Poet Moore Moran: A death in Ordinary Time

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Moore Moran, Sept. 27, 1931 - Feb. 27, 2011

I received an email from my publisher at Ohio University Press/Swallow Press earlier this week – the poet Moore Moran, known to his friends as Mike, died on February 27.  He was 79.

I had blogged about the Santa Rosa poet here and here. He had published his first full-length book, Firebreaks, in 1999 – it bagged a National Poetry Book Award.  His newest book, The Room Within, was published last year.

“Imagine a poet who could deal with the experience of Jack Kerouac but with too much intelligence to limit himself to the road. You don’t have to imagine him. He exists. He has many skills, all of them beautifully bright, and on occasions when he looks into the abyss they take him safely over it,” said Turner Cassity of Moran’s poems.

But I was startled when I reread the email a few days later and realized I had overlooked that the memorial would not be in Santa Rosa, but nearby, in Menlo Park – where, it turns out, he had graduated from high school before getting two degrees from Stanford.

So I dropped in on Friday afternoon to pay my respects to a poet in the century-old Church of the Nativity.  But it was not a poet who was being honored so much as  “husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, father-in-law, friend, poet,” according to the program.

He was much loved.  About 150-200 friends and family came to the mass, with bluegrass guitar and bass fiddle performers Dennis and Ehlert Lassen singing “Amazing Grace” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Not necessarily what one would expect from the poems, with their bleak, spare mystery.

Surprisingly, everyone looked like they had come for the same event – the men were all in jackets and ties, and the women in somber suits and dresses. Banished were all traces of “California casual,” where some people look as if they had wandered in from the garden or the beach or a cocktail party.  Nor did there seem to be any poets on hand from the “Yvor Winters Circle” – but then, the room was crowded and I was in a back corner, and this was a very quiet death, after all.

The priest, referred to only as “Father Davenport,” recalled that Moore Moran, despite disability, was “always smiling” and “a good man.”

His son, businessman Mike Moran, said, “I never stopped amazing my dad, and my dad never stopped amazing me.”  The son, to put it mildly, was not a poet or lit freak.

His father taught the kids Latin and music, as well as Yvor Winters, John Steinbeck, and J.D. Salinger.  He was “an encyclopedia of jokes,” recalled his son.  And, in fact, the program included his poem “Just Joking,” written on his 51st birthday, when he had “maybe a third of a tank left”:

…the bewildered heart in us which,
Year by year, measuring our slim attainments
With mounting despair, still feeds
In its recesses some faint hope, despite
The certain knowledge that what it hopes for
Cannot change the tide…

“He was often lost in afterthought,” said his son.  “I’m certainly no poet, but I came to appreciate my father’s poetry.” He recalled the children’s hesitancy to have their father correct their writing, because “then we’d go back for another hour of writing.”

But sometimes dad came in handy.  Moran Jr. recalled a long discussion his father launched when the son was having trouble “getting” Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales.  The next day in class,  Moran Jr. performed the usual duck-and-hide with averted gaze, to avoid the teacher targeting him with a question.  The teacher targeted him anyway.

Thanks to his dad’s monologue, the so-so student poured forth with a reply “at a depth and level far beyond what my teacher had.”

The class was “absolutely stunned.  The whole room was silent,” he recalled.

“I was bumped up to AP English,” he said, and paused for only an instant. “That lasted about four days.”

On Moran’s memorial page at legacy.com, David Sanders wrote: “A gentleman and a fine poet. It was an honor to edit and publish his last book.”

“Just Joking,” with its rambling style is nice, but my favorite Moran poems are quick and cryptic – like this one:

Ordinary Time in the Pews

Church of the Nativity, Menlo Park

Ordinary days again.
Advent, Pentecost are past;
who now will accept our sins,
raise the dust in which we’re cast?

Cold the God flesh on the tree,
banned the crèche to attic murk,
sheer the silence after prayer.
Nothing seems at all to work.

