Moss, Howard 1922–
Moss, an award-winning American poet, an influential critic, and a playwright, has been the poetry editor of The New Yorker for almost three decades. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
The true distinction of [Moss's] poetry, because it is first a distinction of technical ability, reveals itself slowly. It must be listened to for its physical character as well as read on the page for its sinewy flowing of figure and intellectual control. His way with the art has a geniality and ease in which form's limitation appears as possibility. The air of fresh life in [the poems in The Toy Fair] is there, so far as such things have to do with technique, because the poet's ear has made the nicest adjustment of cadence to meter and meter to cadence. Because he understands phrasing, his labor is felt by the reader as freedom.
The subjects, themes, attitudes of these poems are sad, refined, fastidious to the point of aristocracy—"Exquisite emphases and subtle losses / Make up their tide," as he says in another connection; to the point, sometimes, of a morbid and perverse aristocracy, feeling "The swank and stink of the imagination / Beautifully gone bad." But it is after all only the materials which are sad, and these are not the poetry. The poetry takes these things, subject, theme, attitude, in hand and makes of them, in the beautiful best of these poems—"The View Minus One," "Burning Love Letters," "Elegy for My Father," "Animal Hospital," and "Venice"—a Mozartian elegance and gaiety. (p. 68)
Howard Nemerov, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1954 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1954.
It is exhilarating and moving to see, in Howard Moss's [Selected Poems], the sustained energies of a talent that has fulfilled itself without reversals, apologetic or apocalyptic shifts of style.
Moss is like a pianist who refuses, despite myriad assurances that he is—that we all are—in heaven, to harp. The effect of this refusal in his poetry is an acceptance of other responsibilities, and it has resulted in a true growth over the years—an increase in magnitude as well as in refinement. Howard Moss's unfailing iambic verse was, in his earlier poems, an instrument of wry searching, of celebration of picture and of place. In his later work, it pierces even the deeper patterns he was so good at tracing to stir up the eternal but Protean fables of love, idleness, hope, and regret. His whole selection from six previous books is so happy and tactful that the other recent uncollected pieces show up as central, rather than the mere addenda which some collections make their newest poems seem. A beautiful and memorable book. (p. 94)
John Hollander, in Harper's (copyright 1971 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the July, 1971 issue by special permission), July, 1971.
As with any [such] collection …, [Selected Poems] may be read as a chart of the poet's development, a journey that brings Moss to the present stage of his career, at which point he concludes that poetry is for him "a rational derangement / Requiring that you forget technique / And concentrate on what is harder." Which is to say that he is after a kind of truth that technique alone can never bring him to. This is not an admission of failure to achieve technical mastery, for whatever aspect of technique you choose, Moss is among the most skillful practitioners. As for subject matter, Moss has always moved with sure knowledge through the "dark stone canyon" of the city, taking his reader into the buildings, into the people. But whether in the city or the country or beside the sea, his concerns are universal—death (our "second nature" he suggests), mutability, the apprehension of reality, the losses and gains of love—and these concerns are never lost to abstraction. Although a rightful portion of the poems present a frantic, clamorous, and despairing humanity, there is a tenacity, a redeeming comic vision, a positive voice to be found throughout the book. These aspects taken together convince one that Moss has come the necessary distance and is now well into that harder realm of realization he has worked for, that realm beyond technique. It is a labor that should not go unnoticed or unrewarded. (p. clxiv)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1971, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 47, No. 4 (Autumn, 1971).
I am struck by how well-pruned a collection [Selected Poems] is. In his sagacity of self-criticism, Moss has trimmed back old work in the light of advancing craft and widening vision, and the sustained process of self-winnowing, with each succeeding book, has had a liberating effect on his new work. Prior to the radical second birth of his last full collection, his careful nurturing of assured virtues and weeding out of mannerisms of over-refinement—borrowings from Robinson, Stevens, Yeats—had led to not so much a development of talents as a gradual fulfillment of promise evident from the beginning.
The most commanding and accomplished poems in his three early books are the longer works—"A Swimmer in the Air," "A Winter Come"—in which a mellow calm quietly and slowly builds behind the elaborate structure and peaks in a final organ music, a beautiful sereneness, that is an unmistakable tonality of the earned purer mind. (pp. 93-4)
But a reader is left, all the same, with a dissatisfied aftertaste at the finish. The most vivid passages in these poems are those in which the image in anchored to a contemplative, meditating witness, an allured listener; in other passages, abstract thought tends to pull the image away from the stream of the poet's life-flow. The poet-overseer, the impresario whose higher mind inheres in the spacious forms, lacks the unifying aroma of a single living human personality: the full presence of the person—the person in the presence—an articulating one man's naked human voice such as has arrived lately in full sweep and informs Moss's recent work. In the best poems of this period, we miss that spiritedness of a self speaking out. We feel that perhaps the author withdraws too far behind his performance, standing off from his creations and looking the other way, if secretly pleased with their high finish. However, these poems written in the late 'forties and 'fifties were nourished by a thriving genteel tradition that had found its highest expression in the masterful austere sonority of Wallace Stevens's last poems. Perhaps it is unfair to judge Moss's very substantial poems of that period by subjecting them to standards that derive from his newest work. (p. 94)
Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (© 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1971.
