Howard Moss Moss, Howard (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Josephine Jacobsen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Howard Moss is pre-eminently—though certainly not exclusively—an urban poet. I know of no other contemporary poet who can so marvelously evoke a city—say, New York, but that is no matter. His relationship with the city is as complex as the city itself. It is a fine blend of distaste, faintly derisive love, and—one needs to say "nostalgia," though conscious of another injured word. The city is fragmented, and one of the prime strengths of Moss's poetry is its sense of fragmentations: of time, of love, of physical surroundings, of social relationships. The shards represent fragments of things which once were whole….

Key words in Moss's poetry are "dark" and "light"; above all, he is fascinated by the mystifying and crucial moments in which they meet, the crepuscular encounter. In "Nearing The Lights" [in Buried City], for example, a whole series of speculations and relationships branch off from the narrow central shaft, as light penetrates and defines. There is always motion; at his most descriptive, Moss does not write a static poem….

Wit, drama, the sharp collision of identities, are perpetually active. Think of houses, dinners, all mendacious calm…. All his calm is mendacious, a ferment of below-the-surface entanglements. There is in the work such a kinship with Proust that it comes as no surprise to read,

                      … you will always bear
              two sacred marks of the interior:
              memory and art.

For years, Moss has been a brilliant technician. There was a period, in some of his early poetry, when that brilliance of technique seemed not always assimilated by the poem. By the time his Selected Poems appeared it was apparent that he had won that battle. There, and notably in Buried City, the technique is so fused with the poem's individuality that it cannot be separated, even for admiration. The long final poem which gives the book its name is one of the finest Moss has ever written, and that is saying a great deal.

Incidentally, one line alone would make the book worthwhile. It might be the nation's or the century's epitaph:

              Not to be loved is to crave power.
                                        (p. 348)

Josephine Jacobsen, "The Spirit and the City," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 223, No. 11, October 9, 1976, pp. 346-48.∗

Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Swim off the Rocks is] a superb book of light verse, which culminates in a marvelous poem, not so very light, called Horror Movie, with its sublime closing couplet: "Make the blood flow, make the motive muddy: / There's a little death in everybody." (p. 23)

Harold Bloom, "The Year's Books: (Part I)," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 175, No. 21, November 20, 1976, pp. 20, 22-3, 26.∗

W. G. Regier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The buried life is encompassed by community in Howard Moss's Buried City…. Beginning in the Lascaux caves, the title poem wends through an art gallery, movie house, and "Hegelian doubletalk" to the centrifugal emblem of drollity, "Baked in lava, the figures at Pompeii." Moss twits wordplay while implying he takes little fun from it. Usually the jokes are toxic…. Moss's rhythms, at least, are infectious. But his techniques are not limited to the superficial; to the contrary, they are subversive. Internal patterns are more than trickery, breath is caught and released in precise art. Sometimes, as in "Sawdust," the effect is amusement. Elsewhere the same rigor, tied more tightly, exploits suspense, as in the crash landing at the bottom of "The Stairs."… Unlike the winding stairs of Yeats or Dante, Moss's go down only. It is rumored that there is no emigration from the buried city; these are the rumors. (pp. 386-87)

W. G. Regier, "Review: 'Buried City'," in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Vol. 50, No. 4, Winter, 1976–77, pp. 386-87.

G. E. Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps no contemporary American poet writes so convincingly of the urban scene as Howard Moss. Indeed, it seems to me that, like roads and Rome, all city poems—especially those singing the virtues, vices and niceties of New York—lead to Mr. Moss. There is little question that in his National Book Award collection Selected Poems (1972) and, later, Buried City (1975), Moss staked a substantial claim on the strange, terrifying and wonderful territory we understand as the city. But Moss lays claim to other domains as well, specifically, the rarefied art of the light verse he assembles in A Swim off the Rocks.

In a time of cultural fallout, social shabbiness, and intellectual cribbing, when force-fed fad often supplants a good dose of whimsey, many have come to believe that writing that isn't "serious" isn't important. Not so, contends Mr. Moss. A Swim off the Rocks is at once clever, frivolous, well-crafted, outrageous, and, ultimately, genuine. Sometimes it's simply a matter of verbal fun, as in being a tourist "embarrassed in Paris in Harris tweed," or again when "Finding, in Frankfurt, that one indigestible / Comestible makes them too ill for the Festival," or pure pun…. (pp. 964-65)

Truth cast in the stone of understatement is a weapon with which Moss strikes home regularly. "Tennis: A Portrait" tells the real score of the game:

        Your triumph is to watch the set
        From the sidelines while you cheer the serves
        Smashed over by the stupid young.
        They do not know how the wind swerves
        The best-aimed shot from its target. Stung
        By age, high-strung among the doubles, only
        You are single. They miss the mark,
        Your verbal strokes—each lob, each volley
        As bright, and seedy, as New York, New York.
        You know the score—your nets of wit
        Hide your fine hand and, hand in glove,
        Time's racket lays no bets on it,
        Though it was once, at thirty, love.

This is heavyweight light verse, no vehicle for an amateur. It takes a daring and inventive poet to succeed in being so painfully funny without resorting to wearing a lampshade at a party. (pp. 965-66)

G. E. Murray, "Book Reviews: 'A Swim off the Rocks'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1977, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 964-66.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Swim Off The Rocks collects Howard Moss's light verse, written over a thirty-year span. It is a wry gathering. Sadly, light verse seems to be a dying or quiescent art, so that Moss not only delights us with his own work, but reminds us of past masters…. The elegant economy and anarchic absurdities of such poetry succeed in many forms and have simultaneous purposes—nowhere better described than by Moss himself, in an essay on Edward Lear, as "an entertainment, a release, and a form of criticism." These occur, first, in the poet's witty manipulation of language itself—outrageous rhymes, wicked puns, startling enjambments—and so at once reveal and revel in the tenuousness of meaning. And this preposterous dialect is joined with a distanced perspective that permits depths to be touched with biting satire or mock-heroic banter…. The best poems here are "Modified Sonnets" (clever Shakespearean parodies), "Fern Dying" (by any standard, a deeply moving poem), "Short Stories," "The Refrigerator," "Circle," and "Horror Movie." And to single out those poems says something about Moss's strengths and weaknesses. His merely playful poems sound too much like exercises or party lyrics…. But the poems I've mentioned, for all their digs and delights, are shot through with the same plangent melancholy that informs the sensibility of Moss's darker or "serious" poems. And that, in turn, reminds one of how often he has used a "light touch" to sound their depths…. Juxtaposed, the comic and querulous tones animate each other and comprise the poem's triumph. The most successful poems in A Swim Off The Rocks approach that same tension. You are smiling unconsciously, until second thoughts make you wonder why. (pp. 295-96)

J. D. McClatchy, "Grace and Rude Will," in Poetry (© 1978 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXII, No. 5, August, 1978, pp. 288-98.∗