Marianne Moore

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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

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 336 words.)

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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

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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 little sand-coloured skipping animal, may be the best release for the major emotions. Only the pedantic literalist could consider the subject-matter to be trivial; the triviality is in himself. We all have to choose whatever subject-matter allows us the most powerful and most secret release; and that is a personal affair.

The result is often something that the majority will call frigid; for feeling in one's own way, however intensely, is likely to look like frigidity to those who can only feel in accepted ways.

The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not in silence, but restraint.

It shows itself in a control which makes possible the fusion of the ironic-conversational and the high-rhetorical…. (pp. 62-3)

Miss Moore's versification is anything but "free." Many of the poems are in exact, and sometimes complicated, formal patterns, and move with the elegance of a minuet. ("Elegance," indeed, is one of her certain attributes.) Some of the poems (e.g. "Marriage," "An Octopus") are unrhymed; in others (e.g. "Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns") rhyme or assonance is introduced irregularly, in a number of the poems rhyme is part of a regular pattern interwoven with unrhymed endings. Miss Moore's use of rhyme is in itself a definite innovation in metric.

In the conventional forms of rhyme the stress given by the rhyme tends to fall in the same place as the stress given by the sense. The extreme case, at its best, is the pentameter couplet of Pope…. The tendency of some of the best contemporary poetry is of course to dispense with rhyme altogether; but some of those who do use it have used it here and there to make a pattern directly in contrast with the sense and rhythm pattern, to give a greater intricacy…. This rhyme, which forms a pattern against the metric and sense pattern of the poem, may be either heavy or light—that is to say, either heavier or lighter than the other pattern. The two kinds, heavy and light, have doubtless different uses which remain to be explored. Of the light rhyme Miss Moore is the greatest living master; and indeed she is the first, so far as I know, who has investigated its possibilities. It will be observed that the effect sometimes requires giving a word a slightly more analytical pronunciation, or stressing a syllable more than ordinarily…. (pp. 63-4)

My conviction, for what it is worth, has remained unchanged for the last fourteen years: that Miss Moore's poems form part of the small body of durable poetry written in our time; of that small body of writings, among what passes for poetry, in which an original sensibility and alert intelligence and deep feeling have been engaged in maintaining the life of the English language…. (p. 65)

T. S. Eliot, "Introduction to 'Selected Poems'," in Selected Poems by Marianne Moore (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright 1935 by Marianne Moore, renewed 1963 by Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot), Macmillan Company, 1935 (and reprinted in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles Tomlinson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, pp. 60-5).

John Crowe Ransom

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[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 the works of men, such as the objects of art and the paraphernalia of fine living, including the precision instruments—for high thinking in Miss Moore's understanding of things goes with fine properties…. But these very special objects she is content merely to cite in their integrity as beautiful objects, or to furnish with a little commentary in the lightest of accents. This "merely," however, may be misleading. As beautiful objects they are conspicuously in their duty, for they impart the sense not only of the generous dispensations of prodigious nature, but of that responsive economic intelligence which is of the essence of being human, the very thing that common prudential discourse if fond of rendering with its gross precepts and its heavy emphases.

For these registrations of her world she has suitably delicate antennae. They reach to the limits of what is tangible, and beyond these they project her imaginatively and very surely into the world of her insatiable reading. But such is her fidelity that she is not afraid of the sheer and homely natural detail, as if she trusted that poetic illumination presently would rise even out of nature, even out of prose; as it does.

She is usually successful with her effects. But they are minor not major effects, in the degree of their remoteness from the primitive range of interest; it takes many of them to yield the full dimensions of this poet…. [She is much more] than merely the mistress of a casual elegance, such as she may well have seemed to our first impression. (pp. 102-03)

Miss Moore's rhymes if not her iambics must be very nearly the most unobtrusive to be found in English verse. She always pairs off her rhyming lines by equal indentation, and it is likely that otherwise the rhyme might escape even the good reader's attention. If it be claimed that in this light way of rhyming she is merely being evasive—as if wanting her poetry to be in the corpus of standard style but not really of it—it may be replied that she rather is being witty, as if to mock the compulsiveness of rhyming when it does not affect her own freedom. (pp. 105-06)

John Crowe Ransom, "On Being Modern with Distinction," in Quarterly Review of Literature (© Quarterly Review of Literature, 1948), Vol. 4, No. 2, 1948 (and reprinted in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles Tomlinson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, pp. 101-05).

