THT's Second Interview with Richard Moore

In March of 2002, at the behest of Poetic Reflections, now unfortunately defunct, Mike Burch, the editor of The HyperTexts, did an interview with Richard Moore that was well-received by our readers, and which still ranks highly on THT's Essays & Assays page, and so Mike jumped at the chance to do a second interview with Richard. Unfortunately, there was a lengthy delay after the second interview was completed, as Richard waited for a prestigious literary journal that had published three of his less lengthy essays in recent years to accept and publish the new interview, after which THT was to have published it permanently, as is its wont. But alas there are sore perils when dealing with leading literary journals: between the Heaven of publication and the Hell of rejection there lies the Limbo of "We have lost your horribly long piece and can't seem to find the replacement you sent. We are gods, after all, and can't be bothered." Recently Richard gave us permission to publish the interview ourselves, which we have done with all due haste.

Richard Moore is a leading contemporary poet whose work has been published many hundreds of times in leading literary journals such as The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper's, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and The Nation. He has authored a novel, The Investigator (Story Line Press, 1991), a collection of essays, The Rule That Liberates (University of South Dakota Press, 1994), translations of Plautus' Captivi (in the Johns Hopkins University Complete Roman Drama in Translation series, 1995) and Euripedes' Hippolytus (in the Penn Greek Drama Series, U. of Pennsylvania, 1998), and ten published volumes of poetry, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

We will begin the interview with some introductory comments by Richard Moore, after which Mike Burch will deluge him with questions ...

RM: I felt that it was one of the better things to have happened to me a few years ago when Mike Burch suggested that we do an interview together on his website. Interviewing is an art, and Mike is a master of it. He has that sympathy for the souls of others that poets need and nowadays seldom have. I was deeply grateful for the result. And so I was delighted last year when Mike proposed that we do a second interview. Let me hereby make a claim for it, reader. Old men in their declining years look back for harmony and meaning in their lives. A sympathetic listener and asker of questions can be essential to the process. So it was with Mike. Where the words seem to be mine, reader, in a deeper sense, though he may disagree with some of them, my words belong to him.

MB: Richard, over the past few years I’ve published a good number of poets who write metrical poetry. Please feel free to disagree, but it seems to me that many contemporary poets who work in meter and forms tend to be better technique-wise than they are at conveying emotion. In poems of yours like “The Veil,” “The Playground” and “In the Dark Season,” you engage me as a reader in a way that many of your contemporaries don’t. It seems to me that a poem must do more than read well and convey truth. The best poems touch me, move me. Your thoughts?

RM: Yes, indeed, the best poem---any poem we hope will prove itself and last---must move, must touch. In spite of all the reasoning and opinionating that goes on about these matters, I think the finest poems are mysteries. I am always a little surprised when someone mentions poems of mine that they especially like---like those three that you named; and I think about them again in a slightly different way, trying to see what that person sees. So, in a sense, the poem I write and show to others isn't mine any more. It's theirs as well, and the poet's problem is how to get his poem, her poem to have a life of its own.

So I think a poet mustn't just decide what to say and then say it. He has to go with his vague joys and pains and use his rhymes and rhythms to bring those feelings into clarity and focus. For me, verse technique and conveying emotion aren't opposed. Rhymes, rhythms---the music of it all carries me away and leads me to say things I never intended. Maybe the poet who seems to have too much technique really doesn't have enough. That's a feeling I get sometimes, reading "New Formalists."

MRB: I agree with you that the finest poems are mysteries, and they work in mysterious ways as well, which may explain why the ancient Greeks considered goddesses (the Muses) the source of poetic inspiration. But your implication that a poet composes in a state of semi-consciousness bothers me a little. How does that work in narrative poems with conscious plots or based on known historical facts, or in a poem like Paradise Lost that has doctrines to expound?

RM: I'm tempted to reply that the only way poets can compose fine poems is in a state of semi-consciousness. I think there is truth in both views. Of course poets write consciously. But they have to discover ways to become inspired, that is, to open themselves to realms outside their consciousness: to deeper levels of their own minds, muses, gods, goddesses, The Holy Ghost...whatever one chooses to call it. And whatever it is, it's outside of our normal consciousness. Even people who never wrote a poem do things like that. They open themselves up to strange thoughts, witticisms, nutty notions, strange unforseen excitements and ideas that come from God knows where, make life worth living, and turn out to be one of the paths to wisdom.

You mentioned Paradise Lost. I don't think anyone who reads it will say that its greatness lies in the doctrines that it expounds. It's in the excitement and the surprises of the story, the relations between Adam and Eve, and above all, the character of Satan. As soon as it was published even, Milton's fellow poet, John Dryden, remarked that Satan was the hero of the poem; and a century later, another great poet, William Blake, wrote in his journal, "Milton was a true poet and of The Devil's party without knowing it."

