Copyright © 2001 Burt Kimmelman
Moss, Howard (1922-1987) Howard
Moss was an important practitioner of formal verse in the mid-twentieth century.
He also had an uncanny ability to envision—and thereby in his poems to
transform—nature into the environment created by humanity, bringing it into the
realm of civilization; he strove to formalize nature,
in keeping with his view of what poetry should be. He once remarked, "What my
poems are really about […] is the experience of hovering between the forms of
nature and the forms of art" (Leiter 29). Moss set an example for his generation
among poets who believed in explicit order, and for later poets who have
identified themselves with NEW FORMALISM. He was also the poetry editor at The
New Yorker magazine from 1950
until shortly before his death, a position that allowed him to orchestrate much
of mainstream American writing.
Moss was born and raised in New York City. In 1942, he won Poetry magazine’s
Janet Sewall David Award for his own poetry. His first book was published in
1946. He was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and
Letters in 1968, and won the National Book Award for poetry for his Selected
Poemsin 1971. His New Selected
Poems (1984) was awarded the
Lenore Marshall / Nation Poetry
Prize in 1986, a year when he received a fellowship from the Academy of American
All of Moss's work possesses a subtle finish. His early and middle poems are
end-rhymed and metered, his later work freer—but all of it has a striking
regularity of meter and tone. The prevalent themes in Moss's work involve
fundamental issues such as change in life, human relationships, loss, and death.
He writes ably of "the difficulty of love, the decay of the body, the passing of
time, and the inevitability of death," all set against "the inexhaustible beauty
of the natural world," as Dana Gioia has observed (102). He is, in fact, a great
elegist who can portray attachment and loss with stunning acuity through graphic
simplicity and bitter irony.
In "Elegy for My Sister" (1980) he painstakingly details his sister’s fatal
disease and her struggle to cope with it. Trying to rise from her bed, her leg
breaks "simply by standing up"; her bones have been "[m]elted into a kind of
eggshell sawdust" by chemotherapy. His metaphors go beyond physical distress to
show the plight of the soul. And in "Elegy for My Father" (1954) intense pain,
dying and separation are made vivid through paradox. His father, for example, is
freed from life by his pain, a "double-dealing enemy."
Moss's finely crafted verse is matched by his willingness to account for the
peripatetic and otherwise insignificant details of living, making them at times
monumental. In his work the truth peeks out through artifice.
Bawer, Bruce. "The Passing of an Elegist." The
New Criterion 6.3 (November
Gioia, Dana. "The Difficult Case of Howard Moss." The
Antioch Review 45.1 (Winter
Leiter, Robert. "Howard Moss: An Interview." American
Poetry Review 13.5
(September/October 1984): 27-31.