Marianne Moore Moore, Marianne (Vol. 19) - 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 unique poet. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 8, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3.)

Ezra Pound

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is possible, as I have written, or intended to write elsewhere, to divide poetry into three sorts: (1.) melopoeia, to wit, poetry which moves by its music, whether it be a music in the words or an aptitude for, or suggestion of, accompanying music; (2.) imagism, or poetry wherein the feelings of painting and sculpture are predominant (certain men move in phantasmagoria; the images of their gods, whole countrysides, stretches of hill land and forest, travel with them); and there is, thirdly, logopoeia or poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modifications of ideas and characters….

These two contributors [Marianne Moore and Mina Loy] to the "Others" Anthology write logopoeia. It is, in their case, the utterance of clever people in despair, or hovering upon the brink of that precipice. It is of those who have acceded with Renan "La bêtise humaine est la seule chose qui donne une idée de l'infini." It is a mind cry, more than a heart cry. "Take the world if thou wilt but leave me an asylum for my affection" is not their lamentation, but rather "In the midst of this desolation, give me at least one intelligence to converse with."

The arid clarity, not without its own beauty, of le tempérament de l'Americaine, is in the poems of these [two writers]…. (p. 234)

The point of my praise, for I intend this as praise, even if I do not burst into the phrases of Victor Hugo, is that without any pretences and without clamors about nationality, these girls have written a distinctly national product, they have written something which would not have come out of any other country, and (while I have before now seen a deal of rubbish by both of them) they are interesting and readable (by me, that is …). (p. 235)

Ezra Pound, "A List of Books" (copyright 1918 by Margaret Anderson; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, Agents), in Little Review, Vol. IV, No. II, March, 1918 (and reprinted in his Instigations of Ezra Pound, Boni & Liveright, 1920, pp. 230-35).

Harriet Monroe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unquestionably there is a poet within the hard, deliberately patterned crust of such soliloquies as Black Earth, Those Various Scalpels, Pedantic Literalist, Reinforcements—almost any of these titles—though a poet too sternly controlled by a stiffly geometrical intellectuality. Miss Moore is in terror of her Pegasus; she knows of what sentimental excesses that unruly steed is capable, and so her ironic mind harnesses down his wings and her iron hand holds a stiff rein. This mood yields prose oftener than poetry, but it wrings out now and then the reluctant beauty of a grotesque, or even, more rarely, such a lyric as Talisman. (p. 213)

If the mood instinctively flouts the muse, what of the method? If the mood may rarely yield more than the hard reluctant beauty of a grotesque, is the method inevitable and right, fitting words musically, magically to the motive, as in all the masterpieces of the art?… What I do find in certain poems is a brilliant array of subtly discordant harmonies not unlike those of certain ultra-modern composers, set forth in stanza-forms purely empirical even when emphasized by rhyme, forms which impose themselves arbitrarily upon word-structure and sentence-structure instead of accepting happily the limitations of the art's materials, as all art must. (pp. 213-14)

What I do find throughout this book is wit—wit fundamental and instinctive which expresses itself not only in words, phrases, rhymes, rhythms, but in ideas, emotions. The grim and haughty humor of this lady strikes deep, so deep as to absorb her dreams and possess her soul. She feels immense incongruities, and the incongruity of her little ego among them moves her art not to grandeur but to scorn. As a satirist she is at times almost sublime—what contrary devil balks her even at those moments, tempting her art to its most inscrutable perversities? (pp. 214-15)

Harriet Monroe, "A Symposium on Marianne Moore," in Poetry (© 1922 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. XIX, No. 4, January, 1922, pp. 208-16.

T. S. Eliot

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first aspect in which Miss Moore's poetry is likely to strike the reader is that of minute detail rather than that of emotional unity. The gift for detailed observation, for finding the exact words for some experience of the eye, is liable to disperse the attention of the relaxed reader…. But the detail has always its service to perform to the whole. The similes are there for use; as the musselshell "opening and shutting itself like an injured fan" (where injured has an ambiguity good enough for Mr. Empson), the waves "as formal as the scales on a fish." They make us see the object more clearly, though we may not understand immediately why our attention has been called to this object, and though we may not immediately grasp its association with a number of other objects. So, in her amused and affectionate attention to animals …, she succeeds at once in startling us into an unusual awareness of visual patterns, with something like the fascination of a high-powered microscope.

Miss Moore's poetry, or most of it, might be classifed as "descriptive" rather than "lyrical" or "dramatic." Descriptive poetry is supposed to be dated to a period, and to be condemned thereby; but it is really one of the permanent modes of expression. In the eighteenth century—or say a period which includes "Cooper's Hill," "Windsor Forest," and Gray's "Elegy"—the scene described is a point of departure for meditations on one thing or another. The poetry of the Romantic Age, from Byron at his worst to Wordsworth at his best, wavers between the reflective and the evocative; but the description, the picture set before you, is always there for the same purpose. The aim of "imagism," so far as I understand it, or so far as it had any, was to induce a peculiar concentration upon something visual, and to set in motion an expanding succession of concentric feelings. Some of Miss Moore's poems—for instance with animal or bird subjects—have a very wide spread of association. It would be difficult to say what is the "subject-matter" of "The Jerboa." For a mind of such agility, and for a sensibility so reticent, the minor subject, such as a pleasant...

