Marianne Moore


Amy Clampitt


Asked once whether she regarded herself as part of the American tradition, Marianne Moore responded by calling herself “an American chameleon on an American leaf.”

This could have been one of her jokes—an escape hatch, a self-protective disappearing act such as her poems not infrequently constitute. Of a piece with “To a Chameleon,” which begins (and the first word is clearly no accident), “Hid by the August foliage and fruit of the grapevine,” and with her famous wish

. . . to be a dragon,
a symbol of the power of Heaven—of silkworm
size or immense; at times invisible

is the reticence she admired. It was her dictum, offered more than once, “when obscurity was deplored, [that] one should be as clear as one’s natural reticence allows one to be.” And notwithstanding what she called “a burning desire to be explicit,” her own natural reticence was very great.

So, although the prose pieces collected by Patricia C. Willis in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (Elizabeth Sifton/ Viking, 1986) do shed light on what went into her poems and how it got there, we learn very little from them of those inner recesses, those reserves of feeling, concerning which the poems are not explicit. That those reserves did exist may be inferred from such observations as that her favorite poem was the Book of Job; or from an essay called “The Knife,” published originally in House and Garden, which purports to be no more than a connoisseur’s appreciation of several well-turned implements—an ebony-handled kitchen blade, a paper knife, an Etruscan sword—but which then moves on to consider the arts of the stonecutter, and concludes with the Confucian maxim (quoted elsewhere in the volume, not once but several times over) that “If there is a knife of resentment in the heart, the mind fails to act with precision.”

Perhaps, even here, the precision is the important thing: it is, after all, inseparable from the discipline indispensable to any art. “Aesthetic rigor,” she called it, mildly deploring its absence from the work of Vachel Lindsay. She quoted, with implicit approval, Anna Pavlova on the “merciless discipline” of the School of the Imperial Ballet. The discipline of the ballet barre—and that Marianne Moore should feel an affinity for it is only momentarily surprising—is meaningless until and unless it has become a matter of self-discipline. The degree to which Miss Moore was a creature of self-discipline is engagingly revealed by her confession that “sometimes in the past” she hadn’t eaten breakfast “until about noon, I was so determined to get my mail answered. Now I eat as soon as I get up—cereal, fruit juice. If there is a really urgent letter, I answer it first. Someone may be in a hurry for a book for Christmas and wants it signed.”

A Puritanism so frankly obliging must by now be almost extinct—which is not to say that the more rankling and troublesome forms of it have ceased to operate. Nor is it to say that Miss Moore herself never moralized. In her prose as in her verse, she could do so quite explicitly, as when she wrote of Hollywood—a place that, she begins deliciously by observing, “has the bad luck to be outstarred by its whereabouts: eucalyptus-trees, calico horses with pale eyes, bits of sea with cormorants or pelicans, or rolling hills with shadows. George Arises is neutralized by the dogville-comedy aspect of his support and Greta Garbo is shabbied by luxury. Plucked eye-brows, reinforced eyelashes, a slouch do not improve an already fortunate equipment.” A few pages further on, in a review of the art film “Lot in Sodom,” the rigor intensifies: “As you know better than anyone else does, how to open your combination safe, a civilization that has reached an extreme of culture, is going to have pleasure, will have it and is meting out justice to any man that interferes. But pleasure is not joy, it is strangling horror—the serpent that thrust forward rigid—and does not know it ever was anything else.”

But so unqualified a tone is exceptional. More typical—of her prose as of her poetry—are the modulations of simple delight through aesthetic rumination and ethical unease, as in her account of the circus: “The gilded wagons and bellows warbled, now high, now low, hollow music of the circus have again invited us to wander among the cages. Toulouse-Lautrec’s, Seurat’s, and Emanuel Fay’s equestriennes . . . Picasso’s saltimbanques and harlequins, assert by implication that they have not been based on nothing. . . . Rashness and regality may not be teaching us anything; animals should not be taken from their proper surroundings, and in staging an act the bad taste of patrons should not be deferred to; but apparently this medicinally mingled feast of sweet and bitter is not poisonous; it is not all aconite.”

