Marianne Moore Moore, Marianne (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moore, Marianne 1887–1972

Moore was an American poet, translator, essayist, and editor. Her poetry is characterized by the technical and linguistic precision with which are revealed her acute observations of the human character. Indeed, her role as "observer" is evident in the remarkable attention to detail found in her poetic descriptions, whether of an object, an animal, or the human condition. The later poems reflect a sense of moral judgment, in contrast to the objectivity of the earlier work. Although her early work has often been connected with the Imagist school, her independence of style and vision have established her as a poet unlike any other. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Stanley Kunitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Moore is unique, and she never argues. Like peace she is indivisible, and of her verse it can be said that nothing resembles it so much as her prose. Not the least of her accomplishments is that her readers, unprovoked to question her definition of poetry, accept its premises implicitly, without supererogatory judgment or comparisons, because it is their pleasure to do so….

One would like to be able, if only as a reciprocal gesture, to describe Miss Moore's peculiar faculties with the same exactness of detail, founded on the microscopic patience of the eye, with which she delineates the antic physiology of a reindeer, an ostrich, a butterfly, a paper nautilus, or the elaborate pangolin…. (p. 220)

Miss Moore's metrics must be classified sui generis. Few of her poems—the stately title-piece of [What Are Years] is an exception—move on the flood of an internal rhythm. Since her rhythms, by design, are generally extensions of prose rhythms, with frequent word-breaks as run-overs to contradict the line-divisions, Miss Moore's intricate rhymeschemes and stanzaic structures are actually extra-prosodic and contribute little or nothing to the ear. (The eye, of course, is thankful for white spaces.) Miss Moore even goes to the painful extreme of syllable-counting. But if these are devices to tempt and test her creative spirit, it would be ungrateful for us to cavil. "In writing," she has said, "it is my one principle that nothing is too much trouble." And elsewhere, in one of those quotations that stud the "hybrid composition" of her poems: "Difficulty is ordained to check poltroons."

For obvious reasons, modern poetry is largely a cry of confusion and anguish. The face of Miss Moore's poetry is serene. Shall we look into her mind for signs of travail? The mind of Miss Moore is astonishingly clean. Cluttered, to be sure, like your grandmother's attic; but with everything dusted and in place, labeled, catalogued, usable. The tensions are in the things themselves. The poetry is not in the self-pity…. (pp. 221-22)

Stanley Kunitz, "Pangolin of Poets" (originally published in Poetry, November, 1941), in his A Kind of Order, a Kind of Folly (© 1941, 1975 by Stanley Kunitz; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975, pp. 220-22).

Wallace Stevens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Somehow, there is a difference between Miss Moore's bird [the ostrich of "He 'Digesteth Harde Yron'"] and the bird of the Encyclopaedia. This difference grows…. The difference signalizes a transition from one reality to another. It is the reality of Miss Moore that is the individual reality. That of the Encyclopaedia is the reality of isolated fact. Miss Moore's reality is significant. An aesthetic integration is a reality.

Nowhere in the poem does she speak directly of the subject of the poem by its name. She calls it "the camel-sparrow" and the "the large sparrow Xenophon saw walking by a stream," "the bird," "quadruped-like bird" and

alert gargantuan
little-winged, magnificently
speedy running-bird.

This, too, marks a difference. To confront fact in its total bleakness is for any poet a completely baffling experience. Reality is not the thing but the aspect of the thing. At first reading, this poem has an extraordinarily factual appearance. But it is, after all, an abstraction. Mr. Lewis says that for Plato the only reality that mattered is exemplified best for us in the principles of mathematics. The aim of our lives should be to draw ourselves away as much as possible from the unsubstantial, fluctuating facts of the world about us and establish some communion with the...

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Cleanth Brooks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] soundest account of the general function which Miss Moore's birds and beasts perform in her poetry [is that] they provide the perspective through which to see our (and her) finally human world. Birds and beasts have, of course, performed such general functions in literature from the time of Aesop down to the time of Walt Disney. Miss Moore's use of them is a variant of this general function, for all that Miss Moore's variant is peculiarly her own.

It is, however, so peculiarly her own that the superficial reader may easily be baffled…. Confronted with, and perhaps overpowered by, the complex and edged detail with which the "vehicle" is treated, the reader may conclude that there is no "tenor" at all—that he is dealing, not with a metaphor, but with a thing presented, almost scientifically, for its own sake.