Yet we try and try again
serving Him we hardly know:
honk if you love Jesus, friend,
beeping blessings as we go.

Here we meet who, somehow, must
rescue meaning from the dust,
where betrayal’s kiss presents
our best hope of relevance.

PostscriptPatrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence has added a lovely tribute here.  “Earth only will find him cold.”

Postscript on 3/7: Looking online for others who remember Moore Moran, I found this mini-memoir from Peter Robinson.


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9 Responses to “Poet Moore Moran: A death in Ordinary Time”

  1. Tessa Says:

    “Imagine a poet who could deal with the experience of Jack Kerouac but with too much intelligence to limit himself to the road….” Seriously? Do you really think that Jack Kerouac limited his writing to the “road”? That all of his 30 plus written works were limited to the road because of his limited intelligence? You have antiquated yourself with limited thinking no better than the 1950’s fools who thought Kerouac was just a Canuck redneck wanderer.
    Obviously you have no knowledge of Jack Kerouac and his writing or you would not make such a moronic statement. Some of Kerouac’s greatest works had nothing to do with the road…Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Visions of Gerard, to name a few. These books are Lowell centric, his hometown and deal with childhood experiences, coming of age and pure poetry as only Kerouac could write. So, why make a comparison with something you no nothing about? How unfortunate that Stanford has this blog associated with them.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Your quarrel is not with me, but with the author of the comment, Turner Cassity. He died in Atlanta in 2009.

  3. Tessa Says:

    It is included in your article, so it goes to reason that you feel the same or you would not reference it without a bit of a disclaimer if you felt otherwise. My statements about your lack of knowledge regarding Kerouac still stands. It is irresponsible coming from the Stanford name in literature.

  4. M Gazebos Says:

    My respect to such a good person.

  5. Muebles a Medida Says:

    “Holy Thursday

    Tonight I ask You in to help me mourn.
    You who help whom you please,
    don’t leave me just with these—
    a loincloth, timber, nail and scarlet thorn.

    I‘m what I earn to think, not think I am.
    Nor love, wisdom or art
    sustains the baffled heart,
    and fact contains no holy anagram.

    Be more, Lord, than my hope, Your innocence.
    Reason has never known
    how to live with its own
    immaculate, hard-hearted arguments. ”

    Thanks Moore.

  6. Coerulescent Says:

    This, and a couple of other internet sites, have just introduced me to this obviously great poet. Although I graduated from one of the finest colleges in the Midwest, in 1980, their English Department had not progressed beyond the death of T S Eliot in 1964, so nothing contemporary after that date was taught there. I had to find out about J V Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, and—of all surprises—even Wallace Stevens on my own or through serendipity. Sometimes I wish I could go back there and demand my money back. Believe me, when the Alumni office comes begging, every two weeks or so, for a handout for “advancement” they find me less then attentive. But I digress.

    I am looking forward to learning more about this contemporary poet. The few lines I have already read are very moving, so I definitely want to know more.

    I think Tess’ argument about Kerouac is a bit too aggressive for a site like this. It sounds like the shrill tone of personal offense. I don’t care for Kerouac, don’t intend to read anything of his and I do not miss it, but that does not make me an idiot or a questionable person. And I thank Cynthia Haven for posting this page about Moran, and for opening my horizons to his work. And I don’t give a tinker’s damn for who does or does not like Jack Kerouac.

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’re welcome, and happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Coerulescent Says:

    Thank you, Cynthia, for the kind wish. I have also ordered my first copy of Moran from Amazon, and am anxiously awaiting its arrival. (I had to wait until my paycheck came in.) In the meantime, I continue to read your words as my first introduction, and I think one always remembers one’s first introduction to a poet. Despite my age, I can still remember my youthful introduction, guided by teachers and mentors, to Dante and Milton, then Eliot and Stevens. The prospect of reading more of Moran restores that youthful excitement at an unexpected time.

  9. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Enjoy the collection over the holidays, and let us know what you think!