Moore, Marianne (Vol. 4)
Moore, Marianne 1887–1972
Marianne Moore was one of America's finest poets. Her entirely unique body of work is built upon subjects not generally considered the stuff of great poems. Exotic flora and fauna abound; baseball players, virology, musical composition, rare china, meteorology, and a snail appear. Miss Moore examined the world in meticulous detail, but it was not the things themselves that counted so much as the relations. As Sister M. Therese wrote, "she sees all created things in a shining unity." She was once called a "practitioner of beauty, poetry, and healing." Moralistic, truthful, witty, and idiosyncratic, her poems are an affectionate celebration of life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36.)
The technique of Marianne Moore's poems is a national one. She constructs a poem with engineering methods and with the blessed aptitude that American fingers have for mechanics. In her poems one sees America, and in seeing hears, and in hearing, feels America. It is a threefold complex process which is put together with mild good-natured trifles: a sentence jotted from a book, a word from a catalogue, quotations from a tourist guide; an overheard conversation, a memory, a comparison, a returning thought—from all these materials a poem is built. And when it is finished one sees that it is as national as baseball, and is created according to rules that became prevalent in America during the last quarter century.
Yet Miss Moore's art is a personal one. Modern poetry, which had its beginning in America with the magazine The Little Review, was a product of spiritual uprootedness and of dissatisfaction. But Marianne Moore made this dissatisfaction homey and familiar…. [She] was able to harmonize her poetic quest with the American temperament. Thus Marianne Moore became the poet of contemporary America….
Miss Moore is truly protector of all those hard and socalled "prosaic" words that poets avoid. She comes near to them, breaks them into syllables and in these syllables she finds internal rhymes which do not stifle the effect of the prose in the poem. This is very important, for every poem is, in its raw state—prose, before the poet "does something" with the ore. It is often easy to make two lines rhyme so that prose takes on the formality of poetry. But Marianne Moore does double work. First she perfects the prosaic part of her poem and makes of it good prose; later, she converts the prose into a poem, and because the prosaic element is important to her she does not obscure it with superficial rhythm or with too facile rhyme. Many conventional poems may indeed be poems but they are cheap prose.
Marianne Moore takes simple, commonplace words and elevates them. She shows explicitly that the entire half-million English words are material for poetry. Above all, she loves the dry, essayist words, the speech-like ones, not those words which blatantly sing from within themselves. Often she arranges her difficult words in a distinctive typographical order. She shows that they possess even external grace. After all, books of poetry are printed words and she wants these words to stand by themselves, like Coleridge's picturesque "painted ship upon a painted ocean." Her printed words appeal immediately to the eye before one hears them with the ear.
Moore's rhymes, too, are more visible than audible. They are silent because she does not want to give them complete possession over the line. Her rhymes, like candles, blaze and burn out. She creates the impression of being a difficult writer only because her simplicities are assembled in a complex fashion. Miss Moore writes by association, yet she never offers the dream—only, at once, the interpretation; and the interpretation is full of the phantasmagoria of a dream. Her interpretation scintillates with expertise of the word, and of the second word which combines with the first. She pauses at the smallest trifles, pointing out every detail, which is not only seen but pondered over, and analyzed. When she focuses on something, she says all that can be said about it, all she is capable of remembering. She brings into the least corner the accumulated culture of her time in condensed form. This is her major achievement as a poet….
Miss Moore's poems often fascinate the reader with their unique "tedium." She does not avoid tedium, but rushes directly toward it. The opposite of the tedious is the interesting, the amusing. A line becomes a lightning-rod of a moment that wishes to come and be, but the moment is burnt up and is no more. When one reads Marianne Moore's poems one sees that time is elemental in the poem, that the poem is actually swimming against time as one swims against waves. Moore's poems exist in living time and not in squandered or past time.
The humor of Marianne Moore's poetry is comparable to humor in music, in the sense that we say a Haydn quartet is humorous, or Beethoven's Eighth Symphony is full of pranks. It is humor intricately bound to form rather than content. Her humor if often achieved through a quotation meant in all seriousness, yet behind her use of it lies a hidden smile.
