Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Even after her poems had been published and critically acclaimed, Marianne Moore continued to revise them; sometimes she rejected them altogether. Between her first book, Poems (1921), and her last, The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967, 1981), she published several other volumes of poetry. Typically, a new book was made up of substantially revised poems from the previous book together with a number of previously uncollected poems. Collected Poems (1951), for example, begins with most of the poems from Selected Poems (1935), which in turn contains many of the poems from Observations (1924). Collected Poems also contains all but four poems from What Are Years (1941), a volume of previously uncollected work, and the six new poems from Nevertheless (1944), to which Moore added nine new titles “Hitherto Uncollected.”
The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, which claims to be the “Definitive Edition, with the Author’s Final Revisions,” contains a section headed “Collected Poems (1951).” This section omits the poem “Melanchthon” from the 1951 publication but contains two poems from Observations, “The Student” and “To a Prize Bird,” which were originally omitted from Collected Poems; these poems were subsequently revised for The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore.
Confusing as all this seems, it is necessary for serious students of Moore’s work to be aware that the different publications contain different collections of poems and that the poems themselves are likely to differ from collection to collection. Perhaps the most striking example of the changes undergone by a poem is “Poetry,” which appears in Poems as a poem of thirty lines in five stanzas. In Observations, the poem is changed drastically in form and in length, retaining only phrases from the original. In Collected Poems, its form is restored to one resembling the original, but the poem itself is significantly different. In The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, finally, it is reduced to three lines. It is important to note that all references here will be to Collected Poems as published in 1951.
In the poem “Silence,” there is the passage “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;/ not in silence, but restraint.” The word “restraint” implies reserve, discipline, control, and moderation, and indeed, restraint is one of the principal characteristics of Moore’s poems. The overriding impression created by the book is that it consists of reasoned, intelligent discourse.
Some poems, such as “New York” and “Marriage,” are free verse, but more frequently the forms of the poems show a concern for orderliness and control, with close attention to detail. Moore can be compared to her own description of an octopus: “Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!/ Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus.” She tends to use subtle, sometimes almost hidden metrical patterns. Poems such as “Peter” and “Bird Witted” have precise forms, repeated in each stanza; the forms are based on syllabic count but without regard to whether syllables are stressed or unstressed. It is unlikely that even a careful reader would be conscious of this type of form without actually counting syllables. Other syllabic forms, as in “Melanchthon,” are more obviously crafted. The syllabic counts in the short lines are quite noticeable, and there is a clearly visible repeated form in each stanza of two short lines followed by two long lines.
There is some use of end rhyme, as in “The Jerboa,” but the rhyme is often unobtrusive. This can be because of uneven line length, as in “Those Various Scalpels” and “To a Steam Roller,” or because the lines run on in such a way that a rhyming word is unstressed, as in “To Statecraft Embalmed.” Sometimes, as in “The Fish,” the rhyme is on unexpected words such as “an” or “the”; sometimes a word is broken up to rhyme just one syllable as when the first syllable of “accident” is rhymed with the word “lack”: “ac/ cident—lack.” Frequently, there is rhyme, partial rhyme, or assonance in random fashion over a number...
(The entire section is 1752 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. Demonstrates how to read Moore’s poems by investigating recurrent themes, images, and forms. Examines in detail individual lines and phrases, as well as whole poems.
Gregory, Elizabeth, ed. The Critical Response to Marianne Moore. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Collection of more than seventy reviews and essays about Moore that were originally published between 1917 and 1975. Many of the pieces are by other poets, including Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, H. D., and Elizabeth Bishop.
Joyce, Elisabeth W. Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-Garde. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998. Places Moore’s poetry within the avant-garde art movements of the early twentieth century, such as cubism, collage, Dadaism, and surrealism.
Kent, Kathryn R. Making Girls into Women: American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003. Analyzes literature written by American women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to trace the emergence of lesbian identity, which Kent maintains is rooted in white, middle-class culture. Two of the chapters focus on the poetry of...
(The entire section is 424 words.)