It was an editor’s dream: poems of this caliber, unsolicited and unexpected, in my post office box. The verse was assertive, muscular, practiced but never unsurprising. Who was this man?
Everyone else knew, it seemed. Richard Moore’s poems and essays had been widely published for more than 15 years before the publication of his first book in 1971. He has appeared in most of the major periodicals that accept essays and poetry, and he still loves small journals. Eberhart, Nemerov, Wilbur, Kennedy—these are the poets who willingly write “blurbs” for the backs of his books. Richard Moore is the real item.
Moore’s most recent publication, The Rule That Liberates: New and Published Essays (1994), should be used as a text in any serious poetics class. Three years ago, Moore published a paperback book of rollicking short poems. No More Bottom, and his first novel. The Investigator. Moore is brainy, but No More Bottom is witty, bawdy, brief, and ironic. Some of the offerings seem to have no purpose but to vent his spleen delightfully; others, such as “In Winter,” are much deeper than they are long, and fairiy representative of Moore’s most thoughtful, sustained work:
A wife and children gone, one grieves
and watches storm-tortured trees, hale,
flexible, whipping in the gale.
They manage. They have shed their leaves.
The Investigator, Moore’s first published novel, is an “investigation” of the odd Bromley family—adult siblings Clara, Edward, and Archibald. Now, many of us poets secretly feel that we have a novel in us, and not all of that feeling is due to wistfulness at the notoriety and wealth of successful novelists. However, what poets care most about, generally speaking—sound, immediate effect, metaphor—and what novelists care about—telling a story that gets from “here” to “there,” developing characters—are so different as to prevent most writers from doing great things in both genres. Perhaps Moore will be the exception to the rule—but not yet. At any rate, this is a competent first novel.
The next best thing to reading Moore’s poetry is reading him talking about poetry. The Rule That Liberates is comprised of nine essays published between 1982 and the present. (“Poetry and Madness” appeared in Chronicles in October 1991.) In his preface, Richard Wilbur writes:
Though he can spend a fine essay hovering between the formal merits of Frost and Williams, and being fair to both, Richard Moore finally comes down on the side of meter and rhyme, and would have most poets arm themselves with those things if they want to be precise and strong and “transcend their ordinary perceptions.” Moore is also one of the small elite of writers who can discuss such weapons—meters, rhymes, stanzas, traditional forms—with authority and without putting one to sleep. As a critic, however, Moore seems quite unarmed, save by his intelligence and learning, his experience as a writer, his unfeigned enjoyment of letters, and his straightforwardness.
The sixth essay—”Of Form, Closed and Open: With Glances at Frost and Williams”—informs the rest (which all concern poetry) and is not a bad guide for life on earth, either. Moore describes the depth and breadth of a Frost poem, its many accomplishments cradled in a mere 14 lines, and asks:
So how did it come about that he managed to [accomplish all this] in this poem? The answer to that question, I think, is (or can be) surprisingly simple: the poem is a sonnet. Its primary commitment is not to any previously discovered truth or to any intentional saying, but to form, to its manner of saying—whatever it is saying. As Frost himself remarked, he never even asked what a poem he was working on was going to mean; all he ever asked was, “How’s it going?” This—and only this—commitment: the commitment to traditional form (“Is it going to be a good sonnet?”)—can drop the barriers, the fears, the embarrassments, and make a deeper truth possible.
Moore praises William Carlos Williams’ vast contribution to English-language poetry. Poetry so “without pretense, natural, unaffected, unartificial” is difficult for some traditionalists and formalists to love, but Moore says we should try. In his way, Williams was as “pure” in his “metrical devotions” as Frost—or Milton, for that matter.
I remember hearing Allen Tate in the late 50’s, fuming about his former student Robert Lowell: “You just cain’t like all the people at the same time that Cal says he likes. You just cain’t like Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams at the same time.” It seems to me that this is exactly what we have to learn to do, if we are going to put ourselves together.
We are most free when we accept tradition, most capable of greatness when we try to meet accepted standards: of what it is to be a great mother or father. Christian, stockbroker, senator, or poet. (And a sonnet is most free when the poet tries to make a good sonnet-as-sonnet.) Once we accept the framework, we can attempt to enlarge the boundaries. But not until then. And then, not only will we be free to be unique, it will be our duty, under “The Rule That Liberates.” Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Andrew Wyeth and Giotto. Gerard Manley Hopkins and e.e. cummings. Opposites, and tradition set them free.
Much is compressed into this short book. In “Milton, Satan, and Now,” Moore discusses the modern ambition “to stand apart from the natural world and to dominate it.” In “Poetic Meter in English: Roots and Possibilities,” we find in 17 pages one of the most enlightened, succinct analyses of American metrics to date. Other essays tackle Yeats’ supernatural “System” (it does not really matter as we read his poems), fanaticism, and “Words and Healing: What’s In It for the Poet?”
The Rule That Liberates imparts a healthy respect for and curiosity about how great poems are composed, and a clearer understanding that poetry should be fun. Moore cites Frost’s “no surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader,” and reminds us of the healthy underlying frivolity of much really good poetry. For example, in “Classicism in Poetry,” he describes the “stultifying” phenomenon of “the quest for the perfect poem.” Let us call it, remembering an incident in the Second World War, the poem which is 100 percent efficient. Field Marshall Montgomery, who was fond of taking pot shots at his Prime Minister’s self-indulgent habits, once boasted, “I don’t smoke and I don’t drink, and I’m 100% efficient.” When the remark reached Churchill, he replied, “I drink a lot and I smoke big cigars and I’m 200% efficient.” So is this book.
[No More Bottom, by Richard Moore (Alexandria, Virginia: Orchises Press) 75 pp., $10.00]
[The Investigator, by Richard Moore (Brownsville, Oregon: Story Line Press) 220 pp., $18.95]
[The Rule That Liberates: New and Published Essays, by Richard Moore (Vermillion, South Dakota: The University of South Dakota Press) 124 pp., $10.95]
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