Merrill Moore was a large, imposing man, or at least that is how I remember him ( his build was that of a long-distance swimmer, which he was). I met him only once, when I was a senior at Phillips Academy. Dudley Fitts, one of my teachers, invited him to come up and read his poems. These were, and are, instantly accessible without any analysis, and I was sufficiently taken with them to go to the academy’s Oliver Wendell Holmes Library and try to check out Clinical Sonnets.
Try? No, no, Elizabeth Eades, the school librarian, didn’t approve of these excessively candid, even suggestive poems and, scowling, said that she would not allow me to borrow the book unless I had a note from a faculty member. The poem to which I believe Miss Eades most strenuously objected was ‘Conversation with Gertrude or as simple as that. She was a waitress in a nightclub in a loquacious mood who took it into her head to tell me how she picked her man. He’s got to be a good spender or I won’t go out with him. Tell me how you can tell if he’s a good spender? Oh, I take care to see that he has a fat roll’. ( And, yes, that entire thing is the title.) I went to request such a note from Fitts, who laughed and wrote one.
I can’t think of another instance of my having to get permission to read a book of poems. But the need to do so on that occasion lent a degree of glamor to Moore’s work, which many censored and banned books have, or books on the index librorum prohibitorum. ‘Banned in Boston’ used to be a tag publishers would put in ads because they knew it would promote sales elsewhere. ( Bostonians, I have always assumed, could cross the river into Cambridge and buy the book there.)
I cheerfully confess that because of this experience with the redoubtable Miss Eades I have had a special fondness for Moore’s poetry that has lasted more than sixty-some years. My admiration for him has by now been somewhat qualified, but he has not, like Carl Sandburg or e. e. cummings, become an embarrassment. I still find many things to like in M ( a thousand sonnets by Merrill Moore) and the smaller collections.
Finally, there is the mythology, which has faded mostly but is odd enough for a few people to remember it. Moore is said to have written many, many sonnets. The estimates range from 15,000 to 50,000, but after the lower number it doesn’t matter much. More than likely, the impressive but daunting volume of his work is one of the main reasons for his present obscurity. The demands on his admirers are simply too great and most readers are discouraged and turn away. (There was a New Yorker cartoon some years ago that showed a little boy confronting a plate on which the spinach he had been served was piled high enough to tower over him.) Moore is reported to have written sonnets in his car while waiting for traffic lights to turn green. It was widely assumed that he didn’t revise much ( if at all) because he was more than likely to be already working on the next one, but this, I can attest, is not true.
Moore’s poetry relies on his keen observation of his subjects and his tone as he describes them: he is focused but relaxed, clinical in his balance between intimacy and distance. Technically the key to his work, I think, is his perpetual struggle with form, the acceptance of the confined fourteen-line space and then the simultaneous way in which he perverts it or rebels against it. Does the poem run on for more than fourteen lines? No problem! He puts the excess into the title so that what remains in the text is the correct number. This is a joke but, as with most good jokes, there is a point to it. He chafes against the constraints of Petrarch, Surrey, Wyatt and Shakespeare, and the freedom he allows himself is often startling. The idea of limitation and its pressures, persists, however loose his practice may be. My guess would be that it was just distracting enough to liberate a part of his mind and enable the freedom he needed to take the poem in directions he hadn’t at first intended and that could sometimes be better than what he had planned. He often skitters from one image to another, while, as readers, we can react both to the images and also to their almost biological metamorphoses.
What I have put together in this small volume are pieces that I like, of course, and that seem to me exemplary of the physician’s poise I find so attractive. In this sonnet, nearly flawless, there comes surprise first and then at the end admiration:
TWO THINGS I WILL REMEMBER AS LONG AS I LIVE
( And both, come to think of it, are similar;
I had not realized that until this moment)
They are: the look on the face of ( believe me) a fish
When he is jerked out of water, by the hook
And is trying to disengage it from his mouth
In a dumb brute animal way that is pitiful
Also the effort in the eye itself
To see, to comprehend this awful state
The look of wild defeated frustration there
Gasping, gulping, convulsively moving his gills
And body, seeking water to cure his ills.
The other, I nearly forgot it, the other is
The look on the face of a man dying of heart failure
David R. Slavitt, educated at Andover, Yale, and Columbia, is the author of more than 117 books – novels, poetry, reportage and translations. He was the movie reviewer for Newsweek in the sixties and was co-editor of the Johns Hopkins Complete Roman Drama in Translation Series as well as the Penn Greek Drama Series. Among his recent publications are his version of The Mahabharata (Northwestern University Press), The Sonnets and Short Poems of Francesco Petrarch (Harvard University Press), Civil Wars (Louisiana State University Press), The Four Other Plays of Sophocles (Johns Hopkins University Press) and The Crooning Wind: Three Greenlandic Poets (New American Press).