Yet, of all men, it is the poet for whom man must be the measure of all things. In Marianne Moore's poetry, man is the measure ultimately. Her beasts give her, as they have given other poets, a way of breaking out of the conventionally human world—or, to put it more accurately, a way of penetrating into her human world, as it were, from the outside. All of which means that Miss Moore's animals are not conceived of clinically and scientifically even though they are not treated romantically or sentimentally. The latter point is to be emphasized. For Miss Moore's animals do not become easy caricatures of human types that we know. The poet does not patronize them. Not even the more furry, tiny ones ever become cute. Instead, she accords them their dignity; she accepts them with full seriousness, and they become the instruments by which man is judged and known. (pp. 201-02)

She is willing to be whimsical, and even witty. She is constantly alive to the humorous collocations which the shapes and habits of her creatures set up. But the whimsy, when it occurs, is never a sniggering human-being-before-the-monkey-house kind of humor. It is as solid as that displayed by Alice toward the birds and beasts of Wonderland, and as little romantic. (p. 203)

Cleanth Brooks, "Miss Marianne Moore's Zoo" (originally published in Quarterly Review of Literature, Special Moore Issue, edited by José Garcia Villa, 1948), in Quarterly Review of Literature (© Quarterly Review of Literature, 1976), Vol. XX, Nos. 1-2, 1976, pp. 201-08.

William Carlos Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Marianne Moore's] is a talent which diminishes the tomtoming on the hollow men of a wasteland to an irrelevant pitter-patter. Nothing is hollow or waste to the imagination of Marianne Moore. (p. 112)

A statement she would defend, I think, is that man essentially is very much like the other animals—or a ship coming in from the sea—or an empty snail-shell: but there's not much use saying a thing like that unless you can prove it.

Therefore Miss Moore has taken recourse to the mathematics of art. Picasso does no different: a portrait is a stratagem singularly related to a movement among the means of the craft. By making these operative, relationships become self-apparent—the animal lives with a human certainty. This is strangely worshipful. Nor does one always know against what one is defending oneself. (pp. 112-13)

I don't think there is a better poet writing in America today or one who touches so deftly so great a range of our thought.

This is the amazing thing about a good writer, he seems to make the world come toward him to brush against the spines of his shrub. So that in looking at some apparently small object one feels the swirl of great events.

What it is that gives us this sensation, this conviction, it is impossible to know but that it is the proof which the poem offers us there can be little doubt. (p. 113)

William Carlos Williams, "Marianne Moore (1948)," in his Selected Essays (© 1948 by William Carlos Williams; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1969 (and reprinted in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles Tomlinson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, pp. 112-13).

Pamela White Hadas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Throughout my study of Marianne Moore's poetry I have found myself coming back again and again to two particularly intriguing questions that are intimately bound up with all the questions of style and mystery, confusions and morality, which the figure of Marianne Moore poses and persuades us to care about. One is her answer to her own question, "What is more precise than precision?" to which she answers, "Illusion." The other is her question, asked in the late poem "Saint Valentine," "Might verse not best confuse itself with fate?" The answer to this one is strongly implied: yes. The precise illusions that substantiate the humanity of all of us and certain uncertain affirmations of what is too much with us at the same time as it is quite beyond us, are the real subjects of this book. Without "efforts of affection"—those of the poet foremost, and those of the critic not far behind—it is doubtful that we would get very far with them. William Carlos Williams affirms the confidence we have that Marianne Moore generously provides conclusions as well as questions that are worth our efforts, that "the quality of satisfaction gathered from reading her is that one may seek long in those exciting mazes sure of coming out the right door in the end." (pp. xi-xii)

Marianne Moore is a sightseer of virtuosity; she sees what is hidden from the casual scan, including importantly those things that are hidden by their obviousness, and she shares her inspections with wit and grace. Virtuoso definitiveness is often the subject of her verse, as well as its object [as in "An Octopus"]:

Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus with its capacity for fact….

Marianne "Octopus" Moore has a grasp for the detailing and numbering of things: the eight whales on the beach in "The Steeple-Jack," the nine nectarines painted on a plate, the nine eggs a dragon must lay (in order to have the mythologically prescribed nine sons), the six shades of blue in an artichoke, and so on, and it is not frivolous. It leads to the counting of invisible things—the lines and spaces and syllables that give form as it were breath; it leads to reliance on faith in what we do see. She offers us quotations from travel pamphlets, sermons, and The New York Times; she gives us footnotes and revisions of visions, all toward the greater precision of life and probity. "We are precisionists, / not citizens of Pompeii arrested in action," she says in "Bowls." Precision requires a constant activity of the eyes in perception, a constant flow of syllables in expression, and, in affairs of thought and affection, the constant readjustments of a living thing in response to its environment. The octopus-response is to grasp. But one who is determined to be a precisionist of the spirit as well as of the letter and of the thing must inevitably come up against mysteries that are beyond her evidence or her grasp. These mysteries, as well as letters and forms, must somehow be borne by the style of the writer. (p. 7)

The subjects of Marianne Moore's poems are often objects, and these objects are held in an attitude that is close to that of the scientist, where the subject is often an object, and the ultimate objective is truth…. If the object she observes happens to be a porcupine of particular splendor, then her subject, first of all, is the particulars of its appearance and its observable existence; the metasubject is simply splendor. When an animal or an El Greco exists in itself and is "brimming with inner light" that is able to be shared, the accurate description of that object shares its truth. (pp. 8-9)

