Marianne Moore

(1887 - 1972)


 January 4, 2004

'The Poems of Marianne Moore': Digesting Hard Iron


Edited by Grace Schulman.
449 pp. New York: Viking. $40.

If Marianne Moore's poems seem odd to us even now, more than 80 years after the appearance of her first book, this is partly because they are literally -- mathematically -- odd. Far more than any English-language poet before her, she experimented with lines containing an odd number of syllables -- 9, 7, 5 or, as in ''The Fish,'' an unlikely 1 and 3:

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice.

Traditionally, English and American poets have spurned odd-syllable lines, with the exception of the extrametrical feminine ending and the seven-syllable line (Shakespeare's ''Now the hungry lion roars,'' Blake's ''Tyger! Tyger! burning bright''). In all sorts of ways, conventional prosody is constructed by ''evenness'': iambs, couplets, quatrains, octets, the sonnet's bipartite assertion and rejoinder. Moore was a great imbalancer. Musically, her innovation was vast, if rooted in seemingly minute modifications of syllable count: in the end, she didn't sound like anybody else.

''The Poems of Marianne Moore,'' edited by her friend Grace Schulman, gathers some 100 previously uncollected, mostly early, poems and clarifies her poetic development. Moore died in New York City in 1972, at the age of 84, and until now the standard text has been the ''Complete Poems'' of 1967. The new edition reveals plainly how, as her poetry steadily evolved, what was foursquare became lopsided, discrepant, asymmetric. What was solid became fluid; what was fixed, untethered. Titles to poems lost their isolation (she converted them into first lines by bleeding them straight into the text) and the text itself dissolved into supplementary notes (some of her poems make little sense without them). Stanzas grew more rococo while, increasingly, the sentences inlaid into them originated and halted in unexpected places.

Time and again she employed the language of logic to explore and promote the irrational. She composed analogical chains that collapsed on inspection (''Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight''). She relished what might be called false parallelisms, as in ''the enslaver is / enslaved; the hater, harmed'' (one expects the hater to be hated, yet how much more telling is that softer substitute) and in her habit of conjoining unlike things (''oratories and wardrobes'').

It may be that no critic of Moore should be trusted who doesn't sometimes find her off-putting. Certainly, some of her keenest advocates have grown exasperated. For Randall Jarrell, the breaking point was the naive view of war in ''In Distrust of Merits.'' For Helen Vendler, it was Moore's public eccentricity, like her ''preposterous exchanges with the Ford Motor Company over the naming of the Edsel.'' My own patience thins where meticulousness becomes adjectival mania, as when a paperweight suggests a sword-blade

of three-ore'd
fishscale-burnished antimony-
lead-and-tin smoky water-drop type-metal
smoothness emery-armored
against rust.

Like her gifted contemporaries E. E. Cummings and John Crowe Ransom, Moore could be, when she wasn't being marvelous, thoroughly annoying.

Still, Moore's equable ghost successfully wards off criticism. This stems partly from her poems' impeccable but reserved civility, which discourages any but the mildest quibble; partly from their recurring focus on animal self-defense (she was especially fond of armored creatures), suggesting a deep if tacit vulnerability; and partly from her sheer decency, the sense she gives you (rare among her often vainglorious fellow modernists) that you're reading somebody who daily battles the soul's natural egotism.

More than 30 years ago, Donald Hall published a study, ''Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal,'' in which he neatly pointed out that ''no one whose poetry is being read with close attention could be held in such unvarying esteem.'' Schulman makes a similar point in her helpful introduction: ''No major poet is cherished more and known less than Marianne Moore.''

She's a poet ill served by some of her admirers, who treat her luxuriant poems, with their fine thorns and outsize, hardy blooms, like delicate shade plants that couldn't survive a strong blast of sun. Such wholesale protectiveness is likely to overlook, for example, the disastrous turn her poetry took after World War II. The falling-off was all the more puzzling given that the early 40's inspired some of her loveliest work, poems that wedded an ornate architecture to a sophisticated rhetoric laced with plainspoken urgency (''He 'Digesteth Harde Yron','' ''Nevertheless,'' ''The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing'' and my favorite of her poems, ''What Are Years''). In her final decades Moore frequently retreated into a kind of peppy whimsy, where little was ventured and little gained. (Whimsy was always her besetting weakness, as sentimentality was for Cummings.)

The earlier ''Complete Poems'' opened with a striking authorial dictum: ''Omissions are not accidents.'' The new book shows her guilty of that most forgivable of all artistic sins -- excessive rigor toward one's own work. She jettisoned some real gems, now restored (''Melanchthon,'' ''Old Tiger''). The new edition also offers clear dating (Moore's own arrangement was thematic rather than chronological), so that the winding, ever-surprising progress of her career is belatedly uncovered.

