Marianne Moore Moore, Marianne (Vol. 2) - Essay

Moore, Marianne (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moore, Marianne 1887–1972

A major American poet, Miss Moore was the recipient of the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36.)

Miss Moore does not build ethereal castles, but she observes the inhabitant of a zoological or botanical garden or of a museum case with a particularity that realizes and solidifies the object. She delights in accurate delineation, whether of lizards, buffaloes, or swans. She is especially good at catching creatures in motion.

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1952, pp. 92-3.

Marianne Moore has as careful and acute an eye as anybody alive, and almost as good a tongue. The reader relishes in her poems a fineness and strangeness and firmness of discrimination that he is not accustomed to. Her poems are notable for their wit and particularity 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. Their forms have the lacy, mathematical extravagance of snowflakes, seem as arbitrary as the prohibitions in fairy tales; difficulty is the chief technical principle of her poetry, almost. What intelligence vibrates in the sounds, the rhythms, the pauses, in all the minute particulars that make up the body of the poem! The tone of her poems, often, is enough to give the reader great pleasure, since it is a tone of imagination and precision and intelligence, of irony and forbearance, of unusual moral penetration—is plainly the voice of a person of good taste and good sense and good will, of a genuinely human being. It is the voice, too, of a natural, excessive, and magnificent eccentric….

She has great limitations—her work is one long triumph of them. How often she has written about Things (hers are aesthetic-moral, not commercial-utilitarian—they persist and reassure); or Plants (how can anything bad happen to a plant?); or Animals with holes, a heavy defensive armament, or a massive and herbivorous placidity superior to either the dangers or temptations of aggression! Because so much of our own world is evil, she has transformed the Animal Kingdom, that amoral realm, into a realm of good; her consolatory, fabulous bestiary is more accurate than, but is almost as arranged as, any medieval one….

We are uncomfortable—or else too comfortable—in a world in which feeling, affection, charity are so entirely divorced from sexuality and power, the bonds of the flesh. In the world of her poems there are many thoughts, things, animals, sentiments, moral insights; but money and passion and power, the brute fact that works, whether or not correctly, whether or not precisely—the whole Medusa face of the world: these are gone.

Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; © 1963, 1964 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.

Miss Moore's love of detail, her insistence on the accurate use of words, her tendency to give lengthy catalogues of names and things, her startling ability to detect likenesses in the most unlikely places, as when she calls a glacier "an octopus / of ice", are based on an almost childlike respect for the truth. She admires openness and the ability to act in accordance with one's own nature, without deviousness…. The flat directness of her poems is honesty; their idiosyncrasies of style are the reflection of her nature. To write otherwise would be for her nothing but dishonesty….

Furthermore, her poems use rhythm in an anti-poetic fashion, to confuse the reader. His expectations are frustrated by the refusal to set up a rhythmic norm and by a perpetual use of enjambement. When she does not use free verse, Miss Moore has a preference for intricate stanza-forms and near-inaudible rhymes, distributed almost at random. Form is established in order not to be respected. When she is dissatisfied with a poem in its completed form, she removes passages without any attempt to patch over the hole left, even when elaborate stanzas are left hanging in the middle of the page….

Martin Dodsworth, "Marianne Moore," in Review, No. 15, 1965.

The apparent subjects of Miss Moore's poems are most often exotic animals: the pangolin, the plumet basilisk, the ostrich, the Indian buffalo, the frigate pelican, and innumerable others. They are all exactly detailed, since, as she tells us in "Four Quartz Crystal Clocks," "The lemur-student can see / that an aye-aye is not / an angwan-tíbo, potto, or loris." There is a lesser, but substantial, richness of botanical life in such poems as "Virginia Britannia," and a preoccupation with the art of music in such poems as "Propriety." Magnificently alive as her animals, plants, or musical compositions are, they are not really her subjects, but occasions for reflections on the human world, or parables, what she calls in a poem about Italy, "mythologica esopica."…

Miss Moore's subtlety of form is unrivaled in our time. She says in the preface to the Reader that she prefers end-stopped lines…. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his introduction to her Selected Poems of 1935, she is "the greatest living master" of the light or inconspicuous rhyme, rhyming on an unaccented syllable or even on an article. Some of her poems are syllabic rather than accentual, like French poetry, with stanzas in which each line has a fixed number of syllables (perfectly so in the eight stanzas of "The Fish" and the twenty-seven stanzas of "The Jerboa," less regularly so in such poems as "Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain"). Her art inheres where William Blake said it must, in "minute particulars," and her moral is Blake's moral, "Everything that lives is holy."

