Marianne Moore

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Moore, Marianne (Vol. 1)

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Moore, Marianne 1887–1972

A major American poet, Miss Moore won the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Marianne Moore] not only can, but must, make poetry out of everything and anything: she is like Midas, or like Mozart choosing unpromising themes for the fun of it, or like one of those princesses whom wizards force to manufacture sheets out of nettles. And yet there is one thing Miss Moore has a distaste for making poetry of: the Poetic. She has made a principle out of refusing to believe that there is any such thing as the antipoetic….

Her poems have the virtues—form, concentration, emotion, observation, imagination, and so on—that one expects of poetry; but one also finds in them, in supersaturated solution, some of the virtues of good prose….

Miss Moore, in spite of a restraint unparalleled in our time, is a natural, excessive, and magnificent eccentric. (On a small scale, of course; like all cultivated Americans, she is afraid of size.) Eccentricity has been to her a first resort, an easy but inescapable refuge.

Miss Moore's forms have the lacy, mathematical extravagance of snowflakes, seem as arbitrary as the prohibitions in fairy tales; but they work as those work—disregard them and everything goes to pieces….

Miss Moore realizes that there is no such thing as the Ding an Sich, that the relations are the thing; that the outside, looked at hard enough, is the inside; that the wrinkles are only the erosion of habitual emotion. She shows that everything is related to everything else, by comparing everything to everything else; no one has compared successfully more disparate objects. She has as careful and acute an eye as anybody alive, and almost as good a tongue: so that when she describes something, a carrot, it is as if she had taken the carrot's cries in some final crisis, cries that hold in themselves a whole mode of existence. One finds in her poems so much wit and particularlity and observation; a knowledge of "prosaic" words that reminds one of Comus; a texture that will withstand any amount of rereading; a restraint and delicacy that make many more powerful poems seem obvious. And, over and above the love and care and knowledge she has lavished on the smallest details of the poems, Miss Moore is an oddly moral writer, one who coalesces moralities hardly ever found together; she is even, extraordinarily enough in our time, a writer with a happy ending—of a kind….

Miss Moore has great limitations—her work is one long triumph of them; but it was sad, for so many years, to see them and nothing else insisted upon, and Miss Moore neglected for poets who ought not to be allowed to throw elegies in her grave. I have read that several people think So-and-So the greatest living woman poet; anybody would dislike applying so clumsy a phrase to Miss Moore—but surely she is. Her poems, at their unlikely best, seem already immortal, objects that have endured their probative millennia in barrows; she has herself taken from them what time could take away, and left a skeleton the years can only harden.

Randall Jarrell, "The Humble Animal" (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), in his Poetry and the Age, Knopf-Vintage, 1953, pp. 162-66.

Marianne Moore's experimentalism is peculiarly American. She has invested heavily in 'expertness' both of style and of knowledgeableness. Her tone is always, as are Pound's and Eliot's, that of the insider—the skilled mechanic...

(This entire section contains 4456 words.)

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who knows his machine inside out, and who is also a distinguished engineer, cyberneticist, and, for that matter, theoretical physicist. Her subject matter underscores this characteristic. To make a vivid, moving design out of precise factual information is for her almost the highest value. There is a certain whimsey in her use of any and all sources…. But … neither her aim nor her feeling is essentially whimsical….

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 140-41.

Surely few poets have had so keen and so right an eye for the ways in which one thing resembles another, or one aspect of a thing suggests an aspect of another [as does Marianne Moore]. Her capacity for finding, fastening onto, and transmuting the wayward, the peculiarly apt, the odd and the interesting fact, the little known and the universally known is constantly astonishing, and so is her faculty for making these dovetail into a careful, reticently revealing assessment of what, together, they illustrate or seem to prove. Few poets, either, have shown how endlessly various, how ingenious and idiosyncratic and inexplicably fascinating, how sheerly interesting the world is in its multifarious aspects, many if not all of which are constantly modifying the beings and meanings of others in secret and half-glimpsable ways: have shown how the world is always becoming more and more absorbing, divulging to the imagination behind the practiced, practical eye a continual metamorphosis of illuminating correspondences and potentialities, some of which were always there, only waiting to be discovered, and others which have just come into being, from the outcome of a baseball game played yesterday, a new statement by a physicist, a new treatise on rare animals or on the fur trade in the Hudson Bay area in the 1880's….