Jacob Glatstein, "The Poetry of Marianne Moore" (originally published in Yiddish in Glatstein's In Tokh Genumen: Essays 1945–1947); translation by Doris Vidaver (copyright © 1974 by Doris Vidaver; reprinted by permission of Doris Vidaver), in Prairie Schooner, Summer, 1973, pp. 133-41.
Offhand I would probably have shared what seems a widespread impression that Marianne Moore was admirably qualified, not only by talent but by sympathy as well, to translate the Fables of La Fontaine: this impression appears to have been based on a very rapid summing-up of both poets: "Ah, yes—animals." But there is, I find, a great distance between a Moore jerboa and a La Fontaine rat, and because I enjoy some of Miss Moore's poetry a good deal I am sorry to have to say that the results of this cooperation strike me not as merely inadequate or mediocre but as in a positive way terrible. My fine critical hindsight tells me now, what it didn't warn me of beforehand, that Miss Moore has never been a fabulist at all, that her animals never acted out her moralities; that their function was ever to provide a minutely detailed, finely perceived symbolic knot to be a center for the pattern of her recondite meditations; that what she shares with La Fontaine is a shrewdness and delicacy of the moral judgment, but that the two poets' ways of getting there—their fables, in fact—are so different as to be opposed. I still feel, with somewhat less conviction than before, that Miss Moore might have got a happier result by setting herself to tell La Fontaine's stories in English, for it seems that a critical factor in the failure of these translations may have been an uncertainty about the ideal degree of her dependence on the French: as poems to be read in English, they are irritatingly awkward, elliptical, complicated, and very jittery as to the meter; as renderings of the French they vacillate between pedantic strictness and strange liberty….
Perhaps these are quibbles; I'm sorry if so. And I would give them up instantly if it seemed that the sacrifice of simplicity, accuracy and sense had resulted in some clear gain in the English version; but it was the oddity of the English which in the first place drew my notice….
The general objection, of which the two foregoing objections are specific instances, is that Miss Moore is so often found going the long way around, making complexities out of simplicities, loading lines with detail until they are corrupted in sense or measure, and writing, in consequence, absurdly bad English.
Howard Nemerov, "A Few Bricks from Babel" (1954; © 1962 by Howard Nemerov; reprinted with permission), in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles Tomlinson, Prentice-Hall, 1969, pp. 134-38.
What … is the real gestalt of Miss Moore's formal structures?… [In] all but Miss Moore's later poems, the syllabic prosody and attendant devices are so used as to minimize the usual rhythmic possibilities of the syllabic structure, in order to give an effect more nearly approximating free verse, and that as a consequence we must presume the mathematic tone of her poetry is derived from other aspects of her total poetic…. [A] certain number of the later poems, still syllabic, represent a departure from this minimization of the usual syllabic effect, while paradoxically developing a tone in which the sense of dry precision is a less important constituent….
The heightened, more lyrical voice of Miss Moore's later poetry is lifted on a combination of a more musical rhythm, and the more intricately wrought pattern of sound which is so apparent in these selections. Peculiarly enough it is in the early poems of Marianne Moore, where the "mathematic" tone is most obvious, that she employs so successfully so many means for reducing the importance of her syllabically determined line. The tone there rises, both in the syllabic and in the free verse poems, from uses of diction and rhythm…. It is in the later poems where (though they are without doubt no less precise) the tone desired is not so much one of precise distinctions, nice contrasts, and slight if portentous ironic gestures—it is here that the particular formal qualities of syllabic poetry are heightened by rhythm and euphony to a tone which is paradoxically not happiest in the drawing room, yet more clearly something of "hammered gold and gold enamelling."
Robert Beloof, "Prosody and Tone: The 'Mathematics' of Marianne Moore," in The Kenyon Review, Winter, 1958, pp. 116-23.
The achievement of Marianne Moore's version of La Fontaine is … to have discovered the principles of a badly needed idiom, urbane without slickness and brisk without imprecision. Since Chaucer's fell into disuse, English verse, constantly allured by the sonorous and catachrestic, hasn't had a reliable natural idiom that can imitate the speech of civilized men and still handle deftly subjects more complex than the ones whose emotions pertain, like Words-worth's, to hypnotic obviousness; hence nothing existed for a La Fontaine to be translated into….
