Poetry Daily home page

Poetry in Review:

The Poems of Marianne Moore

Reviewed by Kay Ryan

from The Yale Review

Marianne Moore's poems are as contemporary as a Google search and as antique as wonder cabinets. Her method for going forward in a poem is so barnacled and elaborate that one might question whether she goes forward or not. She really has little interest in forward drive — perhaps progress smacked to her of such base qualities as striving or pugnacity. Nevertheless, she arranges at least to simulate the sensation of forward motion through linking object to object in her wonder cabinets. The Yale Review The poems are glass-cased and filled with small sliding drawers that we open. Our fascination with any part both blinds us to the rest (and to the fact that the connections may be casual) and convinces us that the whole would, by extrapolation, be more than the sum of its priceless parts if we could ever apprehend it, which we cannot. This is not a criticism but an observation. The reader can go from part to part, relishing detail and secure in the powerful sense that Marianne Moore is somehow taking care of the big picture. She has taken as her subject matter that which she has found in museums, books, and zoos, but the power of her voice and her moral presence assure us that her understanding is not intermittent but constant and that we may — we should — abandon ourselves to the study of wonders, confident that Miss Moore could — and probably is — handling the dragon attacks.

What a desirable presence. Marianne Moore was this curio — who was so much more, who really did seem to hold steady and brave. She strikes me as at once ridiculous and immensely cheering. She is monumental, like a stern aunt, and all bits and pieces, like a pixilated one.

To return to the question of progress in her poems and why it was a bit of a bother to her, Marianne Moore really was working to an end other than "getting someplace." Her object was the liberation of the mind, and she felt that exactness of description was the great liberator. When interviewed by Donald Hall for The Paris Review, she praised the methods of scientific inquiry, saying, "Precision, economy of statement, logic employed to ends that are disinterested, drawing and identifying, liberate — at least have some bearing on — the imagination." And these are the golden virtues of Miss Moore's own "product" (the scientific-sounding term she characteristically applied to her own poems). She aims to liberate the mind. It is an elegant paradox that close application to the physical somehow does release the mind from the physical. There is probably never a time when poetry couldn't stand a good dose of Marianne Moore's profound respect for the mind and her tonic view of the poet's job. She will always represent a grease-cutting alternative to the poetry of self-occupation.

Marianne Moore is the opposite of sticky; she is constitutionally fearless, cheerful, and cool. She aspires to disinterestedness. She is not dissecting or mending the heart. She is trying out formal possibilities, and calls her "product" "observations, experiments in rhythm, or exercises in composition." She says to Hall about attending bohemian parties in New York unchaperoned that, "I felt impervious," and this could be applied to her attitude to life in general. Her vulnerability — artistically — was internal, that is, her struggle with her own interior conflict, which, happily for us, she couldn't resolve.

Not that she harps on conflict as the source of poetry. She is not one of the aggressively suffering poets. Her impulse to write, she says, is that she is "charmed" by something. She begins with "a felicitous phrase... simultaneous usually with some thought or object of equal attraction: 'Its leaps should be set / to the flageolet." In other words, two different things are brought together — with rhyme often advancing the second, as it does in her illustration. It's such a lovely, untormented beginning. The abiding torment or at least chronic aggravation — comes from what sounds like a technical problem but is in fact a tectonic one. She puts it this way: "The most difficult thing for me is to be satisfactorily lucid, yet have enough implication... to suit myself... I do not approve of my 'enigmas,' or as somebody said, 'the not un-green grass.'" She cannot resolve this, and will not resolve it falsely. These two impulses grind at each other like the plates of the earth, however one might think a poet's great struggle should sound a little meatier.

Marianne Moore cannot put ideas together for us, in her poetry or her essays. There's no point asking. She's not following the Modernist fashion of her time; she just can't, in all conscience, put things together. This may be the very quality that makes her particularly irresistible to the excessively smart and educated. She refuses what scholars often find difficult to refuse, which is to accumulate and become large and ovoid. She is even better than Humpty Dumpty, whom we love because he crashed. For Marianne Moore it is an heroic crash — an acknowledgment that the processes of the mind do not roll on like a steamroller but operate by reversals and leaps, and that one must steadfastly withstand society's tiresome insistence that one maintain a continuous shell.