The dangers that Miss Moore's method runs are two. First, there is the risk of her disappearing behind her quotations, and of the essential secondhandedness of this part of her approach becoming abtrusive and therefore self-defeating. The second danger is that, in a universe of correspondences such as she posits, the resemblances and cross-fertilizations of her selected items will, if inspiration fails, seem simply fortuitous or "yoked by violence," a danger somewhat alleviated by Miss Moore's use of syllabic meters, whose slow, sober matter-of-factness can be made to seem to carry anything and makes even the ridiculously diverse appear not only to belong together, but to want to belong together….

Each of her poems employs items that Miss Moore similarly encountered and to which she gave a new, Mooreian existence in a new cosmos of consequential relationships. What seems to me to be the most valuable point about Miss Moore is that such receptivity as hers—though it reaches perhaps its highest degree in her example—is not Miss Moore's exclusive property. Every poem of hers lifts us toward our own discovery-prone lives. It does not state, in effect, that I am more intelligent than you, more creative because I found this item and used it and you didn't. It seems to say, rather, I found this, and what did you find? Or, better, what can you find?…

In her "burning desire to be explicit," Miss Moore tells us that facts make her feel "profoundly grateful." This is because knowledge, for her, is not power but love, and in loving it is important to know what you love, as widely and as deeply and as well as possible. In paying so very much attention to the things of this earth that she encounters, or that encounter her, Miss Moore urges us to do the same, and thus gives us back, in strict syllables, the selves that we had contrived to lose. She persuades us that the human mind is nothing more or less than an organ for loving things in both complicated and blindingly simple ways, and is organized so as to be able to love in an unlimited number of fashions and for an unlimited number of reasons. This seems to me to constitute the correct poetic attitude, which is essentially a life-attitude, for it stands forever against the notion that the earth is an apathetic limbo lost in space.

James Dickey, "Marianne Moore," 1962 and 1966 essays, in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 156-63.

[Marianne Moore's] poems typically not only assert in a fairly direct manner an opinion on ethics; they usually also are suffused throughout with attitudes of approval or distaste reinforcing that point. Her values are in themselves conventional. They emphasize independence, courage, fortitude, and endurance, suggesting a belief that this world offers a hard and sparse existence…. She is occasionally a moralist in quite direct ways. Thus in her essay "If I Were Sixteen Today" she writes in favor of such virtues as promptness and chastity, as well as of the silence that, she says, can "make possible promptings from on high." (Preface)

Fascination with paradox is the most immediately striking aspect of the verse of Marianne Moore. Her famous counsel in "Poetry" that poets should present "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," should be "literalists of the imagination," bewilders the undergraduate as it bemuses the critic. This interest in the seemingly contradictory is often witty and, at times, playful…. But it is also profound. Paradox is of the essence of her work because she wishes to advocate a set of values; yet as an artist and as a person she adheres to principles that enjoin caution in assertion. (p. 17)

Miss Moore believes in the existence of a spiritual world. To her, objects are important because they are or contain something more than the qualities of mere phenomena. To see the thing itself is to [William Carlos] Williams a process of reduction, of stripping away to an essence believed to provide a base on which man may build an ethic more valid than the outworn, fraudulent systems of the twentieth century. But to Miss Moore it is a process of expansion, a discarding of mundanities to release a spiritual self…. Concern with both ethics and "things" has made Miss Moore frequently a poet of the analogy: she presents the "thing" in order to suggest or assert a point of ethics. And even though meanings arise from the object, she is not averse to tucking a "moral" into a poem to make sure that her point will be plain. (p. 19)

She must guard against intrusions of conventional feeling: hence, for example, her frequent selection of exotic animals and other "things" that her reader is not likely to have preconceptions about. (p. 20)

Though [her] probing of diversities often causes her to make abrupt juxtapositions and sudden shifts in syntax, she is careful not to let brilliance of individual lines overpower the poem. Indeed, just as she selects the conversational for use in quotations, so she avoids the trenchant aphorism in her own wording. Her wit is to inform the whole poem, not to give sparkle to individual lines…. [Her] method forces the reader to stretch his imagination—surely not an unhealthy form of exercise—and it rarely results in crypticism. If her associative processes are sometimes hard to follow, rereading generally proves that the fault has been lack of sufficient flexibility on the part of the reader. She is never cryptic because of private symbolism or merely fashionable metaphor…. (p. 25)