Lloyd Frankenberg

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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 reintegration on a higher level of consciousness, to which the intervening specialization, the "loss of innocence," has contributed….

Marianne Moore's is not a poetry of nostalgic return. It "tears off the veil," the "temptation," the "mist the heart wears." (p. 133)

She is free to reconstruct the unfamiliar, to supply, with uncanny accuracies, the living environment of the strange and the faraway, because she has looked so discerningly at what is present. (p. 134)

Whatever she looks at, whether actually or in the pages of a book, she is able to see alive and can conjure up its distinctive motion. (p. 135)

This physical correspondence is carried out in the circularities, the risings and fallings of the rhythm. We are simultaneously in the position of looking at a merry-go-round and riding it. (pp. 135-36)

It is the precision of her imagination that earns Marianne Moore such varieties of freedom. Her refinements of thought and of style are always in the direction of greater, rather than less, inclusiveness. (p. 137)

Marianne Moore is able to use material hitherto considered inappropriate to poetry. The ordinary details of living are revealed in a new way…. [Marianne Moore feels that] poetry is in the use that is made of experience. It is not the experience itself; nor does it consist in a grading of experiences: "this is a fit subject; that is not." All are available, whether eccentric, like an upside-down bat, or common to all, like a bat foraging; deliberate or impulsive; of animal or human origin; special to the point of esoteric, or general to the point of abstract. (pp. 137-38)

[We] are in possession of a definition of poetry that satisfies the bigotries of neither "conservatism" nor "modernism."… [She] subscribes to the formal distinction of poetry as "verse," distinguished from "prose" by technical considerations of form. (pp. 138-39)

Lloyd Frankenberg, "The View," in his Pleasure Dome: On Reading Modern Poetry (copyright © 1949 by Lloyd Frankenberg; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, 1949, pp. 131-40.

Louise Bogan

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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)

Miss Moore, we discover, is playing on the theme of safety versus danger. The town, which looks so neat and stable, depends for its living on the sea, that most unstable of elements. The town is a refuge even for boats—which are repaired in its drydock—but the life of the place depends upon the sea and, therefore, upon danger. In such a place, where so much peace has been attained in spite of continual imminent risk, something must exist which is a guide and a stay to its inhabitants. That something is "hope"; and at the close of the poem a large concept opens out: we are all faced with danger; life itself is dangerous; but danger faced up to and worked with can be made a basis for peace and an ordered daily round, when some spiritual factor is held at the center of life…. The meaning of the poem reverberates in the mind; we feel that we have been led to simplicity through apparent complexity—toward abstract truth through contact with living reality.

All the components of Miss Moore's special method are present in "The Steeple-Jack." Her reticence is clear: no personal emotion is openly displayed, but emotion is present—in this instance, an emotion of reconciliation and of joy. We also notice Miss Moore's delicate ear for language, which gives the poem its rich and varied all-over verbal texture; and what can only be called her "connoisseurship." (p. 258)

Miss Moore's general method is expository; she describes and explains but rarely exclaims and as rarely exhorts. And as we become used to her personal rhythm—to her "style"—it seems faintly familiar to us. It is fundamentally a prose rhythm; and suddenly we recognize it as a style met in some English essays….

She has analyzed manners and customs. And from this material she has distilled not only a picture of human life but an interpretation of human experience. The reader will notice, as well, how her work, in its later phases, becomes progressively warmer—her sympathies come more directly into view. And throughout we come upon the happy phrase, the delightful comparison, the illuminating insight. Her habit of quotation—her "hybrid method of composition," as she calls it—often adds new dimensions to her subjects; and the notes she has furnished identifying these quotations are evidences of her catholicity of taste and interest as well as of her learning—a learning which she wears "as lightly as a flower." (p. 260)

Louise Bogan, "Reading Contemporary Poetry," in College English (copyright © 1953 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and by Ruth Limmer, literary executor, Estate of Louise Bogan), Vol. 14, No. 5, February, 1953, pp. 255-60.

