Howard Moss, the poet, has been poetry editor of The New Yorker for 30 years and has a formula for paying poets -- at least the magazine does --
Say you write a nice verse of nine lines. You get paid by length. But suppose there are 11 words in each line. Well, they figure in the width, too.
Your check will be something like $291.73.
The poet, needless to say, will wonder if he might have got another fifty if he'd stuck in two semicolons and a dash. But then poets can be difficult.
At least The New Yorker pays them, which is more than the world at large does.
Moss opens the front door of the old Georgetown house where he is staying for a couple of days. He does not hear you knock but "instict" tells him you are probably out there trying to get in.
Praise God for poets' instincts.
He chooses a sunny spot on a sofa and sits down and you settle for a Mies chair that looks great in pictures and is one of the most stupidly designed pieces of furniture ever made as far as the backbone is concerned.
Not all poets look like Lord Byron in Ravenna. Moss looks like a middleaged man in America, wearing a good jacket, probably cheviot wool good for years, and a regular shirt minus a regular tie, and eyeglasses that look neither trendy nor anti-trendy. Probably uses them merely to see out of.
He has some hair, which he leaves pretty much as life gave and took away. It is reddish, and his eyes are blue and he has a smile anyone feels comfortable with, not too quick. Since a poet has to look like something, a poet should have no squawk if he looks like Howard Moss.
Moss speaks of Vita Sackville-West, the gardener who also wrote poetry which is not much admired. His point appears to be not that she was a lousy poet, but that she was charming and wonderful and somehow a great artist even though one might not know that from her verse.
You are pretty sure Moss is not some simpleton who thinks life can be weighed on some scale and sold in the store at so much a pound -- a quarter for Vita, a dollar and a half for Hopkins, $27.85 for Shakespeare.
Two hundred poems a week poured into his office when he began his editing chores in 1948. Now there are 800 a week, and a dismaying number of them are good. (He can use only five or six each week).
Sometimes he finds excellent verse he cannot use because of subject matter (after the sixth excellent poem on snow, Moss had to proclaim an arbitrary thaw) or vocabulary (the magazine does not print some four-letter words, which may be as valid in poetry as, in moments of anger).
Utterly unknown poets get paid just about the same as the best-known poets of the country. The worst thing is having more good work than you can publish and if the magazine gets a lot of awful verse, Moss does not see it, since the utterly useless stuff is weeded out by his assistant.
Moss is a critic, as well as a poet and editor. He wrote a well-regarded book on some of Proust's images, chiefly because he found Proust the most amazing writer of the century.
He also wrote a thing call "Instant Lives," which, not to split hairs about it, is a treasure of humor, being page-and-a-half-long sketches of valuable misinformation about notable figures such as Emily Dickerson, Bach Freud and their ilk.
Thanks to Moss, we know that Emily Dickinson was a "ruthless businesswoman" who dominated the manufacture of illicit which hazel in 19th-century New England. As a reviewer said at the time of Moss' book, "One cannot say all there is to say about Jane Austen in a page and a half, no. But all that's necessary," Thirty-five biographies in 84 pages are a standing reproach to the long-winded.
He is in Washington to read some of his verses at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in their poetry-reading series.
From one of his poems:
Love is a tourniquet tightening its bands Around the slowly dying wrist of freedom. Futility's a spinster bending over A book of household accounts forever.
Why, you may wonder, is freedom dying at the wrists, and who cut them?
Freedom can go too far. And would love (busy tightening the tourniquet) be recognized as love, or would love in that case be thought a busybody, an interference, a meddler?
The lines continue, affording plenty of delight for anybody who wants to take the words apart.
Bathed in the acid of truth, all things
Become possible: to be a cold snake At an interview, to live on scraps of soap To keep oneself warm, to resemble a cat Constantly stalking the shadow of nothing.
To the horses' clop-clop outside the window
Or the sound of a guitar from a neighboring room The doctor with a smile asks, What is man? A hero about to be done-in for good? A villian about to be rescued by pain?
The lines are from his "Buried City,' a volume published by Atheneum in 1975, following his National Book Award for "Selected Poems."
The whole trouble with verse is that questions have to be asked of it, all the way through. Why is there a doctor? Why is he smiling? Why are the horses going clop-clop? Why should a villain be rescued? Maidens are rescued, not villians. And why should pain be thought able to rescue anybody?
The trouble with verse is compactness and density. Some kind of answer has to be given by the reader each step of the way. And it takes practice, this constant asking questions every three words, and at first the reader thinks it's work.
Why hasn't the poet done the work already, so the reader can sell right along without effort?
It is one objection to poetry, and a main reason, no doubt, why poetry is not popular, and in a way it seems unjust that serious verse is not very much read, while the cheapest verse is everywhere admired and sells Winstons and other great things.
Love is a tourniquet? The hell, you say. Play with it for a while. Maybe it is.