That a Marianne Moore crow even in a translation should be unmistakably a crow, not a symbol, is what we should expect from the use to which she puts the celebrated animals in her poems. Her characteristic beast is the only thing of its kind prized for its uniqueness ("an aye-aye is not / an angwan-tíbo, potto, or loris")….
The uncompromising inhabitants of Miss Moore's zoo, cross-bred with the citizens of the urbane La Fontaine's hierarchic animal kingdom, lend to an enterprise endangered by obviousness a jaunty manner of speaking that always arrests and often wholly entrances the modern reader….
When Miss Moore gets preoccupied (understandably) with tucking all the words into the given rhythms and rhyme schemes she frequently produces what may be the neatest solution to this particular crossword puzzle, but is not the best way of conveying the subject at hand in English.
It is often, however, the best way of creating a climate of mind, not heretofore available in English, in which the wit of the Fables can thrive. All convincing translation remains miraculous, but the normal excellence of this one is surprisingly sustained: the work of a deliberate and indefatigable intelligence, which earns its reward when the translator's special diction, personal and by existing literary standards impure, re-creates the French aplomb with an absoluteness no careful reader is going to ascribe to luck.
Hugh Kenner, "Supreme in Her Abnormality," in his Gnomon (© 1958 by Hugh Kenner; reprinted by permission of Astor-Honor, Inc., Stamford, Conn.), 1958, pp. 180-97.
[Marianne Moore's] poems are not for the voice, she senses this in herself reading them badly; in response to a question, she once said that she wrote them for people to look at. Moreover, one cannot imagine them handwritten; for as Ruskin's tree, on the page, exists in tension between arboreal process and the mind's serial inventory of arms, shields, tables, hands, and hills, so Miss Moore's cats, her fish, her pangolins and ostriches exist on the page in tension between the mechanisms of print and the presence of a person behind those mechanisms. Handwriting flows with the voice, and here the voice is as synthetic as the cat, not something the elocutionist can modulate. The words on these pages are little regular blocks, set apart by spaces, that have been generated not by the voice, but by the click of the keys and the ratcheting of the carriage.
The stanzas lie on the page, one after another, in little intricate grids of visual symmetry, the left margin indented according to complex rules which govern the setting of tabulator stops. The lines obey no rhythmic system the ear can apprehend; that there is a system we learn not by listening but by counting syllables, and we find that the words exist within a grid of numerical rules.
Hugh Kenner, "The Experience of the Eye: Marianne Moore's Tradition," in The Southern Review, Vol. I, No. 4, Autumn, 1965, pp. 754-69.
One may speak of Marianne Moore's poetic practice very generally as follows: feeling is expressed by concrete images; these are very carefully perceived, and to the extent that the poem pays attention to them, elaborating them for their own sakes with the play of fancy, the feeling is restrained; to the extent that the opposite occurs, in the limited number of instances where Miss Moore uses an image in the mode of the imagination, feeling is unrestrained….
[Many of] Marianne Moore's poems have form—form gained from rhymes, rhythms, and patterned arrangements of lines. But she avoids form that results from the organization of parts—a process in which details are selected, shaped, and ordered to contribute and conform to the whole, such as the faculty of the imagination, the "shaping spirit," would follow. To subordinate particulars to a general picture is contrary to her characteristic practice…. When she does subordinate details, she does so to provide a foil for the kind of perception which appreciates them….
By dwelling upon the imagery for its own sake or by proliferating images linked by fanciful association Marianne Moore achieves the control of feelings, that justly celebrated restraint and classic decency which is perhaps the most superb feature of her work….
The virtuous restraint that results from Miss Moore's use of images, the unassertiveness that comes from the use of quotations and oblique statements is balanced against the form of the poems: for form, says Miss Moore, "is the outward equivalent of a determining inner conviction." Form manifests itself in her poetry as the over-all shape of a poem achieved by symmetries of sounds and meanings and also as the local fusing of these two in the expressiveness of her sound effects. Either of these achievements is, I suppose, a notification of the poet's conviction…. [In] general, form which asserts the conviction is by no means allowed to dominate: the instinct which scrambles the feeling through associated images controls likewise the notification of the conviction. All these techniques I take to be caveats and guards indicative of the poet's terrible sense that truth is a high hill, unassailable by the crude advance, and that one "about it and about must go."