Elsewhere—particularly in the book reviews that over the years made up no small part of her livelihood—the pleasure is unequivocal. Gusto is one of her favorite words; and surely no Puritan ever had more of it. In 1967, having passed her eightieth year, she exclaims over a recent trip abroad: “Have you been to Greece, seen the olive trees and the goats, and the magpies flitting and hopping?” She praises Robert Frost for having “raised naturalness to an art.” She lauds “the riot of gorgeousness in which the imagination of Wallace Stevens takes refuge.” She singles out for notice the “intense particularity” of Thomas Hardy, citing a line as an example: “The rain clams her apron till it clings.” Reviewing the letters of Emily Dickinson, she writes that “unless it is conceited for the hummingbird or the osprey to not behave like a chicken, one does not find her conceited.” In raising an objection, she is almost (but not quite) always friendly, as when she observes of e.e. cummings that “a Saint Sebastian . . . may be hid by too many arrows of awareness.”

Ezra Pound is important to her. Gertrude Stein is in an odd way a kindred spirit. That her famous admiration for the doings of athletes was total and unfeigned, her response to the queries of George Plimpton happily makes clear. What her collected prose makes clear above all, however, is the primacy of her admiration for Henry James. Her first published story shows his influence; and she was never more eloquent than in the tribute entitled “Henry James as a Characteristic American”:

Love is the thing more written about than anything else, and in the mistaken sense of greed. Henry James seems to have been haunted by awareness that rapacity destroys what it is successful in acquiring. He feels a need “to see the other side as well as his own, to feel what his adversary feels” . . . we have no scruple about insisting that he was American; not if the American is, as he thought, “intrinsically and actively ample. . . reaching westward, southward, anywhere, everywhere,” with a mind “incapable of the shut door in any direction.”

Earlier in the same essay, Miss Moore speaks of the “ ‘almost indescribable naturalness’ which disappears in the fancy writing of his imitators.” “Naturalness” may seem an odd term to use of a writer so mannered. The same might be said of Marianne Moore herself. Her manner was her own; it did not come easily, and is the more to be treasured for the rigors that produced it.

That there were rigors, including periods of self-doubt, her position in later life as (to borrow the words of Charles Tomlinson) a kind of national pet may have tended to obscure. “One writes as one must and not as one should,” she told a college student who had been puzzling over her most famous poem (“I, too, dislike it . . .”), “and . . . I have no deceived impression that my faults and short-comings, by some helpful legerdemain, partake of magic which is foreign to them.” Her habitual self-protectiveness is no doubt at work here, but is there not also the weariness and resignation of one inured to lost causes? One hears a sigh: “I do not wonder that you find it difficult to see my lines entitled POETRY, as poetry. I regard my compositions as ‘observations’ whereas in poetry, I feel, one has the poetry and the form together, as something rapt and irrefutable.”

For the student was not alone in being puzzled. As late as 1950, Marianne Moore was still not included in Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry, where such contemporaries as Eliot, Pound, and Stevens were well represented. For this omission the most likely explanation is that the strangeness and difficulty of her work had simply scared off the critics.

Certainly the difficulty is real enough. As nearly as I can recall, I first encountered the work of Marianne Moore in F. O. Matthiessen’s selection for the Oxford Book of American Verse, published in 1950. What I found there was tough going, and remained so until very much later: as late, in fact, as the summer of 1978, during a stay in a rented house on the coast of Maine. That house had many attractions, a fairly straightforward enumeration of which found its way into a little poem of mine called “The Cove.” Thus, in writing

and when there’s fog
or a gale we get a fire going, listen
to Mozart, read Marianne Moore

and so on, I was being perfectly literal: among those attractions was a copy of The Marianne Moore Reader, which I found on the shelves and proceeded to read with total absorption. What kept me reading was not so much a formal model as an opening up of possibilities. Elizabeth Hardwick, writing of Sylvia Plath, refers to a “preference for precision over rhetoric,” adding that “perhaps this greed for particulars is the true mark of the poetry of women in our time.” Whether or not this is generally true, precision and attention to detail are what Marianne Moore’s work is all about. And that is what I found attractive: a clear and principled opposition to the dictum of Dr. Johnson that poetry ought not to “number the streaks on the tulip.” This divergence becomes the more striking if one thinks of Robert Frost: for all the accuracy of observation that underlies a poem such as “Spring Pools” or “Blue Butterfly Day,” the compact stanza form at which Frost excelled tends to mute or even suppress the particulars, rather than to elaborate them as Marianne Moore chose to do.