Marianne Moore's poems break up; that's all there is to it. One treasures incomparable lines: the mussel, "opening and shutting itself like an injured fan"; the student, "too reclusive for / some things to seem to touch / him, not because he / has no feeling but because he has too much." Is that a problem? Don't we generally do that with poems we love, recall a phrase, or a line or two, exactly, nestled inside some vaguer rhythmic texture? It's the best I can usually do. When, for example, I repeat to myself Robert Frost's "and to do that to birds was why she came," the pang I feel depends on the thirteen lines I can't remember. I know that this final line is somehow the product of the previous thirteen and that, by remembering the sum, I am remembering the equation. Of course, remembering lines from Marianne Moore is different because her poems do not move forward or build in the way Frost's do. Great lines in a Marianne Moore poem aren't exactly results. They are more like particles in suspension. They depend on whatever is holding them in place, but it's more the way jewels need the prongs of the setting.

Emotion is shifty, unstable stuff for Marianne Moore. Strong emotion tolerates the use of generalization; being accurate defuses the emotion, mastering it through dispersion. In speaking years later of her much-celebrated anti-war poem, "In Distrust of Merits," she cannot approve of her work: "emotion overpowered me." She finds it "haphazard; ...disjointed, exclamatory." She distrusts and is embarrassed by too direct or coarse an expression of feelings — but she isn't embarrassed to be embarrassed. In fact, embarrassment shows up as a badge of distinction as early as her previously unpublished poem, "We All Know It," undated, but written before she was twenty-four. After first deferring to what we "all know," which is that "silence is best" (a point she often revisits over the years), she sets about opening up a little beachhead for art and the artist: "the realm of art is the realm in / Which to look for 'fishbones in the throat of the gang.' Pin / Pricks and the unstereotyped embarrassment being the contin / Ual diet of artists." Within the difficult locutions and the splittings of words for the sake of rhyme, is something quite wonderful — that "unstereotyped embarrassment" that she says is part of the artist's prickly diet. This is not regular embarrassment but the artist's unique varietal. In the case of the poet, I would suspect that the embarrassment might result partly from exposure to conventional (stereotyped, generalized) expressions of feelings or thoughts by the "gang," an allergic reaction to boilerplate. And for a sensibility such as Marianne Moore's, pretty much everything is boilerplate. The embarrassment would arise, too, from the poet's own inability to express her feelings as exactly as the object of her feelings deserves. From the get-go she is bridling at the thought of saying anything directly, and bridling at being criticized for saying things too indirectly. This poem ends with an amusingly clear declaration of what she thinks about clear declarations: "It is / A strange idea that one must say what one thinks in order to be understood." Perhaps beneath these strata of embarrassment is the embarrassment of having feelings at all. It is embarrassing to be human, and of course Marianne Moore frequently slips into the form of some better-protected animal, less porous and translucent. Embarrassment at being human may be a deeper provocation to artistic production than we usually think.

I am beginning to think of this lifelong inner debate (in which she regularly assumes both voices — the voice that says, "You must say it straight," and the voice that counters, "It can't be said any straighter than I just said it" — as a kind of lover's quarrel that compels and repels, as odd as that sounds. There is something so intimate, irresolvable, and inescapable about the two-party battle, with a lover's subtle feints and parries, gallantries and insistence. I don't quite know what to call it. I might just as easily consider it temporizing. Consider: Marianne Moore is embarrassed by — betrayed by — feelings. So what will she do? She will describe the world of plants, animals, and things up close; she will dissect human behavior from a distance. And above all, she will do what we all do when we don't want to eat something we are required to eat: she will move things around on her plate. Whatever the case, her poems wind up strangely electrified with the feelings she will not directly countenance.

In having recently read a great deal of Marianne Moore's work, I have come to a surprising, not quite mental but not exclusively muscular, sensation: the extravagantly gorgeous, linguistically tormented, lacunae-pocked poems of Marianne Moore are simple in some essential way, and relaxing to read. (I see a note to myself, on a page about a third of the way into the book, that says, "I am starting to understand much more — as I give up.") The difficulties seem to me now on the surface and not hidden underneath. If you read enough of her you begin to see what occupies her, and has occupied her from youth.

