Introduction

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Moore, Marianne 1887–1972

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Moore was an American poet, translator, essayist, and editor. Her poetry is characterized by the technical and linguistic precision with which she reveals her acute observations of 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 Moore's earlier work. Although her early poetry has often been connected to the Imagist school, her independence of style and vision have established her as a poet unique in her own right. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

T. S. Eliot

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I have read Miss Moore's poems a good many times, and always with exactly the same pleasure, and satisfaction in something quite definite and solid. (p. 48)

Miss Moore's poems always read very well aloud. That quality is something which no system of scansion can define. It is not separable from the use of words, in Miss Moore's case the conscious and complete appreciation of every word, and in relation to every other word, as it goes by. I think that Those Various Scalpels is an excellent example for study. Here the rhythm depends partly upon the transformation-changes from one image to another, so that the second image is superposed before the first has quite faded, and upon the dexterity of change of vocabulary from one image to another. "Snow sown by tearing winds on the cordage of disabled ships:" has that Latin, epigrammatic succinctness, laconic austerity, which leaps out unexpectedly (altogether in Talisman).

                    your raised hand
                    an ambiguous signature:

is a distinct shift of manner; it is not an image, but the indication of a fulness of meaning which is unnecessary to pursue.

      blood on the stone floors of French châteaux, with
            regard to which guides are so affirmative:

is a satirical (consciously or unconsciously it does not matter) refinement of that pleasantry (not flippancy, which is something with a more definite purpose) of speech which characterizes the American language, that pleasantry, uneasy, solemn, or self-conscious, which inspires both the jargon of the laboratory and the slang of the comic strip. Miss Moore works this uneasy language of stereotypes—as of a whole people playing uncomfortably at clenches and clevelandisms—with impeccable skill into her pattern…. The merit consists in the combination, in the other point of view which Miss Moore possesses at the same time. What her imitators cannot get are the swift dissolving images…. (pp. 49-50)

Miss Moore's relation to the soil is not a simple one, or rather it is to various soils—to that of Latium and to that of Attica I believe (or at least to that of the Aegean littoral) as well as most positively to the soil (well top-dressed) of America. (p. 50)

And there is one final, and "magnificent" compliment: Miss Moore's poetry is as "feminine" as Christina Rossetti's, one forgets that it is written by a woman; but with both one never thinks of this particularly as anything but a positive virtue. (p. 51)

T. S. Eliot, "Marianne Moore (1923)," (copyright 1923 by T. S. Eliot; reprinted by permission of Mrs. Valerie Eliot), in The Dial, December, 1923 (and reprinted in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles Tomlinson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, pp. 48-51).

R. P. Blackmur

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In Miss Moore's work inverted commas are made to perform significantly and notably and with a fresh nicety which is part of her contribution to the language. Besides the normal uses to determine quotation or to indicate a special or ironic sense in the material enclosed or as a kind of minor italicization, they are used as boundaries for units of association which cannot be expressed by grammar and syntax. They are used sometimes to impale their contents for close examination, sometimes to take their contents as in a pair of tongs for gingerly or derisive inspection, sometimes to gain the isolation of superiority or vice versa—in short for all the values of setting matter off, whether in eulogy or denigration. As these are none of them arbitrary but are all extensions and refinements of the common uses, the reader will find himself carried along, as by rhyme, to full appreciation…. If it were a mere exercise of Miss Moore's and our own in punctuation, then as it depended on nothing it would have nothing to articulate. But Miss Moore's practice and our appreciation are analogous in scope and importance to the score in music. By a refinement of this notion Mr. Eliot observes in his Introduction [to Selected Poems] that "many of the poems are in exact, and sometimes complicated formal patterns, and move with the elegance of a minuet." It is more than that and the very meat of the music, and one need not tire of repeating it because it ought to be obvious. The pattern establishes, situates, and organizes material which without it would have no life, and as it enlivens it becomes inextricably a part of the material; it participates as well as sets off. (pp. 67-8)

[Miss Moore] couples external action and rhyme; and for her the expedient form is a pattern of elegant balances and compact understatement. It is part of the virtue of her attack upon the formless in life and art that the attack should show the courtesy and aloofness of formal grace. (p. 69)

