Expansive Poetry & Music Online Poetry Review

review by Jan Schreiber
Richard Moore
Orchises Press: 1998
Citations are from Pygmies & Pyramids  by Richard Moore and
may not be copied or distributed
without the express permission of the author

This is a book with a protagonist and a hero, but they are not one and the same. The protagonist is the meter in which the poems are written: a dactylic hexameter capable of remarkable transformations and appearing in ever new and surprising guises but never eluding our view. The hero is the author, who wields this meter with ingenuity, grace, and persistence, demonstrating its vigor and capacity to carry contemporary American idiom through high diction and low, through fast-paced narration and philosophical meditation.

Consider the following opening to a poem entitled "Poets":

Scientists seldom are born, but the poets come one in a hundred,
   which is too many: it suits
                                               tribal conditions at best.
Picture America’s vast population, and think how it harbors
   two million possible bards.
                                                 Talk about oversupply:
One, maybe two to a language, as everyone knows, is sufficient –

This is so idiomatic, so near conversation, that many innocent readers might think it was generic free verse—of the sort that populates our trendy conventional journals and is distinguishable from prose by the eye (because of eccentric lineation) but not by the ear. But it is neither free verse nor prose; it is a rigorous meter built on the following model:

The meter is, as Moore points out, an accentual adaptation of a classic elegiac couplet. When used in a sentence whose natural rhythms place pauses within, not between, the feet, as in the fragment I have quoted, the form fosters the illusion of rapid, extemporaneous speech. What appears to be prose can on a second glance reveal itself as verse, though not necessarily in the high style. I, for example, cast the first part of my sentence immediately following the quotation in the same meter, which you probably did not notice but can observe when I point it out:

This is so idiomatic, so near conversation, that many
   innocent readers might think
                                                       it was generic free verse—

Keep reading Moore—soon enough you will be doing it too. (Sorry.)

We are used to reading iambic verse; even in these days of anarchy, iambic feet glide smoothly off the tongue. (See?) Such verse might be called the default metrical norm. If a line has meter at all, it is probably iambic. Thus when we encounter a poem operating against a different norm, we’re inevitably hyper-aware of it. Consider the word "population," which appears in the quotation. It consists of four syllables: stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, with the second stressed syllable receiving slightly more emphasis than the first one. If we speak of a "vast population" we emphasize "vast" and the following "pop" about equally. It takes a conscious reference to the dactylic norm to remind us that, in order to fit the pattern of this verse, the first two syllables of "population" must be treated as unstressed, while the syllables preceding and following them must be considered stressed.

The default iambic norm makes us want to consider the first two syllables a normally inverted iamb and say:

   '      -     -    '  -  '         -        '    -  '   -
Picture America’s vast population   but instead we must say:

     '    -     -   '   -   -       '        -   -   '   -
Picture America’s vast population

Small wonder that the meter (if we're listening as we read) remains prominent in our consciousness.

But as the cited example shows, Moore is capable of catching and couching the locutions of ordinary speech in his chosen form, and the strain shows only occasionally, as in the first line quoted, where idiom would omit the article before "poets."

Once the meter is established for the reader the poet can throw in an occasional substitution: a single stressed syllable instead of two unstressed ones. So in a poem called "Two-Part Invention" we have:

Spring nears; under the old snow, heaped in the alley, yet older
   snow shows through, like the raw
                                                                 flesh when the covering skin
melts ...

In the first line quoted, "nears" and "snow" each replace double unstressed syllables, as does "shows" in the second line. These alterations correspond to substitutions of a long syllable for two short ones in classical verse. Moore’s masterly use of the technique in English keeps the rhythm from becoming dogged and fixed.

So much attention to the meter should not be taken to indicate that the poems are merely show-pieces for a prosodic acrobat. They are thoughtful digressions on a variety of subjects, some rather uncommon among the self-engrossed poets of our day: sociology, anthropology, politics, and even mathematics. The poems inclining toward sociology or anthropology tend to concern themselves with an artist’s (specifically a poet’s) place in society, and a marginal place it is, we all know. The pygmies of Moore’s title (and of the first poem in the book) are there because they effectively combine a poet’s function with a basic necessity of life: hunting. It seems a song is sung as the pygmies set out on an apparently quixotic hunt: "Elephant hunter, your stout spear’s tipped with the seed of our daring." And Moore asks, "was there ever a poet who caught something living and lasting?" He imagines a celebration after a successful hunt and, in a beautiful phrase, he goes on to reflect, "What is the mind like then, but a clearing where spirits are dancing?"

Now, it is just possible that pygmy civilization, which Moore hopes will outlast ours, is no happier or more peaceful than our own. Pygmy lives may be as short, nasty, and brutish as any in the shadow of our dark satanic mills or among our silicon gladiators. But if the function of a poem is to envision a better reality and to create a metaphor guiding us toward that vision, then this poem works better than most.