Randall Jarrell

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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 our age and to some of the advanced ones. Miss Moore was for a long time (in her own phrase about something else) "Like Henry James 'damned by the public for decorum,'/not decorum but restraint." She demands, "When I Buy Pictures," that the pictures "not wish to disarm anything." (Here I feel like begging for the pictures, in a wee voice: "Can't they be just a little disarming?" My tastes are less firmly classical.) The poems she made for herself were so careful never to wish to disarm anyone, to appeal to anyone's habitual responses and grosser instincts, to sweep anyone resistlessly away, that they seemed to most readers eccentrically but forbiddingly austere, so that the readers averted their faces from her calm, elegant, matter-of-fact face, so exactly moved and conscientiously unappealing as itself to seem averted. It was not the defects of her qualities but the qualities that made most of the public reluctant to accept her as more than a special case: her extraordinary discrimination, precision and restraint, the odd propriety of her imagination, her gifts of "natural promptness" (I use the phrase she found, but her own promptness is preternatural)—all these stood in her way and will go on standing in her way. (p. 115)

It is most barbarously unjust to treat her (as some admiring critics do) as what she is only when she parodies herself: a sort of museum poet, an eccentric shut-in dealing in the collection, renovation, and exhibition of precise exotic properties. For she is a lot more American a writer (if to be an American is to be the heir, or heiress, of all the ages) than Thomas Wolfe or Erskine Caldwell or—but space fails me; she looks lovingly and knowingly at this "grassless/linksless [no longer], languageless country in which letters are written/not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not in shorthand,/but in plain American which cats and dogs can read!" Doesn't one's heart reverberate to that last phrase "as to a trumpet"?

Miss Moore is one of the most perceptive of writers, sees extraordinarily—the words fit her particularly well because of the ambiguity that makes them refer both to sensation and intelligence…. The tone of Miss Moore's poems, often, is enough to give the reader great pleasure, since it is a tone of much wit and precision and intelligence, of irony and forbearance, of unusual moral penetration—is plainly the voice of a person of good taste and good sense and good will, of a genuinely human being. Because of the curious juxtaposition of curious particulars, most of the things that inhabit her poetry seem extraordinarily bright, exact, and there—just as unfamiliar colours, in unfamiliar combinations, seem impossibly vivid. She is the poet of the particular—or, when she fails, of the peculiar; and is also, in our time, the poet of general moral statement. Often, because of their exact seriousness of utterance, their complete individuality of embodiment, these generalizations of hers seem almost more particular than the particulars.

In some of her poems Miss Moore has discovered both a new sort of subject (a queer many-headed one) and a new sort of connection and structure for it, so that she has widened the scope of poetry; if poetry, like other organisms, wants to convert into itself everything there is, she has helped it to. She has shown us that the world is more poetic than we thought. (pp. 116-17)

The change in Miss Moore's work, between her earliest and latest poems, is an attractive and favourable change. How much more modernist, special-case, dryly elevated and abstract, she was to begin with!… Sometimes, in her early poems, she has not a tone but a manner, and a rather mannered manner at that—two or three such poems together seem a dry glittering expanse, i.e., a desert. But in her later work she often escapes entirely the vice most natural to her, this abstract, mannered, descriptive, consciously prosaic commentary (accompanied, usually, by a manneredness of leaving out all introductions and transitions and explanations, as if one could represent a stream by reproducing only the stepping-stones one crossed it on). As she says, compression is the first grace of style—is almost a defining characteristic of the poetry our age most admires; but such passages as those I am speaking of are not compressed—the time wasted on Being Abstract more than makes up for the time saved by leaving out. Looking at a poem like "What Are Years," we see how much her style has changed. And the changes in style represent a real change in the poet: when one is struck by the poet's seriousness and directness and lack of manner—by both her own individual excellence and by that anonymous excellence the best poets sometimes share—it is usually in one of the poems written during the '30's and '40's. I am emphasizing this difference too much, since even its existence is ignored, usually; but it is interesting what a different general impression the Collected Poems gives, compared to the old Selected Poems. (Not that it wasn't wonderful too.) (pp. 118-19)