    Not, of course, that she had any less interest in form: it could be argued—since she never borrowed a stanza pattern, even from herself, but invented a new one for each occasion—that she had more interest in poetic form than Frost did, or than most of us do. But in “An Octopus,” her longest single poem, fidelity to subject matter becomes—literally, that subject being the glacial cover of Mount Rainier—paramount:

Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
“Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,”
it receives one under winds that “tear the snow to bits
and hurl it like a sandblast
shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.”

Then comes a momentary shift into the poet’s own voice:

Is “tree” the word for these things
“flat on the ground like vines”?
some “bent in a half circle with branches on one side
suggesting dust-brushes, not trees;
some finding strength in union, forming little stunted groves
their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape”
from the hard mountain “planed by ice and polished by the wind”—
the white volcano with no weather side;
the lightning flashing at its base,
rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak—
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,
its claw cut by the avalanche
“with a sound like the crack of a rifle,
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall.”

And so the poem ends: though she did not borrow forms, Marianne Moore quoted contents at length and with abandon. That conclusion has something in common with “Novices”; but in its entirety “An Octopus” is unlike anything else of hers. It reminds me in some ways of—of all things—The Prelude: the same awed concern with natural violence, but above all the sense of intractability, the intractability of experience itself, with which Wordsworth wrestled long but which he never found a way of reducing to a manageable form. Embedded in what at first appears to be no more than a sprawling catchall of quotations and descriptive details are a number of precepts drawn (as the poet’s own notes disclose) from none other than the Rules and Regulations of the U.S. Department of the Interior! Being myself by nature unruly, I take heart at seeing how a rigorist such as Marianne Moore could have fun with the very notion of rules—thus cheerfully defying the stricture of Yvor Winters (which seems to have struck such terror in the hearts of other critics, not to mention the poets they apply it to) against the Fallacy of Imitative Form. Coming upon that note to “An Octopus” made me laugh out loud. Marianne Moore is not only a strange poet; she is also, in her own sly and devious way, a very funny one.

Or so it seems to me. Look, for instance, at “The Hero”—originally the final section of what was then called “Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play.” I’m not at all sure I know what is going on in this poem; but whatever else there may be, I can’t help seeing it as some kind of joke. There are owls in it, flying out

on muffled wings, with twin yellow
eyes—to and fro— 

with quavering water-whistle note, low,
     high, in basso-falsetto chirps
      until the skin creeps.

Well, we have this description of the owl and its call, but that call hasn’t, so to speak, been quoted until, immediately following, we have

Jacob when a-dying, asked
Joseph: Who are these? [my italics]

How the poet got from the owl to the invocation of biblical patriarchs is totally inscrutable, it seems to me, without that Who . . . . ?

And that’s not all. A little further on, we find

      The decorous frock-coated Negro
by the grotto

who—no, that one’s not in the poem; it’s my who, not Marianne Moore’s—

answers the fearless sightseeing hobo
      who asks the man she’s with, what’s this, what’s that,
      where’s Martha buried, “Gen-ral Washington
      there; his lady, here”; speaking
      as if in a play—not seeing her;

and so on. While I was trying to puzzle my way through this stanza, I circled “she” and wrote in the margin, “Who?” —and it wasn’t until I’d made the connection between Jacob and the owl that it came to me, why, the very ambiguity over who she is (can the fearless sightseeing hobo—short, or so I’m told, for “homeless brother”—be female?), the ambiguity that made me write “Who?” in the margin, must be another of the poet’s jokes. If anybody has a soberer explanation, I would love to hear it.

The hilarity to be found in our most respected authors tends, I suspect, to be underrated, or anyhow underpraised. Not long ago I reread The Ambassadors, for the third or fourth time—read it aloud, this time, with a friend, and discovered with some astonishment how much of it is downright funny. To connect Henry James with the jerboa, the pangolin, and all those amphibians and reptiles, might seem farfetched. But it isn’t. In “An Octopus,” the “sacrosanct remoteness” of the mountain peak is likened to none other than “Henry James ‘damned by the public for decorum.’ ” That last set of quotation marks doesn’t necessarily mean that the poet is quoting anyone other than herself, and if she is I don’t know who (who?) it can be. The conclusion to the poem “New York,” anyhow, turns out to be a modified quotation from James himself:

                            not the plunder,
but “accessibility to experience.”