A. Kingsley Weatherhead, "Marianne Moore," in his The Edge of Image: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Some Other Poets, University of Washington Press, 1967, pp. 58-95.
A woman poet who is also American will find herself measured sooner or later against Emily Dickinson. Few of them may like this, because the comparison will seem invidious on two grounds. Why should women be judged as poets differently from men? And is it fair that competition should be set so high? Emily Dickinson was, at her best, a poet unequalled in American literature. We may admit the complaint and still proceed with the experiment. In judging a woman poet,… we think first of the poet, but expect that her endowments as a woman will in certain ways modify what she writes….
Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson do not stand to each other in a relationship as undeniable as that between Miss Moore and Henry James. I doubt if one who mastered the urbane obliquity of James would care altogether for the abrupt and unceremonious withdrawals into enigma of Emily Dickinson. It has often been remarked that Marianne Moore's style develops out of highly civilised prose. Her sentences are beautifully articulated, more condensed than prose normally is, and with an odd sidelong movement that in prose would probably disconcert; but no one could mistake the element from which they have arisen. Their affinities are with conversation…. Emily Dickinson was afraid to converse: she utters a few astonishing words from behind the door and then closes it in palpitation…. Emily Dickinson all but abolished prose from her written communications with the world….
And yet, given this all-important distinction between the two poets, their choice of language seems to unite them unexpectedly. Both are incontrovertibly American—or perhaps one should say American of a certain tone and temper which, like much else in the modern world, may be dissolving. They are individual, ironic, and above all fastidious. They place a high value on privacy and know the power of reticence. Their poetry is exact and curious like the domestic skills of the American woman in ante-bellum days. It has the elevation of old-fashioned erudite American talk—more careful in its vocabulary, more strenuously aiming at correctness and dignity than English talk of the same vintage. This is not to confuse the milieux of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; nor to insinuate that both poets stand at a distance from today in a charming lady-like quaintness. What distinguishes them is something very far from quaintness: a practical interest in the capacities of the English language both learned and colloquial, in its American variety….
A characteristic poem by Marianne Moore hovers between the colloquial and the instructed, just as it embodies her own spontaneous thoughts and a mass of felicitous quotation. The tone is equable and gracious, but never intimate: Miss Moore holds herself at a distance. The "I" in her poems is not central and exposed like the "I" in Emily Dickinson's. Rather it appears when comment is needed, or to provide a focus…. Almost at once the personal becomes generalized…. And her bent for anthologizing, for grafting quotations on to the living stock of her poem, leads also to a tactful self-effacement, for the sake of showing whatever it may be more clearly. Marianne Moore inhabits her poetry as a watchful commentator, much as Jane Austen can be sensed in every line of her novels. The actual incidence of the first person is not to the point. What reveals her throughout is a consistent tone.
The tone derives its authority from a philologist's care…. The words have no surprising depths, as they would in Emily Dickinson; but the public forms, as with her, the institution or enterprise, the obligation, are weighted against the private feelings…. Everywhere, she actualizes her abstract terms, which may be quotations, by doing what Emily Dickinson did—exposing them to the world of sensation….
Marianne Moore's work houses a museumful of detail, drawn from her own observation, from her reading in such books as Strange Animals I Have Known, from art galleries, and from The Illustrated London News. She has assembled all these objects and impressions for the imagination to work into a new arrangement. So with language, the specimens of its use for a myriad purposes are presently given their place in a poem. Entering they are changed, it may be in almost imperceptible ways. The English language with all its Latin accretions is perhaps more than any other prone to degeneracy. It has to be kept alive from one era to the next, as indeed do all languages; and the most effective way with ours is that of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore—to restore the Latin words to their full rights by engaging them in the common labour of interpreting and assaying experience. They serve mostly to balance and control….