Some of the changes in Miss Moore's work can be considered in terms of Armour. Queer terms, you say? They are hers, not mine: a good deal of her poetry is specifically (and changingly) about armour, weapons, protection, places to hide; and she is not only conscious that this is so, but after a while writes poems about the fact that it is so. As she says, "armour seems extra," but it isn't; and when she writes about "another armoured animal," about another "thing made graceful by adversities, conversities," she does so with the sigh of someone who has come home. (p. 119)

She says of some armoured animals that they are "models of exactness." The association was natural: she thought of the animals as models and of the exactness as armour—and for such a writer, there was no armour like exactness, concision, irony. She wished to trust, as absolutely as she could, in flat laconic matter-of-factness, in the minimal statement, understatement: these earlier poems of hers approach as a limit a kind of ideal minimal statement, a truth thought of as underlying, prior to, all exaggeration and error; the poet has tried to strip or boil everything down to this point of hard, objective, absolute precision. But the most extreme precision leads inevitably to quotation; and quotation is armour and ambiguity and irony all at once—turtles are great quoters. Miss Moore leaves the stones she picks up carefully uncut, but places them in an unimaginably complicated and difficult setting, to sparkle under the Northern Lights of her continual irony. Nobody has ever been better at throwing away a line than this Miss Facing-Both-Ways, this La Rochefoucauld who has at last rid himself of La Rochefoucauld…. (p. 120)

Along with precision she loved difficulty…. How much she cares for useless pains, difficulties undertaken for their own sake! Difficulty is the chief technical principle of her poetry, almost. (For sureness of execution, for originality of technical accomplishment, her poetry is unsurpassed in our time; Auden says almost that, and the author of "Under Sirius" ought to know. Some of her rhymes and rhythms and phrases look quite undiscoverable.) Such unnecessary pains, such fantastic difficulties! Yet with manners, arts, sports, hobbies, they are always there—so perhaps they are necessary after all.

But some of her earlier poems do seem "averted into perfection." You can't put the sea into a bottle unless you leave it open at the end, and sometimes hers is closed at both ends, closed into one of those crystal spheres inside which snowflakes are falling on to a tiny house, the house where the poet lives—or says that she lives. Sometimes Miss Moore writes about armour and wears it, the most delicately chased, live-seeming scale-armour anybody ever put together: armour hammered out of fern seed, woven from the silk of invisible cloaks—for it is almost, though not quite, as invisible as it pretends to be, and is when most nearly invisible most nearly protecting. One is often conscious while reading the poetry, the earlier poetry especially, of a contained removed tone; of the cool precise untouchedness, untouchableness, of fastidious rectitude; of innate merits and their obligations, the obligations of ability and intelligence and aristocracy—for if aristocracy has always worn armour, it has also always lived dangerously: the association of aristocracy and danger and obligation is as congenial to Miss Moore as is the rest of the "flower and fruit of all that noted superiority." Some of her poems have the manners or manner of ladies who learned a little before birth not to mention money, who neither point nor touch, and who scrupulously abstain from the mixed, live vulgarity of life. "You sit still if, whenever you move, something jingles," Pound quotes an officer of the old school as saying. There is the same aristocratic abstention behind the restraint, the sitting still as long as it can, of this poetry. "The passion for setting people right is in itself an afflictive disease./Distaste which takes no credit to itself is best," she says in an early poem; and says, broadly and fretfully for her, "We are sick of the earth,/sick of the pigsty, wild geese and wild men." At such moments she is a little disquieting (she speaks for everybody, in the best of the later poems, in a way in which she once could not); one feels like quoting against her her own, "As if a death-mask could replace/Life's faulty excellence," and blurting that life-masks have their disadvantages too. We are uncomfortable—or else too comfortable—in a world in which feeling, affection, charity, are so entirely divorced from sexuality and power, the bonds of the flesh. In this world of the poems there are many thoughts, things, animals, sentiments, moral insights; but money and passion and power, the brute fact that works, whether or not correctly, whether or not precisely—the whole Medusa-face of the world: these are gone. In the poem called "Marriage" marriage, with sex, children, and elementary economic existence missing, is an absurd unlikely affair, one that wouldn't fool a child; and, of course, children don't get married. But this reminds me how un-childish, un-young, Miss Moore's poems always are; she is like one of those earlier ages that dressed children as adults, and sent them off to college at the age of eleven—though the poems dress their children in animal-skins, and send them out into the wilderness to live happily ever after. Few poets have as much moral insight as Miss Moore; yet in her poems morality usually is simplified into self-abnegation, and Gauguin always seems to stay home with his family—which is right, but wrong in a way, too. Poems which celebrate morality choose more between good and evil, and less between evils and greater goods, than life does, so that in them morality is simpler and more beautiful than it is in life, and we feel our attachment to it strengthened. (pp. 121-22)

