Howard Moss Essay - Critical Essays


One of the definitions of a poem, Howard Moss wrote, is that it “keeps the welter of life, the threat of disorientation, just under control. . . .” This sense of uneasy balance—of order poised at the edge of chaos—informs Moss’s editorial, critical, and poetic judgment.

As an editor, Moss established himself as one of the influential figures in American letters during the second half of the twentieth century. His strength as an editor derived primarily from his single vision of art: a dependence on wit and intellect rather than on spontaneity and emotion. He once said, “Though I respect and sometimes envy spontaneity in writing, I revise my work a great deal.” The poems that appeared in The New Yorker during Moss’s tenure as poetry editor reveal how clearly Moss transmitted his own vision of poetry to other poets.

As a critic, Moss’s interests were far-ranging—from Proust to John Keats to William Shakespeare to Jean Stafford. In his major work of criticism, The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, Moss organized the structure and content of Marcel Proust’sÀ la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931) around four metaphysical concepts: gardens, windows, parties, and steeples. Although the book received mixed reviews, Moss was praised for his vivid and lucid writing. The pieces collected in Whatever Is Moving continued to illustrate Moss’s wide range of critical interests: Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Anton Chekhov, and Elizabeth Bishop. In “The First Line,” Moss presents a perceptive and original investigation into the different ways poets have used first lines to launch a poem.

Early collections

As a poet, Moss’s reputation grew slowly but steadily over a long and productive period, beginning in 1944, when he received the Janet Sewall David Award from Poetry. One criticism of his first collection, The Wound and the Weather, was that the poems relied heavily on abstraction. He was recognized, however, for his skill with language, his consistency of metaphor, and his adherence to formal and traditional structures and values. The Wound and the Weather adumbrated many of Moss’s continuing concerns: the urban setting, the preoccupation with loss, the awareness of time. The next two collections, The Toy Fair and A Swimmer in the Air, showed Moss’s progress as a poet in both technique and subject matter. Howard Nemerov called The Toy Fair “one of the most accomplished collections of lyric poetry since the war” (The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1954).

A Winter Come, A Summer Gone

In his fourth book, A Winter Come, A Summer Gone, Moss presented, in addition to fourteen new poems, a selection of the best work from his three previous volumes—poems embodying those characteristics which have come to be associated with his poetry. The two title poems, “A Winter Come” and “A Summer Gone,” are excellent examples. Both poems have the same formal structure: ten stanzas of eight lines each, shaped by an iambic pentameter rhythm, with a basically regular rhyme scheme. In each, the voice is that of the first-person...

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