Analysis cannot touch but only translate for preliminary purposes the poem the return to which every sign demands. What we do is simply to set up clues which we can name and handle and exchange whereby we can make available all that territory of the poem which we cannot name or handle but only envisage. We emphasize the technique, as the artist did in fact, in order to come at the substance which the technique employed. Naturally, we do not emphasize all the aspects of the technique since that would involve discussion of more specific problems of language than there are words in the poem, and bring us, too, to all the problems of meaning which are not there. [Miss Moore commented in "Picking and Choosing": "We are not daft about the meaning but this familiarity with wrong meanings puzzles one."] We select, rather, those formal aspects which are most readily demonstrable: matters like rhyme and pattern and punctuation, which appear to control because they accompany a great deal else; and from these we reach necessarily, since the two cannot be detached except in the confusion of controversy, into the technical aspects, the conventional or general meanings of the words arranged by the form…. We show, by an analysis which always conveniently stops short, a selection of the ways in which the parts of a poem bear on each other; and we believe, by experience, that we thereby become familiar with what the various tensions produce: the poem itself. (pp. 69-70)

[We] find Miss Moore constantly presenting images … most explicit but of a kind containing inexhaustibly the inexplicable—whether in gesture or sentiment. She gives what we know and do not know; she gives in ["Poetry"], for example, "elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under a tree," and also "the baseball fan, the statistician." We can say that such apposites are full of reminding, or that they make her poem husky with unexhausted detail, and we are on safe ground; but we have not said the important thing, we have not named the way in which we are illuminated, nor shown any sign at all that we are aware of the major operation performed … by such appositions. They are as they succeed the springboards—as when they fail they are the obliterating quicksands—of ecstasy. In their variety and their contrasts they force upon us two associated notions; first we are led to see the elephant, the horse, the wolf, the baseball fan, and the statistician, as a group or as two groups detached by their given idiosyncrasies from their practical contexts, we see them beside themselves, for themselves alone, like the lace in Velasquez or the water-lights in Monet; and secondly, I think, we come to be aware, whether consciously or not, that these animals and these men are themselves, in their special activities, obsessed, freed, and beside themselves. There is an exciting quality which the pushing elephant and the baseball fan have in common; and our excitement comes in feeling that quality, so integral to the apprehension of life, as it were beside and for itself, not in the elephant and the fan, but in terms of the apposition in the poem. (pp. 72-3)

[The] reader can measure for himself exactly how valuable this quality is; he can read the "same" poem with the quality dominant and again with the quality hardly in evidence. On page 31 in Observations the poem appears in thirteen lines; in Selected Poems it has either twenty-nine or thirty, depending on how you count the third stanza. For myself, there is the difference between the poem and no poem at all, since the later version delivers—where the earlier only announces—the letter of imagination…. [In] the earlier poem half the ornament and all the point are lacking. What is now clearly the dominant emphasis—on poets as literalists of the imagination—which here germinates the poem and gives it career, is not even implied in the earlier version. The poem did not get that far, did not, indeed, become a poem at all. What is now a serious poem on the nature of esthetic reality remained then a half-shrewd, half-pointless conceit against the willfully obscure. But it is not, I think, this rise in level from the innocuous to the penetrating, due to any gain in the strength of Miss Moore's conception. The conception, the idea, now that we know what it is, may be as readily inferred in the earlier version as it is inescapably felt in the later, but it had not in the earlier version been articulated and composed, had no posture to speak of, had lacked both development and material to develop: an immature product. (pp. 73-4)

[The] earlier version shows a failure in the technique of making a thought, the very substantial failure to know when a thought is complete and when it merely adverts to itself and is literally insufficient. There is also—as perhaps there must always be in poetry that fails—an accompanying insufficience of verbal technique, in this instance an insufficience of pattern and music as compared to the later version. Not knowing, or for the moment not caring, what she had to do, Miss Moore had no way of choosing and no reason for using the tools of her trade. Miss Moore is to an extent a typographic poet, like Cummings or Hopkins; she employs the effects of the appearance and arrangement of printed words as well as their effects sounding in the ear: her words are in the end far more printed words than the words of Yeats, for example, can ever be. And this is made clear by the earlier version which lacks the printed effect rather than by the later version which exhibits it….