"Pyramids," the poem forming the other part of the book’s title, is a little harder to summarize. Part comparative religion study, part meditation on the vanity of our own nation and its obtuseness vis-a-vis Chinese civilization (yes, we start with the Egyptian pyramids, but we move on), it is, I would say, a cautionary tale about overweening pride and cultural arrogance. My only reservation stems from the observation that the closer Moore’s attention comes to his own time and place, the more scornful his tone; conversely, distant peoples and times acquire in his poem a luster proportional to the effort we must make in imagining them. There is something to be said for taking one’s own contemporaries to task; that is the role of a prophet, after all. But I think I would be more convinced by an equal opportunity lambaster.

But there are times when the sardonic observation of a culture and its foibles strikes just the right note. In "Poets" Moore speculates on the reasons there were fewer poets in less affluent times:

Back when humanity started its age-long quest for abundance,
    scarcity was the result.
                                            Man grew obsessed with this seed,
planted his fields and his women. The women were always more fruitful.
    Babies grew faster than beans;
                                                          someone, of course, had to starve.
Why not the poets? For tilling recalcitrant fields they were useless,
    troubled by notions that God’s
                                                         earth had a life of its own.
That’s how it went for millenniums down to Imperial England,
    home of our colonists, stout
                                                    murderers, shipped overseas,
loosed from the gallows in London, where many a poet had perished.
    Morals inspired the laws;
                                                  it was illegal to starve.

How to suggest the range of this book.... From historical generalization the poems swoop into political satire and the analysis of material progress. As an example of the former, consider "Nosegays," a poisonous little bouquet tossed out to Ronald Reagan at the time when he was governor of California. Moore sets the tone by referring to his subject as "Ronnie" or "our Ronnie" throughout:

Surely it’s proper to have a reality; but is it proper,
   Ronnie, to pester and bug
                                                 innocent students with yours,
till they oblige you and riot, so then you can call your police, whose
   truncheons have made you the most
                                                                   popular man in the State?

Reading this poem in its entirety, along with many others in the book, one comes to see Moore clearly in his self-defined role as prophet. We scarcely understand the concept today, having replaced prophets with pundits. A prophet stands to one side of the events of his times, but he registers them, understands them, weighs them on an ethical scale, renders a judgment, and tells his hearers what they are overlooking, to what ends their current vanities will lead them, what is being missed and who is being destroyed by the blindness of the present. There are many styles of prophecy: one can fulminate, thunder, call down the wrath of the Lord, or one can by wily and humorous insinuation sow the seeds of dissent and social deviance. In our recent history, Malcolm X was a prophet of the first type, Lenny Bruce of the second. It is not an altogether safe profession.

Judging by these poems, Moore finds a third approach most congenial. He appears to be lost in his own reveries. He does not shout, but he invites us to overhear. What we overhear is often wry and amusing, disarming our defenses. We find ourselves assenting to a world view because it seem wise, sensible, humane. Only after we have signed the contract do we recognize that we have agreed to the fine print, which calls for rejecting much of the comfortable hypocrisy and hypocritical comforts of modernism. In a poem ironically called "Progress," Moore tells us:

Even in buying an old dishwasher for thirty-five dollars,
   all of our pleasure is spoiled:
                                                        new ones cost five times as much;
look, though, the model is different: they’ve added an add-a-dish feature.
   Men will develop a false
                                               view of the world when their hot
water comes out of a faucet.

Then, having compared pop tunes on the radio to potassium cyanide, he checks himself:

   O I exaggerate! What
                                       harm can a radio do?
What harm comes to the souls of our TV-mesmerized children?
   Shall they not shine in the Tube’s
                                                              bilious glow in the night?

And the reader is left to decide how serious the prophet is, how far to go with the wholesale rejection of contemporary comfort and convenience.

There are many other delights in this quirky book, too many for adequate coverage in a review. Let me call attention to a six-page verse essay improbably titled "The Abacus: A Rhapsody." In the midst of this celebration of numbers, counting, and the means of bringing ordered thought literally into human grasp, come these lines:

Think how the deer leaps, levering gracefully over the meadow,
   stuffed with mechanics, with joints,
                                                               swivels, the pump of his heart,
rhythms in balance.... Yet nothing is accurate, never precisely
   fits into symmetry. Life’s
                                            always just slightly askew.

Moore’s distinction is that he can recognize the unique and singular qualities that cannot be encompassed by number, and yet can submit to the virtues of number—both mathematics and meter. The result is usually not the sort of spine-tingling insight we seek but only occasionally find in our most revered poets; instead it is a kind of calm wisdom illuminated by lightning flashes of wit and reassuring us that poetry can speak, when it will, in recognizable accents.

Are the accents too recognizable? Aware that his disquisitions are not quite the essence of modern lyric, Moore pre-empts objections by disarmingly asking,

    Friends, have you noticed I’m not
                                                                really a poet at all?
Critics sufficiently learned to tell what meter I’m using
   call these nonsensical lines
                                                    cleverly versified prose.

Well, yes, we are dealing not with intense epiphanies in allusive metaphoric language, but with meditative essays in verse. In the great house of poetry there should be a place for both.

                                Jan Schreiber

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