Marianne Moore must teach us to read her. Her poems are instructions in how to read her poems. She must polish us until we are bright enough to see her; she must refine our ability to discriminate before we can apprehend her discriminations. Marianne Moore has said, "Originality is the byproduct of sincerity," a pronouncement worthy of savoring for its economy alone, and worthier still as a key to understanding her simplicity. All those high jinks, all those arabesques of argument and expression, all those exact and exacting quotations that are characteristic of Marianne Moore's poetry are utterly sincere; and a certain rest is afforded by this deep and incontestable sincerity. She is saying it as straight as she can, and that fact preserves her beautiful house of cards (mostly face cards, of course, seventeenth-century French). The winds of impatience do blow, but they don't blow her down.

Which is not to say the reader is not impatient. Never will one's tools be fine enough to pick her locks. I want simultaneously to memorize her and to throw her down. There is something repellent in all this. But I am convinced that for a poet to be great we must find ourselves repelled by some part of the poet's work. Not just mildly disquieted but actively repelled. So Marianne Moore is repulsive, extreme, in her scrupulosity. (The great critic Randall Jarrell, in trying to describe what about Marianne Moore's poetry put readers off, listed "her extraordinary discrimination, precision and restraint, the odd propriety of her imagination." He adored her work, by the way.) There has got to be a fanaticism — it doesn't matter, it can be the fanaticism of fastidiousness — but there has to be some private path the reader just can't follow all the way. There must be a crack in the poet of some sort. It has to be deep, privately potent, and unmendable — and the poet must forever try to mend it.

The primary satisfaction of reading the early unpublished poems is not the chips of greatness in them but the satisfaction of putting to rest once and for all any thought that Marianne Moore was ever any different. Here she is at eight:

Dear St. Nicklus;

This Christmas morn
You do adorn
Bring Warner a horn
And me a doll
That is all.
One notes that she has made the title (including punctuation) a part of her poem, a habit she'd keep. One might add that she displays her lifelong good manners in requesting something for her beloved older brother, Warner, before asking for something for herself. We further note that the poem delights in rhyme and appropriates the ten-dollar word "adorn" — which doesn't quite fit — to serve it. But it is perhaps the extra-textual fact that her mother saved this scrap (originally illustrated, apparently) that augers most about Marianne Moore's future, since her mother would remain so intimately involved in her writing.

It's fun to look back at a great poet's juvenilia — clotted, arch, whatever. Every young writer has parts that don't fit together; you see Marianne Moore trying this tack and that, getting one effect at the complete expense of the other, then the other at the expense of the first. What distinguishes the poet who continues to write, and who develops a genuinely distinctive voice, is her inability to sacrifice the incompatible parts, her interior requirement to have it all and to forge some way with words in order to get it all. This is a tall and weird order. She must not only bring together all that is essential to her, she must leave out everything that isn't right for her. And it may be that what isn't right for her, is right for most people. As a result, her work will look odd, not only — or perhaps not primarily — because of what she must put in but because of what she must leave out. In Marianne Moore's case she had to leave out things like connectors between ideas — which she privately disdained as "padding" — and she had to leave out life. This latter is a paradoxical thing to say, because who in the world was ever more alive in her writing? Her observations are so famously keen that they cut or freeze or burn, physical in their vigor. But we also know that something is missing, in the ordinary sense.

Right away Marianne Moore is worrying her something missing. In the early poems from 1907 to 1913 — she'd be twenty to twenty-three — she introduces the "don't touch" theme. Here is an example:

A Red Flower

Cast upon the pot,
Will make it
Overflow, or not,
As you can refrain
From fingering
The leaves again.
Clearly, despite the strangeness of imagining emotion as Miracle-Gro, a little feeling goes a long way. And look at this:
A Fish