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Marianne Moore at Seventy-Four," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 38-42.

Personally, I wish Miss [Marianne] Moore had been more sparing of her work, and as an admiring reader I feel that I have some rights in the matter. Her poems are partly mine, now, and I delight in them because they exhibit a mind of great fastidiousness, a delicate and cunning moral sensibility, a tact, a decorum, a rectitude, and finally and most movingly, a capacity for pure praise that has absolutely biblical awe in it.

Anthony Hecht, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1968, pp. 207-09.

Miss Moore's poems are poetic as natural science is poetic; botany, meteorology. Some years ago she defended the comparison of poet and scientist. 'Both are willing to waste effort. To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each. Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision.' In 'The Staff of Aesculapius' she writes in praise of cancer research, virology, knowledge 'gained for another attack' upon suffering. There are several poems in defense of experimental waste. Anything is poetic. Miss Moore implies, conducted in the proper spirit of disinterestedness and charity. A poet writes a poem, perhaps, to revive a root meaning long buried. The reader consults a large dictionary, finds the old meaning, and recognizes it, revived, in its new setting. These are poetic acts, honourably wasteful. One of Miss Moore's favourite writers is Christopher Smart, author of Jubilate Agno. Another is Landor, praised in a recent poem, who could throw a man through a window and yet say, 'Good God, the violets!' Miss Moore loves dapple, dappled things, the evidence of spirited acts. She does not like a big splash. She likes circumstance, released from pomp. She thinks Caesar a great writer and Defoe observant to the degree of genius….

[She] does not endorse a predatory grasp of reality. Instead, she is the first to concede to a thing its own independent right; an acknowledgement rather than a concession. In her colony of the spirit there are no chain gangs. It does not gratify her to bring things to heel, seeing them cower. She is a poet of finite things; she does not lust for the absolute. She is always patient in the presence of limitation…. Miss Moore does not claim to understand everything; not even everything she sees. She speaks when, observant, she has something to report. She is no mystic. This is the measure of her care for things, relationship, words; a care habitually engaged in accuracy…. Miss Moore's poems are full of quotations because she has come upon many things which have only to be exhibited to be appreciated, and appreciation is poetic. One thing, placed beside another, if both are judiciously chosen, sets a new relation in train. The main duty is to get the words right. This is why Miss Moore is stern in revising her poems….

The function of a poem, when Miss Moore writes it, is to provide for distinctive energy of mind a sufficient occasion; a direction. The mind moves from its presumed rest; ranges abroad through materials congenial to its nature; comes to rest again. This is the figure the poems makes; a sequence, a curve, the trajectory of a mind well aimed.

Denis Donoghue, in his The Ordinary Universe (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Ordinary Universe by Denis Donoghue; © 1968 by Denis Donoghue), Macmillan, 1968, pp. 43-7.

Though H. D. is usually singled out as "the" Imagist, that distinction, such as it is, ought rather to go to Marianne Moore. Until the publication of her What Are Years? in 1941, no poet more persistently devoted himself to writing poems that exemplify the poetic ideal suggested either by Pound's definition of the image—"an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time"—or by his idea that the arts, especially poetry, give us "data" from which we may draw conclusions about the nature of man. If Miss Moore has ignored the philosophic implications of Pound's use of "complex," she has not missed the point of his drive toward the antipoetic, his definition of poetry as a "science," in short, his effort to defend poetry in terms derived from the "real" world of "fact." In most of her early work she seems determined to be the "pure" poet, the completely antiromantic poet, and the poet of the most rigorous determination to keep poetry free from that "emotional slither" that Pound had condemned, to keep it free by concentrating exclusively on "direct" treatment of the "thing."

Hyatt H. Waggoner, in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 364-68.

Made up of almost entirely other people's writing and almost all of them people of no literary importance whatsoever, [Marianne Moore's] poems, one would expect, should be utterly impersonal. On the contrary they are totally personal—the peculiar and peculiarly distorted expression of a unique person, or rather of one person's uniqueness, which is why of all the classic American modernists, Marianne Moore has never had any disciples or even occasional imitators…. What influence Marianne Moore has had has been prosodic. To her can be traced the distortion of natural rhythms and concealment of strophic lines in strictly measured pseudo-metric, a technique employed by several later poets, notably James Laughlin, who certainly otherwise do not resemble Marianne Moore.

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, p. 70.