Actually I don't agree with Dryden and Blake. Yes, the most haunting and magical lines in the poem are those uttered by Satan. He's so grand, so heroic...and he suffers, suffers so magnificently. I think this is because Milton---consciously or unconsciously, we will never know---portrayed himself in Satan. Read Satan's great soliloquy near the beginning of Book Four. We hear him, alone for the first time, confessing the sin that is the source of his sufferings: Pride that has made him wildly ambitious, like Milton himself, undertaking his grand poem. Milton sensed that it was pride and personal ambition, the greatest of sins, driving him to compose this greatest poem in English in his blind old age. Did he clearly know what he was doing? I doubt it. The greatness of the poem depended on his not knowing too clearly what he was doing. That's why we are moved, also without knowing. Great poems communicate semi-consciously like that.

MB: I suspect you’re right. As a matter of fact, this is the only way I write poetry. I call my method “opening myself to words.” I seldom have a motive or end result in mind when I begin a poem, although my poems are often inspired by something I’ve just heard, or seen, or thought. Your comment about this method of composition being “one of the paths to wisdom” makes me think of Frost, who said “poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Do you think any of your own poems communicate semi-consciously, and how important is the stirring of delight to the communication of wisdom in your own poems?

RM: That's a nice motto, but I wonder about the advisability of a poet opening himself too wholeheartedly to words. We human beings live in a world of things and words for things. Animals just have the things, which don't get all nicely dressed up in words. Sometimes I long for the vividness and power of that animal world of things undistracted by those clever sounds we make with our mouths. I think that maybe is what makes me a poet. Here's a little two-line poem about it, which I call "The Search."

Where's old animal me? Humanity, you bore me.
Take off your words, sweet things, and stand naked before me!

Poets have to use words. But I think they should use them to escape them, to recapture the power and clarity of naked things, the smell, the taste, the music.

Robert Frost, bless his grumpy old soul, was fond of those compact formulae that you mention. He had another one about poetic meters. "There are but two in English," he said, "strict iambic and loose iambic."

"What about anapestic?" asked a student at a writer's conference.

"That's strictly loose iambic," said Frost without batting...he would never bat an eyelash because he avoided clichés.

Regarding the final part of your question, I don't begin a poem with a desire to stir delight or any other emotion, and I doubt that Frost did. I begin with a desire to say something, and let's see what. I would like to believe that all my poems communicate semi-consciously, but I have to believe that the main poem in my life, my 6000-line rhyming epic whose hero is an overly romantic sewer mouse, communicates in that way. It has been a long time now, but I still vividly remember the moment it began---not in delight but in deep depression.

I had decided that I had married the wrong woman and that disentangling myself from the nasty situation might be impossible. I was sitting in my study, staring absent-mindedly at an empty envelope in my hand and thought about the mouse I had killed in my clothes closet a couple of days before. If I were a mouse in a sewer and I found that envelope, I thought (not saying those words, but just seeing it all in images), I might get inside it, use it as a boat, and float down the sewer to freedom.

A metaphor!---said the poet to himself---and maybe that was Frost's delight beginning---and it felt good, felt accurate. I had been studying ballads recently. Goodie! I'd write a ballad with that as the story.

But I didn't like the ballad. So much for that, I said, and got back into my depression....Then I remembered hearing Frost in a little Vermont town the previous summer saying his comic poem, "The Drumlin Woodchuck." I had just read T. S. Eliot's essay about the right verse form for poetic drama. It should be unobtrusive, he said, because clearly audible verse conflicts with our sense of someone speaking naturally. But the verse in Frost's poem was violently audible, yet at the same time completely natural, even though it was a woodchuck talking. His poem was in rhyming trimeter couplets of loose iambic (like the first two lines of a limerick). What a marvelous disproof of Eliot's essay, I thought at the time.

Then all that went together with my mouse problem. Why not try telling the mouse story in those couplets? I remembered the first line of Ezra Pound's Cantos, "And then went down to the ship," and the beginning of my poem popped into my head:

Then scarcely a full-grown mouse
with a sewer instead of a house
(and a dismal sewer at that,
more suited, you'd think, to a rat)---
of my family the youngest member,
for as long as I can remember
I'd longed for a life more pure
than that to be found in a sewer.

And day after day, it kept on popping, filling the most intense two weeks of writing I have ever experienced---40, 50 lines a day, at the end of which the 26 pages of the first book and some passages for the end of the poem were finished.

And I had always been such a careful, meticulous writer, spending months, sometimes years, on one little inconsequential poem. This was a main event in my discovery of who I was, and God only knows where it all came from. I was too busy to ask, didn't want to risk asking.

But the whole poem took three years. It always happened in spurts like that, but there were long periods in which I could do nothing, was helpless. I wrote the poem's last lines in that first two weeks, but to get to them, my mouse had to meet people, including my second wife, that I myself hadn't laid eyes on yet. And the characters kept mortifying me by talking at great length in those couplets, saying things that I had never known that I thought. When I finished the first book, I imagined that the whole poem might run to 1500 lines, and the thought shocked me. I had never written a poem remotely as long as that. But when the poem had finished appearing three years later, its length was well over four times that first guess.