[The] later version looks better on the page, has architecture which springs and suggests deep interiors; we notice the rhymes and the stanza where they are missing and how they multiply heavily, both to the ear and the eye, in the last stanza; we notice how the phrasing is marked, how it is shaded, and how, in the nexus of the first and second stanzas, it is momentarily confused: we notice, in short, not how the poem was made—an operation intractable to any description—but what about it, now that it is made, will strike and be felt by the attentive examiner. Then turning back to the earlier version, knowing that it has pretty much the same heart, give as much occasion for ecstasy, we see indefeasibly why it runs unpersuasively through the mind, and why the later, matured version most persuasively invades us….

[The] concept or idea or thought of the poem is not difficult, new or intense, but its presentation, in the later version, is all three. She found, as Yeats would say, the image to call out the whole idea; that was one half. The other half was finding how to dress out the image to its best advantage…. (p. 74)

[Miss Moore] resorts, or rises like a fish, continually to the said thing, captures it, sets it apart, points and polishes it to bring out just the special quality she heard in it. Much of her verse has the peculiar, unassignable, indestructible authority of speech overheard—which often means so much precisely because we do not know what was its limiting, and dulling, context. The quality in her verse that carries over the infinite possibilities of the overheard, is the source and agent of much of her power to give a sense of invading reality; and it does a good deal to explain what Mr. Eliot, in his Introduction, calls her authoritativeness of manner—which is a different thing from a sense of reality.

It does not matter that Miss Moore frequently works the other way round, abstracting her phrase from a guidebook, an advertisement, or a biography; what matters is that whatever her sources she treats her material as if it were quoted, isolated speech, and uses it, not as it was written or said—which cannot be known—but for the purpose which, taken beside itself, seems in it paramount and most appropriate…. [She combines such phrases] in such a way that they declare themselves more fully, because isolated, emphasized…. The poet's labor in this respect is similar to that of a critical translation where, by selection, exclusion, and rearrangement a sense is emphasized which was found only on a lower level and diffusely in the original; only here there is no damage by infidelity but rather the reward of deep fidelity to what, as it turns out, was really there waiting for emphasis.

But besides the effect of heightened speech, Miss Moore relies also and as deeply upon the rhetorical device of understatement—by which she gains, as so many have before her, a compression of substance which amounts to the fact of form. (p. 77)

She is an expert in the visual field at compelling the incongruous association to deliver, almost startlingly to ejaculate, the congruous, completing image: e.g., in the poem about the pine tree called "The Monkey Puzzle,"—"It knows that if a nomad may have dignity, Gibraltar has had more."… (p. 79)

Although many of the poems are made on intricate schemes of paired and delayed rhymes—there being perhaps no poem entirely faithful to the simple quatrain, heroic, or couplet structure—I think of no poem which for its rhymes is so admirable and so alluring as "Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain." Granting that the reader employs a more analytical pronunciation in certain instances, there is in the last distich of each stanza a rhyme half concealed and half overt. These as they are first noticed perhaps annoy and seem, like the sudden variations, trills, mordents and turns in a Bach fugue, to distract from the theme, and so, later, to the collected ear, seem all the more to enhance it, when the pleasure that may be taken in them for themselves is all the greater. More precisely, if there be any ears too dull, Miss Moore rhymes the penultimate syllable of one line with the ultimate syllable of the next. The effect is of course cumulative; but the cumulus is of delicacy not mass; it is cumulative, I mean, in that in certain stanzas there would be no rhyme did not the precedent pattern make it audible. If we did not have

             a bat is winging. It
             is a moonlight scene, bringing….

we should probably not hear

               and sets of Precious Things
               dare to be conspicuous.

What must be remembered is that anyone can arrange syllables, the thing is to arrange syllables at the same time you write a poem, and to arrange them as Miss Moore does, on four or five different planes at once. Here we emphasize mastery on the plane of rhyme. But this mastery, this intricacy, would be worthless did the poem happen to be trash. (p. 81)

[There] is no meeting Miss Moore face to face in the forest of her poems and saying This is she, this is what she means and is: tautology is not the right snare for her or any part of her. The business of her poetry (which for us is herself) is to set things themselves delicately conceived in relations so fine and so accurate that their qualities, mutually stirred, will produce a new relation: an emotion. Her poems answer the question. What will happen in poetry, what emotion will transpire, when these things have been known or felt beside each other? (pp. 81-2)

With Miss Moore … there is less a freeing of emotions and images under the aegis of the title notion, than there is a deliberate delineation of specific poetic emotions with the title notion as a starting point or spur: a spur to develop, compare, entangle, and put beside the title notion a series of other notions, which may be seen partly for their own sakes in passing, but more for what the juxtapositions conspire to produce…. Miss Moore's emotions are special and specific, producing something almost a contraction of the given material, and so are themselves their own symbols…. It is not easy to say what one of Miss Moore's longer poems is about, either as a whole or in places. The diffiuclty is not because we do not know but precisely because we do know…. The parts stir each other up … and the aura of agitation resulting, profound or light as it may be, is what it is about. Naturally, then, in attempting to explain one of these poems you find yourself reading it through several times, so as not to be lost in it and so that the parts will not only follow one another as they must, being words, but will also be beside one another as their purpose requires them to be. This perhaps is why Miss Moore could write of literature as a phase of life: "If one is afraid of it, the situation is irremediable; if one approaches it familiarly what one says of it is worthless."

It is a method not a formula; it can be emulated not imitated; for it is the consequence of a radical leaning, of more than a leaning an essential trope of the mind: the forward stress to proceed, at any point, to proceed from one thing to another, crossing all gaps regardless, but keeping them all in mind. (pp. 82-3)

Miss Moore has a habit of installing her esthetics in her poems as she goes along….

[Her method] is not only pervasive but integral to her work. It is integral to the degree that, with her sensibility being what it is, it imposes limits more profoundly than it liberates poetic energy. And here is one reason—for those who like reasons—for the astonishing fact that none of Miss Moore's poems attempt to be major poetry, why she is content with smallness in fact so long as it suggests the great by implication. Major themes are not susceptible of expression through a method of which it is the virtue to produce the idiosyncratic in the fine and strict sense of that word. Major themes, by definition of general and predominant interest, require for expression a method which produces the general in terms not of the idiosyncratic but the specific, and require, too, a form which seems to contain even more than to imply the wholeness beneath. The first poem in [Selected Poems], "Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play," comes as near to major expression as her method makes possible; and it is notable that here both the method and the content are more nearly "normal" than we are used to find. Elsewhere, though the successful poems achieve their established purposes, her method and her sensibility, combined, transform her themes from the normal to the idiosyncratic plane. The poem "Marriage," an excellent poem, is never concerned with either love or lust, but with something else, perhaps no less valuable, but certainly, in a profound sense, less complete. (p. 84)

There is no sex anywhere in her poetry. No poet has been so chaste; but it is not the chastity that rises from an awareness—healthy or morbid—of the flesh, it is a special chastity aside from the flesh—a purity by birth and from the void. There is thus, by parallel, no contact by disgust in her work, but rather the expression of a cultivated distaste; and this is indeed appropriate, for within the context of purity disgust would be out of order. Following the same train, it may be observed that of all the hundreds of quotations and references in her poems none is in itself stirring, although some are about stirring things; and in this she is the opposite of Eliot, who as a rule quotes the thing in itself stirring; and here again her practice is correct. Since her effects are obtained partly by understatement, partly by ornament, and certainly largely by special emphasis on the quiet and the quotidian, it is clear that to use the thing obviously stirring would be to import a sore thumb, and the "great" line would merely put the poem off its track…. [Although] she refers eulogistically many times to the dazzling color, vivid strength, and torrential flow of Hebrew poetry, the tone of her references is quiet and conversational.

By another approach we reach the same conclusion, not yet named. Miss Moore writes about animals, large and small, with an intense detached intimacy others might use in writing of the entanglements of people. She writes about animals as if they were people minus the soilure of overweeningly human preoccupations, to find human qualities freed and uncommitted. Compare her animal poems with those of D. H. Lawrence. In Lawrence you feel you have touched the plasm; in Miss Moore you feel you have escaped and come on the idea. The other life is there, but it is round the corner, not so much taken for granted as obliviated, not allowed to transpire, or if so only in the light ease of conversation: as we talk about famine in the Orient in discounting words that know all the time that it might be met face to face. In Miss Moore life is remote (life as good and evil) and everything is done to keep it remote; it is reality removed, but it is nonetheless reality, because we know that it is removed…. Let us say that everything she gives is munutely precise, immediately accurate to the witnessing eye, but that both the reality under her poems and the reality produced by them have a nostalgic quality, a hauntedness, that cannot be reached, and perhaps could not be borne, by these poems, if it were.

Yet remembering that … her poems are expedient forms for ecstasies apprehended, and remembering, too, both the tradition of romantic reticence she observes and the fastidious thirst for detail, how could her poems be otherwise, or more? Her sensibility—the deeper it is the more persuaded it cannot give itself away—predicted her poetic method; and the defect of her method, in its turn, only represents the idiosyncrasy of her sensibility: that it, like its subject matter, constitutes the perfection of standing aside.

It is provisionally worth noting that Miss Moore is not alone but characteristic in American literature. Poe, Hawthorne, Melville (in Pierre), Emily Dickinson, and Henry James, all—like Miss Moore—shared an excessive sophistication of surfaces and a passionate predilection for the genuine—though Poe was perhaps not interested in too much of the genuine; and all contrived to present the conviction of reality best by making it, in most readers' eyes, remote. (pp. 85-6)

R. P. Blackmur, "The Method of Marianne Moore" (1935), in Language as Gesture (copyright 1952 by R. P. Blackmur; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1952 (and reprinted in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles Tomlinson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, pp. 66-86).

Louise Bogan

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Impressionist critics, because they have attributed to Miss Moore many of their own manias and virtues, have left her actual virtue—her "secret"—untouched. She belongs to a lineage against which the impressionist and the "modernist" have for so long rebelled that by now they are forgetful that it ever existed. In Miss Moore two traditions that modernism tends to ignore, meet. She is, on the one hand, a nearly pure example of that inquisitive, receptive kind of civilized human being which flourished from the high Renaissance through the high Roccoco: the disciple of the "new" as opposed to the "old" learning, the connoisseur, the humane scholar—to whom nothing was alien, and for whom man was the measure of all. Her method, in her "observations," has been compared, and rightly, to that of Francis Bacon and Sir Thomas Browne. But we soon come upon in her work another, angularly intersecting, line. Miss Moore, child of Erasmus, cousin to Evelyn, and certainly close kin to the Mozart who refracted "Don Giovanni" as though from a dark crystal, does not develop, as we might expect, toward full Baroque exuberance. She shows—and not to her demerit—a definite influence derived from that Protestantism against whose vigor the vigor of the Baroque was actively opposed. Miss Moore is a descendant not of Swiss or Scotch, but of Irish presbyters. She is, therefore, a moralist (though a gentle one) and a stern—though flexible—technician.

It is a not infrequent American miracle, this combination of civilized European characteristics in one gifted nature. Miss Moore, American to her backbone, is a striking example of a reversion toward two distinct kinds of heritage; of an atavism which does not in any degree imply declension or degeneration of the original types involved. She does not write à la maniére de … She produces originals. She does not resemble certain seventeenth century writers; she might be one of them. She stands at the confluence of two great traditions, as they once existed, and as they no longer exist. "Sentiment" and the shams of the pasticheur cannot touch her, since she ends where they begin.

Examine her passion for miscellany: it is a seventeenth century passion…. Alive to the meaning of variation, Miss Moore can examine what the modern world displays, with an unmodern eye. This is her value to us. (pp. 198-99)

The tone of her poems often derives from her "other," Protestant inheritance. Are not many of her poems sermons in little, preached in the "plain style" but with overtones of a grander eloquence? Are not many of them discourses which are introduced, or subsumed, by a text? Note the frequent cool moral that she extracts from her poems' complexities; and the dexterity with which, from disparate and often heavy facts, she produces a synthesis as transparent and as inclusive as air. Her sensibilities are Counter-Reformation; her emotion and intellect Protestant.

She has immensely widened the field of modern poetry. She takes the museum piece out of its glass case, and sets it against the living flower. She produces living plants from the herbarium, and living animals from the bestiary. She relates the refreshing oddities of art to the shocking oddities of life. The ephemeral and the provincial become durable and civilized under her hands. She is a delayed product of long processes. (pp. 199-200)

Louise Bogan, "American Timeless," in Quarterly Review of Literature: Special Moore Issue, Guest Editor, José Garcia Villa (copyright, 1948, by T. Weiss), Vol. IV, No. 2, 1948 (and reprinted in Quarterly Review of Literature, Special Issues Retrospective, edited by T. & R. Weiss, Vol. XX, Nos. 1-2, 1976, pp. 198-200).

David Hsin-Fu Wand

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Unlike Wallace Stevens who is known to have quoted lines of Chinese poetry in his writing … Marianne Moore never makes direct references to or gives quotations of classical Chinese poetry in her work…. But, while she is reticent about Chinese poetry, she alludes to Chinese objets d'art in many of her poems…. Miss Moore likens precision in writing to the skill of Chinese lacquer carving in her "Bowls."… With a "Chinese / 'passion for the particular,'" she talks about "Chinese carved glass," "landscape gardening twisted into permanence," and "the Chinese vermilion of / the poincianas" in "People's Surroundings."… [And] who but Miss Moore has the flashing wit and that "leap of the imagination" to confuse Mozart's "magic flute and harp" "with China's precious wentletrap" [as she does in "Logic and 'The Magic Flute'"]?… Here, in her own whimsical manner, Miss Moore contrasts the "precious wentletrap" of "The Magic Flute" with the "small audience-room" of Logic. In other words, she demonstrates that "The Magic Flute," the music that is as intricate as the "precious wentletrap" of life, cannot be confined in "the abalonean gloom" of our logical or rational mind. For life, like the water image … in Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching, overflows the boundary of words; it cannot be made to wear the straight-jacket of Logic. Here, Miss Moore's attitude reminds us of the anti-rationalism of the Zen masters…. A. Kingsley Weatherhead calls attention to the "wealth of contents" in her poetry and likens her unraveling of details to "what Ezra Pound called a 'periplum'."… [He] goes on to elaborate his theory by saying that, in Miss Moore's case, overcareful subordination of details to the whole "would defeat the poet's aim" because in some of her poems "discoveries are made by means of the fanciful relationships that are established."… [In] the act of composing her poetry, Miss Moore must have constantly astonished (and delighted) herself. (pp. 470-73)

Miss Moore's periplum technique, or her ability to make far-fetched associations, as demonstrated in her "Smooth Gnarled Crape Myrtle," is not unknown to the classical Chinese poets. And she herself is not unaware of the achievements of these poets when she mentions in her poem, "In Lieu of the Lyre," "the rime-prose revived by word-wizard Achilles—/Dr. Fang." The "rime-prose"—better known to the Chinese as the fu—is a subgenre of Chinese literature…. Although Miss Moore's poems are never as extended and as full of particulars as [a virtuoso piece of rime prose such as] Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju's "Shang-lin Park," she is just as capable—if not more capable than the Chinese poet—of far-fetched associations. For instance, in her poem "Blue Bug," whose protagonist is a pony owned by "Dr. Raworth Williams,"… she associates this "limber Bug" with a dancer, a dragonfly, "an ancient Chinese / melody," a "Yellow River- / scroll," the dubious etymology of "polo" as either "pelo" or "polos," a French painter, and a Chinese acrobat…. In this fantastic tour de force, Miss Moore's verbal agility (or kinema) is no less astounding than Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju's in his "Shang-lin Park," where flourish the dragons and the kylins (or Chinese unicorns), which equally delight Miss Moore in her own poems, "The Plumet Basilisk," "O To Be a Dragon," and "Nine Nectarines." (pp. 473-75)

The qualities of flexibility and versatility, the very qualities that Miss Moore has sought in the title poem, "O To Be a Dragon," are attained, like the "everchanging" dragon, in [that] volume. (p. 479)

Miss Moore has, through her assimilation of the Vital Spirit of the mythical Chinese beasts, managed to soar like the dragon and glide like the kylin from poem to poem. And as the dragon ranges from the sky to the seas and as the kylin sails the earth, they complement each other and dominate the universe. In inhaling the ch'i (breath or vital spirit) of the dragon and the kylin, Miss Moore has miraculously transported the essence of Cathay, or classical China, to the soil of American poetry. (p. 482)

David Hsin-Fu Wand, "The Dragon and the Kylin: The Use of Chinese Symbols and Myths in Marianne Moore's Poetry," in Literature East and West (© Literature East and West Inc.), Vol. XV, No. 3, 1971, pp. 470-84.

Hugh Kenner

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Miss Moore's poems deal in many separate acts of attention, all close-up; optical puns, seen by snapshot, in a poetic normally governed by the eye, sometimes by the ears and fingers, ultimately by the moral sense. It is the poetic of the solitary observer, for whose situation the meaning of a word like "moral" needs redefining: her special move in the situation where [she is] … confronted by a world that does not speak and seems to want describing. Man confronted by brute nature: that is her situation…. Its etiology needs some looking into. (p. 92)

Her poems are not for the voice; she sensed this in 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…. 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 an elocutionist can modulate. The words on these pages are little regular blocks, set apart by spaces, and referrable less to the voice than to the click of the keys and the ratcheting of the carriage.

The stanzas lie on the page, one below 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. We learn that there is a system not by listening but by counting syllables, and we find that the words are fixed within a grid of numerical rules. (pp. 98-9)

Marianne Moore's subjects—her fields of preoccupation, rather—have these two notable characteristics among others, that they are self-sufficient systems of energy, and that they can appropriate, without hostility, almost anything that comes near. They affirm, without saying anything, that "In This Age of Hard Trying, Nonchalance is Good," and that "There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious / fastidiousness." They are frequently animals; they feed and sleep and hunt and play; they are graceful without taking pride in their grace. They exemplify the qualities of the poems in which they are found.

Yes, they do; yes, it is striking, this pervasive singleness (though never obvious: nothing is obvious here). The singleness helps explain why she was able to make a revolutionary discovery, perhaps without ever knowing what it was. She resembles Columbus, whose mind was on something other than opening new worlds, and died supposing he had shown how to sail to China. For the language flattened, the language exhibited, the language staunchly condensing information while frisking in enjoyment of its release from the obligation to do no more than inform: these are the elements of a twentieth-century American poetic, a pivotal discovery of our age. And it seems to have been Marianne Moore's discovery, for [William Carlos] Williams, who also discovered it and extended it beyond the reach of her temperament, seems to have discovered it with the aid of her poems. A woman who was never convinced she was writing poems …; she and a frantically busy physician who kept a typewriter screwed to a hinged leaf of his consulting-room desk, to be banged up into typing position between patients: not "poets," not professionals of the word, save for their passion: they were the inventors of an American poetry. The fact is instructive.

Extracting its instruction, we may begin with her avowed hostility to the poetic. We had better not dismiss this as whimsy; it was heuristic.

"I, too, dislike it," she wrote of something called "Poetry." ("I, too"? In alliance with whom? The public? Well, sensible people, presumably.) (pp. 105-06)

She did indeed dislike poetry, she used emphatically to insist. One time, citing

                     No man may him hyde
                     From Deth holow-eyed,

she made a little inventory of dislikes:

I dislike the reversed order of words; don't like to be impeded by an unnecessary capital at the beginning of every line; I don't like, here, the meaning; the cadence coming close to being the sole reason for all that follows, the accent on "holow" rather than on "eyed," so firmly placed that the most willful reader cannot misplace it….