No heart was planted in my body.
   God knows how that came to be.
But in vouchsafing me that loss, He
   Had vouchsafed me courtesy.
She is looking around inside herself and she is finding herself a fish, don't you think? That is a brave thing to do. And she's not miserable about it; it has its compensatory "courtesy." Miss Moore became known for her Mandarin displays of courtesy. Courtesy eventually looms so large for Miss Moore that it is a sort of warrior's path. When in later life she admires "Fontaine's surgical kind of courtesy" she is also admiring her own. (She is a great admirer of "qualities" and in this courteous way is able to defend her own qualities.) Her warrior's tools are what? Admiration? Courtesy? Oh, it's too much fun to find links between the early and the later Moore. From the start, she dwells on unapproachable animals, she describes beautiful objects, she defends art as "exact perception," she inveighs against flattery and falseness, she exalts virtues — courage, modesty, economy, flintiness, keeping one's distance; she demonstrates staunch Presbyterian upstandingness and faith, and extols the good sort of mulishness: the mule's skepticism, sure-footedness, and kick. In terms of form, she experiments flamboyantly, her lines jagging across the page or forming shapes. She rhymes extravagantly or is extravagantly prosy, and those trademark quotations also begin peppering her work. Plus I must add that we endure a lot of high-sounding inscrutability. I can't help quoting the entire following poem:
Reprobate Silver

Freighted with allusion "of the sort to which we are
Hand wrought slang — in the spirit of Cellini and after the
   manner of Thor —

Like Panshin's horse, not permitted to be willful,
Trembling incessantly and champing at the bit —
It is worthy of examination.
It is quite as much a matter of art as the careful
And a kind of Carthage by Flaubert.
It is like the castles in the air that manufacture themselves

Out of clouds before our eyes
When we are listening to a scientific explanation of things
   in which we are not interested.
The fact that there is no justification for its existence
And that perhaps it had to be written
About what ought never to have been written at all.
When a poet delights us, it's amazing how much we'll put up with. I feel as indulgent and proud as a parent. First consider the hilarious incompatibility of the title words, "Reprobate Silver." What a perfect description of MM. Is she not criminally polished? (That's the problem with writing about Marianne Moore; she has already said everything about herself, and said it better.) Then listen to her name-drop (Cellini, Thor, Panshin — who is Panshin, anyhow? — Flaubert). See the cavalier boldness of her segues, hear the grand thump of those final imponderables landing in one's lap like inedible melons. Some of the incoherencies in the poem are so odd that one thinks perhaps parts of her original are missing. But what I really want to say is that a bit of something essential and dazzling comes tearing through this screen. When she writes "Like Panshin's horse, not permitted to be willful, / trembling incessantly and champing at the bit," she has managed a fine compression. The horse itself contains compressed opposites: it obeys, but it trembles and champs, its willfulness expressed only in nerves. One immediately imagines this high-strung thoroughbred, a picture of barely-reined-in energy (and beauty) that is thrilling on its own. She employs this horse first as an analogy to the spirit of the metalsmith who one supposes created some reprobate silver thing she is contemplating, and beyond that to suggest the contained energy in the silver thing itself, giving us three levels of horse so far. But one does not care as much about these applications as the application of the horse image to Miss Moore herself, for this is a self-portrait. She is the trembling horse "not permitted to be willful" And of course she is also the one who prevents the horse from being willful. And then, because it is a very good self-portrait, its application is universal; we each know this feeling that she has described in not describing any feelings. Somehow this rubegoldbergian contraption of a poem is also the alchemist's flame in which we see the fiery, and checked, spirit of Marianne Moore.

I don't imagine I could have stood the convolutions of this poem if I weren't reading backward, with knowledge of her mature work. But by now she's trained me to find her. She latches and thrives upon the tension between freedom and restraint. It is the wellspring of so many fruitful conflicts in her poems. And it really is another form of the tension she maintains between complexity and clarity. In one of these early poems, she asserts, "Mixed metaphors are not necessarily," thus plumping for complexity. Yet in the next poem she can be perfectly mulish in her resistance to her own thoroughbred instincts. (An early poem is titled, in quotations, "'I Like a Horse but I Have a Fellow Feeling for a Mule.'") She will neither give up to her endlessly competing discriminations nor give them up.