Just as we shall note again and again in Moore's most successful poems the correspondence between rhetorical and psychological structures, we shall note the correspondence between the apparent object in its unlikeliness and the hidden objective in its profundity. It is a "personal affair" that includes the reader; as unpretentiously announced idiosyncrasy can invite a precise illusion of intimacy, one treasures the special knowledge of another's predilections, shared or not. This is the basis of many a conversation, many discoveries. (p. 9)

She is in complete agreement with Ezra Pound's conviction that technique is a measure of sincerity in poetry, and that "the touchstone of an art is its precision."… Abstraction is earned in Moore's poetry and her inspirations are owed to accumulations of detailed intricacy rather than to a coup de main by some muse of universals. Her imagery is not a "correlative" for feeling in the sense that Eliot's imagery is. In her poetry the correspondences between psychological and rhetorical, between obvious and hidden, or between things and their emotive possibilities are the products of an "unconscious fastidiousness." "The hero does not like some things," and she does like others. She has general feelings about the things she sees, but the things themselves, especially the "rock-crystal" things, always precede the poet's state of mind. They are there to be responded to, gifts; they are responsible; they represent the choices of responsibility. (p. 12)

The objective of a poetry that would possess the power of divination is to find subjects, or images, which are complete in themselves, or which have the power of continuing in themselves as units of thought, and as vision, not as mere illustrations or "objective correlatives"; they are evidence, not truths imagined incarnate. (p. 13)

There are two predilections pervading and informing Marianne Moore's work at every level. One is poetic wonder, the need for a near-magical communication with the objects and objectives of nature, and the other is a detached curiosity which demands precise and intelligent observation of these. It is important to see how her subjective enchantment and her objective devotion to facts work together to produce those particular celebrations that we recognize immediately as those of Marianne Moore. They are the elements of her style. If the ways of making poetry can be divided into the way of the self and the way of the not-self, we may say that in her poetry these ways are not only identifiable, but often identical. (p. 16)

Style for Marianne Moore is most proper when "uncursed by self-inspection"; she finds herself near the ideal in the simple recitation of dancers' proper names in the poem "Style."… (p. 21)

Every poem, as a living organism, survives partly by what it has inherited and partly by its individual adjustments to its environment. For every word we might say the same. Marianne Moore's art of survival is mimetic, directed nominally toward the world, prescribing imitation of artifact, animal, or artifice for the survival of art. Her style is what it does, filling space so that what was inert may become living. "That was framework." But for style, "There is no suitable simile," she says, having uninsisted on various ones in the poem called "Style." And in a review of Pound's Cantos she reminds us that "to cite passages is to pull one quill from a porcupine." (p. 30)

Style is the offspring of machine and wishing-cap, the general thrust of life made specific. In Marianne Moore's work one may discern four types of this general thrust of life or style: one to be identified with survival, on the premise that expressing is being; one to be identified with conversation—persuasion or exchange, on the premise that individual moral choice and differentiation (sometimes opposition) are essential to expression; one to be identified with discovery, on the premise that deep silence, in the shape of a question mark, asks creation continually to find new forms for the obliteration of that particular silence; and one to be identified with selfhood as a process of vision and revision, on the premise that words are not simply identified with life, but with its uniquest reincarnations. Style stresses what words simply express. (p. 31)

[The] conception of style and its survival as style in style is a major concern of Marianne Moore, who is careful to preserve in inverted commas any stylistically striking agglomeration of words, strikingly resetting them herself like gems in her own stylistic framework. Reaching farther back, she integrates the unsigned masterpieces of style preserved as proverbs and mottoes into her own style as well, often imitating their aphoristic succinctness to halt and/or regenerate a flow of less concision. On a purely lexical level Moore takes pains to admit the playful music of polysyllables little used in the lyric poetry of her time, and she encourages words to flower by attending to their roots. She has a special affection for proper names, as the most accurate of designations, and she arranges these to set off their precise music much as she arranges her eccentrically gathered quotations and other verbal memorabilia. She … [submits] her own use of language to a proper (proper in the sense of personal as well as appropriate) ordering of the subject at hand, the subject most often being how to survive along with a particular means to that end, a protective and submissive style. (p. 32)

Marianne Moore's attitude toward the language she has inherited in both cultural and individual forms is chiefly a protective one…. Certain words—some more than others—are treasures to be protectively displayed; their spirits must not be injured and their new poem-bodies must be sufficient armor against natural enemies—time and iconoclasm. Both versatility and specialization are essential as each word-as-survivor, each germinal phrase, each animal, and each artifact in Moore's poetry is uniquely co-responsible with the poetic environment. Padraic Colum has said of Marianne Moore that she "can place a word in a way that gives it the effect of a rarity." (p. 33)

