The Lenore Marshall Prize

Article excerpt

The Lenore Marshall Prize

There were nearly 150 books for the judges to sift through this year. Three of them were by former winners, and the list of finalists read like an honor roll of contemporary American poets. In the end, the judges were unanimous in their choice of Howard Moss to receive the 1986 Lenore Marshall Prize. Their decision is meant to single out a book of exceptional merit, and also to honor a body of work four decades in the making.

New Selected Poems is not just a collection of superb work. It is a long look at a career that has unfolded in surprising ways, and without the kind of critical recognition that has sustained others. The urbane but astringent lyricism of Moss's first book, The Wound and the Weather (1946), heralded a distinctive voice. Over the next forty years and in ten subsequent books, culminating in this definitive selection from them all, Moss has refined and darkened that voice. Without sacrificing the wit and rhythmic finesse that characterized his poems from the start, he has come to write with a more searching complexity or with a more startling simplicity as his subject demands, and everywhere his poems speak eloquently of the wounds of experience, the weather of the spirit.

In his essay "The Poet's Voice,' Moss once identified the problem of establishing a human voice for itself as a central theme in the poetry of the last half-century. Art is a civilized, not a natural phenomenon, and there will always be a "pull between speech and eloquence . . . how to speak in the name of something real without being merely commonplace.' To solve this problem, Moss himself has never sought--as so many others have--a temporarily striking fashion. He is not ornate or homely, journalistic or swaggering or surreal. He never preens: his poetry is neither a public platform nor a private salvation. Instead, he has cultivated the gift of a true style, a manner of heightened but human speaking that is as unique as a voiceprint.

We recognize a Howard Moss poem at once. It never fakes a pleasure or an insight. It does not pretend to emotions it does not feel. Though he can make phrases with the best, as when he calls Venetian palazzi "spun-stone' or Jackson Pollock's paintings "wounded linoleums,' his rhetoric is calculated not to impress but to confide and suggest, ponder and console. And especially in his later books, it is charged with a poignant wisdom and rare feeling.

Moss speaks in a quiet tone of voice, and sometimes an elusive one. One must listen attentively--too great a demand on many readers today. He knows "how much restraint/Enhances skill,' and how the poet can "sometimes sound the depths/With the lightest touch.' His is the style of the reflective intelligence: a sea surface, as he writes in "Bay Days,' "Currents, always running, gauged to light/And wind, the depths varying the colors.' He is not a discursive poet, but one for whom thinking and sensibility command the same impulses:

What are ideas but architecture

Taking nature to heart and sustaining

Invioable forms: the fleur-de-lis,

The subtle acanthus, the shell-like dominions

Of diamond accretions royal on coal,

The Gothic tower and the rabbit warren,

The fine interchange of matter and matter,

The natural and social shiftings in the bonds

Of dialogues and elegies that rise from soil. …