, No. 2

MB: Mike Burch here, with the poet Richard Moore. Richard has published ten volumes of poetry; one was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; another was a T. S. Eliot Prize finalist. He has also published a novel, The Investigator, a collection of essays, The Rule That Liberates, and translations of Plautus' Captivi and Euripedes' Hippolytus. His fiction, essays, and more than 500 of his poems, have been published in a great variety of magazines, including The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper's, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and The Nation. Richard has an excellent web site where you can view more of his poetry, including his epic The Mouse Whole, and find information about ordering his books. Interested readers can check out the site by clicking here. Richard, I'd like to start the interview by asking the obvious question: Should more poets stand on their heads, thereby increasing the blood flow to their brains and giving them a "leg up" on poets who are less spry?

RM: The benefits of standing on your head are too considerable to be restricted to a bunch of lousy poets. Let mankind in general benefit!---including womankind, of course. What benefits? Well, thirty years ago I had a bad infection, the antibiotics weren't working, and the doctor was beginning to sound very unpleasant. Instead of filling the latest prescription, I spent a day, taking vitamin C and standing on my head every hour, and was well. To my knowledge, I haven't had any antibiotics since. Of course, you can't run a scientific measurement of those benefits. I've been standing on my head more-or-less every day for forty years. For a proper scientific comparison, there would have to be another Richard---I mean, exactly the same as me, a clone---who didn't stand on his head during that time. But there's only one me. Isn't that fortunate!

MB: Well, that would be an interesting experiment, to say the least, but I do agree that you're one of a kind, and a poet who would be hard to duplicate. My reason for bringing up Yoga is this: Yoga is a collection of ancient wisdom and techniques that many people all over the world find applicable to their daily lives. Isn't poetry quite similar in a way? And yet many young poets who might enthusiastically use the techniques of Yoga to improve their mental well-being and physical health seem to distrust the tried-and-true techniques of English poetry: meter and rhyme, for example. Would you care to comment, and perhaps give our readers some examples of the advantages of meter and rhyme in your own poetry?

RM: I suppose poetry and yoga---but listen, I don't claim to be "one of a kind" any more than any one of the other zillion people on The Planet is one of a kind---I suppose poetry and yoga are similar in that they are both disciplines gotten up to deal with life's problems; but in other ways they are opposed---maybe. In deep relaxation, yoga- style, for example, one tries to extricate oneself from the world of words, which, of course, includes poetry---or does it? Certainly if I think of a poem when I'm trying to relax, the relaxation game is over. So in that sense, yoga and poetry are at odds. But there is a sense in which being---trying to be---a poet also implies a distrust of words, an awareness that there is a world of things, feelings, and inner states which the words we commonly use only inaccurately and shabbily describe. That's why one has to be a poet: one has to discover---in words, alas---better avenues to that world of things, feelings, and inner states. One has to discover the special set of words that one calls a poem. One senses that they are special when one listens to them, and, "That's poetry!" one exclaims.

So how does one make language special? You can't do it directly. When people lunge straight for the specialness, the result sounds contrived and silly. The last generation's poetic language---what a disaster!

So, be honest! Just tell it like it is!---shouts the writer of free verse. And that's not bad advice. Fine poems have been written that way. But there is a fly in that ointment too. One has one's ingrained linguistic habits to contend with, one's standard ways of phrasing things that one has worked up over the years, filed away in one's gray matter, and no longer thinks about. How the devil is one going to pry oneself loose from THAT? A shoehorn, maybe; or, if the problem is large enough, a crowbar. Something mechanical---like, say, meter and rhyme. I remember a student in a poetry-writing course that I taught once in Clark University. I told the class that everybody had to pass in something metrical that term if they wanted me to pass them. This student, reading his metrical specimen to the class, expressed his outrage at the requirement. Writing in meter forced him to say things in ways other than he would be naturally inclined to say them.

(Surely this is the freedom that we in America are all---if not fighting for, at least waving our little American flags about---eh, President Bush?---the freedom to be our naturally insipid selves.)

