Friday, October 19, 2018

I Wish I'd Written This

Mr. Moto's Confession

The famous Tokyo detective looked as if he'd taken a shower
in his linen suit and then slept in it.
He mopped his shiny forehead with a handkerchief.
"Pascal was right," he said, his tenor slightly nasal.
"Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to
another form of madness. What's more," he added, the cat
eyeing the canary, "contradiction is not a sign of falsity,
nor is the want of contradiction a sign of truth—Pascal again."
He took out his fountain pen. I saw my chance.
Mr. Moto, I asked, should I believe all those stories
I've heard about you? "Please do not," he murmured. "I do not."
He was writing something on a cocktail napkin.
"In fact," he said, his pen continuing to move, "my real name is
Laszlo Lowenstein. I was born in Hungary. I drove myself crazy
as an actor in Zurich and Berlin, and now that I live in Hollywood
I have bad dreams. Last night one of them told me
I'll end up buried alive in a tale by Edgar Allen Poe."
He coughed politely, capped his pen, and getting to his feet
handed me the little piece of paper. "An ancient Japanese
poetic form." he said. Even as I stared at it
the little cairn of characters, each a tiny, exotic bird cage
with its doors open, blurred, melted, and reformed as if rising
to the surface of a well, where these words trembled
but stayed clear enough to read: As evening nears, how clearly
a dog's bark carries over the water.

– By Jonathan Aaron
from The Best American Poetry 1998

When I came across this poem, I fell in love with it – because it seemed quirky, even a bit mad in a good way; because everything it said was delightfully unexpected; and because of the beautiful description of the 'ancient Japanese poetic form' ('the little cairn of characters' etc.) followed by such an exemplary haiku. (I even wish I'd written just that bit.)

Then, in Googling to find out more, I discovered that – as some of you, dear readers, will surely already know – Mr. Moto is a fictional character featured in books by John P. Marquand and movies based on them starring the unforgettable Peter Lorre. 

I have no idea why Aaron chose to make a poem about Mr Moto, and I don't know how accurate his portrayal is, in terms of being true to the original creation — though it is apparent that he has taken the character further, influenced by the movies, conflating him with his actor. (Wikipedia informs me that Peter Lorre was born in Hungary and his real name was the one given in the poem.) I expect that the conversation and the business about the haiku were imagined by Aaron.

I found out all that, only after choosing this piece to share with you. Obviously the poem works beautifully even when one is ignorant of its source or background details.

I didn't know anything about the poet either. There are few of his poems to be found online, and his Amazon entry suggests that in a long career he has produced only three books, quite far apart, the first shared with Anthony Hecht. However, what I have been able to find shows that the seamless mix of realism with flights of imagination is not limited to this poem alone. I have to say, it's an approach which enchants me! You will find some examples at Poem Hunter.

I also came across a scathing review in The Unofficial New Yorker Poetry Supplement, from someone who is not in the least enchanted by Aaron's work – just in case you'd like to check out an opposing view.

Information about the man is equally sparse, but sufficient to indicate a distinguished career.  Even Wikipedia is brief, but does tell us he was born in 1941, wrote a fourth book not listed at Amazon (so presumably out of print), that he is a native of Massachusetts, where he still lives, is a college professor, and has received many honours for his writing.

The Wikipedia article also includes this lovely quote, from an unattributed review made available via Creative Commons:

“Dreaming is after all a kind of thinking,” Jonathan Aaron writes in this new volume, his third in almost 25 years, and it’s hard to imagine a more succinct statement of his poetic method. Aaron has always used the peculiar instability of poems to his advantage: he builds tension from a poem’s ability to slip on no more than a phrase from the real to the symbolic, from the hypothetical to the unalterable.

The New Yorker has a 2008 interview with him, in which he discusses his process and influences.

I prefer reading ebooks, but his books don't come in that form. I might have to buy the paperbacks. I do want to read more of his work, and that seems to be the only way. (I might also try a Mr. Moto novel; some are available in Kindle. And the movies are on YouTube!)

Material shared in 'I Wish I'd Written This' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors


  1. Reading this was an absolute delight, Rosemary. SO entertaining, the character, the conversational tone and the witty observations. The review wikipedia quoted is spot-on, i think. And i agree about the haiku, i would so love to have written it. This was a fun read. I love the quirkiness.

  2. This was FUN! And it does cut right through the stereotypes and racism of the TV world. Wildly clever.

    1. "ACTING LIKE A TREE" in the New Yorker you linked above is pretty amazing too!

    2. Yes, I loved that one too – unlike the above-mentioned scathing reviewer.

  3. Loved this poem, Rosemary! It definitely was an enjoyable and unique read! I love the variety of poetry you present each Friday.

    1. Thank you; I do try and present a variety. Sometimes – like this time – I learn as much as anyone else in the process.

  4. Love quirky poems. There will never be another Peter Lorre...just remarkable.Must check out Mr Moto movies. Thank you.
    Holly Golightly's Japanese neighbour played by Mickey Rooney is hilarious as well...Breakfast At Tiffanys

    1. I love Breakfast at Tiffany's for many, many reasons.

  5. What a great article Rosemary. Now this took me back a few years to WW2 and a few years after as us kids loved the cinema both on Saturday Morning (childrens session) and once a week with our parents. We watched everything even Peter Lorre although he wasn't my favorite as cowboy films were favoured then!

    1. Peter Lorre would have been too grown-up for me too, back then.

  6. What an awesome choice! Wonderful words … the dialogue is fab 'scintillating conversation' (I believe they used to call it, back in the day).

    I love the direction you took your column in, this week. Rosemary - as you put it 'quirky, even a bit mad in a good way'. I loved the poem - and it had the added perk of channelling me back to those old black and white, late movie memories. A fun read.

  7. This is wonderful style of writing, the layering and the dialogue... very inspiring, and something I wish I could come up with as well...

  8. Nice poem. I like it. I also write poems. I also have a blog, name is Aria Vibes. Please visit:
    I hope you will like it.

  9. i came across this poem when i read that particular anthology (i can't remember the year). but what i remembered about it was the discussions that followed about its inclusion, whether it is prose or poetry. i think that line, in modern contemporary poetry, has been blurred to such an extent to a no-man's-land.
    for me, i enjoyed it for its quirky content, and if i enjoyed it, if the experts said it's poetry, it is then. and yes, that haiku at the end, is something i wished i had written. :)

    1. Very interesting, in regard to that closing haiku, that if it were written out in three lines, they would probably be: As evening nears, / how clearly a dog's bark carries / over the water. Yet in the context of Aaron's poem, the second last line ending on 'clearly' is poetically perfect. For me, it is those little things which distinguish this piece from chopped-up prose. (I also believe there is such a thing as prose-poetry, which is different again. Indeed, I believe in it so much that I sometimes try to write it, lol.)


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