Moore's beloved brother, Warner, was a Presbyterian minister, and the two siblings shared a passion for that indispensable tool of the pulpit, the moral epigram. Time and again her poems cohere into some ethical injunction; she's keen to tell the reader how to live. In this regard, her poems have an old-fashioned feel, or would if such pronouncements were not so quirky and enigmatic: ''Distaste which takes no credit to itself is best,'' or ''Because one expresses oneself and entitles it wisdom, one is not a fool.''

Her ethical rhetoric helped make her, more than any other poet I know, reliant upon ''is'' and ''are'' -- those natural building blocks of the writer intending to speak of eternal verities. If Moore in her youth had ever attended a poetry workshop, she would have been advised that these are weak and bloodless verbs (sound advice, generally). But her career, as Jarrell pointed out, was ''one long triumph'' over her limitations, and she achieved some of her choicest effects with just such bland and blunt tools. In ''What Are Years'' all but one of the last six verbs is ''is,'' and yet the lines conclude with the colossal air-borne grandeur of church bells echoing on a frosty autumn morning:

. . . Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

Other poets have favored abstract language, but I know of none except Hopkins who so felicitously combines this with a truly fresh-eyed surveillance of the natural world. She was drawn to exotic, small, remote creatures -- mongooses, pangolins, jerboas -- whose precisely noted attributes had a way of crystalizing abruptly into something like moral apothegm. The veering speed of these transitions created some of the most startlingly beautiful effects in American poetry. After observing at length the ant-eating pangolin, she arrives at a personal artistic credo, ''To explain grace requires / a curious hand,'' and springs from there to the notion -- a characteristic marriage of the physical and temporal -- that ''Humor saves a few steps, it saves years.'' Like the desert rat, revered for its ability to launch itself ''as if on wings, from its match-thin hind legs,'' Moore moved by leaping back and forth between the physical and the abstract, as in the conclusion to ''Nevertheless'':

The weak overcomes its
menace, the strong over-
comes itself. What is there


like fortitude! What sap
went through that little thread
to make the cherry red!

If she ultimately espoused spirit over body, heaven over earth, this allegiance is all the more remarkable given how brilliantly she paid tribute to the planet's flora and fauna, its stones and seas and storms. Moore's poems are famously unforthcoming -- you can study them for years and derive little sense of her family, friendships, jobs, and littler sense still of the nature of any balked hopes and private losses. Even so, in a modest poem like ''Nevertheless'' we glimpse an essential, perhaps the essential, intimate truth about her: how extraordinary was this woman whose poems could love the world so eagerly, embracingly, intoxicatedly, and yet love another world still more.

Brad Leithauser's novel in verse, ''Darlington's Fall,'' recently appeared in paperback.




Marianne Moore and friends
Fiona Green
22 January 2004


Marianne Moore
The early poems, 1907-1924
Edited by Robin G. Schulze
504pp. University of California Press. $50.
0 520 22139 7


Edited by Grace Shulman
449pp. Faber. £30.
0 571 22289 7
US: Viking Press. $40.
0 670 03198 4


Ezra Pound, one of several editors who courted Marianne Moore for her first book of verse, doubted she would find a broad readership: “you will never sell more than five hundred copies”, he wrote to her, “as your work demands mental attention”. Moore’s first authorized collection, Observations (1924), sold 488 copies in its first six months. Hardly a blockbuster, perhaps, but compared with the slender Poems, published without her consent in 1921, which had left its backer in the red, Observations was a commercial success. What Pound had underestimated was not so much the public’s capacity for “mental attention” as its susceptibility to a canny marketing strategy. Scofield Thayer and Sibley Watson, owners of the Dial Press, arranged for the book’s publication to coincide with the announcement of Moore’s 1924 Dial Award for literature. As they had expected, the prize generated book sales and publicity beyond the small circle in which she was already known, and Observations received approving notices in the large-circulation as well as the “little” press. Watson and Thayer had done something similar two years before, using the $2,000 prize effectively to buy The Waste Land for publication in the Dial. A simple chronology of literary artefacts can suggest that Observations, along with William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All (1922) and Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium (1923) were America’s responses to The Waste Land, what Hugh Kenner once called the “homemade world” of American modernism proffering its own materials in answer to Eliot’s European borrowings. But with the contingencies of publication in the picture, the making of modernism looks a more haphazard affair: editors and publishers competed for poems, and poems for pages in the transatlantic press, with commercial and aesthetic considerations, shrewd business manoeuvres and cultural patronage thoroughly intertwined.

Copies of Observations now sell for around $2,500. For the past twenty years the only readily available collection of Moore’s poetry has been the notoriously incomplete Complete Poems, issued in 1967 to conform to her wishes and reissued with the addition of some late poems in 1981. Moore chose to preserve only half her published poems in the Complete, many of them substantially revised. As in Eliot’s arrangement of the Selected (1935), the Complete begins with one of the great poems of the 1930s, “The Steeple-Jack”:

Dürer would have seen a reason for living
       in a town like this, with eight stranded
to look at; with the sweet air coming into your
on a fine day, from water etched
          with waves as formal as the scales
on a fish.