Miss Moore's strategies and emphases change, but there is a consistency throughout her work. She believes that behavior and esthetic practice should follow the same principles and that both should be based on a perception of "rock crystal" reality. This reality shows that man's world is one whose multiple appearances must be recognized but must not be allowed to obscure the unity of spirit and matter. Her poetry is a continual meditation upon this point and upon the consequent necessities in human behavior. (p. 41)

Belief in the existence of a spiritual world does not mean that Miss Moore is content with received optimisms. The fact that courage is her principal value, that she thinks the advisable existence to be an armored one, indicates that her world is one wherein danger always threatens. (p. 67)

The progression from the admonitions of Miss Moore's early work to the exposition of need for redemption in the poems of her middle period completes an act of moral commentary. By the mid-1940's she might have had nothing left to write but reiteration…. The way that actually opened for her was translation of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, a task that enabled her to express a sophisticated, secular but not amoral vision and one that she turned into a triumph. (p. 118)

The recent poems continue her major concerns with salvation for the self and recognition of spirit. These are necessary if one is to perform right action, whether his field be writing or baseball. (p. 151)

Miss Moore's work has been an interweaving of perception and creation, the two reinforcing and extending each other: her interest has been in exploring the details of her "object" in order to give both an accurate delineation of it and a suggestive presentation of the values she believes it to exemplify. In so doing, she has pleased nearly all the prominent members of her poetic generation. (p. 159)

It is … in embracing areas of experience rejected by Romantic versifiers that she, with such contemporaries as Williams and Stevens, has greatly broadened the range of concern and of possibility for poetry. (p. 161)

The art of her performance lies in the quiet, idiosyncratic "gusto" she brings to presentation. Explication is at most introductory. It omits all the humor and most of the irony, and it can do nothing with the spirited realization that comes with an experience of Miss Moore's poetry. For the reader, the "thing itself" is—should be—the poem. (p. 164)

Bernard F. Engel, in his Marianne Moore, Twayne, 1964.

We know this poet by her voice, by her "astonishing invention in a single mode," by her delicate, taxing technique; we know her for the "relentless accuracy" of her eye. This is Marianne Moore, ironist, moralist, fantasist. (p. 5)

Of Observations [her first book published in America] one might say: it is first and last a voice. The voice of sparkling talk and sometimes very lofty talk, glittering with authority. It has dismissed poetic diction, indeed is rigorous in its exclusion of the traditional or the romantic sensuous word, phrase, and implication. It works in a new area of language and meanings because it has new insights to bring to subjects not before then quite approximated by poetry. It is experimental and/or revolutionary because it is excluding the magical, the lyrical, the incantatory, and the musical; nature and the seasons, the moon, old Floridas of the imagination, the street scene and the fire sale. Bringing a new diction to another kind of "subject matter," it employed the cadences of prose in a rhythm based on speech. But whose speech? If at moments one might think of Congreve, at others of Henry James, it is her uniquely mother-English own, running a rapid, finely nerved energy. Held tautly to the line articulation, when so finely intermeshed, is meant, like a dance, to last just so long and not a second longer…. With a concern to narrow limits, to reduce the means of expression to what is indispensable, she understands, like certain painters, the necessity of not going beyond the line. Thus the firmness of the contours, the self-containment of the poem, which often goes by a crooked mile to its usuallly ringing, often epigrammatic close. (pp. 8-9)

From the first her highly defined world seems based on a clear-cut recognition of ethical values she considers still extant though many would have it proved that such values have been vitally assailed if not destroyed. It might be said that this poet, devoted to the paradox, strikes one as a figure of paradox too: with her clear moral and intellectual convictions not just exactly of the times, but with her forged weapons of technique the pure exemplar of the modernist….

Thus Observations brought to verse a new subject matter and to the line a new rhythm, the rhythm of prose in all its succinctness…. If this book has been equaled by her later books it has never been surpassed and exists a twentieth-century monument. (p. 11)

Almost from the beginning she proceeds by an express method of her own dialectic. The absurd will rest side by side with the exotic, the commonplace by the exquisite. "There is no progress without contrairies," said Blake and many of her poems seem to have their source in this dictum. They seem to move by the pull of contrasts and by that tension set up….