Marianne Moore's emotional pitch and range differ from those of Emily Dickinson. They do not exclude terror … or ecstasy…. Her essential kinship with Emily Dickinson can be explained partly by the obvious facts that they are both women poets and both American; but it would scarcely add to our understanding of either did we not recognize the common bond of philology. To probe meanings, to read the past history and the present possibilities of words, to modify them by an apt new employment, to keep them adventurous and generative—such has always been the concern of the poet. Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson have their separate ways of bringing words into prominence, and this essay could enlarge on the emphasis given by Emily Dickinson's dissonant rhymes, and the manner in which Marianne Moore's light rhymes duck to make way for the stress where it is most needed. But the important thing was to signalize what is common to their achievement, and to express gratitude for what they have done.
Henry Gifford, "Two Philologists" (reprinted by permission of Henry Gifford), in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles Tomlinson, Prentice-Hall, 1969, pp. 172-78.
[Marianne Moore's] poetry, for all its untraditional form, nevertheless reveals full knowledge of the traditions of the past; her technique is firmly rooted in complete understanding of the poet's craft. When she breaks the "rules," she knows how to break them, and, even more important, why she is breaking them. Thus her poems have an authority of tone, even while they are most daringly experimental. Her emphasis on the "instruction" element in poetry, along with "fascinating" (which she places first) and "stirring the mind," makes her work seem at times to hold a special kinship with the eighteenth century. She admits to the specific influence of eighteenth century prose, especially that of Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke….
But, though her poetry partakes of the general ethos of the eighteenth century, there is no similarity whatever in form. Nor is it derivative from any other source. A Moore poem is uniquely, unmistakably Moore. She firmly disparages a theory recently advanced, that her poems are planned deliberately to fit into a pre-arranged syllabic count…. When her work was first published, Ezra Pound remarked that she must have been reading Laforgue and the French symbolists; actually she read them for the first time in the 1950's. She received no inspiration from the Imagist movement—"I wondered why anyone would adopt that term"—nor from Amy Lowell's polyphonic prose.
Perhaps the poet whose approach most resembles her is Gerard Manley Hopkins. As in his "sprung rhythm," the rhythm of normal speech provides her metrical pattern…. The key word is sound….
[No] matter how complex the sentence may be, there is never a loss or diminution of sense…. Nor does the poet's insistence upon clarity and precision imply an obsession with the obvious. A Moore poem is subtle, demanding careful reading—sometimes several readings—but it is never obscure.
Rosemary Sprague, "Marianne Moore," in her Imaginary Gardens: A Study of Five American Poets (reprinted with permission of the Publisher), Chilton, 1969, pp. 199-204.
To be legendary is often to be dismissed. Enduring fame can be a kind of pigeonhole. Marianne Moore's is a pleasant pigeonhole: among critics she is almost universally admired. The unanimity of affectionate respect is, in fact, remarkable; no one whose poetry is being read with close attention could be held in such unvarying esteem. One suspects that, in a curious way, Miss Moore has, indeed, been dismissed. Long since, she has been read, "understood," and accorded a permanent pedestal.
She deserves better treatment. Being understood is a condition fatal to further understanding. When Marianne Moore is unanimously acclaimed a technical virtuoso, everything important is left unsaid. She is recognized as a master of surface perfections whose poems are difficult, intelligent, scrupulously accurate and charmingly whimsical. There is at the same time general agreement that they are unemotional…. Miss Moore's reputation rests on brilliant surfaces and on charming eccentricities.
The basis for this reputation is understandable. The surface of the poems is brilliant. Miss Moore's poetic technique has reached its own potential. One may read such a poem as "The Jerboa" and be convinced that if surface is all, it is enough. But in limiting one's understanding of Miss Moore's poetry to an appreciation of polished surfaces, too much is ignored. How does one explain a poem like "A Grave" by applying to surfaces? One would have to ignore the dark music of feeling that informs that poem; the sacrifice would be too great.