From Moore’s lofty perspective, her stranded whales line up like syllables to be counted; these are not carcasses that might pollute “the sweet air” nor vast creatures that could disrupt the refined scale of the scene. To embark on Moore’s oeuvre through this seaport gives the impression that she came into the world fully formed, or that the world only dared present itself to her neatly formalized. With the poems in the Complete undated, a sense of the poet’s early development is especially difficult to recover, and Moore’s readers have long called for a definitive chronological edition which would also take account of her habitual revising. In the collections edited by Robin G. Schulze and Grace Schulman we have two quite different responses.

The heart of Schulze’s excellent Becoming Marianne Moore is a facsimile reprint of Observations along with reproductions of all the poems Moore published up to 1924 as they first appeared in magazines such as the Dial, Others, and the Egoist. There are also tables of variants, a fascinating “publication biography” which narrates Moore’s interactions with the magazines and their editors, and a substantial introduction detailing the theory behind Schulze’s “historically responsive” editorial decisions. The Poems of Marianne Moore is intended to supersede the 1981 Complete Poems. It includes all the poems Moore published in her lifetime and about fifty unpublished pieces, mostly from the early years before she began to appear in the international small press in 1915.

Ezra Pound made his first acquaintance with Moore in the pages of the Egoist, where he read her “Black Earth” (1918). One of the poems Moore chose to omit from the Complete, it is a monologue spoken by an elephant. “Now I breathe and now I am sub- / Merged”, he says,

The sediment of the river which
Encrusts my joints, makes me very gray but I
                                                            am used
To it, it may
remain there; do away
     With it and I am myself done away with,
                                                                for the
  Patina of circumstance can but enrich
                                                           what was
There to begin

Poems as well as pachyderms come encrusted with sediment, and the strength of Schulze’s edition is that it preserves the enriching “patina of circumstance”, the local conditions in which the poems emerged and through which they have passed on their way to us. For example, when we see the pages of the Egoist in which “Black Earth” was first printed we catch a glimpse of the article that preceded it: Eliot’s caustic review of Amy Lowell’s Tendencies in Modern American Poetry took her to task for the tameness of her preferences (she’d included neither Pound nor Moore). “Provinciality of point of view is a vice”, Eliot ends, and then, as if in response, Moore’s elephant rises to survey an expansive field, unhampered by convention or province: “Openly, yes, / With the naturalness / Of the hippopotamus or the alligator /  [. . . ] / I do these / Things which I do, which please / No one but myself”. “Dock Rats”, too, speaks to its first publishing environment, the 1919 Others anthology. Williams had compared the Others poets to a bunch of rats who had climbed out of the garbage and now had ideas above their station. Moore’s rats by contrast – like the Rat in The Wind in the Willows after whom she took her family nickname – are careful craftsmen and acute observers. They inhabit a brightly detailed New York:

                   it is a good place to come
home to. On what a river; wide-twinkling like
                                  a chopped sea under some
    of the finest shipping in the
world: the square-rigged four-rigged four-
    master, the liner, the battleship like the two-
    thirds submerged section of an iceberg;
                                                                  the tug
    dipping and pushing
     [. . .]
                  There is the sea, moving the bulk- 
      head with its horse strength; and the
                                             multiplicity of rudders
       and propellors; the signals, shrill, questioning,
                                            peremptory, diverse . . .

“Dock  Rats” shows Moore’s deftness with internal rhyme – the long vowels in “two- / thirds submerged section of an iceberg” abruptly cut short in “the tug”, as though the line were getting impatient and wanted to push on – and her skill with weight and measure, as when “horse strength” pulls against “bulk- / head”. You can see where Elizabeth Bishop gets her bustling port scenes, and in a less recognized lineage, that Moore hands on the Whitmanian task of cataloguing to a later generation of New Yorkers, to James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara.

As well as rediscovering long uncollected poems such as “Black Earth” and “Dock Rats”, readers who know Moore’s verse will see familiar pieces in a new light in Schulze’s variorum edition. Moore’s revisions sometimes consisted of changes in lineation, as in the case of her much-anthologized “The Fish” (1918). A war poem as well as a naturalist’s exploration, “The Fish” inspects the damage done to an under- water cliff. In its earliest printing, the inventory comes in conventional-looking stanzas, capitalized and justified to the left margin:

All external
Marks of abuse are present on
This defiant edifice –
All the physical features of


Accident – lack
Of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns
And hatchet strokes, these things stand
Out on it; the chasm side is


Dead. Repeated
Evidence has proved that it can
Live [. . .]


Reprinted in Observations, the poem looks and sounds much more modern. A pattern of indentation now hacks into the margin, and the altered syllable count breaks the verse open to reveal rhymes that have lurked there all along:


all the physical features of


cident – lack
      of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns
             hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm side is


     evidence[. . .]


