May 2003

Richard Moore


Richard Moore In a lifelong career of flirting with obscurity, Richard Moore has published a novel, a book of essays, translations of plays by Plautus and Euripides, and ten books of poetry, the first of which scared him to death by being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His web site,, has fresh goodies every Friday.

Aristotle's "Poetics" Updated With A Bow To Multiculturalism    Click to hear in real audio

What tragedy's about:
the snot in every snout,
in life's sweet fruit the weevil—
the "problem," dears, "of evil."

Comedy won't abet it,
blithely implies, "Forget it.
Dance to its push and pull.
Problem? Insoluble!"

Americans don't choose
to listen to such news.
For instance, there's my momma.

She loves Japanese drama,
adores "that there Kabuki.
O yeah, it's really spooky."



Song Of The Urban Peasantry    Click to hear in real audio

Let's have a cheer
for Vladimir.
Yeah, let's start rootin'
  for Putin.

No more a balmy,
nit-witted Commie,
our President,
  nice gent,

will for our good,
as understood,
faithfully work,
  the jerk.

Russia's a mess,
but he'll express
her heart's desire,
  the liar.

No fool, no dunce,
he'll bring her once
heroic doin's—
  to ruins?

Nah. Today's pace is
to commonplaces,
those empty holes,
  our souls.



"Song Of The Urban Peasantry," An Annotation 

The "urban peasantry" in Russian cities and towns is something new in the history of the world. A Great Culture in Oswald Spengler's terminology arises from a peasant countryside as yet innocent of urban life and money, which develop later in the first towns. But premature urbanization has been forced on the Russian peasantry along with Western styles, technology, and political organization. Its dogged underlying nature keeps asserting itself, however, as in the epic, totally surprising defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Nowadays in outlying cites of Russia, the Western-style economy has broken down; no one gets paid, and the old peasant system of barter has reasserted itself in a spontaneous system of payments in kind and subsistence farming on garden plots. It is the heavy, deeply cynical and spiritual mentality of this class of people that the poem seeks to imagine and portray.

The poem's stanza form, two couplets with the fourth dimeter shortened by half, puts great emphasis on that final one-beat phrase. The mocking tone is established immediately with the echo of Western-style sports events and conviviality, culminating with the new President's last, distinguishing name in the climax position. Thereafter, the final line of each stanza becomes extremely ironic. Is Putin a "nice gent"? Perhaps the speaker himself hardly knows. In the next stanza the irony of "the jerk" cuts at least two ways. In the newly-instituted capitalist society, based on greed and selfishness, Putin is a "jerk" to devote himself to the public good. On the other hand, the public, including the speaker, is not very fortunate because it only has a "jerk" looking after its interests. After all, he is not working for the actual public good, but only that good "as understood," presumably by himself, and he can't be expected to understand much because he's a "jerk."

In this situation, it is not surprising that "Russia's a mess." The "heart's desire" of the unawakened Russian masses is completely unknown, so that the glib statement that Putin is going to express it registers as very heavy irony indeed, driven home in the climax line: of course, anyone who would pretend to such an impossibility has to be a "liar."

But as the poem goes on to say, Putin is "No fool, no dunce." He is still dangerous. What will he do with his power? Russia's "heroic doin's" refers, of course, to her momentous defeat of Germany, mentioned above—and maybe other things as well: the novels of Dostoyevsky, perhaps, or the music of Shostakovitch. Will Putin and his capitalism bring all that to nothing? The irony in the final stanza is, once again, extremely complex. The snide dismissal, "Nah," implies that the destruction of such a grand past would itself have a certain grandeur about it and so would be beyond the power of this little man and the trivial inconsequential age over which he presides. The final two lines give the poem its deadliest twist of all. Our present capitalist Russia, says the speaker, is an unheroic age of "commonplaces," and this spiritual emptiness includes the speaker himself and his fellow urban peasants; but at the same time, recognizing this fact is an act of spiritual courage. To see that one's soul is empty is to realize that one has a soul and to enter upon the path of spiritual renewal. But this is not a path that can begin in the fatuous hope of such renewal. To be genuine, it must begin in complete despair. Hence the poem's bitter ending.



Richard Moore: Poetry
Copyright 2003 The Cortland Review Issue 23The Cortland Review