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John Crowe Ransom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mr. T. S. Eliot] is a major voyager on one stream of modernity with which we have a good acquaintance, but it is not the pellucid stream that Miss Moore is embarked upon.

I should wonder if Mr. Eliot does not do Miss Moore a disservice when he raises the question of the "greatness" of her work, even though he raises it provisionally as one to be answered finally by the judgment of generations later than her own generation. Greatness is something for the kind of poetry in which he practices, perhaps, but it would seem beyond the intention of her kind, and so foreign to it that if I am not mistaken she would be the first to repel the idea. For this reason: that in our judgment of personages and their accomplishments we attribute greatness to those that take their impulse out of more primitive or heroic occasions than she is concerned with.

Let us compare her kind of human interest with that, for example, of Marcus Cato, the countryman who had come into Rome and was proceeding to reform the society of the capital…. [We feel that Miss Moore] accepts her own society scarcely more than Cato accepted his. But her effort is a subtler one, and it is not delivered in the public forum, nor pitched on the plane of the folk morality and the laws.

Chiefly, she makes public in her verse the exempla of rightness or of beauty that have hit her fastidious taste. They are remarkably various. Sometimes they are the obscurer members of the animal kingdom; or rather, they are that as likely as not, and so often that we must conceive her in part as a curious naturalist in the succession of Pliny the Elder. Or they may be objects in the human sort, such as exhibit themselves in the regions of men, the classes, and the trades; or...

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Lloyd Frankenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The enchanting and enchanted mind defines imagination. And it is her imagination that defines the mind of Marianne Moore; an imagination articulated by fact….

[The title of her book, Observations, is symbolic of] her point of departure. Active rather than contemplative, observation is for her a motion of the mind corresponding to what is being observed. Wherever our attention dwells in her poems, we are made aware of exquisite correspondences. (p. 131)

Through art such as [Marianne Moore's], with its demands upon the attention of the whole person, we are restored, not to a state of nature, but to that totality of experience which is the sign of organic development. It is a...

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Louise Bogan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As we read ["The Steeple-Jack," in Collected Poems,] we begin to understand that we are not being offered a piece of mere realism: we are participating in the play of imagination over a time and a place. Miss Moore gives us, you will notice, not only the look of things but their sound, smell, and movement; she is rendering her material, as all artists must, through the senses. At the same time her with is in operation; the tone of the poem is light, almost gay, but with an underlying seriousness. This seriousness becomes more and more apparent as the poem proceeds; and soon we are aware that the poet is beginning to draw general inferences from specific facts observed. (pp. 257-58)


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Randall Jarrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Moore's prose-seeming, matter-of-factly rhythmed syllabic verse, the odd look most of her poems have on the page (their unusual stanzaic patterns, their words divided at the ends of lines, give many of them a consciously, sometimes misleadingly experimental or modernist look), their almost ostentatious lack of transitions and explanations, the absence of romance and rhetoric, of acceptedly Poetic airs and properties, did most to keep conservative readers from liking her poetry. Her restraint, her lack—her wonderful lack—of arbitrary intensity or violence, of sweep and overwhelmingness and size, of cant, of sociological significance, and so on, made her unattractive both to some of the conservative readers of...

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Hugh Kenner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One might sort Miss Moore's poems into those that observe, meditate, and enact in this way, the rigorous pattern a dimension of meditation and enactment; those that soliloquize, like "A Grave" or "New York," and have as their center of gravity therefore the speaker's probity and occasional tartness; and those (rather frequent of late) that incite, that set themselves to exact, appropriate feelings about something public. For her public occasions Miss Moore seems a little dependent on the newspapers; "Carnegie Hall: Rescued" has her inimitable texture, but the sentiment of the poem is extrinsic to that texture. The sentiment is that of The New York Times and The New Yorker, public relief, public...

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Brad Leithauser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It was like [Moore] to infuse the natural world with a sense of human willfulness, and like her also to derive moral sustenance from nature. She took as heroes—a word she used with unabashed frequency—not only people but a variety of flora and fauna….

In even her earliest poems it is notoriously difficult to glean the influences on her work. The cool and often prosaic language, the interlaced quotations from obscure books, newspaper ads, scientific reports, the use of titles as first lines, the odd, intricate stanzaic configurations—these and many other traits created a mutant strain in English-language verse not easily tracked to its genetic forebears.

The recently...

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Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moore disliked enigmas and disliked being thought enigmatic; she wanted to be lucid without sacrificing implication. The deliberate (as it seemed) hermeticism of some modern verse repelled her…. The early poems visibly skirt [the dangers of both excessive emotion and excessive factuality], but are happily preserved from both by their brio and their scornful energy. They are the work of a girl who knows what she likes, and knows even more what she dislikes. (pp. 61-2)

Moore's asperity in the poems written in her twenties and early thirties shows the revengeful impatience of one not suffering fools gladly. The poems display a whole gallery of self-incriminating fools—self-important, illiterate,...

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Hilton Kramer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The career of Marianne Moore … provides us with a perfect example of the way a poet's fame may come in time to obscure the essential quality of the poetry upon which it is ostensibly based. The reputation achieved by this extraordinary poet in the later years of her life, when she was finally showered with literary honors and assumed the position of a cultural celebrity, was often grotesquely at odds with the very stringent and unyielding vision of her best writing. For the media that found her an appealing subject in those years, and thus for the many people who first came to know of her through the media, she was something that she had never been for her contemporaries: the very archetype of the quaint literary...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)