Marianne Moore's reputation is burdened with a primness and over-refinement that are the hazard of living all one's life with one's mother and performing further surgery on split hairs, but she absolutely loved to kick. What she said of William Carlos Williams's poetry is true of hers as well: "He is willing to be reckless; if you can't be that, what's the point of the whole thing?" She was also willing to cast a cold eye. In "Old Tiger," one of the best of the poems that have never before been collected, she celebrates the tiger as a remote, disdainful observer, with a "fixed, abstracted lizardlike expression of / the eye which is characteristic of all accurate observers." She relishes the tiger's adamance and ferocity: "you to whom a no / is never a no, loving to succeed where all others have failed, so / constituted that opposition is pastime and struggle is meat." Perhaps she is not as goaded as a tiger but she is goaded enough: "you see more than I see but even I / see too much."

There is something so odd about her technique. She commonly looks at something quite remote and static, such as a piece of silver or an illustration — it is an illustration that lies behind "Old Tiger," for example — and it explodes in a variety of alarming directions. She is praised endlessly, and rightly, for the unparalleled fineness of her observation. Here, to offer a nearly random example, is the chimpanzee the old tiger is looking at: "An exemplary hind leg hanging like a plummet at the end of a / string — the tufts of fur depressed like grass on which something heavy has been lying." Yet in another way observation is just the detonator for an explosion of private associations, glittering in their rhetorical arcs, and upon their descent into the reader's brainpan randomly meaningful and meaningless. At the end of this poem, when she announces triumphantly to the tiger, "you / know that it is not necessary to live in order to be alive," I feel like applauding, but I am not sure why. I have spent some time trying to put the pieces of this poem together. I feel sure that it is a triumph, but it's like trying to pack a suitcase in dreams. If I get one piece, I lose another.

Marianne Moore despises the pious assumption that simplicity equals truth and excoriates the simplifiers. Here she condemns the poor devil George Moore, who on some occasion apparently took too much out of a story: "Your soul's supplanter, / the spirit of good narrative, flatters you, convinced that in reporting briefly / One choice incident, you have known beauty other than of [pig] stys." And here she casts the "Pedantic Literalist" (a pair of words that combine everything she loathes) down into the fake-palm-tree ring of hell: "What stood / erect in you has withered. A / little 'palm-tree of turned wood' / informs your once spontaneous core." I always have a double feeling, reading lines like these. Oh, more than double. I love to see her spank the lightweights, the pedants, the intellectual posers; I love the pure eccentricity of her language; and I think, who will ever read this? A poet friend of mine recently said, "They should have taken away her library card." God, it's true; she goes on and on. I can barely hold onto a single whole poem. And at the same time I think she is the Statue of Liberty.

In "The Ardent Platonist" she writes, "to understand / One is not to find one formidable." She's right; if one is formidable, one is not understood. But how can we not find Marianne Moore formidable since she's so hard to understand? I think we just have to read her until we can contain the complexity that we cannot resolve. That is a bigger kind of understanding. At that point, the poet is no longer "formidable." A word or two becomes sufficient to invoke the complex spirit. We feel, now, an affection, a human affection, and a receptiveness that we could not feel when we were fighting with particulars. But maybe I'm just preaching to myself here, since I am irksomely literal when I read poetry (having a small palm tree where my core should be).

In her beautiful poem "In the Days of Prismatic Color," her treatment of complexity is for once sufficiently linear so that the ball she hits is actually the same ball that sails out of the park. She powers through the whole question before complexity gets a chance to ruin the game by throwing in extra balls. She begins her poem by considering "obliqueness." Originally, in Adam's time, "obliqueness was a variation / of the perpendicular, plain to see and / to account for." That is so funny and cartoon-like, an early geometry diagram: oblique doesn't mean hard to understand; it simply means not perpendicular — a reading that goes nicely with her love of the briskly scientific. However, this brief paradise doesn't even survive Eve's arrival; it was only "when Adam was alone." So for a very long time we have been in the grip of post-lapsarian obliqueness, which she equates with "complexity." Of complexity, there are two types: first, the complexity "committed to darkness," which "instead of granting itself to be the pestilence that it is, moves all a / bout as if to bewilder us with the dismal / fallacy that insistence / is the measure of achievement and that all truth must be dark." This is the complexity that passes itself off as "sophistication." And it is "at the antipodes of the init / ial great truths." The second type of complexity contains the great truths, and its lineaments are a spectacular mess; "'Part of it was crawling, part of it / was about to crawl, the rest / was torpid in its lair.'" Truth is messy — but it is enduring: "Truth is no Apollo / Belvedere, no formal thing. The wave may go over it if it likes. / Know that it will be there when it says, / 'I shall be there when the wave goes by.'" What better or more beautiful argument could be made for the endurance of Marianne Moore's poetry, which despises all the ways that complexity can be used to obscure and celebrates all that gives us another angle from which to see and survive? If Marianne Moore were a tomato farmer today, she'd be planting the fantastic bulging and lobed heritage varieties that shape themselves to their difficult soils. She is the champion of multiplicity because it is the only principle that guarantees survival. She has said, "It is a privilege to see so much confusion."