Randall Jarrell, "Her Shield," in his Poetry and the Age (copyright © 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of the estate of Randall Jarrell), Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1953 (and reprinted in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles Tomlinson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, pp. 114-24).

Hugh Kenner

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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 gratitude; yes, public platitude. One need not quarrel with the sentiments to find the poems dedicated to them unlucky. The poems simply participate, with busy flutter and stir of unexpected particulars, in what right-thinking people would, presumably, think without their aid. And the fastidiousness that chopped whole sequences of stanzas out of "The Steeple-Jack" and "The Frigate Pelican" and "Nine Nectarines" because irritated by minute inadequacies is now willing out of public spirit to glue mannerism over cliché…. (pp. 163-64)

Mannerism, agreeable mannerism, is what the newcomer is likely to suppose Miss Moore chiefly offers, if the Reader is to be his introduction. A manner offers pleasures of its own; but whether a reader so introduced is likely to notice, when he turns back to "The Buffalo" or "The Pangolin," anything but the idiosyncratically close observation, set into an unaccountably rigorous stanza, is open to question. Such poems were receiving too casual an attention even before The New Yorker, by developing Miss Moore as a "personality," left everyone with so misleading a clue.

Meanwhile the former work stands, deferred to but seldom explored. Critical curiosity, which has fussed over so many twentieth century pages, has tended to leave Miss Moore's poems approvingly uninvestigated. If she is now able to take for granted some of the lessons in her own early work, there is no reason why anyone else should. She has had the discipline of doing the work; we have hardly begun to know what it means to read it. And if some of the late writing tends to encourage criticism in its tacit abandonment of her reputation to the keeping of the Harper's Bazaar and New Yorker publics, it is criticism—articulate understanding—that loses. She is not merely idiosyncratic; not merely uniquely herself; she is much more than "the greatest living observer." Counting her syllables, revealing and concealing her rhymes, setting down her finely particularized exempla for elucidation by tone alone, putting "unconscious elegance" into tension against "sophistication" and showing how art, a third thing, can endorse the former without false entanglement in the latter, she has accomplished things of general import to the maintenance of language that no one else has had the patience, the skill, the discipline, or the perfect unselfconscious conviction to adumbrate. (p. 164)

Hugh Kenner, "Meditation and Enactment," in Poetry (© 1963 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1963 (and reprinted in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles Tomlinson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, pp. 159-64).

Brad Leithauser

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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 re-released Complete Poems, indispensable and handsome though it is, does not present the entirety its title promises. (p. 33)

She could be cloyingly whimsical. Her characteristic obliquity, which often took the form of curious negatives ("unperfunctoriness," "unpugnacious," "unparticularities," "unwavy") can seem fussily over-protective, evoking the image of an elderly woman who secures each door with a dozen locks. Many of her poems ("The Buffalo," "Efforts of Affection") lie beneath a mist that, maddeningly, does not burn off with repeated rereadings. (pp. 33-4)

That her verse is as instructive and inspiriting as it is, given these considerable shortcomings, attests to the immensity of her gifts. Her most conspicuous talent was a preternaturally keen eye, which in combination with a mind adept at analogy yielded images at once exact and fanciful….

Marianne Moore was fond of those mythical beasts like the chimera or griffin that are amalgams of actual creatures. She was constantly turning everyday animals into fabulous hybrids…. She was something of a griffin herself, this eccentric woman who was recruited by the Ford Motor Company to help name the Edsel (among her suggestions, the Mongoose Civique and the Utopian Turtletop); this eclectic eulogist who addressed the Brooklyn Dodgers, Molière, and Santa Claus; this witty ironist who sounded the numinous "sea-serpented regions"; this avant-garde modernist who praised modestly but enduringly the old-fashioned virtues of courage, forbearance, and honor. (p. 34)

Brad Leithauser, "Books and the Arts: 'The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 8, August 23, 1980, pp. 33-4.

