A first-time reader of Marianne Moore’s poems might be forgiven for thinking that they were dictated on the sly in some uproarious menagerie of the imagination. A longtime reader feels this even more powerfully. If a pangolin, a jerboa, an octopus, or a basilisk were suddenly to become literate and take up verse—not the wildest of improbabilities in Moore’s weird world—these are the sorts of poems it might write. And yet, though Moore is patently sympathetic to her chosen creatures, and at least tacitly fond of them, her poems on exotic animals are hard and crisp and factual, for all their surface zaniness. Unlike, say, Rilke, who sought the closest possible identification with his panther or his flamingoes, Moore maintains the cool distance of respect. That doesn’t prevent the poems from being pangolinesque; in fact, it enhances that effect.
Heather Cass White’s edition of Moore’s poems is exemplary; it supersedes all previous editions. Editing Moore’s work must be a nightmare, not least because of Moore’s own interventions and mutilations. As White notes, “Nearly 60 percent of the poems she chose to reprint in her Complete Poems, which has been the text of record since its first publication in 1967, were written after 1940 . . . . Moreover, the poems from the twenties and thirties that she did reprint in 1967 are often extensively revised versions of their originals.” Unfortunately for her readers, however, it is the work of the twenties and thirties that has the largest claim on our attention; these are the poems in their first versions that demonstrated her greatness, while the later work, from the fifties onward, is uneven and generally unmemorable. Worse, Moore revised and recast her finest poems, switching or replacing titles, and even “publicly disavowing her earlier work,” as White puts it. This odd repudiation of her younger self has damaged her reputation. White is scrupulous in presenting the poems, from Observations onward, with all extant versions and with each page keyed both to Moore’s notes and to her own. This makes it relatively easy to follow the variations and vicissitudes the poems have undergone. And it certainly restores the luster of Moore’s reputation. The early work now startles afresh.
I thought that I knew, when I set about writing this review, pretty much what I would say. But faced once more, in this clarified context, with the poems themselves, which occasionally alter what I’ve been reading, re-reading, and learning by heart for some fifty years now, I saw all my certainties dissolve before my eyes. The sheer strangeness of her best work baffled me anew. But maybe, I thought, that is part of Moore’s peculiar genius: the work never ceases to impress its strangeness upon you, no matter how often you encounter it; it never ceases to surprise. Such bafflement can be liberating; it strips preconceptions away. And yes, it can be irritating, highly irritating. At times you find yourself muttering, “What is this batty old bird rambling on about at such length and with such persnickety detail?” At one moment you’re cozying up to a pangolin,
This near artichoke
with head and legs and grit-equipped giz-
zard, the night miniature artist-
engineer . . .
and without warning you learn that it has
. . . the fragile grace of the Thomas-
Abbey wrought-iron vine . . .
What? Who that? Nor do Moore’s own notes enlighten us much: “A fragment of ironwork in Westminster Abbey” is all she says. The allusion startles and it baffles—deliberately, I suspect; Moore is often very mischievous in her learned allusions. For a whimsical example, see her Index to Observations which lists:
beau with muff, 55
bear, tailed, 79, 308
beaver, skin, 55
beavers, thoughtful, 73
Bell, Sir William, 305
In Moore’s hands, her Index becomes a sort of nutty poem in its own right.
But to return to the pangolin (Moore infects her reader with the desire to digress!): what is important is not any exact correspondence between an obscure ant-guzzling animal and an even obscurer fragment of ironwork but the way Moore’s words overlap in verbal plates and scales. The verse is imbricated, the compound words stitched together by hyphens in a way suggestive of a pangolin’s scales or a “wrought-iron vine.”
Well, maybe; but isn’t that a bit too obvious? Moore’s poems appear discursive; they are full of asides, digressions, afterthoughts, quotations from recondite sources. They appear to revel in their own eccentricity; they seem merely to meander and could be mistaken for disjointed excurses on a capriciously selected topic. But what augments their strangeness is in fact the way in which they are patterned, syllable by syllable, and bound with hoops of rhyme. In a letter of October 16, 1940, to Elizabeth Bishop, she wrote, “I can’t care about all things equally, I have a major effect to produce, and the heroisms of abstinence are as great as the heroisms of courage, and so are the rewards.” Here, her self-assurance—and her ambition—are on full display. But what was the “major effect” she set out to produce?
That the effect of her work was, and remains, major I have no doubt—but in what does this consist? In her greatest poems, such as “The Pangolin” (but really there are too many to list), she fashions an artifact in words that is as dense and obdurate as the object or creature she is ostensibly struggling to evoke. The words may be light or grave, polysyllabic or curt, extravagant or demure, but they contest the very reality they summon up. The effect she sought was not to engage in “the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings,” as her old friend and champion T. S. Eliot put it in Four Quartets. It was rather, I think, born of an urge to confront the tangible on its own terms and to do so with the least tangible of instruments: words, puffs of breath, uttered or clasped in the confines of script or the transient voice. What else, after all, do we have against the indecipherable obduracy of things?
