Writing the Silences
By Richard O. Moore
Edited by Brenda Hillman and Paul Ebenkamp
University of California Press
Poets lurk everywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they don’t just lurk. They loom large, rave, rant, and rhapsodize. Often they’re labeled as Beats, Buddhists, poets of the Pacific, or poets of the peaks, though of course not all Bay Area poets are easily pigeonholed. Some go against nearly every American and California grain and soar in unpredictable ways. Richard O. Moore found his own way in a region rich with poets, nesting in his own landscape, and founding his own voice often by listening to the voices of other poets. For decades, he was largely unknown as a poet, though he had public faces that he showed to the world. After years of invisibility, he’s finally made a splash in bookstores and at poetry readings and he’s come to be recognized as one of the grand old men of Bay Area poetry.
Moore makes his home at the Redwoods, a retirement community in Mill Valley, California, and, at the age of 90, he’s one of the oldest residents. “Is this no country for old men?” he’s asked, and on the spur of the moment he recites from memory William Butler Yeats’s 1928 poem “Sailing to Byzantium” that begins, “That is no country for old men/ The young In one another's arms, birds in the trees.” Poetry is in Moore’s head and in his blood; it’s an irrepressible part of him. At his birthday party in February, he celebrated at Muir Beach by reading one of his own poems, “Walking Into Ninety.” Today, he says, “I’m still walking and without a walker.” Indeed, he seems nearly as physically fit now, and certainly as mentally sharp, as he was as a feisty, provocative young man who told his draft board, “I’m a poet” when asked what he did for a living. When no one believed him, he said, “Dancer.”
Moore published his first poem in 1946. In 1949, he won the Emily Chamberlain Cook Prize for poetry when he was a college student in Berkeley. Over the past 60 years, he’s written hundreds of poems, but not until this year has he had the satisfaction of seeing a small part of his total work – including half-a-dozen or so of his earliest poetry – published in a book. Writing the Silences, edited by Brenda Hillman and Paul Ebenkamp, is the title. The word “silences” seems in part to acknowledge the long years when his voice as a poet wasn’t heard beyond his own room, or outside a small circle of friends. Moore didn’t lobby for the publication of the book. It was Hillman who pushed and pulled, and it’s thanks to her efforts that Writing the Silences is in print today. She has also written a tender introduction in which she says that Moore’s poetry reminds her of Robert Duncan and W. B. Yeats, and that it combines “a seriousness and intensity that is rare now in poetry.” Moore is a tad happier as a poet than before - but just a tad.
“When I write a poem I usually feel that the work is done,” he tells me at his cozy apartment. “I’ve never really cared about putting my poems into print, though I have made assemblages of my work mostly for my own benefit.”
For much of his life, Moore has been hard to pigeonhole. A pacifist, a photographer, a student of philosophy, and an aficionado of the international avant-garde, he’s been in and around radio and TV for more than half a century. In 1949, he founded - along with the legendary broadcaster Louis Hill - KPFA, the listener-sponsored radio station in Berkeley. He presented KPFA’s first program on the air, which was about Anglo-American folk ballads. Broadcasting soon became a way of life for Moore. From KPFA he went to KQED, where he worked for 20 years. From there he moved to public TV in Minnesota where he made two influential documentaries: one on American poets such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery; another that focused mostly on American prose writers.
On the wall, behind his computer, Moore has taped black-and-white photographs of five of the literary luminaries who appear in the series, “The Writer in America”: Janet Flanner, who wrote under the pen name Genet for The New Yorker; Kenneth Millar who used the alias Ross Macdonald for his detective stories; Eudora Welty, the Mississippi-born author, whom Moore describes as “a dear, dear friend”; Robert Duncan, the San Francisco poet and playwright; and Tom Parkinson, a literary critic, a friend, and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who helped to bring the work of the Beats into academia. The five photos say a lot about his eclectic literary interests, and his passion for writers from different regions that might come from his own early experiences as a kind of itinerant child.
Born in 1920 in Alliance, Ohio, a small industrial town, Moore bounced around the country with his parents. His father was a soldier in World War I, but never talked about the war; his silences seem to have been as disturbing as speech might have been. Moore’s mother was ambitious, but failed at all the businesses she tried during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. When he was 15, she died, and that made all the difference in the world to him. “I can remember that at that moment I declared my independence from the established state of the world,” he says.