Eliot identified Moore’s “light rhyme”, where the rhyme pattern plays quietly against metre and sense. In this version of “The Fish”, the result is unsettling: the layout forces the voice to acknowledge that “dead” could rhyme with “repeated” and prompts us to think about collisions between natural and artificial schemes, and about things happening by accident or design (the breakage of “ac-/cident” may look inadvertent, at the whim of the syllable count, but perhaps the rhyme with “lack” reveals it as part of a plan?). Seeing both printings of the poem gives new insight into the formal methods for which Moore is best known.

One of the joys of a full facsimile of Observations is the index Moore prepared for her book. If you use it in the ordinary way to find a particular poem, you will meet some curiosities: not only such conventional reversals as “FISH, THE”, but “COUSINS, MY APISH” and “GARDENING, INJUDICIOUS”. This is an index of subjects as well as titles, and you can use it to navigate the poems, following up references to “Texas” or “toadyism”. Better still, read from top to bottom the index almost seems a poem itself, a catalogue equivalent in quirkiness and character to Moore’s verse. Just as alphabetical sequence will bring about unforeseen juxtapositions – Tolstoy, torso, tortoise, trivial (of marriage or parakeets), Trollope, trousers, truths – so in Moore’s verse unexpected felicities issue from the marriages between different species of language. . . . 

Quotation, what Moore came to call her "hybrid method of composition" was a lifelong habit, and it was in Observations that she first included a section of notes giving the sources she had quoted. Scofield Thayer suggested it: Moore had sent him a draft of "Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns" and a long letter outlining her sources. He was delighted with her explanations: "how good all your sources are, and how always the best of them inevitably is your own quotation there from! ...Sometimes your quotations are not only the best, or not only improvements upon the best, but suggest an opposite, or perhaps I should say converse, meaning to that intended by the author, and these points of yours are the best of all!". Thayer was shrewd in seeing that the interest of Moore's notes extends beyond mere acknowledgement of debt, that a change of scene can bring out a new sense in a piece of writing, sometimes to the extent of making it speak against its origins. Moore's quotations and notes prompt us to ask how far the boundaries of the poetry extend and whether meaning is determined by context. Take, for example, these lines from "People's Surroundings", a poem that thinks of selfhood as a function of environment. The poem begins, "People's Surroundings, I they answer one's questions", and it goes on to itemize a series of fully furnished but spookily uninhabited places:


the vast indestructible necropolis

of composite Yawman-Erbe separable units;

the steel, the oak, the glass, the Poor Richard


containing the public secrets of efficiency

on "paper so thin that one thousand four

hundred and twenty pages make one inch". ..,. ,


Moore's note reads:

1420 pages. Advertisement; New York Times, June 13, 1921: "Paper As Long as a Man As Thin as a Hair India paper is so extremely thin that many grew fearful of the results when the unwieldly size, 45x65 inches, was mentioned. No mill ever made so large a sheet of India Paper; no printer ever attempted to handle it. But S. D. Warren Company produced the paper and Charles Francis Press printed it -printed it in two colors with perfect register. Warren's India is so thin that 1420 pages make only one inch."

The conversation between poem and note here is about economy and excess. The long thin line "on 'paper so thin that one thousand four hundred and twenty pages make one inch"' is far exceeded by its thick prose note, and yet the poetry is expansive in its own way, cashing numbers in for words to inflate the advertisement' s compressed "1420 pages". Moore allowed that readers "annoyed by provisos, detainments and postscripts could disregard the notes", but most will find them intriguing parts of, rather than dispensable supplements to the poetry.

Faber’s new Poems of Marianne Moore. edited by Grace Schulman. begins in 1907 with the eighteen poems Moore published in college and alumni magazines. along with fifty or so unpublished pieces. These often take the form of riddling epigrams with hefty titles addressed to a second person:


You Are Very pensive -Hammering Out in

Darkness what Will Not Bear the Light of Day .


The sure

Measure of failure


Will bring

What you are doing


To naught.

I’m not sure it ought


Not to

And neither are you.


These small experiments are of interest in that the full end-rhyme and epigrammatic style was something Moore reverted to in her last years; but there are quite a lot of them to get through before we arrive at the more accomplished pieces whereby she began to establish herself on the New York scene in 1915. It might have been preferable to present the unpublished work as a separate section of the book. When we get to the poems of the 1930s. it is instructive to have the original sequences restored: "The Steeple-Jack... for example. was first published with "The Student.. and "The Hero.. under the title "Part of a Novel. Part of a Poem. Part of a Play... and Schulman helpfully gives us the first printing of the three poems in her editor’s notes.

