Nicholas Moore, Touched by Poetic Genius

(All images courtesy Shoestring Press)

Twenty-five years ago, Anthony Rudolf said it best in his “Preface” to the second edition of Nicholas Moore’s Spleen (Menard Press, 1990): “The neglect of Nicholas Moore, a complex, many-sided, mysterious and disturbing poet is, well, a complex, many-sided, mysterious and disturbing phenomenon.” By then, Moore (1918–1986) had been dead four years, and, in addition to Spleen, the only book of his that one could readily find was Longing of the Acrobats: Selected Poems (Carcanet, 1990), a gathering of around 85 pages, which the English poet and editor, Peter Riley, had put together from published and unpublished work. For the devoted handful who wanted to find more poetry by Moore, the subscription-funded Lacrimae Rerum (subtitled Last Poems, 1985) (Open Township and Poetical Histories, 1988), which was done in a regular edition of 375 copies, was the only other book to be had. According to Riley, who transcribed the poems and saw them into print. “These poems were all written between January 1985 and Nicholas Moore’s death in January 1986.”

Given this paucity, which has continued unabated for a quarter of a century, the publication of Nicholas Moore’s Selected Poems (Nottingham: Shoestring Press, 2014), a volume of more than 200 pages spanning 1936 to ’86, edited by John Lucas and Matthew Welton, with an Introduction by Mark Ford, is certainly cause for celebration. At the very least, this substantial volume reintroduces us to the work of poet who hasn’t been read or thought about, except by staunch fans, since 1950. With examples from every period of Moore’s life — from the earliest lyrics written when he was eighteen to the last poem, written shortly before he went into Orpington Hospital in January 1986, where he died — Selected Poems is the first welcome step toward revealing the breadth of this poet’s accomplishment over fifty years, the different paths that he alone took.

One reason that Moore is almost unknown is that the Recollections of the Gala (subtitled Selected Poems, 1943–48) (1950) was last time he published with a commercial press. As Ford tell us in his “Introduction,” the other reason is that:

[…] from 1950 to the mid-sixties he composed a mere handful of poems, and published only one book, a meticulous guide to the culture and crossbreeding of the iris.

Without going into what happened to cause this silence and withdrawal, let’s backtrack a decade. Between 1941 and 1950, Moore published seven books and two chapbooks — two anonymously and one under a pseudonym. Again Ford is illuminating: “Between 1945 and 1948 he had no fewer than 32 poems published in Poetry (Chicago) alone, and in 1947 he was awarded their Harriet Monroe Prize.” Most likely, it was during this time that John Ashbery first came across, and admired, Moore’s poetry.

One reason I would urge you to buy Selected Poems is because it contains the entire Spleen, a sequence of 31 poems that Moore wrote in less than two months in 1968, after many years of hardly writing at all. The poems were written in response to a poetry translation competition, which was hosted by The Sunday Times, with George Steiner serving as the judge. The poem chosen for the contestants to translate was “Spleen (III)” by Charles Baudelaire, a sonnet-like, eighteen-line rhymed poem that begins:

Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux,
Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant trés-vieux

(I am like the king of a rainy country,
rich but helpless, decrepit though still a young man)

Although Moore claimed that he wrote the poems because of “a disagreement [that he had] with Dr Steiner’s thesis in his introduction, namely that it was a good thing that so many modern poets were interested in translation,” it is clear from the poems that the competition unlocked something in his imagination. It enabled him to bring his health (“diabetic bones” and “gangrene”) and the iris into the poems, that is to say, to be autobiographical.

Moore’s translations include two poems dedicated to “Nicholas Moore” which were written respectively by the anagrammatic “Conilho Moraes ” and “Rosine MaCoolh.” The dedication to the translation titled “The Prince of Wails” reads: “for Pee-Wee Russell – a prince in his own right – and that wailing clarinet.” The supposed author of this poem is yet another anagram, “Alonso Moriche,” with a return address that begins, “c/o Private Eyeballs.” Other jazz musicians Moore mentions in the sequence include Yusef Lateef and Claude Hopkins, who died in 1984, having never achieved the recognition of other bandleaders such as Duke Ellington or Count Basie.

A drawing of a Cockerel by Nicholas Moore

In his “Foreword” to the second edition of Spleen (The Menard Press, 1990), Roy Fisher gets right to the core of Moore’s translations:

There is no specific tone or direction to the ‘black fun’: it inhabits the classic bleak world of the satirist, where the rudderless impulses for good struggle among scoundrels and impostors, and there’s also an element of the wacky, knuckle-crackling, self-generated glee of the isolate who’s not sure whether there’s really anyone out there to share his jokes.