Lostness, separation, things slipping from each other, things gone, loves lamed or gone awry…. A pervasive sense of desolation fills [Moss'] volumes…. Against this continuing slippage and certainty of deprivation, Moss' sculptured stanzas provide an aesthetic restraint, a firmly embedded barrier of formal cadence, rhyme, and stanzaic unit, which, as long as the poem lasts, acts as a brace against the inevitable flowing out of the evanescent pleasure the poem contains…. (pp. 393-94)
In much of Moss' poetry everything seems to be receding, as though the speaker (or the reader) were left standing on a platform staring down the tracks at the diminishing traces of a train's afterlights. Given such a stance, the act that inherits all the interest from this evocation of loss is what the speaker turns to when the lights have finally died out. This is what Moss is so expert at and what accounts in part for the quietly powerful endings of his poems. (p. 395)
Richard Schramm, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1972, University of Utah), Autumn, 1972.
Very quietly, without attracting much notice, Howard Moss has proceeded from being a gifted poet to being an accomplished one; his Selected Poems records this remarkable progress. Even his first published poems were already so technically adept that an early reader might have wondered where such diamonds could go. The best jewels, after all, travel only in the best company, which, though distinguished, is not notably variable….
Most poets, I think, fight a life-long battle with words, and what they write about is limited by their technique. As they become more skillful in handling their resistant medium, they are released into fuller, fresher accounts of their subjects. But for Howard Moss, the job was never to speak more perfectly, but rather to select the perfect things, arranged in the perfect sequence, to speak about. Not fluency, but where to flow, was his task. (p. 350)
[Surely] the stories of Chekhov or the paintings of de Chirico move us not only because they are so well done, but because in each case the artist has arranged exactly the right things in the right order. The choice of subject matter has been at least half of the achievement. Of course, if the rendering were less accomplished, its inaccuracies would distract us or stand between us and what was going on; but the aptness of the rendering alone could never explain the mysterious hold those words in the dark have over us. Somewhere along the line, Howard Moss has picked up this same divine knack of arranging perfectly observed facts in a truthful way, a way that corresponds to the structure of our emotions, to their natural curvature.
By no means do I want to dismiss the high finish of his early craft. (pp. 350-51)
Nor do I want to suggest that Moss's earlier poems are merely facile. In fact, their formal structures work to unfold very private feelings, so much so that the reader apprehensively watches the polished mechanisms engineer the unsuspecting poet into the most excrutiating disclosures….
The later poems, however, have a new, magical power to say always and only what is true, to relate true stories. In Going Dutch Moss narrates an entire urban novel (have I forgotten to say he is our greatest urban poet?) in thirty-four lines…. (p. 351)
Edmund White, "Midas' Touch," in Poetry (© 1974 by Edmund White; reprinted by permission of Helen Brann Agency), March, 1974, pp. 350-53.
[In the best of Moss's poems we are] far from what lies at the heart of the best contemporary work. We are back in the '50s again, where poems seem to be made to defy the prying eyes of investigating committees, especially that super committee, "The New Critics."
"The New Critics" took themselves so seriously they actually concluded that the most important literature of their time might well be their own: criticism. And they in turn were taken so seriously by the poets, much of the best work of the time seems designed to function as the best witnesses might be expected to: open with a statement that appears to answer all the important questions before they're even asked, then follow with some fancy word work that will keep the investigators guessing what you really mean while at the same time convincing them of your sincerity, candor, intelligence, civility, patriotism, etc.
Obviously some committee hearings back then, and more recently, could be as exciting and historically significant as any other political happening. But I expect much more from a poem than I do from even the best committee questioner or witness. Moss leads me to believe I'll get it too, every time. Then he doesn't always come through. And when he fails, it seems more a simple failure of nerve, with little or no risk involved, than the more common failure of post-'50s poetry to take a risk too big for it.
Of course I don't expect every poet to be Evel Knievel, and many memorable and successful poems have been written by poets playing it safe, as Moss often does in [Buried City]. But sometimes the technical defenses created to defend the success of the poem become so elaborate and contrived they end up falling of their own weight and burying the poem. In those cases Buried City is the perfect metaphor for the work. You have to be highly skilled at such diggings to uncover the treasure without destroying it in the process.
Michael Lally, "A Gathering of Moss," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 24, 1975, p. 4.
Moss has been (but in the best sense) too quiet and almost quietistic to attract really wide attention. Yet Buried City … will give deep pleasure to any reader searching for a mature art that addresses itself to the observed, urban world. New York City is seen throughout this book more keenly than in any other poems I know. The long title-poem is particularly distinguished, and evokes Valéry without being destroyed by the comparison, an achievement to be brooded over…. (p. 25)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 29, 1975.
