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Selected Poems          

By Howard Moss

Original Publisher: Atheneum
Current Publisher: Out of Print

There were two Winners of the National Book Award in Poetry in 1972: Howard Moss and Frank O’Hara.

Scott Challener writes:

The Amphibian Nerve of Life

Usually when I tell strangers I write poems, they look surprised, then ask: You make a living doing that? Then the “emerging poet” shakes his head. But Howard Moss did make his living on, out of, and among poems at The New Yorker, where he served as poetry editor from 1948 until his death in 1987. In many ways it sounds like a dream job from where I stand, but Moss’s work showed its dangers. It’s not hard to imagine that at times he might have felt like the sea he describes in “Arsenic,” “Already bored with its literary career / …beating itself up, again, again, / And, sick of the moon’s attentions every night”: the danger in his poems is the danger of ourselves, or the stories we tell ourselves, the threat of solipsism diminishing us to a single repeating version that overrides or traps other possible selves, and, perhaps more importantly, diminishes the possibility of connection, of feeling that nerve again, and sharing it. When these fears play out, Moss becomes a little like “Miriam” who plays at being Miriam, or the “hero” of “On the Library Steps,” who

…goes up the steps

Of the library (between two lions
Impossible to tell apart)
To read a treatise on the hero,
And finds ten books about himself—
Their love, his love, the same, the same.

At stake here, as nearly always in Moss’s poems, is love. “The Meeting” begins in disconnection and separateness (“It never occurred to me, never, / That you were attached to your universe”) but ends in possibility:

I was thinking of myself thinking of water,
Of how, each day, I went about my job,
I missed one break in the Atlantic Ocean,
Of how I might have been here or there,
Fishing off the coast of Mexico,
Turning the sailboat round the bay,
Or, my chin resting on the concrete edge
Of a swimming pool, I could survey a hill,
The cows’ soft blotches stranded in the grass.
Maybe it was that, that last green thing,
That led me into your deepening meadow,
That made me turn among the giant stones
To look one minute into your mind,
To see you running across a field,
The flowers springing up where you had touched.
It was there, I think, we finally met.

The possibility for connection in “The Meeting” exists in the mind, in poetry. Yet we can imagine that Moss could also feel that work threatened the vital and necessary life of the imagination that made such connections possible. “Everywhere there are miles of files / With our names typed in them, yours and mine,” he writes in “Front Street.” Out of this tension between the momentary feeling of the aliveness of life (“the last green thing”) and the problem of how to feel it again, how to find it again, in nature or in art, comes one of the richest veins of Moss’s work. In “Crossing the Park,” he writes:

Crossing the park to see a painting
Somebody painted of the park—
One that I once found more enchanting
Than the park itself—I stopped to look

At the cocksure pigeons mincing on gravel,
The trees, each reading its own green book,
And felt the amphibian nerve and muscle
Of life quiver like a tuning fork,

Then steady itself to evoke some distant,
Wordless country existing still,
Growing louder on what was silent,
Its wild, sad energy visible

In hundreds of forms of pulsing shadow
Boned by the light, and then formed again
By the light—to the right, an imperfect meadow,
To the left, a sleeping, unfinished man—

Forms never to be composed so neatly,
Finished, framed, and set out to view
As the painting that hung in the nearby gallery
In permanent green, in abiding blue,

For any vision must mean that something
Is being omitted; being discrete
By making the possible seem like one thing
Means lopping the head off or the feet,

Or leaving a leaf out or one wave
Of that merciless connoisseur, the sea,
Or pretending the body exists for love,
Or forgetting the pictures of misery

That are found in the news each day, that spell
Out fortunes each night across the sky:
The terrible kingdoms of the small,
The crystal ball of every eye.

While “Crossing the Park” still sustains the formal virtuosity and polish that characterizes much of Moss’s work, it also worries about what is lost to its ordering vision. This was a new preoccupation. In an interview Moss indicated that he had set out in Finding Them Lost (1965)—the book in which “Crossing the Park” appears—to discover new territory, fresh possibilities, and different formal strategies. “Crossing the Park” announces this change from the beginning: the “cocksure pigeons mincing on gravel,” the green book of the trees, now interests the man who looks on them more than the “enchanting” picture of the park with its permanent, abiding colors; so much so, in fact, that by the poem’s end, we find the park has kept him rooted there:

The sun relinquished the sky. In slow
Inches the shade climbed up the trees.
Too late to get where I started to,
I watched their metamorphoses

Gradually give up the light
Till there was nothing more to give
To leaves and lives whose forms dispute
Those parks, those paintings in which I live.

That last line delicately ratchets up the central tension: at first the poem seems to forsake or at least want to escape from the kind of aesthetic discrimination that lops off heads or feet, that pretends the body doesn’t age and die, that forgets the misery that confronts us every day, but at last there are no escapes: we live in and among forms that “dispute” one another; we pretend and forget. There’s something magical about this poem, a magic we can find in the best of Moss’s work: the perceiving, the feeling of that “amphibian nerve and muscle / of life” in all of these disputatious, contrary, contradictory forms we live in and among, the pulsing of its “wild, sad energy.” These make it possible for us to be moved and changed, to be a little more awake, a little more alive—if not free, then freer—to imagine our way toward what Moss saw all around him in the city he loved: “the mysteries of the commonplace.”

Scott Challener teaches writing in Boston University’s Writing Program and Metropolitan College and Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, and he volunteers for PEN New England’s Prison Writing Program and 826 Boston. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. (Photo credit: Thomas Gearty)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • A.R. Ammons for Briefings: Poems Small and Easy
  • Jon Anderson for Death & Friends
  • Robert Fitzgerald for Spring Shade: Poems, 1931-1970
  • Robert Hayden for Words in the Mourning Time
  • John Hollander for The Night Mirror
  • Galway Kinnell for The Book of Nightmares
  • David Shapiro for Man Holding an Acoustic Panel
  • Allen Tate for The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems
  • James Wright for Collected Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Geoffrey Hartman, Daryl Hine, Kenneth Koch, May Swenson, William Stafford

The Year in Literature: Collected Poems by James Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Howard Moss (1922-1987) was born in New York, NY.
  • 1972 was the first year that two poets won the National Book Award.
  • Moss was the poetry editor for The New Yorker from 1948 until his death in 1987.

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Reader Comments (1)

I've been reading the posts since the beginning- 1950, William Carlos Williams.
This is the first essay that I felt really brought the poet's work alive.
If the purpose of the book-a-day blog is to celebrate the winning poets of each year, and to invite new readers to consider a poet or examine the work of a familiar poet in a new light, then you have certainly succeeded.
The poems you focused on are especially meaningful now, in the aftermath of our recent natural disaster. How significant to remember that "any vision must mean something is being omitted": both the visions of destruction that flash on our screens, and the image we have of ourselves suffering in silent solidarity, snapping off the television a few moments later to set the table for dinner.
I appreciate your lucidity- thank you.

March 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLizi Silver

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