The coruscations of indirection and surprise of which the novels of James are protractedly, even maddeningly composed have their counterpart in a poem such as “The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing”: those katydid-wing nettings and subdivisions, those dove-neck iridescences, that “conscientious inconsistency,” down to the concluding negative: “it’s / not a Herod’s oath that cannot change.” I would go so far as to suggest that the figure of the kiwi or apteryx, with its “rain-shawl / of haired feathers, . . . / feeling its way as though blind, walking along with its eyes on the ground” could be describing at once the mind, attentive to the hidden byways of perception and response, and the somewhat bulky person of Henry James: an homage that is also a bit of a joke. I wouldn’t put it past her.

But who knows? Much more will be known in due course, as those now engaged with Marianne Moore’s notebooks and letters bring forth more of what they have discovered there. In the meantime, we have the author’s categorical assertion, in what are offered as The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, that “Omissions are not accidents.” The most famous omission, just here, is of four and a half stanzas, or approximately nine-tenths, of the troublesomely titled “Poetry.” One might surmise that when she cut it down to three lines, she did so as an act of rebellion. How many people who never read another word of hers know, or anyhow once read, that poem? I’ll hazard a still worse conjecture: that an even greater number have been influenced by it, at that remove where any influence is almost certainly a bad one.

Over the past two or three years I’ve had occasion to read a considerable number of poems entered in various competitions; and I have noted with dismay, in verse otherwise free and unfettered, what feels like an epidemic rash of enjambments, as follows:

how to pick up after themselves, to keep the apartment
clean . . .

followed, on the same page, by

the coats he never hangs on their
hooks. . . .

Or, in another entry,

The noise, the elbows, the crowded
Subways. . . .

In the latter instance—and I could go on and on, I assure you—capitalizing the first word of the run-over line makes the effect all the more stiltedly arbitrary.

The persistence of this single mannerism cannot but cause one to wonder, sooner or later, where in the world it came from. For an answer—as well as a caution—I offer another look at “Poetry” in its original, untruncated version. It is written in syllabic verse, embodying one of those ad hoc stanza forms that were never repeated, with two pairs of rhyming lines and two other, nonrhyming ones: x a a b b y. Line by line, the syllabic count in the version published by the Egoist Press in 1921 is 19, 22, 11, 5, 8, 13. A later revision, which is to be found among the notes in the back of the 1981 edition of those so-called Complete Poems, discloses some fiddling with both rhyme and syllabic count. Besides the unmistakable deletion of an entire interjected sentence (“case after case / could be cited did / one wish it” from the third stanza, and a phrase—“in defiance of their opinion”—from the fifth and final one), it is instructive to come upon other, relatively inconspicuous changes. The original version of the poem opens:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
                                                                                 all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one dis-
                                                                   covers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

In the commonly reprinted later version, the second line has been pruned of a clause, “that there is,” so as to indicate, as John Nims has observed, a preference for syntactical tightness over formal balance. (Of that balance, entailing a series of run-over lines, more in a moment.) A like afterthought shows itself in a tiny but instructive shift in the second stanza. Here is the original version: “. . . a / / high sounding interpretation that can be put upon them because they are / useful; when they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, the / same thing may be said for all of us—that we. . . .” In the revision, nothing is altered until the beginning of the second line: “useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, / the same thing may be said for all of us, that we. . . . ”

Such fiddling with punctuation marks is of the sort that few poets, given the opportunity, can resist. But shifting “the” from the end of the second line to the beginning of the third—as though neither rhyme nor syllabic count, however carefully adhered to in the first place, finally mattered—must mean a more fundamental concern. I take that concern to be with naturalness, as opposed to the stale, the inane, the highfalutinly derivative—all reasons for disliking Poetry with a capital P.

It should now be clear that Marianne Moore wasn’t wedded to her own idiosyncrasies—that she tended, rather, to be ambivalent about them. When one considers the abundance of formal idiosyncrasy here, one can more easily imagine what caused her to scuttle nine-tenths of the original in favor of

I, too, dislike it.

      Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one

                                                                                    discovers in

      it, after all, a place for the genuine.