Critics insist on the brilliance of Miss Moore's surfaces and, after all, the surfaces are there. It is Miss Moore who has created them, so part of the insistence, then, must be her own. A polished surface can serve as a concealment. Reflecting light, it can deflect attention from what it conceals. In numbers of Miss Moore's early poems, I think her concentration upon technique, wit, and intellectual hair-splitting serves such a purpose. A young woman's vulnerable feelings hide behind the cleverness. In the poems of her middle years, Miss Moore is less concerned with high polish (although the decreased concern is only relative) but often the content of the poetry is more conventional. In such a poem as "What Are Years?" the feelings expressed, although strongly stated, are those not-very-private ones that any thoughtful person might have in considering human life. The surface may be penetrable because the feelings are acceptably conventional. In the first sort of poem, feeling is controlled by a manipulation of surface fireworks. In the second kind, the feeling itself is a surface. It is ordinary emotion, rationally expressed. Throughout the poetry, from early to late, there is a third kind of poem that interests me most. It not only deals with the content lurking deep under the surfaces but is expressed in images that come from these depths. Such a poem is "A Grave." There are others like "The Plumet Basilisk," "The Fish," "Marriage," and "Sun." These are poems in which the ostensible subject—the surface object—simply will not support the weight of implied concern. Something else, something quite different from the stated subject, is in control of the poem. (pp. 11-13)
Miss Moore's surfaces, then, are not perfected simply for their own sake. It is almost axiomatic that in Marianne Moore's poetry the more glittering the surface, the greater the underlying emotion. The stronger and more frightening the feeling, the more necessary the protection that complexity of surface can provide. In the third category of poem I mention, the surface dazzles. The poems are rooms of mirrors, faceted with imagery that blinds in its brillance. They have an Arabian Nights opulence held tightly in a frame of technical control.
Something peculiar happens intermittently in these poems. In the midst of comprehensibility, rational content suddenly disappears. All at once there is no paraphrasable meaning. Nothing makes sense. One realizes slowly that something else has taken over the poem. The images are no longer images of any thing but are, rather, images of feeling. They are molten, coming like lava from the dark place of serpents and gold. The surface has broken and the crazy language of the unconscious mind pours in. (p. 13)
It is these moments when control is lost, these eruptions of feeling, that are for me the greatest pleasure in Marianne Moore's poetry. The surface of the poetry is undeniably brilliant, but it is perhaps the power of underlying emotion that is responsible for its highly-worked perfection….
People who have chosen to see only the surfaces of Marianne Moore's poetry have missed at least half of what is there. In calling attention to technical detail so determinedly they have fallen into the trap the poet, herself, has provided; they have taken her insistence upon emotional restraint as evidence of no emotion. There is enormous restraint, of course, but one should not be misled by it. Only the wildest animals need cages so carefully made. (p. 14)
The confusion of Miss Moore with the Imagists, insofar as it has existed, has been a matter of seeing in similarities of technique an identity of purpose. Marianne Moore has used exactness, concentration upon and detailed description of a particular object in the service of idea and emotion. (pp. 37-8)
Nonetheless, between 1914 and 1920 Marianne Moore had been writing poems in harmony with new theories of modern poetry. Apparently quite independently, she was writing the sort of poetry that Pound and others were saying ought to be written. Use of the exact word and the language of ordinary speech, new and freer rhythms that would accommodate themselves to the content rather than demand accommodation, clarity, and concentration of expression, and the particular image in place of the abstract generalization—all of these innovations were being practiced by Miss Moore as they were being preached by Pound. (p. 38)
Miss Moore prefers the natural to the artificial, innocent honesty to sophisticated obfuscation. When she writes of the various literary people in the poems in Observations, it is the artificial pose, the deadening intellection and sophistication that she criticizes…. Truth is the plain and clear and simple. It is the honesty of pure color, the lucidity of clear air. (p. 39)
The preference for clarity here is more than a matter of taste. It is an ethic. Deliberate obfuscation is a species of immorality. The use of murky, equivocal expression in literature is evidence of a dishonest mind. This equating of style with moral integrity is a peculiarly modern idea. As a man's character might once have been read in his face, so now it could be found in his mode of expression. Honesty of intention would lead a man to be as accurate in his choice of words and as clear in his syntax as possible. The new emphasis on precision, particularity, and clarity, then, was as much a moral stand as it was a stylistic rebellion. (p. 40)