Helen Vendler

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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, unimaginative, sentimental, defensive, pompous, cruel. For each of the fools, a portrait…. These deadly anatomies, so impossible in well-bred life, are unsparingly uttered in print: Moore tells all her fools to their faces exactly what she thinks of them, finding her own annihilating metaphor for each one. Hers is the aggression of the silent, well-brought-up girl who thinks up mute rejoinders during every parlor conversation. (pp. 62-3)

[The] early poems, one senses, were written entirely to please herself, an odd girl in her twenties, turning from her dissections to her verses…. Her repudiation of [the "imagist" label] is just, as is her repudiation of the label "syllabic verse": "I do not know what syllabic verse is. I find no appropriate application for it"—and yet she has so often been described as a poet deriving from Imagism who writes in syllabic verse that the discrepancy between the common view and her own begs some explanation…. The rhythm of the stanza and the rhythm of the sentence impelled the poem; the syllabic count imposed some strictness on her procedure, but even in the non-syllabic poems, written in a species of free verse, her rhythms are instantly recognizable. Whatever small formalities she employed—her internal rhymes, her "light" rhymes, her syllable counts—did not define her practice or her originality. (pp. 64-5)

[The] Imagist power, such as it was—and it now can be seen to have been, in itself, weak—was photographic, mimetic, perceptual. Moore's early poetry, by contrast, takes as its chief subject states of the soul, not external "reality."… If in attempting to describe the souls of people who are oppressive like streamrollers, or modestly contractile like snails, or patient and enduring like elephants she needed metaphor, she was not in that need unusual…. [Surely,] though these images may be drawn from a private or restricted code book, they are not the issue of an Imagist creed.

They come, rather, from religious usage, as in illustrations of the deadly sins the lustful man sits on a goat and the glutton on a pig. The difference between Moore and the emblem-writers is that she has a much more lively interest than they in real pigs and peacocks; she takes, so to speak, the two sides of the emblem equally seriously….

There is no doubt that some of the early poems on animals or objects are also, even principally, about human beings. The one on the elephant is, or ought to be taken as, a poem about Moore herself—her most personal and "lyric" poem, one that she suppressed when compiling the Complete Poems. (p. 66)

["Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight"] is agitated by all of Moore's central concerns: the nature of power, the nature of identity, the impassivity of selfhood, the wounds of circumstance, the failures of human perception. "I see and I hear," muses the poet-elephant, who accuses man, seen through his eyes, of self-delusion, of having eyes and seeing not, of having ears and hearing not…. Moore was perfectly and inhumanly removed, at such a moment, from her fellow human beings. The removal—her superior amusement and denigration—was the source of her virgin strength. (p. 67)

[The unsentimental poems of her 1921 publication Poems] have always at least one abyss hiding in their neat parterres, some crevasse down which the unwary reader could slip. Moore's most characteristic gesture is a throwaway remark revealing whole horizons explored and rejected. If she calls Greece "the nest of modified illusions," she is asking us to have illusions and to have—stunning word—"modified" them. It is almost the word of a seamstress. To tailor an illusion is already a cataclysmic fall from innocence, but the notion is so innocently slipped in that the careless eye skids over it. It has been said that America is barren because it has no ruins; for Moore it is deficient because it has "no proof readers, no silkworms, no digressions." What is this discontented patriotism that longs for a literate page, a natural fabric, an idiosyncratic learning, and sickens and dies for the lack of them? Can it be the same patriotism that turns on itself and insists that fineness must exist in America? ("It has never been confined to one locality.") Moore's crevasses are for herself, not her audience…. Moore's rebellious outspokenness about herself and others, no matter how disciplined by the angular geometry of her verse, is the chief ornament of the early volumes. (pp. 68-9)

Moore's first ethical impulse was, we might say, an Aristotelian one, interested in the taxonomy of the virtues and vices. The early poems served to set her mind in order about what was virtue, what vice—a question that was for her almost indistinguishable from what was art, what ugliness. (p. 69)