Juxtaposition of incongruities is of the essence. But not in the ways of other modernists. She is not working with a sensuous language for violently mysterious effects, or juxtaposing words for the sake of shocks of collision. Rather, her language is strictly tempered and clear, almost classical in its moderation and lack of rhetorical splurge. (p. 13)

From the Selected Poems (1935) on we see more "inscape," hear more music, meet more fantasy and far more animals. Stanzaic structure is more elaborate together with a new complexity of detail, the line is more musically nuanced, with more verbal interplay and more sub-patterns of internal rhymings and end-rhymings. The ironist and the satirist has been succeeded by the fantasist-humorist, and the hard-driving electrical speed of the free-verse line (as exemplified by the ruthless, relentless progression of a poem like "A Grace") by more light and subtle rhythms. (p. 34)

By the patience and passion of her "eye" she has proved that the stripes of the tulip can be counted; her greater glasses, one might say, have revealed to us how much had not been seen until she saw. By her excitable "detecting" (a numinous word for her) she has given us a new world of marvelous specifics or a new-old world of what had been seen before but seen without feeling. This is to say it had not been seen at all.

The god of irony, the god of humor …, the god of all-powerful detail (as Pasternak had said) attend her, to preserve her lines in the salt of their rich indigenous honesties. (p. 46)

Jean Garrigue, in her Marianne Moore ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 50), University of Minnesota Press, © 1965 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

[Marianne Moore] is that most extraordinary lady of exquisite hats and ball parks whose name is now legend. She is legendary not in the sense that she has, like Charles Olson, corralled followers into a school. Although her poetry, like Olson's, is contemporary in idiom and speech-rhythm, she has become a legend in being so distinctly herself, not only in her unique vision but in the invention of an original form to embody that vision. She has intense admirers; but so matchless is her muse that she has, strictly speaking, no imitators…. [Her] poetry can never be mistaken: it is like no one else's. So, too, her subject matter which includes exotic fauna and flora, rare china, baseball players, steeplejacks, a pet crow, an elephant, a snail, a friend's cat, and only rarely deals directly with an abstraction; yet the wit and wisdom of the ages is of its very texture and poetic patterning. (pp. 6-7)

[Miss Moore] does take her world here and now as she finds it, not simply as a "halfway house" on the way to fulfillment elsewhere. For her, nothing that exists is unimportant. She thinks in the manner of the "new secularity," if you will, joined to a personal transcendence in which man, far from being alien to his environment, acquires a new intimacy with it, a sense of wholeness with it, an involvement that sets free all his creative energies…. She is an "objectivist" of sorts, observing her subject with a fastidious carefulness and than depicting it minutely, almost microscopically. Yet her concern with the objects of her poetic interest is not in their role as symbols representing or signifying something other than themselves, nor with their imagistic meanings. She presents her fond menagerie for their sakes alone; and only then, with a swift glance beyond them, does she fix them in a larger context and hint at some wider meaning. (pp. 12-13)

Like a pedal point beneath the symphonic texture of the great majority of her poems, and supporting that texture strongly, is her answer to the ultimate question "What is man?" Not that she needs that answer for herself—she knows—but it is always an occasion of fresh surprise and wonder to discover anew man's potentialities for almost infinite expansion, to discover his mind, an "enchanting" and "enchanted" thing, his freedom in a multiplicity of choices, and his innate capacity for courage, unselfishness, and even heroism. In fact, man the hero is one of her recurrent themes. (p. 17)

At first glance [a poem by Miss Moore] may appear as a species of free verse, but on closer inspection one finds that the prose rhythms move in a strict design. For Marianne Moore, from the beginning of her career,… relied purely on a basic syllabic line, first used successfully in a peom of any length by Robert Bridges in his Testament of Beauty, and used also by Dylan Thomas in a number of poems. But Miss Moore made her own innovation by breaking away from an identical syllabic count in succeeding lines and inventing her own stanza patterns…. The technique of her later work differs little from that of her early writing beyond its being more carefully honed and sharpened. (pp. 17-19)