Despite its welcome resurrection of previously uncollected poems. there are some serious shortcomings with the Faber book, principally with its choice of texts and its scholarly apparatus. Schulman's introduction centres on her own friendship with Moore and is brief on editorial procedure. She rightly acknowledges that "changes are the lifeblood of the poems" but she is not in the business of producing a full variorum edition (which, given Moore's incessant tinkering, would have run to several volumes). so the question is which version of each poem to reprint. "In the end.., Schulman says, "I chose what I loved best by a method I can only describe as 'conscientious inconsistency. ...This is disarmingly personal. and it does place us rather too fully in Schulman's hands. The impression that this editor's relation to the text is proprietorial rather than custodial is reinforced by her handling of Moore ' s notes, which. like the poems, underwent a series of revisions. "Rather than reprinting each note faithfully, which might confuse more than enlighten'., writes Schulman, "1 offer a partial view of the author's notes as they are found in all of her editions." Confused more than enlightened by this -and by its apparent discrepancy from the dust jacket's claim that the book includes "all of Moore's original notes to the poems'. -I have tried to figure out what "a partial view all of her editions" might mean. As far as I can tell, Schulman has done the picking and choosing for us, including some of Moore's notes to some poems and not others (the advertisement for Warren's India paper, for example, is nowhere to be found), and there is no indication of where cuts have been made. This may seem a small thing; but imagine an  edition of Eliot in which the editor offered "a partial view" of his notes to The Waste Land.

And there are more mundane difficulties which will, I fear , test readers ' patience to the extent that they won't consult the author’s or editor's notes at all. Whereas the poems follow a strict chronology. Moore's notes are arranged in a different order according to their appearance in earlier volumes. And because, infuriatingly, the notes are not keyed to the poems by page number, you have to scan the whole list to find what you're looking for- or to find that it isn't there. Also odd is the decision to give the text of a poem in one published version and the note in another (so, for example, " An Octopus" is reprinted from Complete Poems, but the notes from the longer Observations version, with the predictable result that there's a note to a line that doesn't appear in the poem). The editor's annotations are similarly eccentric and eclectic. In the matter of variants, Schulman has had to be extremely selective, and she's chosen what pleases her rather than following any systematic procedure. In the case of "Marriage", for example, we get an unpublished manuscript of the opening lines which is casually cited as "undated version found in file" and which isn't especially interesting, but not the important lines from the first Manikin edition which Moore later omitted. Most puzzlingly, "An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish" is accompanied by one significant early version and two others which share not a single line with the verse in question -which seem in fact to be drafts of an entirely different poem, 'The Monkey Puzzle". Perhaps I'm missing something here, but the bare editorial instruction "compare with these versions" doesn't help.

How much of this really matters? Aren't there, as Moore famously put it in "Poetry", "things that are important beyond all this fiddle"? These two books will appeal to different markets. Perhaps the general reader will be content to have just the poems and to ignore quandaries over notes and revisions; the price and the scholarly apparatus in the University of California Press edition may dissuade all but professionals. But the Faber book isn't cheap, and despite first impressions it certainly isn't the more user-friendly. "To read a poem by Moore is to be aware of exactitude", says Grace Schulman. She's right, and her mentor set an exacting task not least for editors. For my money, the best introduction to Moore's poetry is the facsimile of Observations at the centre of Robin Schulze's edition, whether or not you choose to go down the scholarly routes that radiate from it. Becoming Marianne Moore is an authoritative, fascinating and (incidentally) very beautiful book. As for the poems Moore published - after 1924, I return to the 1981 Complete Poems with renewed confidence and respect. What- ever its eccentric decisions, revisions and omissions, we know that they were Marianne Moore's own.




The Eyes Have It
A new collection offers a long look at a poet's highly visual style.

Reviewed by Molly McQuade
Sunday, February 1, 2004; Page BW10


Edited by Grace Schulman

Viking. 449 pp. $40

"Her eyes are different from ours, instead of a flashing whole, her mind sees first and they obey its orders in microscopic detail." So wrote Winifred Bryher about her friend Marianne Moore in the 1920s. Anyone reading Grace Schulman's new edition of Moore's poems would do well to keep this comment handy. For the poetry is so full of "eye" that it almost seems to be a visual art.

Moore's originality has been examined at length quite cunningly by poet-critics ranging from T.S. Eliot to Robert Pinsky. Still, her poems tend to elude those critics whose eyes and minds cannot keep up with the multiple exposures of Moore's oncoming visual details. To reread her now, 31 years after her death at 85, is to wonder how much further an eye could possibly go. Not much, I'd say. So for now, let our eye look at hers.

Looking backward, then, align your mindful eye with the image Moore conjures in "The Sycamore": "Against a gun-metal sky/ I saw an albino giraffe." Consider, in "Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns," one of those fabled creatures "etched like an equine monster of an old celestial map." Squint at "An Octopus," "its claw cut by the avalanche." Study her pangolin, with his "sting-proof scales; and nest/ of rocks closed with earth from inside, which he can thus darken." Or watch her herd of elephants: "a/ religious procession without any priests,/ the centuries-old carefullest unrehearsed/ play." And do not neglect the snake of which Moore writes, in her poem "Snakes, Mongooses, Snake-Charmers, and the Like": "one is compelled to look at it as at the shadows of the Alps/ imprisoning in their folds like flies in amber the rhythms of the skating-rink." Here one metaphor foments another with an excitingly exact series of persuasive mixed metaphors.