At 19, Moore enrolled at UC Berkeley and cut off all the remaining ties with his entire family; he has never looked back. By the age of 21, he was expelled from the college – for both academic and political reasons. He eventually returned and received a B.A. Moore might had written a great deal about his own education in and out of academia. From Kenneth Rexroth - the Chicago-born poet, and critic - he learned about the writings and the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, and about the 17th-century German, Christian mystic Jacob Bohme. But he shied away from direct self-disclosure, as well as from the naked exploration of the self that American poets such as Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg adopted after World War II. As a young man, literary glory rarely if ever enticed him; confessional writing did not stir his creative juices either. Moreover, he was irked by writers who turned to the first person pronoun “I,” and poured out their angst The most powerful writers of the 20th century, in his view, mostly eschewed the “I”: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Williams Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.
Moore began to follow in their experimental, avant-garde footsteps as an undergraduate at Berkeley. He’s been in the modernist tradition ever since, and he’s kept modernism alive and well, which means that he’s written complex, innovative poems that resist easy interpretation and that sometimes seem like fragments in the way that Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) can be viewed as an arrangement of fragments. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot wrote in an odd moment of first person confession in The Waste Land.
Moore never set out to be difficult. “Anyone who intends to be obscure probably isn’t worth reading,” he tells me. “But I share Eliot’s idea that a poem deserves all the attention that a lawyer would give to a serious legal document.” Unlike most of the modernists, however, he has never cast himself on the right politically: not as a royalist such as Eliot; nor a pseudo-fascist such as Pound; nor a conservative American businessman such as Stevens, though he was the CEO at several non-profit organizations including KQED. Moore doesn’t care for labels; notions of the “Left” and “Right” aren’t helpful, he says after years of observing political battles and taking part in them. Still, for all his resistance to political labels, he’s been of the left if not in it for decades. During World War II, he was 4-F, and, though not a conscientious objector, he counseled young men on how they might find a way out of military service if they were morally and ethically opposed to war - as he was. After all these years, he‘s still a pacifist; in Mill Valley every Friday, rain or shine, he protests against the War in Iraq with a group of senior citizens who also live at the Redwoods. They’ve protested ever since the war began, and they’re the stars of a 26-minute, award-winning documentary entitled, “Seniors for Peace” by Brisbane filmmaker David L. Brown.
At KQED and KTCA in Minnesota, Moore helped to make the American documentary into a respected genre. With a small, dedicated crew, he produced and directed films about a wide range of subjects: the civil rights movement in Louisiana; Communism in Cuba and Poland; Duke Ellington and jazz, James Baldwin in San Francisco; Fantasy Records and popular music; and even one film on the computer and the human mind, back in the 1960s. Irving Saraf, a Polish-born, UCLA-graduate, and veteran San Francisco cameraman who worked with him for years, remembers his talents. “Moore had great leadership abilities,” Saraf tells me. “He came from the world of poetry and from the radical political movement. When he discovered films and images he was instantly fascinated. Working closely, and cooperatively with other people, he enriched his own sensibilities.”
For a couple of hours, Moore and I talked at the Redwoods. Finally it was time for lunchtime. In the rain, on the way to Fabrizio, perhaps his favorite Italian restaurant in Marin, he remembered the poets who gathered around Rexroth in San Francisco. “I had fun with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen, and all the boys,” he says. “But I was also interested in East Coast poetry. I was bi-coastal and got to know Anne Sexton, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery, though of all the poets I met Ashbery was the last accessible.” Then, he holds forth on the differences between the East and the West. “New York is more frantic then California,” he explains “There’s New York brilliance and New York brittleness.” Gazing at the redwood trees, their boughs heavy with rainwater, he adds, “You can’t escape the landscape in California. It modifies all human interactions. Here, too, life isn’t a series of contests as it so often can be in New York.”