That, I told the student, was the idea. (He was an intelligent student, by the way.) The requirement to make iambs forced him out of his linguistic rut. The result, I said to the class without too much exaggeration, was the best poem he'd written all term.

I don't always write in rhyme and/or meter. In the second section of my first book, there are some poems in a sequence about a wife that were originally in free---or maybe loosely iambic---verse. Someone (Dan Wakefield, a friend and sympathetic reader at the time) remarked that the experiences were moving but that for him the expression lacked force and inevitability, seemed somehow diffuse and weaker than it should be.

Resisting the urge to cry, "Wakefield, your criticism is diffuse and weak," I began reading the poems his way. Yes, dammit, he was right. But what to do about it? I ended by putting all the poems in the series in what the French in the 18th century called "free verse:" rhyming lines of irregular length. Thus they stand in the book to this day, much improved, I hope. Choosing some words for rhymes and discarding others forced me to realize what was unnecessary. I was like a boy whom mother has ordered to clean up his room. I had to get rid of half of all that dear rubbish. The need to choose forced me to realize, pressured me into self knowledge.

Hope this isn't too long an answer. Poets must aim to please.

MB: I'm glad you said that: "Poets must aim to please." Modern poets are often so intent on themselves, they seem to forget this. Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare were three great poets who seemingly aimed to please audiences of "Everymen," not just intellectuals. Dante chose to write in Italian rather than Latin. Chaucer chose to write in English rather than French. And Shakespeare apparently made up his own language to some degree, or at the very least supercharged the spoken English of his day. Robert Frost would be a shining example of a modern poet who mined the vernacular and struck paydirt. I know you've expressed a preference for Dante's "hairy words." Does the idea of pleasing your audience help determine the language you employ in your poems? And does this choice of language counteract the fact, as you said, that "when people lunge straight for the specialness, the result sounds contrived and silly?"

RM: O my goodness! You have made me aware that those last words of mine---"Hope this isn't too long an answer. Poets must aim to please."---are ambiguous. Please whom? What if I meant, "Poets must aim to please themselves?" Then the first sentence would imply, "You better put up with my long answer because I was amusing myself, making it."

Believe it or not, I am not being entirely frivolous. Poems have to be genuine performances---by which I mean: I'm not going to please others ultimately unless I please myself, and, ditto, I am not going to please myself ultimately unless I please someone else too. If I am going to be happy with my poem, I am going to have to see it making somebody else happy. Maybe not everybody, but somebody. As Milton said, "fit audience though few"...If he'd been living today, would he have amended that to read, "fat audience though feeble?" I think the possibility should at least be considered.

No, that's not frivolous either. People tend to assume that the Ages of Man are everywhere the same---that "Everyman" is the same man (and the same woman) wherever and whenever found. But these things get complicated when you look into them. Dante used Latin---wrote a Latin treatise---to explain to the learned people of his day why he had chosen to write his epic poem in the Italian vernacular; and Chaucer's miller, carpenter, and Wife of Bath would have had no notion that he was writing about them; nor were there any everymen in the audience when he read his epic, Troilus and Criseyde, to the English court---who sat there, mind you, in rapt attention while he read it to them in 1000-line chunks. Can you imagine a modern audience doing that? I had to give up teaching that poem to classes in a 20th century conservatory of music because it takes the lovers 1000 lines to get into bed. That didn't suit our Age of Instant Gratification. Nowadays we make quick work of our courtships; it's our divorces that we spend a lot of time on. As for Shakespeare, I want to write an essay sometime, stating my belief that we credit him too much and his audience too little---those rowdy fellows who would as soon watch (and hear!) a bear being slaughtered as relish the master's verbal brilliance and deep understanding of human nature. Our aim in life, said Frost in "Two Tramps in Mud Time," ought to be to want to do the thing that we have to do. Shakespeare did that for twenty years. Wasn't he lucky!