Not for nothing did Moore choose to adorn a work with the wistful title "I May, I Might, I Must." For a slow and scrupled writer such as she was, any poem represented a continent of choices. Her fellow poet William Carlos Williams explained the nature of the challenge, and her response: "With Miss Moore a word is a word most when it is separated out by silence, treated with acid to remove the smudges, washed, dried and placed right side up on a clean surface. Now one may say that this is a word. Now it may be used, and how?"

Moore was known to confess that she had first hoped to be a visual artist. As a Bryn Mawr College senior, she seriously considered attending the Lyme School of Art in Connecticut following her graduation. Many years later, composing some of her best poems in Brooklyn, she wrote and revised, revised and wrote, while sunning herself on the roof of her apartment building. Light, sight, insight, writing: for her all were essentially conjoined. "Yes, light is speech," wrote Moore in a poem. "Free frank/ impartial sunlight, moonlight,/ starlight, lighthouse light,/ are language." She preferred to perceive and penetrate a surface, yet not relinquish it. Tension then ensued between depth and surface, yielding the insight. (Or as Moore, also a revelatory essayist, succinctly pronounced it: "Form is synonymous with content.")

Holding a fine balance between description and analysis, Moore's poems enchant the reader while reflecting her own enchantment with language. As Morton Dauwen Zabel, her editor at Poetry magazine, noticed, her "sincere and ruthless insight" made her able and willing to "combine the functions of critic and poet in one performance." Schulman's edition of Moore's poetry is needed for a fair appreciation of that performance, for the poet's own fastidiousness led to an unusual publication history: She chose to exclude some of her poems from various collections, imposed drastically revised versions of certain poems on certain volumes, and accepted or mandated orderings of poems within their books that at times made it difficult even for seasoned readers to assess her chronological development. Schulman's edition readjusts Moore's body of work respectfully and generously by restoring lost or overlooked poems in logical sequence, and by lifting the veil on their sundry revised versions.

How many of Moore's poems do we now have? Her Collected Poems (1981) consists of 130. The Poems of Marianne Moore offers 263, so Schulman introduces readers to more than a hundred poems previously unpublished or uncollected in book form. Moore wrote the bulk of them between the ages of 20 and 26, before she moved to New York City and swiftly became known to an inner circle of poets, editors and poetry critics. Three-fifths of these restored poems have not been previously published anywhere, making this collection a work of excavation and rescue.

One fruit of the excavation: A reader is able to realize the remarkable feat of Moore's emergence from authoring epigrammatic verse to, you might say, inventing a poetry of epic wants and tendencies. An epigram compresses adroitly a mass of knowledge, thanks to the writer's unquenchable wit; Moore later wrote on a much larger scale without abandoning the epigrammatic yen for unmatched precision, for what she called "exact perception." In this she reigned peerless, even after achieving ultimately in poetry her more complex goal of building a "chain of interactingly/ linked harmony." Time after time, the early poems gathered by Schulman show a writer pausing before making that leap. (Compare "Things Are What They Seem" with "Piningly," an early rehearsal of her flight to come, or with "Old Tiger," where she fulfills her promise. Also, in the early poems one can find precociously pure statements of poetic or moral belief, as in her lines "One associates the love of beauty/ with a wish to see it exemplified." Although she wrote the sentence well before she had obeyed fully its implied guidance, Moore was ever a writer of exempla, as Schulman demonstrates: Although in her poems Moore sought to think, she did it with and through details that carry a moral significance. To read her very early four-line poem "A Fish" alongside her subsequent 40-line poem "The Fish" is to see this plainly and magnificently. The poems flicker, steadfastly visual, throughout these pages. They are, as she demanded of art in "When I Buy Pictures," "lit with piercing glances into the life of things."

Even now, a novel and a memoir by Moore both remain unpublished, and her 10-year labor of translation, the complete Fables of La Fontaine, seems to have gone out of print -- all sad omissions of publishers, or maybe just bad luck.

Still, at last we have all of her poems, at least. •

Molly McQuade is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle



The Poems of Marianne Moore
ed by Grace Schulman

Faber, £30, 449 pp


 A poet's animal kingdom
(Filed: 11/01/2004)

John Gross reviews The Poems of Marianne Moore ed by Grace Schulman

Marianne Moore was one of the finest American poets of the 20th century. In her later years - she died in 1972 - she became a national institution, showered with prizes, celebrated by the press. Her popular image in the States was that of an eccentric maiden aunt who wore big hats and had an unexpected taste for baseball: it gave little idea of how formidable she really was. But her serious reputation continued to grow too.

Over here, although she always had her admirers, she never enjoyed the same degree of fame, and since her death interest in her has rather faded. That makes the first comprehensive edition of her poems all the more welcome. With any luck, it will attract lots of new readers.

