Marianne Moore Moore, Marianne (Vol. 13) - 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 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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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R. P. Blackmur

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Louise Bogan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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David Hsin-Fu Wand

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Hugh Kenner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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