I figure we live in an age where there is very little interest in poetry and what little interest there is is likely to be wrong-headed---by which I mean that the poetry that some people find likable today is not going to stay likable for very long. One has to take risks, as the capitalists say, and I have staked my life---as we all must---on my hunches. Emily Dickinson did that with incredible resolve and courage. She's my hero at the moment. She imagined a reasonable person to write for, and she stuck to it. Pleasing that person was the only way to please herself. We other weaker, less resolute ones have to find a person or two of flesh and blood---and with shining eyes---once in a while. I may have surprised that person with notions strange to him or her, but I had to do it in language that he or she could understand. Poets like Milton or Hopkins who use complicated language usually have simple, familiar ideas to express; poets like Swift who have shocking, complex ideas usually express them in the simplest possible language. I love Swift.

MB: I like Swift too. However, I might argue with you a bit about audiences and attention spans. Poets who are "widely embracing" like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Whitman still appeal to audiences today. You make a good point about "Troilus and Criseyde," but my wife made me sit through the three-plus hours it took to finally kill off Leonardo DiCaprio in "Titanic," and it seemed to take an interminably long time for him and Kate Winslet to kiss for the first time. There are any number of lengthy books, movies and concerts that modern audiences will sit through, and often seem to enjoy, and not all can be written off as drivel or fluff. Can we let poets off the hook so easily for the declining readership of poetry? Or is it possible that modern poets are often writing for very small audiences, in the case of poets like Plath and Sexton, perhaps as small as one? How large an audience is John Ashbery writing for in poems like "Daffy Duck Goes To Hollywood," or A. R. Ammons in his more obscure poems? Or, more pertinently, how large is Richard Moore's intended audience? I hope that's a fair question!

RM: Dante "widely embracing"? Goethe detested him, thought that Boccaccio was a much more interesting writer; and after the winter I spent, getting through the Commedia in the original, I admire the poem but am secretly inclined to agree with Goethe. Before that, my mouse modeled his epic on Dante---

that darling, that pet of the age,
with professors for every page.

And I wonder how many unindoctrinated "common men" actually read Whitman. I ran a little Whitman experiment once. I had been reading quite extensively in the works of that canny, tough-minded politician, Abraham Lincoln. After I had finished reliving---perhaps I mean, redying---his assassination, I thought it might be interesting to imagine that I was Lincoln's ghost, reading Whitman's famous elegy on me, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." What dreadful, verbose, sentimental rubbish is this? cried the author of the Second Inaugural Address. Personally I am an admirer of that elegy and was shocked to hear Lincoln's ghost say that, but there is no accounting sometimes for the tastes of statesmen and politicians. And your Mr Everyman, poptune lover, of the present time will never like listening to Whitman. Whitman's poems don't rhyme.

But yes, it's amazing what modern arts audiences nowadays will put up with. What a little pretentiousness won't do! The Parisians in its first audience threw rotten vegetables at Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. Now in Ann Arbor, Michigan, everybody politely sits, pretending to enjoy it. Maybe the audience for contemporary poetry expects to be bored and would be disappointed if it weren't. Maybe being bored makes people feel virtuous for enduring the poet and doing their bit for modern literature. Maybe they would be offended if a poet was interesting. Those poets you mention, Plath, Sexton, Ashbery, and Ammons, had BIG audiences---I mean, not in comparison to Shakespeare, Dante, and Chaucer, but in comparison to...well...Tom Riley and me. Years ago, when I taught a class in poetry writing in Brandeis University, the students had never heard of me, but they all knew about John Ashbery and knew how great he was, though none of them could explain why. And there's the Academy of American Poets. That's getting to be really big business: thousands---or is it millions?---of hits a month on its website.

What do those people have, I wonder, that I haven't got? I remember reading an account of how Plath plotted to get a poem into The New Yorker. I never realized that The New Yorker was so great. I'll tell you a little story about that. Once upon a time, I was very proud of a poem that later appeared in my first book. Based on my brief experience as a pilot in the U. S. Air Force during the Korean War, it puts together the beginning of my first marriage, "two cute newborn kittens," both of which perished, and an abortion. It combines these elements with my role in the new American Empire as an "exterminator hired by the Nation / to keep this overcrowding world in check." In recent readings I have been characterizing this curiosity as the poem with which I BLEW IT AT THE NEW YORKER. In 1964 that magazine published four of my poems---nice pleasant little things, as it seemed to me. So, thinking that the poetry editor might want to see some real poetry, I sent him the poem I have just described. It didn't appear in the magazine, nor has any other poem by me since.

