Critical Evaluation

Marianne Moore, probably the most individualistic American poet writing today, has been “modern” ever since she was first published in 1921. Although she has influenced scores of writers, her poetry is inimitable and unparaphrasable, with an excellence still distinctly her own. She is a rare combination of “poet’s poet” and advice-giving moralist. As a “modern” poet in New York in the 1920’s, many readers found her poetry “esoteric”: it was much admired by the select group of modern poets headquartering there, but almost unintelligible to most readers, and certainly did not seem great because most of her topics appeared inconsequential. Her modernism, contrary to writers influenced by T. S. Eliot during the same period, led her away from philosophy; she was never disenchanted by the world around her.

On the contrary, the enchantment she finds is everywhere, even in “business documents and school books.” Her fantastic footnotes are from encyclopedias, newspapers, National Geographic, documentary films, Tolstoy’s diary—everywhere. She seeks to show reality, the genuine.

Miss Moore’s favorite “inconsequential topic” is animals. The descriptions of her often exotic menagerie—“The Pangolin,” “The Jerboa,” “The Plumet Basilisk,” “The Frigate Pelican,” and monkeys, snakes, mongooses, a buffalo, fish, elephants, a snail—illustrate above all her uncanny accuracy as an observer. The smallest details are included to characterize her animals. In “The Pangolin” her description could be a stage director’s explanation of reasons behind actions so that his cast will make their stage movements believable. One could walk like a Pangolin after hearing Miss Moore’s instructions.

There are as many examples of minute observation in her poems as there are lines. Perhaps Miss Moore’s observations are somewhat difficult to follow; after all, most readers’ minds are not as enchanted as hers. The difficulty results, not from inaccuracy, but from her ability to compress so much description into so few unemphasized words. She is, in a way, trying to train her readers to be observers too.

As it often does, the...

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