Randall Jarrell, the modern American poet and critic, said that Marianne Moore discovered a new subject and a new structure for poetry. T. S. Eliot, the twentieth century British writer, felt that Moore was one of the few poets who have used the English language inventively. These sentiments are not unusual. Moore is a poet other writers admire. She had her early detractors because of her innovative rhythms and stark imagery. By the 1950’s, however, when modernism became more widely accepted, Moore emerged as a major poet alongside William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.
Moore’s work has several distinct stylistic qualities and themes. Her main contribution is precise imagery created by a disciplined use of language. Throughout her career, she also dealt with discipline as a theme, advocating a set of values that included courage, independence, responsibility, and simplicity. Moore believed that humankind is besieged by threats to these principles and so must be constantly on guard. In many poems, particularly her later ones, she advocates creating emotional barriers to repel such threats. Throughout her career, Moore explored paradoxical situations, and seeming contradictions underlie many of her poems.
Tracing Moore’s poetic career presents difficulties, for, as critic Bonnie Costello notes, her work does not conform to chronological development. Throughout her life, Moore continually revised. Each book she published contained reworked material, so each book includes different styles and themes. For example, her frequently anthologized work “Poetry” (1919), a statement of her belief in the honest and genuine in art, underwent three reworkings. The same holds true for many others. The verse that she wished to preserve appears in The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, which conforms as closely as possible to her stylistic and thematic intentions.
Moore’s precise style is one of controlled excitement. Her work affects the reader visually as well as emotionally and intellectually. She achieves this by presenting concrete images of ordinary objects. For example, in The Pangolin, and Other Verse, “The Pangolin” describes a scene near a willow tree where three hungry, wide-eyed mockingbirds as big as their mother wait for food. Whatever Moore’s subject—fish, jerboa, octopus, nectarine, baseball, art—she gives clusters of precise, colorful images, always grounded in particulars. In “The Wood Weasel,” the animal is an “inky thing/ adaptively whited with glistening/ goat fur.” All Moore’s images are visual, because she was interested in design and pattern as well as meaning.
Moore’s prosody is also unique. Rather than the regular rhyme and rhythm of a form such as the sonnet, Moore uses syllabic verse. She counts the total syllables in a line and then arranges lines in balanced patterns. For example, in “The Frigate Pelican,” the opening line of each stanza has fifteen syllables. This allows her to do a number of things. She is free to use normal prose syntax, and she frequently has the title as the first word in a poem. She can also use the run-on line. She is not under pressure to use masculine rhyme, because the stress can be on syllables other than the rhyming ones. She does rhyme words, but she works with internal correspondences more than end-rhymes.
Moore’s basic unit, then, is the stanza rather than the line. She frequently parallels line length stanza by stanza. In “The Jerboa,” for example, the third line of the first stanza has the same number of syllables as the third line of the second, third, and following stanzas. She indents to put together lines with end rhymes. This technique results in the stanzas themselves having a regularly controlled visual pattern on the page, one that is usually consistent within each poem. The pattern enhances the visual effect already created by her images. Even though the poems sometimes read like prose, they nevertheless require a dexterous reader. Because she valued restraint and precision, Moore sometimes omitted connections. She used ellipses and juxtapositions, and incorporated allusions, quotes, and other notes into the poetry.
Because Moore’s style and subject matter are so precise, some critics classify her with the Imagists of the early twentieth century, who held precision as their watchword and believed that suitable poetic subject matter was whatever the senses experienced. Moore’s poetry, however, differs from that of the Imagists. She not only describes things and what surrounds them literally but also merges that detail with what surrounds them imaginatively. Imagination was fundamental to Moore, and the reality she creates by fusing the two is where she finds her ethical principles. In “Apparition of Splendor” the porcupine is partially literal and partially imaginative. Combining these into one animal enables Moore to comment on her theme, order within chaos. Moore therefore takes the Imagists one step further by adding moral and intellectual convictions.
Moore developed certain themes early in her poetic career and continued working with them throughout her life. Humankind, she believed, lives in danger: People’s ignorance of the significance of things and events makes them vulnerable. Nature is indifferent to people, so people must be hard and, like the cliff in “The Fish,” must be on guard. One must armor oneself like the porcupine in “Apparition of Splendor,” must be an “intruder,” “insister,” and “resister.”