One thinks of her in connection with Walt Whitman, that most "American" of poets. In both cases being American meant simply being self-reliant, trusting to inward vision rather than received form. Of course, this is no more American than it is Rumanian or Chinese. It is seeing the vision and not denying it. It is an acceptance of oneself. (p. 56)
Most of Miss Moore's poetry is self-centered as, perhaps, all poetry is and has to be. Peculiar to Miss Moore's self-concern, however, is its emphasis on self-protection with concomitant non-involvement and withdrawal. Her concern for others has nearly always been in terms of identification with their vulnerability which, finally, begins to seem more like care for a projected self than real concern for real people. It is possible, then, that the guilt Miss Moore expresses in this poem comes from an acknowledgement of the cowardice of deliberate non-involvement. She has, indeed, inwardly done nothing or, more accurately, has deliberately set out to avoid being involved. Whether there is any validity in the idea of morally involving oneself in a separate question. The point is that for Miss Moore to feel this particular guilt is interesting in light of the persistent theme of a great deal of her poetry. (p. 112)
In many ways Marianne Moore and La Fontaine display such striking similarities in their respective verse that the one seems a spiritual descendent of the other. Their styles are remarkably alike. Syllabic versification and light, unaccented rhyme was Miss Moore's customary mode long before she translated La Fontaine. Both have a liking for precision that exhibits itself in the most delicate shadings of language. Both are possessed of a dry wit and a wry view when observing human nature. Animal subjects what Levin calls the human bestiary, are, of course, common to the poetry of both. The "surgical courtesy" Miss Moore admires in La Fontaine is equally apparent in her own work and bespeaks a philosophy of living as much as a style of expression. Finally, they share an ethical code. The morals of La Fontaine's Fables would be wholly congenial to Miss Moore's view of things and, in fact, many of the human values implied in the Fables have been more-or-less plainly expressed in her poetry.
For all the similarities, there is at least one major difference between the poetry of Marianne Moore and that of La Fontaine, and it is strikingly evident in the translations. Miss Moore is a poet of the eye first, a poet of the intellect second. La Fontaine is brain first and imagistic only occasionally. His Fables are prose written in verse. Miss Moore, on the other hand, does verbal water colors. She has transformed the Fables, in translating them, from black and white to bright colors. She has brought metaphor into the translations wherever she can do so without sacrificing the sense of a passage. She is scrupulously careful to imitate La Fontaine's versification but often transforms a line with her own metaphor. (pp. 118-19)
Frequently, in her later poetry, Miss Moore writes a kind of light verse inspired by some current topic that has taken her fancy. A gentle statement of value is usually implicit in these poems. The tone is light and conversational. Armored animals and amorphous fears dwindle away. The things Miss Moore has always valued she values still in these late poems, but her tone of exhortation is gone. (p. 159)
Because, in Miss Moore's poetry, form is synonymous with content it is often a poem's style that first hints at what is going on. As a general rule, the closer Miss Moore approaches to feeling, the more involuted the poem becomes. The connection between images becomes attenuated, the language of the poem becomes ambiguous. In the poetry of observation and intellect the style is considerably more straightforward. The relation of one image to another is, if not obvious, understandable after a little thought. One can understand readily why certain words have been chosen to modify certain others. The style, in short, is available to the rational mind. The poem can be understood intellectually.
The other kind of poem cannot. It must be understood, if that word even applies, by the irrational center within the reader. (pp. 178-79)
We have seen the haunted quality of some of her poems, have wondered why there was such fear and from what source it came. I have suggested that it was the contents of the mind's dark side that threatened beneath the surface of the poetry. How to protect oneself from this unnamed danger has been the obsessive theme of much of Miss Moore's poetry and a variety of armor has been tried. Yet all the time imagination, functioning as image-maker, has been the ultimate armor.
The imagination can go into the place of fears and return with metaphors. It can achieve a purgation without the rational mind's ever having really to know or name the fears that have been touched. Poetry, then, can be like dreams, peopled with old memories and emotions disguised in the crazy imagery of imagination. Dreams protect us. Imagination can protect us, too. It can talk of the mind's obsessive fears in a language of ambiguous metaphor. To face the fears bare of veils would be too dangerous. Yet they insist, persist. They can be looked at slantwise if they wear the costumes of imagination.