I believe that Moore’s Spleen is one of the great, weird, neglected books of poetry written since the end of World War II, and that it belongs in a category all its own, like Frank Kuenstler’s LENS (New York: Film Culture, 1964), another inimitable work by an isolate. In Spleen, Moore writes thirty-one translations of Baudelaire’s poem in order to prove that translation is impossible, while in Kuenstler’s LENS, which took twelve years to write, the poet sets words against themselves by inserting a homophone into a two-word phrase or multisyllabic word (“purr.Version” and “fact.Simile” are good examples), which he strings together in dense, paragraph-like blocks.

This is how Mark Ford, in his Introduction to Selected Poems, describes Steiner’s response to Moore’s poems:

Moore was not one of the winners announced some two months later, but in his roundup Steiner drew attention to a bizarre series of entries that he assumed came from the same poet, although sent under a range of strange pseudonyms (W.H. Laudanum, H.R. Fixon-Boumphrey, Jago McFaithfull Fabb, Rosine MaCoolh, Alonso Moriche, Lhoso Cinaremo) and with various spoof or absurdist return addresses (The Hamerican Impassy, P.O. Hoax I aaaaaaaaa): day after day, Steiner wrote, these versions had arrived in ‘fantastically mottoed’ envelopes, typed in green or brown; their author, he speculated, was possibly American, certainly steeped in Wallace Stevens and 40s jazz, and although “hors classe”, the dizzying range of approaches adopted (“parody, pastiche, straight, dialect, free verse, heroic couplets, quatrains, alcaics”) revealed more than an occasional “touch of poetic genius.”

Moore was born in 1918 in Cambridge, England, the oldest child of the philosopher G.E. Moore and Dorothy Ely. Moore’s father was one of three philosophers teaching at Trinity College, Cambridge, the other two being Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who are considered central to what is known as “analytical philosophy” and, as the elder Moore titled one of his papers, “The Refutation of Idealism” (1903).

Moore’s poetry is essentially lyrical and autobiographical. Between 1936 and 1948, many of his poems are love poems to his wife Priscilla. Others are dedicated to jazz musicians and to Wallace Stevens, whose work he was one of the first in England to write about. After 1948, a number of the poems are about the emptiness and anger that he felt after Priscilla left him for another man, taking their five-year-old daughter, Julia, with her.

According to Ford, “[Moore’s] attempts to branch out in the years after the breakdown of his marriage to Priscilla were stymied by a seemingly endless series of disasters.” And yet, Moore’s work differs significantly from what is known in America as “confessional poetry,” because, as dramatic as the poems can become (“I ran after you I ran after you” is the first line of “Running to Paradise”), Moore comes across as given neither to shame nor to histrionic self-dramatization.

Even in an erotic poem titled, “When I First Held Your Naked Body”, he approaches everything with a slight detachment that, in this instance, becomes an unlikely combination of interlocking perceptions, ranging from the courtly to the wistful, and including tact to tenderness. Here is the first stanza:

When I first held your naked body
It seems to me it was shiny like a seal’s.
Cool and fresh, and eager, and you moved,
Lightly, exotically, in a world you loved.

Moore could go from using unadorned, matter-of-fact, almost conversational language, which he broke down and reassembled in musical phrasings, lines and stanzas, to declarative, decorative language full of assonance, inspired by his love of Wallace Stevens.

These are the opening lines of “Pepe-le-Moko au Montrachet-le-Jardin” one of his translations of “Spleen,” which he dedicated to “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay,” the title of a poem by Stevens:

Beau Roi of Serpentines in thunderous mish-mash!
Golden glissadings, O empty effendi of air,
The tutor’s fulgurations, fine flickerings of frenzy, leave
You like a Dodo in the abattoirs;

One of Nicholas Moore’s ‘pomenvylopes’

In addition to the poems I have cited, Selected Poems contains three examples of his ‘pomenvylopes,’ which are poems and commentary Moore typed onto envelopes and sent to friends and acquaintances. In one of the “pomenvylopes” reproduced in Selected Poems, he writes, among other things:

“We also listen to The Supremes and we sure
do think Mary Wilson characteristic
soul bon-femme of the Noo World.”
Mike and Boris Pasternak

Who knows how many of these exist? According to Rudolf, “Over the years Nicholas Moore sent me 100 ‘pomenvylopes,’ which sometimes contained letters, sometimes were the letter. These cherished envelopes are covered with poems, jokes, quotes, etc.” I imagine that Peter Riley also received a large number of “pomenvylopes.” In these works, Moore shares something with another inveterate correspondent and isolate, the mail artist and collagist, Ray Johnson.

This is the first stanza of Moore’s late poem, “A House of Words”:

The words themselves have taken on
Their own personalities, like bricks or slates,
Or the quiet roofs of the villages,

So far Moore’s Selected Poems is the best record of the remarkable journey undertaken by this poet in words, and, during the last twenty years of his life, about words, growing old, and much else.

Selected Poems (2014) is published by Shoestring Press, and available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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