On Nicholas Moore

Peter Howarth

‘What became of that wave of energy in the 1940s?’ Denise Levertov wondered in 1965, looking back on her place in Kenneth Rexroth’s 1947 anthology, New British Poets. ‘Many of the 1940s poets seem to have dropped right out of the scene.’ Was their ‘failure to develop’ their own fault, she wondered, or the result of a gigantic ‘failure of nerve’ in British publishing? In the manuscript of her lecture, a cancelled sentence names the missing; first on her list is Nicholas Moore.

Not just the publishers, but pretty much everything else had failed for Moore. The son of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, he had begun to publish poems in his teens. Though his father had sounded out the Hogarth Press, Nicholas looked like he could manage very well on his own. He edited Seven, an early venue for Dylan Thomas and the New Apocalypse poets, but his real coup had been to get several Wallace Stevens poems published in Britain, much to Stevens’s pleasure. Meanwhile, his own poems kept coming, and by 1944 a Selected, The Glass Tower, came out, expensively illustrated by Lucian Freud. He got married to a woman called Priscilla Craig, whom he adored, they had a daughter, and his prosperous-looking figure in its well-cut suit stood out amid the squalor of Tambimuttu’s Poetry London offices. But in 1948 it all began to collapse. Priscilla left him, taking their daughter with her, and the small income from his parents that had subsidised the poetry was stopped. Poetry London lost its financial backer, and the plans for a British edition of Stevens were scotched by Knopf’s refusal to deal with anyone who knew Tambimuttu. Suddenly alone, homeless and jobless, Moore had to begin a second life as a gardener and plant-breeder, commuting from a maisonette in Orpington. He married again and had two more children, but his daughter Delphine died of leukaemia at the age of four, and his wife became mentally ill. Worn out by holding the household together, and existing on a diet of claret and chocolate biscuits, Moore fell sick himself, and would spend long periods in hospital. His other child was taken into care; Moore was eventually diagnosed with diabetes, which would later require his leg to be amputated. When he began to write again Larkin-loving editors wouldn’t touch his poetry: his only publication after 1950 had been a botanical monograph on The Tall Bearded Iris.

Neither Levertov nor Moore could know that his best poems were still to come. In 1968, the Sunday Times ran a competition to translate Baudelaire’s sonnet ‘Spleen’, with George Steiner as judge. Steiner found himself receiving ‘fantastically mottoed’ envelopes from a variety of increasingly improbable authors and sources, all in the same green ink: W.H. Laudanum, Kenelme Sexnoth Pope, H.N. (Helga Nevvadotoomuch, c/o Lord Godmanchester (Gumster), The John Peelcroft Hadmanchester Podgoets, Night Slide Clubb, P.O. Box 1AA, BBC-wise, W.1, and others. The translations were just as elastic as these cartoon-rubber composites. In the Robert Lowell version actually used by the Sunday Times, ‘Spleen’ opens:

I’m like the king of a rain-country, rich
but sterile, young but with an old wolf’s itch

Steiner’s green-inked envelopes, on the other hand, contained openings like:

I am like the Dave Ap-Gwilym of a wet English county,
Well-greased, but gormless, ancient, but randy.

I am like the T.S. Eliot of new wastelands;
Fertile but powerless; young but with tied hands

And, in a lavishly costumed Wallace Stevens pastiche:

Beau Roi of Serpentines in thunderous mish-mash!
Golden glissadings, O empty effendi of air,
The tutor’s fulgurations, fine flickerings of frenzy, leave
You like a Dodo in the abattoirs

He didn’t win, naturally.

When the Spleen poems were republished together in 1973, Moore explained that his multiple entries had been a protest against ‘the bandwagon of translation’ filling the magazines with dull new poems. Lowell’s version of ‘Spleen’ was not Baudelaire at all, but ‘Lowell speaking, through or with the use of Baudelaire’, and muffling himself in the attempt to be accurate. Better to accept that the poet will translate everything into his own language and time, since that’s what poetry always does. So the singing clowns who fail to amuse Baudelaire’s bored young prince reappear in Moore as Elvis, Charlie Chaplin, Dylan Thomas, Louis Armstrong, Brenda Lee or Spike Milligan. It’s now the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, Biafra, Mosley and the fashionable dramas of ‘Kitchen-Sink Sade-Marats’ whose atrocious crimes fail to turn the green waters of Lethe lying stagnantly in the prince’s veins back into blood.