Thus, the obscurity and ambiguity that occur in the poems where feeling seems deepest is no accidental thing. Where feeling is deepest, veils are most required. They protect the poet. The obscurity of the imagery is an armor she invents, not as a barrier to the reader's understanding, but as a necessary protection for herself. (pp 180-81)
Donald Hall, in his Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal (copyright © 1970 by Western Publishing Company, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the present publisher, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.), Bobbs-Merrill-Pegasus, 1970.
Marianne Moore,… was (except for Ezra Pound) the last survivor of a group of brilliant experimentalist poets which included, besides Pound and Miss Moore, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, H. D., and Mina Loy. They changed the course of Anglo-American poetry for several decades and they left a body of verse which, regardless of the place eventually assigned to it by historians of literature, will be a source of perennial fascination for anyone seriously interested in what Yvor Winters has called "forms of discovery"—the attempt by means of language to "discover and embody an increasing extent of reality." These experimentalist poets were radical and adventurous for their time. They wished to make poetry over, to make it new. They were absorbed in problems of technique and each spent a lifetime in mastering the craft of poetry as he understood it.
They thought that modern life was fragmented, complex, and to a great extent incomprehensible and they felt that "modern poetry" would inevitably possess the same characteristics. For many years each wrote for a small, elite readership, although in their later years several of them, including Miss Moore, became well-known pesonalities. Miss Moore, for example, was interviewed on the Today Show by a baffled Joe Garagiola on the subjects of poetry and the Brooklyn Dodgers. As an effort to share common interests the interview was a failure….
Like Emily Dickinson, Miss Moore was excessively timid about publication and her first volume of poems was printed without her knowledge or consent. Each poem she wrote was an autonomous, intricate, symmetrical design put together with immense patience to satisfy the author. Communication, I suspect, was not of primary concern to her. The tone of her verse is usually witty and ironic. The deeper feelings are rarely involved. In the matter of feeling she was almost never false. She did not fail because she did not risk very much. In technique, in her combination of unusual visual, tactile, and sound effects, and in her complicated rhythms she was often brilliant.
Donald E. Stanford, "Marianne Moore," in The Southern Review, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. xi-xiii.
The concern for the shaping principle of a given poem, as an organic expression of the writer's perception and thought, is a distinguishing feature of the work of Marianne Moore. Miss Moore's interest in detailed patterns might well suggest a rationalistic belief that the world is susceptible to easy ordering. But the impulse toward order in her poems exists side by side and in tension with a full awareness of irrationality, disorder, and violence as inescapable conditions of life. The mind, she believed, must recognize the intransigence of experience as it pursues, carefully and flexibly, the task of informing its world with meaning. By exploiting imaginatively the very limitations of life and of the metrical patterns she devised, Marianne Moore created poems of unusual freshness and distinction….
Partly because of her economy and restraint, the imagery of her verse gives the impression of a satisfying integrity and independence. Even when it supplies a clearly discernible pattern of metaphoric meaning, the structure of imagery is not symbologically burdened or exploited for ulterior ends. Sometimes, in fact, her poems do not show fully developed patterns of metaphor, and the reader is left with unsolved if not insoluble problems of interpretation….
It is mind understood as the disciplined effort of the intellect and sensibility to achieve a tentative order that is perhaps the most distinctive principle of Marianne Moore's poetry, the expression of a unique, sensitive intelligence, enchanted by the abundance of experience, enchanting as it orders this experience through measured verse (in + cantare). A characteristic and abiding concern for responsible thought lies behind her reference in one of her later poems to poetry as a realm "where intellect is habitual."… Miss Moore did not believe in the Romantic head-heart dichotomy. To her, the mind was not unfeeling. Nor was it divorced from passion. She was attracted to subjects that dramatize the virtues of a mixture of thought and feeling, civilization and wildness, humane order and passion….
The praise of human love is less common a subject … than the celebration of a wildness and disorder that Miss Moore obviously relished for its excitement, its threat of violence, and its challenge to the ordering mind and imagination. To come to terms with disorder as the unforseeable and thus apparently random events of life requires a special poise or "propriety," a word that Miss Moore used as the title of a poem…. In human expression, in art, it means a sense of fitness and proportion—of a resistance combined with acquiescence….
Walter Sutton, "Marianne Moore," in his American Free Verse: The Modern Revolution in Poetry (© 1973 by Walter Sutton; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1973, pp. 103-17.