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"A Momentary Stay" : Musings on the Poetry of Harry Moore

Posted: Nov 06, 2013

It was like old home week at the 13th Annual Writers' Conference at Calhoun Community College when I gathered along with longtime colleagues and former students, now professors themselves, and guests to hear my good friend Dr. Harry Moore read and talk about his poetry.

Dr. Moore chaired the English Department at Calhoun until his retirement in 2009. He did not begin writing poetry in earnest until around twenty years ago and now has published his first chapbook "What He Would Call Them" (Finishing Line Press, Georgetown, KY, 2013). This slim volume contains seventeen beautifully crafted and frankly confessional poems in the vein of Robert Lowell, and others, but at the same time they are also narrative and conversational, reminiscent of the poems of Robert Frost. Most have rural settings and are populated with characters from his past (father, mother, brother) as well as his contemporary friends and family, his children and grandchildren, and his wife, Cassandra, also a teacher. Moore's husband/wife poems tend to restore trust in marriage for even the most cynical of readers.

As both a scholar and a poet, Moore brings the best of the two traditions together in his work--classical and modern literature and the equally bountiful experience of his own life with its roots deep in rural Alabama. He draws on this powerful dual heritage to ground his poems in the inheritance of the past and to connect them to the dynamics of growth, struggle, loss, and change of contemporary life. Structurally, Moore's poetry is much like the free verse of T. S. Eliot, in that it has a "ghost of a meter behind it." That "ghost" is primarily iambic pentameter, the predominant rhythm of our ordinary speech.

My friend Bonnie Roberts, herself an accomplished and widely published poet, writes that Moore's poems speak in a voice "often reminiscent of Wendell Berry and Seamus Heaney" and that Moore understands not only the role of "naming things" but also the importance of "those moments between naming---when we look, smell, taste, touch, and listen to the world which surrounds us in nameless mystery."

Moore conceded in his opening remarks that poets are notoriously unreliable when discussing their own work. Perhaps, he suggested, they themselves may not know exactly what the poem means, they may have forgotten its actual genesis, or they may even lie outright if it suits their purposes. Nevertheless, poets are expected to speak about poetry, especially their own. As for his own poems, Moore says that they are an attempt to "salvage" something from the past. He sees poems acting like a kind of "freeze frame," attempting to rescue something from the current of time.

Moore called on poets such as Wordsworth and Frost to help him elucidate his point by quoting Wordsworth's observation that "spots of time" from the past can make the present moment new and Frost's famous line that a poem is a "momentary stay against confusion." Not, Moore quipped, as a student once called it, "a momentary state of confusion." The role of the poem, Moore reiterated, is "to clarify," to "interpret" experience so that it becomes even more meaningful. A poem should also "purge." It should be cathartic. T. S. Eliot, one of Moore's favorite poets, said of his modern classic The Waste Land: " I wrote The Waste Land simply to relieve my own feelings." As Moore spoke, I was I reminded of Alexander Pope's description of good poetry in his Essay on Criticism (itself a poem): "what oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd."

Moore confided that he had not begun writing poetry seriously until midlife when many tragedies seemed to happen all at once. In his poem "GP Writes an Elegy," Moore wrote of the death of friends from cancer as well as the loss of youth and a past that is forever gone. Toward the end of the poem, GP (Graveyard Poet) relieves his angst and the growing shadow of death in his life, by pumping himself up "with tales of prowess, conquest, field goals,...like some scop drunk on autumn wine." Many of us have asked the question of how we can cope with lost times, lost friendships, lost youth, the impending shadow of death. I believe that if we are among the fortunate ones, we write.

How fortuitous that the day of the Writers' Conference happened to be a glorious autumn day. Fall is Moore's favorite season, a "glorious orgy of death," but also a harbinger of new beginnings. Moore reminisced about the starting of a new school year, the "sense of possibility" inherent in the season. In his poem "Fall" one becomes fully aware of the double meaning of the word "fall," as in the sense of "overreaching" like Icarus. In the poem, the poet/teacher looks out over his class of young students and wonders what they are thinking and thinks to himself "How can I ask...." The poem is ripe with allusions to Frost's "After Apple Picking," W H Auden's poem "Musee' Des Beaux Arts," and Marlowe (Dr. Faustus) and Milton, who declared in Paradise Lost that his object was "to justify the ways of God to man."

Moore's poems, born out of classical literature and his own past, are frankly confessional and deeply emotional. I am not easily moved to tears but I felt a lump growing in my throat as lines in Moore's poems captured moments that mirrored so many similar moments in my own life and brought to me , as Wordsworth would say, "thoughts that do lie too deep for tears." When Moore writes of the hardscrabble life of his father (as in "The Search") and the willing and relentless sacrifices of his mother (as in "Taking Leave") who would labor all night at the textile mill, seeing them whenever she could steal a little time from sleep and work, I was reminded of Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," one of the most painfully beautiful poems I have ever read.

At one point in his talk, offering a caveat for his own poetry, Moore quoted Edgar Arlington Robinson (of Richard Cory fame), who once commented about his poetry, "I am a trifle solemn in my verses ." The line is meant to be humorous in its obvious understatement, but let me hasten to say that Moore's verses are by no means glum. They are poignant and at times painful, wistful and yet resigned, and held together firmly by love and the glorious gift of memory and language. At the conclusion of Archibald MacLeish's Pulitzer prize winning drama J.B. when the world lies in ashes and he has lost everything, MacLeish has J.B.'s wife Sarah utter these words: "You wanted justice and there was none---only love.....Blow on the coal of the heart and we'll see by and by...."

The final poem in the chapbook is entitled "Adam Goes Walking on Lookout Mountain." I think the poem summarizes everything I have been trying to convey about the poetry of Harry Moore. It begins, "He thought if he could name them all/ take them in..... " and concludes with the lines "Paradise would be his again, the garden safe/ within its walls, the way it was before he knew/that he knew."

Harry Moore is currently working on his second chapbook entitled "Times' Fool." The poems in this volume clearly acknowledge Moore's literary predecessors, among them Shakespeare and particularly John Donne, whose life has much in common with Moore's own. Moore, who grew up the son of a farmer and grandson of a preacher in Reeltown, Alabama, and who took degrees from Rice, Auburn, and Middle Tennessee State, now lives in Decatur, Alabama, with his wife of thirty years. He has been published in numerous literary magazines and serves as assistant editor of POEM magazine.

By Penne J. Laubenthal

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