The first thing that is likely to strike them, if they come absolutely fresh to her work, is how odd her titles tend to be. Man's Feet are a Sensational Device; Like Bertram Dobell, You Achieve Distinction by Disclaiming It; Smooth Gnarled Crape Myrtle; Snakes, Mongooses, Snake-Charmers and the Like - these are a few more or less random examples.

Occasionally you recoil - there is a smack of whimsy - but more often than not your imagination is stirred. It is hard not to be intrigued by a poem entitled To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity, or "It Makes No Difference to Balbus Whether He Drinks Wine or Water".

A high proportion of the poems themselves are about animals, often exotic ones. The creatures surveyed include a jellyfish, a grasshopper, a jerboa, an ostrich (in the poem "He Digesteth Harde Yron"), a pangolin, a porcupine, an octopus and a musk ox. But there are poems about plants, too, and about machines and artefacts - To a Steam Roller, Four Quartz Crystal Clocks, Walking-Sticks and Paper-Weights and Water Marks.

Almost all Moore's work is remarkable for precision and fine detail. Writing about an artichoke, she discerns "six varieties of blue". Her first authorised collection of poems (an earlier one had been published by friends without her knowledge) had the apt title Observations.

It was doubly apt, because "observations" are also remarks or reflections, and the poems go far beyond simple description. They are concerned not only with objects, but with the thoughts those objects give rise to. The tone is conversational, even casual.

At the same time any tendency to ramble is generally held in check by formal structuring. For though her poetry may often look at first sight like free verse or chopped-up prose, it is in fact subtly cadenced, with finely judged rhythmic effects and (in many cases) unobtrusive rhymes.

As for the attitudes which it promotes, they constitute in large part a lesson in manners. "Fastidiousness" and "restraint" are key words. But if that sounds unduly negative, or unbearably ladylike, it has to be set against her wit, her praise of freedom and her curiosity. There was nothing she valued more than what she called "an impassioned interest in life".

Within her world, observation is also a form of celebration. It means cherishing animals, plants and artefacts on their own account - for their distinctiveness, and for the natural or human ingenuity which has gone into their making. She marvels at the persistence nature shows (she calls it "fortitude") in shaping its ends: "What sap/ went through that little thread/ to make the cherry red!"

But there is a snag. Nature is also the realm of tooth and claw; the self-fulfilment of a mouse is not entirely compatible with the self-fulfilment of a cat. And both through her choice of subjects and her treatment of them, Moore is inclined to play down the elements of savagery and aggression. Hers is by and large a peaceable kingdom: an honourable vision, but a partial one. We're a long way from Ted Hughes.

One shouldn't make too much of this, however. The savagery and aggression frequently peep through: she knows perfectly well how dangerous a place the world is. Her admirer Randall Jarrell poked a little mild fun at her habit of rigging the selection-process so that nature seemed to come down in favour of morality. But he went on to point out how often she writes about "armour, weapons, protection, places to hide".

There is a beautiful poem called Roses Only in which she shows just how aware she was of "the predatory hand". It concludes, "your thorns are the best part of you". This is one of a number of poems, some of them very fine, which Marianne Moore herself left out of her Complete Poems of 1967, and which Grace Schulman, the editor of the new collection, has restored.

Miss Schulman has also rescued many previously uncollected poems, and set the work, for the first time, in chronological order. She contributes a helpful introduction, and includes important variants. Not least, she reprints Moore's own notes, identifying sources and some of the many quotations that are embedded in the poems.

You only wish there were more of them. Marianne Moore can be difficult, sometimes very difficult, and her readers need all the help they can get. There are some poems which I find completely baffling.

But you feel you ought to persist; and if you still draw a blank, her best work is so good that you forgive her.

John Gross's books include 'After Shakespeare' (Oxford).



A letter to poet Marianne Moore

Molly McQuade. Molly McQuade is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle

November 30, 2003

Dear Miss Moore,

For a few years I've been pausing now and then to eye the wisteria vines crawling across what was your home on St. Luke's Place in New York. But until three weeks ago, I didn't know they were yours, once upon a 1928.

This block of St. Luke's seems molded of shade from ginko trees and let slip by dark brownstone townhouses all along. The street curves, as if it had the time. What with the trickling clouds and the gangbuster fleece of the wisteria, your street is dunked in dapplement. No business.

I write to you because I have persistent claims, curiosities.

Across from your former home is your old workplace, the Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library. Indoors oaken, and nicely fubsy, the library has little truck with the technophilia of 2003. Tables and chairs are small, although ceilings are high. At sunset, books turn golden here. (One of yours is propped on a crouched leonine bookcase.)

Some of your best years were spent working part-time at this library for $30 a month, I'm told. Probably a good job for someone who would write, "Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus/with its capacity for fact." The octopus was like you in the entwinement of an understanding.

What facts did you commit to heart at your wooden library desk?