Knowing the outlines of Moore’s life can make his poetry less intimidating than it otherwise might be, though it still demands close readings. To say that his poems are difficult probably isn’t helpful. Most of modernist poetry is difficult and Moore’s poems are difficult – or shall we say challenging – in their own way. Perhaps, too, it might be useful to say that he shares common ground with the James Joyce of Finnegan’s Wake. Moore’s poetry is often stream of consciousness; it’s the sound, and the shape of words, and even what Moore calls the “taste of words,” that carry many of his poems forward. Much of his art lies in both compression and omission; in the spaces that punctuate his poems he offers the reader the opportunity to fill in phrases, ideas, and images. “Poetry is a transaction between the poet and the reader,” he tells me. “The reader has to bring something to a poem and different readers bring different things. To argue that a poem has just one single meaning is absurd.”
Given Moore’s discomfort with confessional poetry one might not expect to find poems written in the first person. Indeed, it’s surprising to see an “I” on the page, and while that “I” sometimes speaks from Moore’s autobiographical experience, the “I” also seems to be a persona he has adopted for the purpose of exploring a theme, experimenting with an idea, and trying out a certain arrangement of words on the page.
The poems are at once sensual and intellectual, erotic and philosophic and they appeal to all the senses. They encourage a reader to think about ideas, and about the nature of perception itself, as in the first poem in the volume, “Shadow and Light” which is an invitation to look, see, and notice. If the poems themselves are not always clear or obvious, the titles often are explicit, as in “Driving to Fort Bragg,” which conjures up the landscape of Northern California in lines such as “place this with the pacific fence post/ posturing of hawks.”
In this poem and others, Moore uses almost all the special keys on the keyboard; he puts words in italics, and includes [brackets], (parenthesis), and dashes --. To appreciate his poems, they have to be seen on the printed page; looking at them adds an important dimension. There are often extra spaces between words, and the lines are arranged so that the reader can follow them across the page or down the page, as in the delightfully playful title poem, “Writing the Silences,” that’s collage-like and that begins,
|Let us consider||the cat’s pajamas|
|An unfocused||word sieve|
|a wordless Plato||a wish|
|to live||I think|
There are prose poems in Writing the Silences, too, such as “Columbia 1960” in which Moore explains his underlying approach to poetry. In 1960, in New York, he began to study Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy, and Wittgenstein became a life-long influence on his work. “It seems to me that the new poem will not come out of the soul’s loneliness,” Moore wrote in “Columbia 1960.” He went on to explain that it will come “out of a concern for language: i.e. what can be said that will not lead us into the same alienation that our previous language – the whole store of images that we call civilization.” The word “alienation” seems to leap out from the page, and so does the word “new.”
Indeed in his poetry, Moore followed Pound’s injunction to “make it new.” He also often embodied Eliot’s idea that the best way to discover one’s own individual talent was precisely by following tradition. Almost all his life, he’s been a traditionalist, though he’s also been a rebel who has broken away from tradition and has made his own writing new. The apocalypse is a part of Moore’s poetry, as it was for Eliot and Yeats and for so many modernists. In “A History Primer” (1946) - one of the last poems in the Writing the Silences, and also one of the oldest of his poems - there are echoes of Eliot and Yeats, especially in the last three lines
Move on. From room to room. From chaos to chaos to chaos
To complete illusion, of partial beauty, of partial resurrection,
At last, in the slow, heavy, lovely, image-riddled mind.
Back at the Redwoods, Moore explains he’s concerned about reading in public. “The older you get the less control you often have over your voice,” he says. “To be effective you have to engage listeners right away so they give their fullest attention to the reader.” At the launch for Writing the Silences at University Press Books in Berkeley, the audience is with him every step of the way and his voice is that of a man who has lived to the fullest all his life. Paul Ebenkamp, who co-edited Writing the Silences with Hillman, says that Moore’s voice reminds him of recordings of Dylan Thomas.
Hillman asks him questions and Moore answers them precisely, taking as much care with words when he speaks in public before an audience as when he’s at home alone writing a poem at his computer. And yet Hillman doesn’t hear the specific answer she’s hoping for.
“I’m still baffled why he kept his poetry so secret for so long,” she tells the audience. Then she turns to Moore and says, “You’re going to have to be less of a Buddhist. You’ll just have to get used to being a famous poet.”