Wit, irony, paradox, are of the essence of her writing. These she achieves for the most part not by explication, but by juxtaposition—statement laid beside statement while the reader is expected to leap whatever hiatus may interpose itself between idea and idea in the associative process, and come to the "underlying order" beneath apparent incongruity. Her faithful gathering of detail from disparate souces illuminates the philosophic mind at grips with the perennial problem of the "One and the Many." (pp. 20-1)

Even a casual reading of the Moore canon will point up the fact that this distinguished poet is a moralist. For her, poetry must instruct as well as delight…. But this is far from meaning that in her work she thrusts moralistic preachments at her readers…. [However] were one to gather statement by statement various quotations from Miss Moore's writings and arrange them in proper sequence, one might easily construct a manual—and a delightful one at that—of the Good Life. This results from her open, all-embracing vision of the world and man's place in it.

Because Miss Moore is open to the world, she sees man in the perspective of the human predicament, "trapped in mortality," in struggle with outside forces and himself. And she tells him not only how to meet these adverse circumstances, but how to be graced by them…. [The] courage to be human, not satisfied to be simply a part or to be simply oneself, but rather to be oneself in relation to others and in response to them … is the courage that Miss Moore depicts explicitly or implicitly in her poetry. (pp. 24-5)

It is small wonder that so charismatic a person as Marianne Moore, of the contemplative mind, of extraordinary erudition, and of a delightful worldliness—in God's world everything is good—should weave the love theme into her writing…. It is her love for all being that makes [the] variety [of her subject matter] possible, as in imaginative vision she sees all created things in a shining unity. Hers is an especially sensitive awareness of connaturality with all living things, and of love as a transcendent spiritual power…. In poem after poem she has expressed love's relevance…. For Miss Moore, the love which comes from faith flowers spiritually as freedom…. It is what St. Augustine had in mind when he wrote, "Love God and do what you will." (pp. 41-2)

One must say that Marianne Moore is a poet of celebration—a celebration of life, all life. From the first, her stance has been one of affirmation and praise. Though the years have seen an inevitable development, as she has extended herself in sympathy to more of God's world, she has never deviated from her original position, namely, that "the power of the visible is the invisible." Her Christian stance is part of the inner structure of all her writing, which is indeed a poetry of existence. For she is the observer par excellence of the "thisness" of things, and her concern has been for their integrity and their progress in being utterly themselves. The sharp focus of her observations compensates for any circumscription of subject-matter. (p. 45)

T. S. Eliot's statement in his introduction to her Selected Poems that she was "one of those few who have done the language some service in my lifetime," still rings true today. This is especially true as regards her innovations in prosody. If the greatest change in poetic technique since the turn of the century has been the break away from accentual meter to the free rhythms of speech, Miss Moore has made to this a most unique contribution: her accomplished and highly inventive use of syllabics, and that in the most arresting visual patterns. Each of her poems is visually its own artifact as it lies on the page like a piece of delicate point d'Alençon. (p. 46)

Sister M. Therese, in her Marianne Moore ("Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective"), Eerdmans, 1969.

As a poet Marianne Moore is not eccentric; rather, like Apollo, she is a practitioner of beauty, poetry, and healing…. In practicing poetry Marianne Moore is in her own way practicing medicine. Her whole poetic career has been one long struggle with the diseases that most seriously afflict man: affectation, arrogance, timidity, materialism, selfishness—all the moral corruptions that fragment the self and isolate it in the terror of separateness….

Marianne Moore's medicines are those paradoxical and mysterious maxims men have known but seldom heeded; maxims which are encompassed by the idea that the spirit is stronger than the things of the world…. Marianne Moore's medicines consist in observing precisely the various modes of existence….

Her belief, her armor, and, consequently, her medicines are old-fashioned. She is not interested in attacking and changing social institutions; what matters to her is the individual and the way he corrupts and loses himself in his obsession with ego. She is a leveler, who in leveling builds a stronger person; she is a surgeon who slices away the diseased tissue to restore the man. In her poems she has given the world emblems of determination, self-discipline, restraint, compactness, hope, and they are all, as she has titled one of her poems, "Efforts of Affection."

Larry P. Vonalt, "Marianne Moore's Medicines" (© 1970 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1970, pp. 669-78.


Moore, Marianne (Feminism in Literature)


Moore, Marianne (Vol. 10)