The effect she intended was not to re-create a thing in measured syllables; it was to surround and lay siege to it with all the means at her command—classical references, snippets taken from journals and newspapers, visual and tactile correspondences—in order to construct an analogue as tough and as tenuous as the thing itself. This is, after all, the essential conundrum of our condition as “rational animals.” If only we could just sniff and snuffle, lick and taste, paw and fang, tusk and antler the world, our apprehension of it might be complete though incommunicable. Perhaps, in a sense, this is what her best poems do; they send out pedipalps, they venture tendrils, they put their snouts to the wind; and what they bring back is not some message reducible to summary or analysis but a contrapuntal experience of a phenomenon. (In a letter to Ann Borden of March 8, 1934, Moore remarked that “a number of persons have told me, however, that in my verse the contrapuntal effects are the distinguishing value.”)
Moore is, among many other things, the great poet of touch. Her fingertips were as astute as her eyes. In “Poetry,” of 1924, speaking of “a place for the genuine,” she evokes
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must . . .
(This is, by the way, from the original—and superior—poem of this title before she mutilated and abridged it in three successively shorter versions, culminating in a four-line poem that comes off more as a quip than a poem.) This tactile aspect of her work appears in titles (“Smooth Gnarled Crape Myrtle”) as well as throughout the poems themselves (the “velvet-textured flower” of the magnolia, the “needle-fine cat-whisker-fibred battleship-gray lace” of a pigeon, among many examples) and in her voluminous correspondence, where she delights in the feel of things, from rich fabrics to a snake’s skin (she had a lifelong interest in textiles, millinery, and haute couture, as her letters and the photographs of her attest). In the wealth of sensuous detail in her poems she stands alone among her contemporaries; no other poet, with the possible exception of her friend Wallace Stevens (or, among possible influences on her work, Gerard Manley Hopkins), so revels and rejoices in the look and touch and sheer clatter of things. She was gluttonous of eye, promiscuous of touch. Among American poets she is the supreme voluptuary.
Hold on!, I hear you say. Is this the Marianne Moore of popular image, the prim and censorious arbiter of propriety, corseted and topped with a tricorne hat, whom Hart Crane nicknamed “the Rt. Rev. Mountjoy” (and worse) after she revised—and mangled—one of his poems without his consent? I see no real contradiction between the upright image of herself that Moore labored for years to concoct and the avid yet disciplined sensuality of her “observations.” Emily Dickinson, perhaps her only peer, wrote that “renunciation is a piercing virtue” and Moore seconded this when she wrote, in the letter quoted above, “the heroisms of abstinence are as great as the heroisms of courage, and so are the rewards.” (Again, Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to mind.) Of course, abstinence is not quite the same thing as renunciation; it is not as piercing. And yet, both presuppose a conscious choice. That Moore chose abstinence as a way of life strikes me as unsurprising. That it was a choice with its own poignancy is implied by the fact that when Moore ordered her tombstone, she directed that a space be left for the possible addition of a mate; she did not exclude the possibility of marriage (though she wrote “I wonder what Adam and Eve think of it by this time” in her poem of that title). We simply don’t know what “heroisms” Moore had to muster in her life; there are no overt love poems in her work and certainly no confessional disclosures. Her secrets can only be guessed at from her writing. In her discretion, as in her avidity, she was, like her pangolin, “another armored animal.”
The starchy side of Moore, as much in evidence as her love of the palpable, reveals itself too from the beginning. She was a moralist, though a witty and sometimes mischievous one. Small wonder that she devoted ten years to her monumental translation of La Fontaine’s Fables. Observations (1924), her first book, opens with “To an Intra-Mural Rat” and runs in full:
You make me think of many men
Once met to be forgot again
Or merely resurrected
In a parenthesis of wit
That found them hastening through it
Too brisk to be inspected.
Another early poem has the title “To Be Liked by You Would be a Calamity,” and she speaks there of “unsheathed gesticulation”—a rather apt description of her method: her poems often seem to gesticulate as powerfully as they sing. We may suspect, though we cannot know, that the men in her life were also “too brisk to be inspected.” They certainly left no amorous traces. In any case, next to a pangolin or a jerboa, a plumet basilisk or “anyone of ox ancestry,” what could a mere man offer? No male of the species has a “metallic wasp-lustred grass-green breast and purple legs and feet” (like the pigeon) nor does he possess a tufted tail “fish-shaped and silvered to steel by the force of the large desert moon” (like the jerboa). Any suitor to Moore’s hand would have had a furred and feathered horde of clamorous rivals to contend with.
1Marianne Moore: New Collected Poems, edited by Heather Cass White; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 479 pages, $30.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 20
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