These cultural translations gleefully satirise the jaded appetites of fictitious senders like Henri Yellowwine, of John Murray’s ‘Adventitious Publicity Dept’, or ‘“Ginny” Rose Lee of the Go-Karts and Strip Arts Council’, and anyone else anaesthetised by the poetry biz, not least W.H. Laudanum. But they turn just as sharply on one Conilho Moraes (‘c/o the Poetry Book Society’), whose version has the diabetic prince’s ‘too-sugared heart’ pushing round the Lethean waters of gangrene. Or ‘Rosine MaCoolh’, whose version is called ‘King of the Skids’, or plain old Nicholas Moore of 89 Oakdene Road, St Mary Cray, whose translation about poison in the blood silently names Delphine. As the sequence progresses, quotations from the blurbs of Moore’s own yellowing books appear as epigraphs, or perhaps epitaphs. One version stands underneath Rexroth’s 1947 comment that Moore’s verse reads ‘as though Baudelaire were to be rewritten, over the biscuits and sherry, by Walter Bagehot’.

Reviewing the book for the Spectator, J.H. Prynne thought that Moore’s clownish presence throughout had defanged his satirical bite. ‘His tones are not really stubbornly independent at all; they accommodate all the depravities which are seemingly his theme, so that Moore’s final good humour is just impossible.’ But Moore’s humour bitterly relishes the impossibilities. The Stevens variation includes quotations from ‘Esthétique du Mal’ not only for the Baudelairean title, but because it was one of the Stevens poems Moore had so wanted to publish in Britain, and couldn’t. He sent off poems as if from the Sunday Times’s address at 200 Gray’s Inn Road because he knew that entries subverting the competition scarcely concealed his own longing for publication himself. The H.D. pastiche comes from a garbled version of John Peel’s radio programme Night Ride because Moore identifies so sharply with the unsigned acts that sent in their demos to the show (he himself sent Peel poems after discovering him on Radio One when the hospital radio would play nothing else). Pop songs run through the sequence, sometimes ironically – the ‘green/On the far side of the hill’ that the New Christy Minstrels sing is now tinged with bile – but more because this is the poetry that people actually hear, unlike Moore’s own. One version begins, brilliantly: ‘I’m like The Winner of The Competition/The one who wrote the strong, rewarding phrase/about the sycophants.’

In a new Selected Poems (Shoestring, £14.99), John Lucas and Matthew Welton have put Spleen back in the context of Moore’s whole career. Anxiety about rejection always made him write more arrestingly. Early poems worry a lot about their value in a war economy where everything had to have a use. ‘The Glass Tower’, the title poem of Moore’s 1944 Selected, is ‘a monument to worthlessness’, built ‘where not a glint could touch it, where no man/would find it’, although the speaker can’t take his eyes off it. Many poems search for metaphors to link poetry’s independence with its public worth. In ‘The Five Peculiar Gulls’, only the birds’ aloof, precarious flight has ‘what the human world/Was lacking in, a fast imagination:/A sense of order that the still mind lacked’. Stevens is again the tutelary spirit in the distraught later poems from the crisis with Priscilla, which go about tearing down their own illusions only to sense others being rapidly erected. ‘Progressive Associations of an Evening’ gives each successive line a separate subject – music, law, politics, betrayal:

The sad music comes tumbling from next door.
The policewoman stood upon the doorstep.
You are always away at a political meeting.
Tomorrow you will go to meet your lover.

As the associations progress, the subjects blur:

I have no words. Grief is an orchestra.
He has no hope. All lovelessness is bitter.
A day will come. I do admire your purpose.
When I am killed, you may not fail to want me.

However desperate the longing, these full-stopped lines have the numb feeling of words no sooner said than repeated ad nauseam, like passionate love songs heard echoing from a tannoy. Moore enjoys varying a phrase by turning it round and round, like the jazz player’s improvisations on a standard, or like his own work breeding new cultivars of iris. You rarely find any freshly discovered sense of colour, smell or touch; the poetry lies in the poise between high ideals and pop culture, the off-kilter metaphors, the teetering balance of cheer and disaster. A late poem on unfulfillable desires, ‘Sunsilk’, has terrific fun trying to make couplets that rhyme with ‘orange’.

Moore’s last years were spent in a purposeful shambles. The poet Peter Riley visited him in 1984, and his account, reprinted in Mark Ford’s elegant introduction, memorably describes the mounds of rubbish, food, records and paper that covered every available surface in the tiny flat. Some of these papers were Moore’s own poems, which he would work at every day, all day, and then lose in the tottering piles or under the kitchen sink. Though Barry MacSweeney, John Ashbery and others drew attention to his public neglect, Moore would ensure his continued non-success by sending in reams of doggerel to editors, in which might be concealed a few bits of perfectly struck poetry, like the late, possibly unfinished one retrieved from the piles after Moore’s death:

Thinking of a good line
I left my fire.
Now as then how the wind blows.

The shivers come all in the silences. Friends tell stories about the near-blind poet working in his unweeded garden, wheelchair tilted perilously forward at 45 degrees, still planting the rare bulbs that he would never see come up.