[The distrust of emotion resulting from Moore's animal poetry] made her increasingly submissive to fact; her isolation made her more dependent on books; and the war caused her flexible ethical meditations to rigidify into moral outcries. Animals became an end in themselves, as human beings became more remote or more repellent. The disjunction between her mind and her heart is reflected in two statements made in the same interview (she was then approaching eighty): the first was that now, as always, the "forces which result in poetry" are "irrepressible emotion, joy, grief, desperation, triumph"; the second was that "every day it is borne in on us that we need rigor—better governance of the emotions." To govern the irrepressible is the paradoxical aim of all art, but her governance seems to have become an almost habitual censorship. When the pain of the irrepressible emotion and the pain of governance remain intertwined in the poems, the poetry weighs on us as it did on her. Conversely, when the emotion is a wholly innocent one—usually, in her case, a visual emotion (her religious upbringing seems not to have repressed sight and hearing)—her pure joy brings her closer than any other American poet to the Whitman of Manhattan and the sea. (p. 70)

It is not sentimental, I hope, to see her great, if confined, poem "Marriage" as her most nearly perfect union of the pain of feeling and the pain of governance. The Marvellian theme that paradise was Paradise only when Adam was there alone is touched on in the early poem "In the Days of Prismatic Color," which, after beginning in an airy, happy, rainbow-hued atmosphere, quickly darkens into a miserable debate with itself about the value of complexity, darkness, and sophistication. By the time of "Marriage," complexity has inexorably entered, as prelapsarian radiance is intruded on by the worldly cynicism of Bacon and then by Moore's own expostulating humor…. (p. 71)

The poem vacillates between thinking that marriage should be the most natural, easy, and companionable of arrangements and thinking it a dangerous enterprise: "men have power/and sometimes one is made to feel it." Both the sweetnesses and the hatreds of marriage enter the poem, which sees both the propriety of human union and its competing narcissistic destructions…. In herself she clearly did not find that simplicity of temper, as she calls it, which sees in homely rules a natural order of things that it easily obeys. (p. 72)

Many of the early poems, all brilliant, remain relatively unpossessed by readers in part because of their peculiar titles, which have nothing to do with their subjects…. Emotionally speaking, ["An Octopus"]—written about Mount Rainier, and full of compressed detail—may be taken as a poem about America and its nature and its unclassical art, and as a poem about a life journey; while ["The Fish"] reproduces the sliding motions of the sea creatures, the brutal pressure of the water, and the stolid endurance of the cliff, all intermixed in what one might feel to be a transcription of conflicting motions of the nervous system transliterated into earthly symbols. (pp. 72-3)

In the last major poetic effort of her life, Moore spent a decade translating the fables of La Fontaine. Perhaps a flagging of her own inner energies made such a work proper, but the constraints of sense invaded her elegant rhythms and made the translations, in spite of many felicities of phrase, finally unsatisfying as poems by Moore. When they first appeared, Howard Nemerov called them "very jittery as to the meter." Not a great deal should be claimed for them, not even for Moore's affinities with La Fontaine: he was less soulful than she, and his animals have an existence not so much biological or visual as fabular. He was not a naturalist; Moore was. (p. 73)

Helen Vendler, "Marianne Moore" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. LIV, No. 35, October 16, 1978), in her Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (copyright © 1980 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; excerpted by permission of the author and publishers), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 59-76.

Hilton Kramer

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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 spinster….

Precisely what moved the elderly Marianne Moore to encourage this misperception—for there is no question that she lent herself to its promotion—must be left for her biographers to explain…. What remains imperative for us to understand just now, however, is that this fabricated image had nothing whatever to do with the poet's real achievement, which from the outset was anchored in a tougher, doughtier, more disabused view of both art and life.

Not that an exact appreciation of this achievement was ever an easy thing to acquire even for serious readers of poetry. Moore was an original and often a very difficult poet. Her style marked a decisive break with established literary practice. At the same time, it remained too individual to be easily assimilated into the modernist conventions of her contemporaries. Even in a generation distinguished for its radical innovations in poetic discourse, hers were in many ways the most astonishing. The eccentric prosy rhythms she employed, like the dour, essayistic vocabulary she favored, seemed to disavow any obvious poetic intention. Her use of blunt, discursive statement, combined with collage-like accretions of incongruous quotation, likewise confounded poetic expectation. Even the tone of dispassionate irony in her verse was unlike anyone else's, for it did not have a dandyish function and only lightly masked a fierce moral intensity that was anything but ambiguous in the judgment it made of experience. Everything important to her style and outlook—except, perhaps, her humor, which owed a lot to Henry James—she seemed to have invented for herself.

