Homage to Richard O. Moore (1920-2015)

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(Photo of Richard O. Moore, 2011, by Brian Lucas)

by Garrett Caples

It is with much sadness that I have to report that poet and filmmaker Richard O. Moore died on March 25, 2015, a week before the official publication of his new book, Particulars of Place, by Omnidawn. My sadness is inevitably tempered by the fact of his extraordinary and extraordinarily long life and the privilege I had of knowing him over the last five years. For he was truly a great man. Essentially a depression-era orphan, he was sent as a young man to the University of California, Berkeley, and was eventually expelled for protesting World War II, though he was later allowed to come back to complete his B.A. One of the original circle of anarchist poets centered around Kenneth Rexroth in the 1940s—including Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Philip Lamantia, Madelaine Gleason, William Everson, James Broughton, and Thomas Parkinson—Richard appeared in such little magazines as Circle, The Ark, and Contour, though he stopped publishing early on to devote himself to a career in broadcasting, as a co-founder of the first U.S. listener-sponsored radio station, KPFA, and later as an early member of the 6th U.S. public TV station, KQED.

Along the way Richard became an important cinéma vérité filmmaker, directing such works as Take This Hammer (1963), featuring James Baldwin; Louisiana Diary (1963), concerning the CORE voter registration drive; The Messenger from Violet Drive (1965), featuring Elijah Muhammad; Report from Cuba (1966), concerning Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution; and the 10-part series USA: Poetry (1966), which includes the only sound footage of Frank O’Hara, as well as films of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, John Wieners, Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and many others. He made two films with Dorothea Lange, Under These Trees (1965) and Closer to Me (1965), and two with Duke Ellington, Love You Madly (1967), and A Concert of Sacred Music (1967), and his later series, The Writer in America (1975), chronicled such figures as Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, and Muriel Rukeyser. During the 1980s, he was president and CEO of Twin Cities Public Television in Minnesota, returning to Northern California after his retirement.

But he never stopped writing, and after the death of his wife Ruth in 1997, Richard began to devote himself full-time to poetry. The world owes a debt of gratitude to Brenda Hillman, who discovered Richard at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, though it’d be some time before she learned of his SF Renaissance past because he was too modest to say anything about it. Eventually she and Paul Ebenkamp edited a selection of his poetry, Writing the Silences, published by the University of California in 2010, when Richard was 90. It was then that I first met him, at a reading he gave for the book at City Lights, and using the excuse that we were working on the Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, Andrew Joron and I arranged to interview him at the Redwoods retirement home in Mill Valley. But really, we just wanted to know him. He seemed like such a fascinating person and a great poet. And he was still writing amazing work; Writing the Silences only seemed to invigorate him and it was shortly after we met that he showed me an ambitious new poem, “Particulars of Place,” that was truly stunning, a profound meditation on living life in an American empire engaged in simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such a theme suggests, Richard remained true to his anarcho-pacifist roots, and he could be regularly found at the weekly protest staged by Seniors for Peace on the sidewalk in front of the Redwoods.

I continued to visit Richard as often as I could get up to Mill Valley, sometimes alone, but often with other poets like Cedar Sigo, Brian Lucas, Richard Tagett, and Rod Roland. We would bring books, chapbooks, poems, and generally the afternoon would become a group reading, trading poems back and forth. In the introduction to Particulars of Place, Cedar points out that “While some poets are silenced by the hush around a reader ending a poem, this moment always seems to excite Richard. He can find immediate handles or questions for lines that are still hanging in the air.” This really evokes those afternoons for me, and I’ll always remember Richard this way, head bowed, listening intently to the poem, then immediately bursting with questions and observations. Talking with Richard was a joy, and I’ve never met anyone else who could spontaneously peel off a seemingly polished paragraph of conversation without so much as a false start or revision of syntax. I suppose his life as a broadcaster made him this way, but any time I’ve gone over a tape of Richard, I’ve been astonished at what fully realized statements his answers to questions are.

Over the past couple of years, Richard—so astonishingly intact at 90—began to gradually decline; his heart began to fail and, perhaps even worse for a man such as he, he went blind, legally if not completely. Yet, with the editorial assistance of myself and Brenda and Paul, he continued working on the MS for Particulars of Place, adding to it even at the last minute a sequence of sonnets on his blindness. His inability to see somehow didn’t stop him from writing poetry, with the help of his daughter Flinn and son Tony, among others. In his last public appearance, on February 6, 2015, he opened the celebration of the 50th Anniversary edition of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems by reciting a new poem from memory, describing the experience of “Entering Frank’s World.” The last time I saw him, two or three weeks later when Cedar, Rod, and I ran up to the Redwoods for a visit, he showed us a new collection he was working on of poems written after Particulars, under the title “In Passing,” a typically tart instance of Richard’s self-effacing humor. We drank wine and continued our reading ritual, taking turns with Richard’s new work, which he eagerly listened to, a by-then-rare chance to savor his already completed poems. Richard just had one glass but I think the rest of us got a little drunk. It was a good, giddy time, and I will miss those afternoons.

Thinking of Richard’s work as a filmmaker, Cedar writes “What I find most commendable about the USA: Poetry series is Richard’s choice to showcase so many heroes of the queer underground and without a trace of tokenism. His mindset dates extremely well. One would be hard pressed to find another man so unencumbered by social divisions. Richard is humble in person but his work and what it attempts are fierce, almost dangerous dreams.” I would extend this remark to his films on African Americans and social and political revolutionaries, as well; he had a clear predilection for the underdog and a commitment to social justice that amounted to a passion. This is also clear in the political thrust of his poetry, especially poems like “Particulars of Place” or “Check Point,” which contains a startling list of nearly every world city that’s been subjected to an aerial bombing. This what I mean when I say he was a great man. There was a largeness of spirit, a generosity and compassion in Richard that I have seldom found to the same extent in anyone, and he was able to enlist these aspects of himself in the service of making some truly remarkable works of art, both written and filmed. The culture at large has yet to come to terms with his oeuvre as a filmmaker, let alone as a poet, but I hope readers will check out Particulars of Place to experience the work of this rare individual.

Note: A reading celebrating the the publication of Omnidawn’s Spring list, including Particulars of Place, will take place at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 27.  Click here for details.

Please enjoy Richard O. Moore’s film, USA: Poetry, Robert Duncan and John Wieners (1965), below:

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