The tension of intellectual argument is the source of energy in her poems. She presses repelling magnets toward each other inside the contained space of the poem, and argument slips and slides. Her surrogates try to flip each other over in this strange land of repulsion. She is fearless in the pursuit of her argument, leaping from shape to shape at its requirement, as single-minded as a superhero chasing a villain across New York rooftops. And that's the interesting thing: behind the chronic shape-shifting, the drifting continents of coherence, one simply never doubts that there is a steady, utterly principled vision; every time I read her I am shocked anew at how forceful and dominating her voice is. She loves the prose of Dr. Johnson, and her strange arguments achieve that same towering probity. She can vacillate as often as she wants (she was forever revising her poems, over the course of decades); she can deny that she has a steady center, or "tap root"; she can plead wispiness ("I am so naive, so docile" with such an "ardor to be helped") — but her particles are so very fond of each other that they simply jump together in our mind, wherever they are in her poems. I am tempted to believe that there is a Marianne Moore over-poem that we are reading.

Yes, certainly we are reading a Marianne Moore over-poem, as we are for every poet we love enough to know well, or know well enough to love. Today, reading a posthumous Philip Larkin poem in The New Yorker, I felt this over-thing so sharply. There was Larkin's voice again, so welcome. His lovely poem wasn't alone, stranded on the page, to be read in isolation. In me it had someone who knew its family. Or maybe I was its family, if we admit the possibility that we are really not individuals who read poems and make them our own but, rather, that poems make us their own, that we are a poem-delivery system, or poem clearinghouse, allowing the poems of the immortals to reunite with their families — a new Larkin is embraced (morosely) by the Larkins, a Moore (courteously) by the Moores. It felt this personal, and impersonal.

The Poems of Marianne Moore fills a real need. It does not claim to be "complete" — there are only a handful of her translations of The Fables of La Fontaine, for example. But it could hardly be complete, what with Marianne Moore's lifetime of scissorings and pastings that sometimes resulted in as many as half a dozen different published versions. What we do get is all of her clanking but revealing juvenilia and a number of other never-collected poems, totaling more than a hundred new ones. The organization is chronological, which makes good sense in every way except the way that it scrambles Marianne Moore's own famously unhelpful notes to her poems. These still follow the organization of her earlier collections and are thus hard to match up. But this is small potatoes next to Grace Schulman's heroic accomplishment, not just in uncovering so many lost poems, but in restoring favorite poems to their favorite unshrunk size while retaining Moore's snipped variants in the generous and scholarly Editor's Notes. What a task it must have been to get this refracting crystal palace of work assembled without benefit of instructions, and how beautifully and unpedantically Grace Schulman has accomplished it. Her introduction is short, insightful, and warmly personal, profiting from her friendship with Marianne Moore beginning when Schulman was fourteen and continuing until Moore's death in 1972.

A virtue of poetry is that a little goes a long way, and Marianne Moore's poetry is especially virtuous. We could probably find her in a grain of Moore sand, once we're a bit trained, but that isn't the thing. We will probably add few new favorites to our favorites list, and that isn't the thing. The thing is, Marianne Moore's poetry has at last received the star treatment it deserves.

The Poems of Marianne Moore, edited by Grace Schulman
(Viking, 480 pp., $40)

The Yale Review

Editor: J. D. McClatchy
Associate Editor: Susan Bianconi

Copyright © 2004 by Yale University.

Poetry Daily / Amazon.com

Selected books available by Kay Ryan:
Say Uncle — Paperback

Poetry Daily / Amazon.com
for other books: