Observations: Poems by Marianne Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have never known how to read Marianne Moore, either in the most elementary sense (as in, what book should I even be reading?) or the more advanced sense (as in, what on earth do these poems mean?). Encountering Moore’s poems in anthologies, I found them totally befuddling; vaguely aware that her whole oeuvre was somehow compromised by dubious editorial decisions, mostly her own, I did not know how to go beyond the anthologies nor did I ever seriously try. This 2016 reissue of Moore’s first authorized book, Observations (1924), has happily solved the problem of what to read.
Moore may have rewritten some of its contents beyond recognition and deleted some of its poems from her canon, deciding they were too difficult, when she became prominent and popular in the middle of the century. But its importance as a modernist slim volume—its present editor, Linda Leavell, associates it in her introduction with “Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Pound’s early Cantos, Williams’s Spring and All (1923), and Stevens’s Harmonium (1923)”—means that Observations deserves to be read in its own right by every student of modernism.
So what do Marianne Moore’s poems mean? I am still not perfectly sure. She reminds me of her contemporary, Hart Crane, in that I can read their poems over and over and remain mystified. The reasons for each poet’s opacity, though, are very different, and the particular quality of Moore’s difficulty gives me one way into her work. Crane is a mystic and a visionary; too high for reason, even for grammar, he seems to seek and to attain sheer glossolalia (“Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping / The impasse high with choir”), senselessness as the certification of his spiritual authenticity. Moore, by contrast, may be too reasonable. Her poems possess blinding clarity.
In a 1965 essay on Moore called “The Experience of the Eye,” Hugh Kenner argues that Moore advances beyond both pre-modern allegorical poetics, for which each phenomena indicates a spiritual fact, and Romantic poetics (to which Crane is heir), for which phenomena are a pretext or an index to the poet’s subjective response. Moore, Kenner says, is attempting not allegory or subjectivity but scientific objectivity: hence her profusion of unsystematic but visually vivid metaphor; hence her use of syllabic rather than accentual verse to disrupt poetry’s tendency toward emotive rhetoric. Her poems are meant for the eye, not the ear, Kenner concludes, they and belong to the era of the typewriter in their impersonal grid of shaped syllables:
marks of abuse are present on
all the physical features of
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm side is
Note that within the arbitrarily syllabic poetic structure is a sinuous sentence; as Kenner observes, Moore separates poetic form from syntax.
Her sentences remind me (“remind one, as it were,” I should say) of Henry James, alluded to at least three times in these most allusive poems. I think of Michael Hofmann’s tantalizing aside, in an essay on Stevens, that “Henry James [is] the Master and onlie begetter, I am increasingly coming to think, of all the great modernist poets, of Pound and Eliot and Moore and Stevens.” In a poem about New York City, Moore—who appears to have been a pro-capitalist Roosevelt-hating Republican, not unlike her contemporary Willa Cather or, indeed, Stevens—nonetheless praises the city, not for its commerce, which she lushly evokes, but for its “‘accessibility to experience,'” a supremely Jamesian phrase she takes from none other than James himself.
Quotation marks abound in her poetry, as she borrows language from everywhere, not only from canonical authors but also from advertisements, periodical essays, and encyclopedia entries. These are not Eliotic allusions, shards of tradition the reader is meant to reassemble in the hopes of restoring Christendom to its lost wholeness, but provocations to reflection. If James counseled the writer to be a one on whom nothing would be lost, Moore’s borrowings are the somethings that will not be lost on her.
A Presbyterian, devout, with a minister brother and a pious mother, “Miss Moore”—as they used to say—praises hard work: the kind of slow, patient, tough labor required to really see what is front of you and think through what you see. (The kind of labor required to read James’s prose, also.) With a satirical spirit, she writes poems in dispraise of the the “steam roller” (“You crush all the particles down / into close conformity”) who destroys subtlety, and the “pedantic literalist” (“What stood / Erect in you has withered”) and aristocratic ladies (“But why dissect destiny with instruments / more highly specialized than the components of destiny itself?”) who abuse it. Not averse to energy or splendor, she praises George Bernard Shaw, Molière, chameleons; not averse to intelligent leisure, she commends house cats and dock rats. My favorite of these poems, summing up their aesthetic values, is “Diligence is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight”:
With an elephant to ride upon—“with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,”
she shall outdistance calamity anywhere she goes.
Speed is not in her mind inseparable from carpets. Locomotion arose
in the shape of an elephant; she clambered up and chose
to travel laboriously. So far as magic carpets are concerned, she knows
that although the semblance of speed may attach to scarecrows
of aesthetic procedure, the substance of it is embodied in such of those
tough-grained animals as have outstripped man’s whim to suppose
them ephemera, and I have earned that fruit of their ability to endure blows
which dubs them prosaic necessities—not curios.
Elephants in their dense sedulousness beats the fanciful flying carpet, and beauty is best set off on the neutral ground of hard work (imagine the bells on her toes glittering and jangling against the elephant’s thick, dull hide); the thesis is not only stated but enacted in the poem’s dense texture of rhyme and syntax, blending poetic sound and prosaic sense. There are political implications here as well: the unglamorous elephant is a counter-Orientalist image in the otherwise kitschy Orientalist picture.
Other poems similarly counter stereotype or else, if they deploy it, praise what has been scorned. The poem “England” satirizes national difference; it seems to lament, in time-honored fashion, the cultural crudity of America (she famously describes our English as “plain American which cats and dogs can read!”) before concluding of “the fruit and flower” of civilization that it “has never been confined to one locality.” In a poem to Disraeli, she opposes Eliotic/Poundian anti-Semitism—not, to our post-essentialist ears, very sensitively, but with an important transvaluation of values, as she lauds the Victorian prime minister as a “brilliant Jew,” a “subtle thing,” possessed of “sound sense,” implicitly deprecating the Christian idealism and anti-intellectualism at the root of modernist Judeophobia. Finally, a poem called “The Labors of Hercules” describes the struggle to keep the mind open, supple, and observant, to resist the blandishments of propaganda and the flattery of false lyricism. She concludes—the phrase is a quotation, but the sentiment hers—that in the face of collective delusion,
…one keeps on knowing
“that the Negro is not brutal,
that the Jew is not greedy,
that the Oriental is not immoral,
That the German is not a Hun.”
I get lost in the longer poems that close the volume. The most famous is an ironic collage of quotation called “Marriage,” in which the never-married Moore surveys with grim comedy the “institution, / perhaps one should say enterprise” she evaded. A satirical canvas of male entitlement and arrogance, of female vanity and complicity, the poem decays into a trading of imprecations between man and woman that is like a genteel version of the scene in the Spike Lee joint where the characters disgorge their bigotry (see here and here, but be prepared!):
She says, “‘Men are monopolists
of stars, garters, buttons
and other shining baubles’—
unfit to be the guardians
of another person’s happiness.”
He says, “These mummies
must be handled carefully—
‘the crumbs from a lion’s meal,
a couple of shins and the bit of an ear’;
turn to the letter M
and you will find
that ‘a wife is a coffin,’
that severe object
with the pleasing geometry
stipulating space and not people,
refusing to be buried
and uniquely disappointing,
revengefully wrought in the attitude
of an adoring child
to a distinguished parent.”
What I have written above is as much as I understand of Moore for now, I think. Any critic who writes on Moore is supposed to go on and on about her animals, but these elude me; I must not be enough of a nature lover, though I also suspect, pace Kenner, that they are a good deal more allegorical, however empirically observed—emblems for the virtues the poet wishes to promote.
I admire Moore’s intransigent intelligence, but I like the customary graces of poetry quite a bit more than she does. These poems somehow fail to linger in my mind, except for their sententiae. But what sententiae!
Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one’s enjoyment.
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honored—
that which is great because something else is small.
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be “lit with piercing glances into the life of things”;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.
(“When I Buy Pictures”)
The passion for setting people right is an afflictive disease;
Distaste which takes no credit to itself is best.
(“Snakes, Mongooses, Snake-Charmers and the Like”)
Gratitude is the proper recompense for a writer who has wisdom as well as (or even, if it comes to it, in place of) passion to share. I end with her most famous phrase, from “Poetry,” where she she defines the successful instances of her art as creating “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Critics may argue if the toads are toads or if the toad is the poet, but the imagination that cultivated these poems is a rare one.
 Writers, in general, should leave their early work well enough alone. We are all embarrassed by our juvenilia—I’m embarrassed by what I wrote last week—but once something has circulated widely enough, you should respect that it stands clear of you. I am not saying “first thought, best thought”; you should always revise! But the ardor of initial composition, in which I include the first pre-publication revision process, might possess a value in excess of distant circumspection. I think the 1855 “Song of Myself” has more odd energy than the 1881. I suspect the folio text of Hamlet to be Shakespeare’s own redaction, as it tightens the plot and eliminates redundancy (a wild speculation, I grant; in my defense, it is not even close to being among the world’s most crackpot Shakespeare theories); but who would want to lose the unsweet prince’s soliloquy from the second quarto upon seeing Fortinbras’s army (“What is a man, / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed?”) just because it disrupts an otherwise clean “character arc,” to speak in the language of TV criticism?
 Any desperate student chancing upon this review: take that for your thesis! Be sure to credit Hofmann with the idea—preferably in MLA—and throw in Auden while you’re at it.
[…] verse is difficult; it is more readily understood than that of Crane or Moore, not because the references can all be decoded and the allegories explained, as with The Waste […]
[…] plan it as an antidote to the social climate, I read a lot of poetry this year: John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Virgil, Claudia Rankine. And two epics: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Derek […]
Comments are closed.