Your poetry's capacity for fact is partly why it resembles good prose. And, unexpectedly, your prose also resembles good poetry: Your refusal of the blunt or obvious subject and the "direct approach" to it meant you were able to evade, adroitly, a burden of explanation. (The craving to explain seems to coerce prose, often.)

Rather, the epigram and the apercu shaped your writing, although you gradually outgrew their grasp. On the whole, you formed the habit of teaching without telling too much.

What you told implied vastly more than was actually said, so the implication would tide a poem, clasp it. The explicit statement was really a pretext for the thinking coiled within; I'm invited to worry--cheerfully--at the former until the latter will loosen a bit. Likewise, you doled out homilies for the musing, and for amusement ("your thorns are the best part of you"). You posed abstract possibilities ("Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight"). If I can, I'm nudged to extend and continue the concept. Despite the many "things" inhabiting your poems, from paperweights to monkeys, winking in steep, deep clarity, all were placed there mainly to think with. To think with freely.

Only, where are we supposed to find the freedom to think alongside of you, when experience and authority now would deride the freedom of the effort, and seem to beg instead for littleness from us? These are my times, not yours. (Yes--as I warned, I do have questions for you, curiosities irksome to me.)

Another way to ask it: What did you decide you could do without? When?

The wisteria are not helping me toward any answer. They look old, and too definite.

You were once yourself much less than definite. However, when you arrived in this city at age 30, you entered the Greenwich Village cosmos of poets, editors, etc., with terrific composure. You soon became well-known among them not only for the sophistication of your writing but for your custom of speaking in continuously elaborated, complete sentences, not unlike the vine that calmly climbs and crosses. (In years ahead, George Plimpton would remark about you: "She is an engrossing talker--a soft, even voice which shifts and slides through topics with the erratic motion of a snipe--her talk almost as anarchic as that of Casey Stengel, the Mets' manager, who is four years her junior and could take some lessons.") Now, with so much "talk" among writers of "voice" and how to cultivate it, the very notion of voice seems a bit vulgar, oversimplified, frivolous, just another tool of a tediously "professional" writers' trade. The guild of writers has grown bureaucratic, venal and unplayful since your day.

To you, though, didn't "voice" mean belief? Was how to say something indivisible from what to say?

Of course, as an editor, too, you overheard the voices of writers at their worst and best, and you were compelled to discriminate. You wrote one of the kindest--and the most scrupulous--letters of rejection ever to Allen Ginsberg, who was perhaps more unlike you than anybody else, consoling him:

"You have ability, and that means responsibility, does it not? There are in writing, a few technicalities to think about; but the thing that matters is our sense of awareness; this comes first. What are we to do about it? I am not satisfied with your solution of the problem." You were regarded as such a gifted editor while guiding The Dial from its offices at 135 W. 13th St. that Ezra Pound, alarmed by Harriet Monroe's waning energies as editor of Poetry magazine, foresaw you as the only possible successor to Monroe. "M.M. ideal presiding officer," he informed Monroe in confidence. "It should also be possible to get a certain amount of backing for Marianne that wd. not be available for the wild and boisterous or cerebral younger males."

But Monroe recovered her gusto--also, she did not really favor you, perhaps feeling envious--and so you never did edit Poetry. Perhaps you never even knew you'd been proposed?

By then, the 1930s, you had settled in Brooklyn with your ailing mother, in an ordinary brick apartment building just around the corner from Ft. Greene Park. You enjoyed Brooklyn hugely, and when I stop by your address this October, I can't help but notice a lavish and unruly autumn garden a couple of doors down from where you lived: Bobbing heads of floozy rose of Sharons and last roses tumble above empty cans of catfood. Tons of children on the rush, the slouch; a relaxed church nearby. Motion tearing forward, unafraid. Freedom, again: How are we to obey it?

How obey it? In the poem "Melanchthon" you wrote, "The I of each is to/the I of each/a kind of fretful speech/which sets a limit on itself." The sentence from this poem, like many of yours in prose or poetry, presents itself as if in geometric proof of an absolute truth, thanks to the workings of a curtailing logic. Was the geometric certainty itself a law to resist, consciously and carefully?

If it was, then what nook of the geometry did your mother occupy?

And when does an ally tire?

Muttered Pound to Monroe in a letter extolling your potential editorial candidacy:

"Re / Marianne. I know she has her damned old `ma' on her back. I have never met 'em. But everyone who has, seems cordially to desire the demise of the old 'un."

Of course, by 1931, the time of writing, Pound was beginning his stupendous decline. But even so.

In your introduction to "The Fables of La Fontaine," which you spent a decade translating, you advised: "Verbal decorum on the part of my mother, and impatience with imprecision, have influenced me to dislike, if not avoid, contractions and the wish for the deed."

What did you decide not to do, Miss Moore?

Sincerely yours,

Molly McQuade

(Note: "The Poems of Marianne Moore," which was edited by Grace Schulman and restores more than 100 lost or overlooked poems by Moore to her permanent body of work, was recently published by Viking.)






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