In the work of Marianne Moore we are reminded again and again that the abilities to communicate, to listen, to be interesting, to learn, and to be generally socially acceptable are moral abilities that show themselves nowhere as clearly as in one's conversation. For the poet who can say, offhand and sincerely, of poetry, "I, too, dislike it" ("Poetry"), style must aspire to the conversational state to be of use…. [Ultimately] in the poetry and prose of Marianne Moore, conversation will be seen as a moral fabric of personal persuasions and eccentric yarns. Education, goodness, and reciprocity are, all of them, moral affairs and all of them are displayed in "conversation" in its largest sense, including its archaic meanings as "an abiding" or "a manner of living or conduct" as well as its most common meanings as social intercourse or just friendly talk. Marianne Moore means highest praise when she says of T. S. Eliot's prose, "I detect no difference between it and conversation." (pp. 62-3)

One justification, and by no means the least important one, for Marianne Moore's extensive use of quotations in her poems and essays and reviews is that both listening and talking are implicit in them. Quotations are the fruit of audition and the seed of further talk. (p. 65)

Moore's poems might reasonably be described as systems of utterances with a social and moral purpose. They are not, however, as [Hugh Kenner] thinks, "oddly depersonalized system[s] of analogies" or, quoting Williams, "thing[s] made, not said." Marianne Moore's poems are said, are full of sayings and personal quirks, quandries and informations in the manner of superior conversation, not neatly programmed machinery. (p. 67)

The constant informing of the self by the self and the self-conscious hesitance of Moore's style are important to the defeat of the egocentricity from which refuge is sought….

She would discover a selfhood in style that is beyond self-enclosed choppy reiterations. Mirror, mirror on the wall, she speaks into her poem "A Face":

I am not treacherous, callous, jealous, superstitious,
supercilious, venomous, or absolutely hideous:
studying and studying its expression,
exasperated desperation
though at no real impasse,
would gladly break the glass;

when love of order, ardor, uncircuitous simplicity
with an expression of inquiry, are all one needs to be!
Certain faces, a few, one or two—or one
face photographed by recollection—
to my mind, to my sight,
must remain a delight.

The first two lines of this poem are a desperate catalogue, informed by that self-mocking humor which is humorous simply because it is an evasion of the directness of suffering. In saying she is not treacherous, callous, jealous, or any of those things, she is telling us she has considered those possibilities; but, as she rightly sees, the problem goes beyond simple excuses for unhappiness. Having considered and discarded them, she is still "studying and studying" with "exasperated desperation" like somebody trying to revise a neatly finished but superficial poem in the direction of profundity without spoiling the form. There's "no real impasse," yet she is ready to efface the image of herself altogether, break the glass. The two tones of the first stanza—the first grievingly joking, the second puzzlingly grieving—give one the sense that the real block to feeling or knowing how to describe one's own face is self-consciousness supreme. The only way out is to remind oneself, after those "intermingled echoes" of adjectives mockingly listed in the first stanza, that "love of order, ardor, uncircuitous simplicity / with an expression of inquiry are all one needs to be!" Failing in depth, then, the revision is to be toward greater superficiality, pleasant to everyone. If one can accept plain and polite words, one need not need to be a complexly describable self at all, but simply to be, to love and inquire. On one level this is glib, but on another level, familiar to Marianne Moore, praising and questing are the only real substantiation of being. The face that is closed to itself, ignored in favor of other faces that are loved, or one other particular face, solves the critical problem of self-image with a sight-delight rhyme. The solution, as in many of Moore's poems, is part avoidance and part displacement to other issues, and it is, if technique is a true measure of sincerity, a heartfelt one. The poem does not, however, satisfy the appetite for phonological delicacies dressed with despair that the style of the first stanza arouses. It is as if we were offered a crazy salad only to have it puréed before our eyes.

"When plagued by the psychological," Moore says to a giraffe, "a creature can be unbearable." She intends to direct her own conversation toward the outside, toward the other face, toward the feats of the Gentlemen of the Feather Club, and toward the survival in the real world of peculiar creatures, only some of whom write poems, but all of whom merit them. Her preoccupation with the psychological always betrays itself, however, in coming to terms with words that have obvious psychological import even if they do not epitomize egocentricity as she fears they might. (pp. 90-1)

In saying certain things in a way that is peculiar to herself and calling attention to the construction rather than to the deep meaning, Moore means to divert us—to entertain with a purposeful distraction. She likes to incorporate phrases in quotation marks into her poems to convince us that her interest in what is being said is just as much in the how as in the what. Perhaps this is why the whole of the last part of "Novices"—about the terrible passion and force of the sea—is in sets of inverted commas. "The chrysalis of the...

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