This originality was problem enough for most readers. But it was compounded, in Moore's case, by her reluctance to leave her work intact. She was always much given to revision and amendment, and in her later years this revisionist impulse developed into a bizarre appetite for unrestrained deletion….

Some poems—"An Octopus," for example—she simply vandalized by lopping off important lines. Others—most notably, the well-known poem on "Poetry" itself—she reduced to a ruin. In what was probably her single greatest book—"Observations" (1924)—"Poetry" was a poem of 13 printed lines. By the time the "Collected Poems" appeared in 1951, it had grown into a poem of nearly 40 printed lines. (It was this version, with its celebrated reference to "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," that became famous.) But in the misnamed "Complete Poems" of 1967, it had been reduced to four! And it is in this ruined state that it reappears now in this new "definitive" edition of "The Complete Poems," which is said—grim thought!—to conform "as closely as is now possible to the author's final intentions."

One must therefore approach this new, augmented version of "The Complete Poems" with a certain caution—and, if possible, armed with earlier editions of the poet's writings—for it obviously does not always represent its author at her best….

The "ecstasy" of "the occasion" always lies deeply hidden in this poetry, almost as hidden as its sly music, and is hidden by design. Yet to miss it completely is to mistake the elaborate verbal artifice for the inner core of feeling it is meant to contain and preserve. (p. 7)

The best, certainly the most challenging place to observe the process by which feeling, "modified by the writer's moral and technical insights," is transmuted by Moore into a dazzling and sizable poetic structure is in that long, difficult, still neglected poem called "Marriage."… First published in 1923, it occupies a place in Moore's oeuvre equivalent to that of "The Waste Land" in T. S. Eliot's. That it takes a similarly bleak view of the human enterprise is not something that has been very much remarked upon in the criticism of modern poetry, perhaps because Moore is seldom credited with having a profound—much less a truly pessimistic—view of anything. Fortunately, the text of "Marriage" was not one that Moore was tempted to tamper with, except to adjust a hyphen or italicize a word, and so it survives intact in "The Complete Poems," which is worth having for this poem alone.

From the opening lines of "Marriage," we know we are in the presence of a poet unlike any other. (pp. 7, 22)

R. P. Blackmur, repeating the mistake so many other critics had made about the novels of his beloved Henry James, complained that there was "no element of sex or lust" in this poem. But this is not, I think, the way the poem reads to us today. In fact, there is a good deal of sexual preening in the poem, all of it mercilessly satirized, and no shortage, either, of the sort of pain and melancholy that is recognizably sexual in its very essence…. However inexplicit "Marriage" may be about the details of conjugal life—"expanded explanation," as Moore observed in "Feeling and Precision," "tends to spoil the lion's leap"—the whole poem is actually infused with an acute sexual tension….

"Marriage" is a poem of renunciation. Its tone is at once aggrieved and aloof, and its principal ironies are reserved for the grave differences separating private feeling from the rituals of its public codification….

After the litany of pain, vanity and foolish imposture that precedes it, the concluding tableau of this poem … both freezes the blood and makes one laugh—not an uncommon effect in Moore's early and best writing. (p. 22)

Despite its many spoiled texts, then, "The Complete Poems" remains an important book, and one that every reader will want to have…. It is a book teeming with sharp observation, profound moral insight, high satiric wit and all manner of esthetic delight. If, as I believe, there is a distinct decline in quality and intensity to be observed in the poems Moore wrote after the 1930's, even this does little to diminish her stature as one of the pre-eminent figures in the greatest generation of poets this country has produced. (pp. 22-3)

Hilton Kramer, "Freezing the Blood and Making One Laugh," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 15, 1981, pp. 7, 22.


Moore, Marianne (Vol. 13)


Moore, Marianne (Vol. 2)