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Richard Moore, at 82; poet shared his love of verse

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / December 2, 2009

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Poems that endure must transcend mere craft, Richard Moore believed, and each verse should carve a new existence the moment it leaves the poet’s pen.

“The best poem - any poem we hope will prove itself and last - must move, must touch,’’ he said in interviews with Mike Burch that are posted on www.thehypertexts.com. “In spite of all the reasoning and opinionating that goes on about these matters, I think the finest poems are mysteries.’’

One enigma, Mr. Moore added, is that “the poem I write and show to others isn’t mine anymore. It’s theirs, as well, and the poet’s problem is how to get his poem, her poem to have a life of its own.’’

From light verse to translations, from sonnets to a “6,000-line rhyming epic whose hero is an overly romantic sewer mouse,’’ he breathed life again and again into what he called “the special set of words that one calls a poem.’’

Mr. Moore, who for years led the Sunday afternoon Poetry Exchange at the Harvard Coop and taught at area colleges, died of heart failure Nov. 8 in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. He was 82 and lived in Belmont, where he was a familiar sight. Slight of frame and sporting a voluminous gray beard that evoked the poet Walt Whitman, he went for walks every day, often barefoot, until he began donning socks and sandals in recent years.

Supported partly by an inheritance, Mr. Moore let the rhythm of stanzas define his decades. Dedicating his life to writing, he lived in a creaky house that featured “chipping paint, collapsing gutters and chimneys, and crumbling rooms,’’ he wrote in a final autobiographical essay posted on thehypertexts.com. In his 1998 book “Pygmies and Pyramids,’’ he began the poem “Home on the Range’’ by quipping: “Nothing works properly here, and I don’t work properly either.’’

“Basically he arranged his life so he could work on his poetry,’’ said his daughter Tania Moore-Barrett of Irvington, N.Y. “He was not materialistic in any way and made a lot of sacrifices for his poetry. He only used cold water and rarely heated his house. He basically gave up the pursuit of wealth and material possessions.’’

Viewing life literally from a different angle, Mr. Moore practiced yoga, standing on his head and folding himself into the lotus position daily, well into his 70s. As he became more infirm, he resisted the lure of medical care as long as possible, mostly because it might mean trading home and routines for a hospital.

“How could I put up with something like that?’’ he wondered in the autobiographical essay. “What would happen to my two cold showers a day, which are vital to my perception of the world?’’

Mr. Moore grew up in Greenwich, Conn., where his father published trade magazines and the family was affluent enough to send him to the Loomis School, a private boarding school in Windsor, Conn.

He graduated from Yale University in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in English and later studied at Boston University, but did not finish a doctorate. Mr. Moore also served in the US Air Force and trained as a pilot before deciding he was ill-suited to the military.

“We falsify ourselves to save ourselves,’’ he wrote in an essay posted on thehypertexts.com. “Thus, years ago I feigned madness, and the Air Force obliged me with a psychiatric discharge.’’

His first marriage ended in divorce, and he met Janet Packer while studying in Europe on a Fulbright grant. She was from England, and they married in Paris. They divorced in 1985 after 23 years of marriage, and she lives in Wilmington, N.C.

The bliss and travails of marriage figured in some of his poems. Invoking the name of a German philosopher averse to marriage, he began “In Praise of Old Wives’’ with the stanza:

Let her become my mate and get me in her power and save me from the fate of Arthur Schopenhauer.

“If the reader will look at such a delightful and flawless poem as Richard Moore’s ‘In Praise of Old Wives,’ the question of light verse’s legitimacy will become academic,’’ wrote Richard Wilbur of Cummington, who was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Mr. Moore was in the running for a Pulitzer with his first book, “A Question of Survival’’ (1971), but did not win. His work appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper’s.

Rhina P. Espaillat, an award-winning poet in Newburyport, said “The Rule that Liberates,’’ his book of literary criticism, is “a joy to read and so good that I recommend it to every workshop in which I participate.’’

For years, Mr. Moore taught at the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston University, and Brandeis University. Along with the Poetry Exchange at the Harvard Coop, he led a similar program in Leesburg, Va.

Claudia Gary of Leesburg, Va., a poet and composer who is Mr. Moore’s literary executor, said that while reciting, “he didn’t sound like he was performing; he sounded like he was rediscovering the poem, even if it was the 100th time he read it.’’

Each poem is its own spectacle, whether read or recited on a stage, he told thehypertexts.com.

“Poems have to be genuine performances, by which I mean: I’m not going to please others ultimately unless I please myself, and, ditto, I am not going to please myself ultimately, unless I please someone else, too,’’ he said. “If I am going to be happy with my poem, I am going to have to see it making somebody else happy. Maybe not everybody, but somebody.’’

In addition to daughter Tania, Mr. Moore leaves two other daughters, Stephanie of New York and Claudia of Pacifica, Calif.; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at noon tomorrow in Marsh Chapel at Boston University.