Where the Castle Is

By Howard Moss 1922–1987 Howard Moss
The upkeep of the castle is
The downfall of the cottages
Where fishermen and peasants live
Or used to live. The young men leave
In homemade boats in which they drown,
In makeshift planes that burn and crash,
Or die of boredom on the train
That starts each month for Cold Cash,
Only to find when they arrive
That that’s not where the castle is.

The women left live in the sticks,
And when they do the weekly wash
Or mend the nets to catch the fish,
They sing this song: “We work for weeks
For nothing. Now the men have gone,
We’d like to be where money talks,
For all the rest is gibberish.”
They pack their bags and take the train
And travel through a strange terrain,
But not to where the castle is.

When there’s no one left but children
And the very old, the young
And lame survivors play a game
Invariable in its details
In which they take the daily trash
Down to the dump and sing a song
About ash heaps and burials
Whose burden always is the same:
“If we were old, if we were young,
We’d find out where the caste is.”

At Cold Cash, where the castle is,
Or where it is supposed to be,
Nobody ever dies, it seems;
They just go on—from first to last
A series of monotonies—
And they play bridge, mah-jongg, and gin
The while they sing their tribal song,
Which has no verse but a refrain:
“We’re here. And if we’re here, of course,
This must be where the castle is.”

But even kings get sick and bank
Accounts go bad and miracles
Occur, though sometimes in reverse;
Elaborate discrepancies
Narrow down from bad to worse;
Abysses open in a wink
Below the shining pinnacles—
“We do not know the place,” they sing,
“That once we thought the castle was.
Do you know where the castle is?”

They travel near, they travel far
To seek out where the castle is,
And come upon the cottages,
Which lie in smoking ruins, and there’s
No man alive, no woman now
To point the way, and though they sift
Through the debris and pan the clay,
Searching for the smallest clues,
They haven’t found out to this day
Just where the castle was, or is.

Howard Moss, “Where the Castle Is” from New Selected Poems, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1985 by Howard Moss. Reprinted by permission of Estate of Howard Moss.

Source: New Selected Poems (Atheneum Publishers, 1985)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Howard Moss 1922–1987

Subjects Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Class

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Metaphor

 Howard  Moss


Howard Moss was the poetry editor of the New Yorker for almost forty years. In that influential capacity, this quiet, unassuming man was one of the key figures in American letters in the late twentieth century, boosting the careers of many young poets by publishing their work in one of the few mass circulation magazines which bought poetry and paid well for it. Writing in World Literature Today, Ashley Brown observed that "it . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Class

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Metaphor

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.