This is to reject, well, very much. If more careful in its discriminations than Williams' shoving aside of "Europe—the past," it has a comparable thrust. Nevertheless, reading poetry without enchantment, "one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine": a place, as she went on to say in 1919, for "real toads." That's what poetry is, a place; not a deed but a location. "A kind of collection of flies in amber," Miss Moore was to call her own poetry, "if not a cabinet of fossils." (p. 108)

Miss Moore's modest effort was not to deflect "poetry" or to destroy it, but to ignore it: that is to say, ignore its rituals. She made up difficult rules of her own, some of which as they evolved remained in force (end-stopped lines for choice, and after 1929, rhyme), while others—the specific syllable grid, the density and audibility of the rhymes—hold good only for the duration of the poem in hand. It's a homemade art, like the sampler wrought in cross-stitch. Sometimes it will allow the conjunction between rule and theme to appear almost naïvely…. (pp. 109-10)

Like [Wallace] Stevens', hers is a poetry for one voice; like Stevens', it works by surface complication, with little variety of feeling. Unlike Stevens', it has no traffic—has never had any at all—with the cadences of the Grand Style, with Tradition, but works by a principle exclusively its own, the witty transit through minute predilections. Unlike Stevens' poetry, finally, hers deteriorates, as it were, through insufficient grasp of its own principles. Having been held together by a temperament, it grows dilute as the temperament grows more accommodating. And yet it is a turning point, as Stevens' is not. When American verse was looking for a way to cope with the perceived world's multifarious otherness, it was Marianne Moore's best work that was decisive.

Causing her best poems to enact with such rigor the moral virtues they celebrate, Miss Moore skirted the tradition of the dandy, whose life was a controlled thing and whose norms of conduct were stylistic. Dandyism's principal modern celebrant was Ernest Hemingway, whose bullfights and lion-hunts were aesthetic gestures and whose descriptions of clear water running over stones were moral achievements. (pp. 113-14)

But Hemingway's conception of style as the criterion of life contains one element totally alien to any poetic effect of Marianne Moore's: self-appreciation. To take satisfaction in one's achievements, and to undertake like achievements in quest of more of that satisfaction—this is the dual temptation by which such a poetic is beset; and the theme of many poems of Miss Moore is precisely the duty to resist it. (p. 114)

Some of the formal obstacles Marianne Moore laid across the assertions of her sentences were to help her avoid seeming to imply that a cat or a fish has never really been looked at before. Their presence raises, however, a further problem: how to avoid asserting that one has had the dexterity to overcome formal obstacles. It is here that her preoccupation with otherness helps.

For those autonomous envelopes of energy she so admired are other, as Nature for Wordsworth never was. Where Hemingway imitated bullfighters, she was content to admire ballplayers. Her cats, pangolins, jerboas, elephants are not beings she half-perceives and half-creates. Their accomplishments are wholly their own. It is not the poet who notes that the jerboa is sand-colored, but the jerboa that "honours the sand by assuming its colour." Similarly, it is the jerboa that has discovered a flute rhythm for itself, "by fifths and sevenths, / in leaps of two lengths," and to play the flageolet in its presence is not our ingenuity but our obligation. "Its leaps should be set / to the flageolet." So when, as normally, we find that the poem is itself enacting the virtues it discerns in its subject, we are not to say that it is commenting on its own aesthetic, as in Hemingway's celebrations of the way one works close to the bull; rather that its aesthetic is an offering to the virtuosity of the brisk little creature that changes pace so deftly, and direction so deftly, and keeps intent, and keeps alert, and both offers and refrains from flaunting its agility.

This works best with animals, because they don't know their own virtuosity, and with athletes because at decisive moments they haven't time for self-appreciation, there being a ball to catch that won't wait. ("I could of caught it with a pair of pliers," said the exuberant outfielder, but that was afterward.) That is why Miss Moore's best poems are unpeopled save by glimpsed exemplars of verbal or synaptic dexterity. It is also why, as she admitted to her system other people's values, a poetic misfortune for which her sense of wartime obligations may be in part blamed, she relaxed and blurred her normal deftness and neatness, aware of the inappropriateness of seeming crisp. To be crisp even in praise of people's excellence is to make oneself a little the proprietor of their virtue; one senses that she sensed that to be improper.

At her best, she was other from us, and her subjects other from her, and saying with the elephant, "I do these/things which I do, which please / no one but myself," she was fulfilling a nature of her own. (pp. 116-17)

Hugh Kenner, "Disliking It," in his A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (copyright © 1975 by Hugh Kenner; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975, pp. 91-118.

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