Some ten years ago, I had occasion, writing about earlier writing of Howard Moss, to remark that according to philologists, light as applied to colors and light meaning not heavy are sometimes felt, by a kind of synesthesia, to be merely different meanings of the same word. It is true, I went on, that leaves do leave, and that even the verb to leave can be made to mean both to depart and to form leaves, but it becomes a truth of experience, which is a different thing from a truth of knowledge, only when rehearsed in our consciousness by a special sense of life, that realm of natural recurrences in which the impression of the unique is elided. (p. 205)
The special sense of life to which I animadverted so long since has been ever and again rehearsed by Howard Moss, gathering to its fullness in the Selected Poems which won him the National Book Award in 1972, and now further. What is so special about his sense of life is that it has death in it—not beyond, or beneath, but within. Immanent death so drags these lines, these images down that they have a new range, a new plumb, even for Moss, beyond the imminence of the ominous, for they reach to the eminence of the undone, what he calls "the lapsed thing."
Though of living poets he resembles, as in "At the Masseur's," James Merrill in comparable dedication to involuntary memory as his Muse, and of the great dead often, as in "Shorelines," "Saratoga," and "Tattoo," Auden in like submission to disciplines below the tensions of the lyre, Moss has become, has made himself, authentically idiomorphic ("a potion of petals. They're thorns by evening"—such is wisdom). This is the more wondrous and strange in that he has not surrendered for a moment, for a meter, his charmed civility, the wit that can "wake to see the curtains blow their cool" and the worldliness that dismisses even as it entertains "our three false languages: / government, medicine and law." Moss remains and renews himself by keeping up precisely that "keeping," in the old sense of the word, which has shown him all along to be, in the hustle of so much provincialism, our most metropolitan poet.
And of course it is only the poet of the polis who can have such a rendering response, in both senses, to the pastoral…. But Moss has always been waterproof, and like a proper scholar of the sea, can sever what is ripe from rottenness. In his new book [Buried City] there are the much-frequented littorals, the beach gets its going-over, whence Moss can discern all the settings, declines, goings-down:
The moon puts down its gangplank in the sea
As if pure light could disembark.
And indeed all the characteristic gestures in these careful, exactly administered yet desperately deranged poems are downward ones. Moss knows that "the darkness takes the longest time to darken," and he bears with his losses as they leave him, going under. The truth of his condition, of ours, is a very stark truth: "We were. We are. We will not be." His exceptional gift is to work a visible, audible justice upon all three conditions…. (pp. 205-06)
The wilderness, the wildness now in Moss's grasp just because, I think, of his decorum, of his patience with negativity, makes "B.C." (for that is one of its references) a poem not only worthy of the Valéry whom Moss has translated and whom the poem itself invokes, but in its tough simplicities, its tense expectations, makes it one of the masterpieces of our poetry, one of the definitions of the canon—this is how Prospero renders the real:
Exiled from exile, you will always bear
Two sacred marks of the interior:
Memory and art. How early it grows dark!
They say the snow will bury us this year. (p. 207)
Richard Howard, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1976, by the University of Georgia), Spring, 1976.
[In "Buried City"] Moss's lines, in their lucidity, give us conversation as it would be in Utopia, all light and feeling….
Though Auden is recognizably Moss's master, Moss has none of Auden's preceptorial instructiveness and none of Auden's preoccupation with ideology. For Moss, if affections, attachments and love go, there is no institution or philosophical construct to flee to; instead, there is a soulless desiccation. (p. 6)
When Moss is most absolute, he comes very near the simplicity of song. Intellectuality is still present, in the form of wit, but language empties itself of intellectual reference and of ambiguous or equivocal diction. (p. 22)
Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 18, 1976.
Howard Moss's most recent book of poetry [Buried City] varies greatly in quality. At his best, in such poems as "Shorelines," his verse shows a prose-like lucidity. At his worst, in 'Sawdust" for example, his desire for concision results in extremes of diction, ranging from the trite clarity of aphorisms to the obscurity of enjambed metaphors.
Despite its occasional problems of technique, Buried City contains a number of well-wrought poems dealing with a variety of themes….
Moss's most important theme in this volume, if we are to judge by the poems mentioned on the dust jacket, is the relationship between art and reality. It is not, however, Moss's best theme, nor are these his best poems: "Chekhov" is too subtle to make its point well, "At the Masseur's" is confused by a poor final stanza, and "Magic Affinities" sacrifices meaning to technical virtuosity. The title poem, however, manages to blend a painting, the world, and the speaker's emotional experience into a masterful whole. In one of the poem's concluding stanzas, the speaker tells us that the concrete world "Occasions, and subverts,… poetry." It is Moss's sense of this concrete world, and his compassion for the people who must live in it, that gives these poems their finest qualities. (p. 82)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 3 (Summer, 1976).