And it was very worrying. I knew that a poem of that length and comic tone was going to be just about unpublishable. There was nothing like it. Who'd want anything to do with such a thing? But it demanded to be finished---and wasn't there something strangely, perversely comforting in that? That I, an otherwise intelligent human being, was willing to spend three years of my life so self-destructively: didn't that prove that I was doing something that had a deep need to be done?

I began it in Boston, took it with me on a Fulbright to Germany, felt it come alive again in Paris, where I met the strange, frightening woman who became my second wife; and when I finished it in London, I remember thinking, "Now I have done what I came into life to do, and I am content to die."

Indeed there are strange forces at work sometimes in the making of a poem.

MB: Having begun your last reply with that little poem about your longing to be an animal, you go on to describe the origin of what you say is your most important poem, a beast epic. Did you intend a connection?

RM: By golly, no I didn't, not consciously when the thoughts were popping into my head and I was saying it; but I'm sure I intended it in the unconscious parts of my consciousness (if I may be allowed that contradictory phrase), which Freud tells us is stuffed with thoughts about sex and nothing else. But I think Jung was right about that one: it's full of all kinds of other things as well, as I have just tempted us to suspect. The connection is too central to my way of thinking to have been the result of chance.

I've written several animal poems, and their success in the world (one was in The New Yorker) has disposed me a little in their favor. But the reason I wrote them...well, who knows what the reason is? One senses oneself on the brink of saying the heretofore unsayable---there we have it, the feckless poet's naughty motivator, the spring that makes him tick and tell the time.

When the poet writes about animals in such a way that the listeners and readers sense that he is really talking about human beings, he has to restrict himself or seem to restrict himself to qualities, adventures, etc., that people and animals have in common. Besides opening the poem to humor and strangeness, this makes it seem somehow more fundamental. One of the places that the mouse epic first came hilariously alive for me was in the first book when the narrator tries to use the envelope he has found as a raft. His weight sinks it. If a human being were as small as a mouse, this is what he might think of trying to do with an envelope, and that is what would be likely to happen. That's one of the things that the poem keeps implying: you can't escape physical reality. You can't escape the commonplace. That's the message of comedy. It can be scary sometimes.

MB: Scary indeed! Well, if we're going to be scared out of our wits, at least let it be by one of our leading wits and sages: i.e., you.

Richard, in closing I'd like to address your work briefly, for the benefit of our readers who may not be aware of your range as a poet. You are, of course, well known for your short, pithy, (may I say it?) curmudgeonly poems which appear regularly in a variety of literary journals. But in my opinion your best, most evocative work lies in more "subterranean" vein. I've long considered the darker works of yours and Robert Frost's (thinking of poems of his like "Directive" and "Design") far scarier than anything horror writers like Poe and Stephen King have ever concocted. Their fabulous monsters are more entertaining than frightening, and at least with a unequivocally evil monster we know exactly where we stand. But in our personal and family lives, it seems we human beings are many-headed hydras. So I sympathize with your mouse, who might be an abused son, an abusive father, a lovelorn cuckold, an unfaithful husband, a vicious predator, and meek prey: all simultaneously. We might pick him up and pet him, shoo him away, or stomp him out of existence, as the mood strikes us. If we were hungry enough, we would probably fry and eat him.

You capture such complex ambiguities wonderfully well in your poetry. For example, knowing a little about your youthful estrangement from your father, I can appreciate you saying to him many years later, in one of your sonnets from Word from the Hills: "In your decay a gentleness appears /I hadn't guessed." And yet in the same poem, as your father's eyes fill with tears and he struggles to speak, your child in his arms cries until he lets her go. There is both tenderness and horror here. Nothing in Poe or King (or at least nothing that I can remember) is as tender or as horrifying, because nothing in Poe or King is as commonplace or realistic.

Where I feel that you exceed the vast majority of your contemporaries, is in bringing the entire poetic tradition to bear on your chosen subjects. Many contemporary Formalists seem to eschew confessionals, romanticism, heresy, and various other examples of "newfangledness." But you can be confessional like Plath, darkly romantic like Frost, and many other things in the vein of many other poets. The poetic tradition is not merely a grab bag of devices and techniques. Does it not include the freedoms, heresies and hedonisms of poets like Blake, Whitman, Shelley, Wilde, Hart Crane, Ginsberg and Plath? While I admire your meter and rhyme, what captivates me and strikes me most about your work is the strange ore you mine when you delve into your own psyche. I highly recommend that our readers familiarize themselves with poems of yours like "In the Dark Season," "Sonnet 11" from Word from the Hills, "The Veil," "The Playground," and "Ménage á Deux:  Songs for a Father-to-be," all of which can be found on your poetry page in the Featured Poets index of

RM: Thank you Mike!

MB: Thank you, Richard!