You ask, "how large is Richard Moore's intended audience?" Sir, it is as large as it cares to be. Large or small, I welcome it; but let it be the one with intentions. If I worried about audiences, such as they are, I might lose my sanity.

MB: When I said "widely embracing" I was thinking in terms of perspective. Poets like Plath and Sexton often seemed to be writing from the perspective of peeping through a personal, introspective keyhole. Dante "embraced" heaven and hell as his themes, Whitman used the word "embracing" several times in his writing and seemed to imagine himself as widely embracing: "I am large, I contain multitudes." Surely a wider perspective has its advantages, and I find your poetry to be wide in scope, with countless pleasing results. In fact, I would say you are a poet with incredible range, especially for this day and age, with peepholes being so fashionable. To provide our readers with a demonstration of that scope, since we started off with some of your light verse, I'd like to finish with a sonnet of yours that I really love, even treasure. Its image of the grandfather "in decay" struggling to speak to his grandchild is one that undoubtedly will connect with many, many readers, assuming they have the opportunity to read it. Any thoughts you have to share in closing will be greatly appreciated.

RM: The fermentation endlessly going on under my hairless skull was getting ready to produce another sour remark on Whitman...but luckily we are ending; the party is over; the reader is spared. Instead, let me repeat a remark I read somewhere: Whitman was a poet of astonishing delicacy. I concur with that. He has written poems of rare beauty. And finally, Mike, let me express my gratitude for your intelligence, enterprise...and patience with a grumpy old poet. Stay on the job, please. Contemporary poetry needs you.

MB: Thanks Richard, but if contemporary poetry needs me, I'm afraid it's beyond hope! Here's the sonnet. I'll stand back and let our readers hear Richard Moore the critic commenting on Richard Moore the poet . . .

from Word from the Hills
a sonnet sequence in four movements


You were so solid, father, cold and raw
as these north winters, where your angry will
first hardened, as the earth when the long chill
deepens--as is this country's cruel law--
yet under trackless snow, without a flaw
covering meadow, road, and stubbled hill,
the springs and muffled streams were running still,
dark until spring came, and the awful thaw.

In your decay a gentleness appears
I hadn't guessed--when, gray as rotting snow,
propped in your chair, your face will run with tears,
trying to speak, and your hand, stiff and slow,
will touch my child--who, sensing the cold years
in your eyes, cries until you let her go.

Published in Sparrow, Fall 1994

RM: Yes, I like the idea of poets commenting on their own poems. Dante (I guess we've mentioned him already!) started the custom, as far as I know, in La Vita Nuova. And as a matter of coincidental fact, I already have commented on that poem you quoted---at the end of a little essay, "On Rhyme," published in Paintbrush (XXV, Autumn 1998). Here, more or less, is what I had to say then:

Next, lest the reader conclude that I am a frivolous soul incapable of "serious" poems, I have quoted a sonnet from my book of them published in 1972. The locale is the hills of Vermont. Of course, the poem stands or falls on the comparison of the father with his suppressed warmth to the New England winter with its springs and streams still deeply flowing despite the cold, and of the father's decay in old age to the winter's "awful" collapse into the mud of spring. Emphasized rhyme words like "raw, chill, flaw . . . " which have double application reinforce the parallel. The rhyme sounds emphasize the equal length of the metered lines, and this bears especial fruit in the sestet, where each of the six end-stopped lines has a pause after the fourth syllable except the last, where it is after the third. I feel that this breaking of an established pattern, emphasized by the striking internal rhyme, aids greatly in bringing the poem to its horrifying conclusion. I think I was lucky in this one.

But I had put myself in the way of good luck by throwing in my lot with the sonnet form in the first place. Over and above the specific effects, the poem acquires a power and authority simply by being carried out with apparent ease in a recognized and recognizably difficult verse form.

MB: Thanks again, Richard. It's been fun, and educational. For readers who are interested, Richard has graciously allowed us to reprint his essay "On Rhyme" which appears in its entirety right here.