One form of protection is decorum and restraint, disciplines that avoid excesses in all areas of life. “Poetry” makes a strong case for stripping away all extraneous things and getting to what is honest; “The Octopus” reiterates this theme. Delight will arise from espousing values such as honesty, simplicity, and courage. Striving for them requires restraint, but the result, harmony with nature, will be protection in a harsh world.
As her career proceeded, Moore added poems that dealt with other themes, including the belief in a supreme being and the love and spiritual grace that results. “The Pangolin” details qualities of animals, architecture, and humanity, interrelating the power of grace in all their features. “What Are Years” is perhaps her most direct statement, and it shows that people can maintain the spiritual strength to keep going by being aware of something beyond the mortal.
Later in Moore’s career, she also wrote poetry for particular occasions. “A Piece for Messr. Alston and Reese” (1956) was dedicated to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team; “To a Giraffe” she wrote for a book published in 1963 by the Steuben Glass Company. In this sort of poetry, she continued both her restrained experimental style and her thematic interests.
To speak of Moore’s style and themes without mentioning her preoccupation with paradox would omit one of her major concerns. Even “Poetry” seems contradictory, as do such poems as “The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing.” The paradoxes inherent in life are not problems to be solved, however: They present situations to be explored for whatever significance they present. Moore’s whole career was an exploration of these situations, whether literally or imaginatively experienced. The result is genuine poetry that renews the spirit, making her one of the greatest of the modernists.
First published: 1918 (collected in Poems, 1921)
Type of work: Poem
Sources of life contain forces of treachery and death that one must guard against even though one cannot completely understand them.
“The Fish” marked a turning point in Moore’s development. Even though she would later write poems that were as good, critics note that she never excelled in achieving a more perfect integration of images and ideas. She creates precise images of natural things in terms that also denote human characteristics. These build upon one another to express an eternal truth—that all life forces contain death.
Moore always observed natural phenomena, both at first hand and in pictures and photographs. Her early education in art and the natural sciences provided her with a trained eye for details. In “The Fish,” this observation results in images—colors, shapes, and textures—so precise that critic William Pratt included the poem in his book The Imagist Poems (1963), the definitive text on the Imagist movement. Like the Imagists, Moore bases the poem on common objects of nature. One fish “wades through black jade” as it moves near the treacherous cliff. The “sun,/ split like spun/ glass,” invades every crevice, leaving nothing hidden. It reveals colors—the “turquoise sea/ of bodies” of fish, the “rice-grains” of jellyfish, and crabs like green lilies. Moore also introduces alien images such as “ash-heaps.” These, like the verbs “wade” and “split,” describe the surroundings, yet they also suggest natural and human forces of destruction.
She organizes these details so that they build to an ending that comments on the ethical significance of her images. In the first section, she describes the aquatic world surrounding the cliff: fish, shells, barnacles, starfish, jellyfish, crabs, and toadstools. Following these images, she moves to a general statement about the nature of this world. “All/ external/ marks of abuse” show on the defiant cliff, all the physical signs of nature trying to destroy it; they show the foreboding presence of death within life. The sea, a source of life, also contains powers which threaten. Its creatures exist within it, unconscious of the magnitude of these forces; the cliff remains, a fortress against them. In the last stanza, Moore states the ethical significance of this scene. The cliff, a symbol of defiance and strength, can live on, existing and recording the history of abuses, even feeding upon this harshness.
This paradox, that life and death grow stronger at the same time, is one of Moore’s favorite themes; “The Fish” contains some of her most important ideas. The cliff represents an ideal, the capacity of the courageous spirit not only to survive but also to prevail. The ocean, as it batters the cliff, represents the peril of existence that any life-form battles, but it also represents the source of all life. The fish and other creatures precariously balance between the two. All these images of life in the sea contain some hint of peril, suggesting nature’s impersonal harshness and mysterious purpose. The verbs used in the images suggest unwelcome human intrusions—also forces of death. Like the cliff, human beings caught in this predicament should not hide but should face these forces defiantly. In the poem, Moore explores the human predicament, using the scene as a theater to expose ideas that are harder to clarify in a human context.
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