An Editor Abroad

Howard Moss has been on my mind

It’s because of that Nicholson Baker novel, The Anthologist -possibly the most entertaining novel ever written about writer’s block and editorial self-doubt. (Next Baker will write an entertaining novel about a root canal.)

The narrator, Paul Chowder, has spent months trying and failing to finish a poetry anthology. Specifically, failing to write the introduction. He is way over deadline. His girlfriend has given up on him. Now he decides that he’ll talk his way through the assignment with a digital recorder. I’m a sucker for novels that do this kind of thing-that give their narrators a reason to speak. And what blocked writer hasn’t had this brilliant, idiotic idea?

In the event, of course, all Chowder does is ramble: about his girlfriend, his own shortcomings as a poet, and (inevitably) The New Yorker. And (just as inevitably) about The New Yorker’s famous poetry anthology.

There, he says,

I discovered Snodgrass, Kunitz, Nemerov, and Moss. Snodgrass, Kunitz, Nemerov, and Moss. Those were my four poets, for a while. And so I would read those guys. Mainly Moss. Moss was in his lovely self-effacing way a genius. You could hear notes of Wallace Stevens in him, and sometimes Bishop, and sometimes even Auden, but he was able to give it his own sad, affectionate jostle. Moss was the poetry editor of The New Yorker, and he was a modest man, so none of his own poems were actually in the big yellow anthology-but it was his book nonetheless.

In college Moss was my guy, too. My friend Jasmit and I both loved one poem of his in particular, „Menage à Trois.“ Between the two of us we could recite it from memory. I haven’t thought of that poem in years. Last night (my first in a solid bed) I dreamt of it. I won’t bore you with the dream. Like the poem, it involved a threesome:

Another sunset of scrambled eggs
And wine, Mars under the piano, laughing,
Venus at the door of the frigidaire,
Saying „We’re all out of blood again!“
How I deplore her use of the language!
You ask how we get along? Not well.

The poem goes on. The dream went on. And when I woke up (this is the point) I understood the poem, and realized I never had before. I could invent interpretations, but that’s not the same. „I have come to believe in loneliness,/Disguised as it is as an optical illusion“-I always stumbled over that line. Now I felt it.

Today, wandering through downtown, getting a badly needed shave in Chinatown (the best shave of my life: even the barber was proud), sitting near the bench where Gene Hackman spies on another Mars and Venus in The Conversation, I thought about poems and how they hang around for us. I’m not sure other writing does this. They charm us (from carmen: poem or song), they worm their way into our ears and our dreams, waiting for the day we wake up and discover what they mean.


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