What she leaves us with is a little tune, keyed to a single vowel sound: not only is the monosyllabic pronoun “it” used four times over in a total of twenty-four words; but note how “dislike,” “Reading,” “with,” “perfect” (as usually pronounced), “discovers,” “in,” and finally “genuine,” all echo that light central vowel. Thus given ear to, it becomes in effect a new poem, and one’s delight in the artistry of Marianne Moore is reinforced. The one real idiosyncrasy remaining—that is, the enjambment of “one discovers in / it”—then becomes not high-handed but, within the aural scheme, inevitable: the dominant, the fulcrum of an audible structure.

Likewise justifiable, if for reasons less subtle and more methodical, is the pattern of enjambments between the second and third lines of each of the succeeding stanzas. Here they are:

high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but be-
                                                                                cause they are
     useful; when

in the second stanza;

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
                                                                                     wolf under
     a tree, and

in the third;

school-books; all these phenomena are important. One must
                                                                            make a distinction
     however; when

in the fourth; and in the fifth, the pivotal

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
                                                                                   shall we have

I hardly suppose that Marianne Moore intended anyone even to notice—much less spend the amount of time I’ve now spent on—what she was doing here. My guess is that she was simply amusing herself, playing a game whose rules were too ephemeral to be taken all that seriously. This having been said, a question arises: how many of those—some clearly no more than what she denigrated as half poets, but not necessarily all: I’ve seen not a few instances of what has become a kind of tic, in the work of people I genuinely admire, and I can’t claim to be free of what I now regard as this defect myself—how many who have broken a line in such a manner, with no visible concern for either sound or syllabic count, would be able to name a source, an authority for doing so? How many ever actually read “Poetry”—read it, anyhow, with sufficient attention to be put on guard by its reference to half poets?

Depressing in its small way as this is, I’m aware it is nothing new. Hazlitt, in an unforgettable essay, provided a name for it: Vulgarity.

We live in a vulgar time and a vulgar country. Year by year the disease appears to spread, to become less treatable. Year by year, it seems more difficult to make oneself understood when one uses the term as Hazlitt, with cantankerous verve, labored to have it understood:

Nothing is vulgar that is natural, spontaneous, unavoidable. Grossness is not vulgarity, ignorance is not vulgarity, awkwardness is not vulgarity: but all these become vulgar when they are affected and shewn off on the authority of others, or to fall in with the fashion or the company we keep. . . . The upper are not wiser than the lower orders, because they resolve to differ from them. The fashionable have the advantage of the unfashionable in nothing but the fashion.

In a free country, where theoretically everyone is an original, a member of no class or species, to have it hinted that one has inadvertently fallen in with the fashion, or the company one keeps, tends to bring on sweats of anxiety. “You’re going to hate my line breaks,” a poet said to me. My line breaks. Is to have been caught with one’s hand in the cookie jar of affectation then so very heinous, embarrassing though it may be? In the nature of things, we are all susceptible to influence: it’s the unconsidered literary trickle-down that causes us to squirm. Twice, I’ve been asked by a kindly editor, “Do you really want that echo of Yeats?” And of course I didn’t—hadn’t seen it was there. Something quite different is going on when May Swenson writes, very much in her own way, of the anhinga or the saguaro cactus; when Alfred Corn gives his somberly emblematic reading of the dogwood or the wild carrot; or when Brad Leithauser, in his stunning “Hesitancy,” considers an ostrich at the Kyoto zoo; or when, more explicitly still, George Bradley launches his tribute to the Portuguese man-of-war with a gesture in the direction of Randall Jarrell: “. . . she sent postcards to only the nicer animals.” Such unmistakable homages to one’s forebears are not only proper but inevitable. Absolute originality would amount to dying of one’s own poison, and I for one am not in favor of that.

But it’s herd-following that I’m concerned with here. If the latest competitive entries I’ve seen are any indication, minimalism is finally on the wane. As the lines and the poems themselves grow longer, I’ve been sorry to observe a new monot­ony, a garrulously protracted mumble. What was once vertical is now horizontal, like those things “tree” is not the word for. As an influence, William Carlos Williams appears to have given way to the shadowy demesne of John Ashbery. The latter would be the first to see the irony here, having himself observed, “I think I’m famous among people who may never have read a line of my poetry.” Those who have read more than a line now and then will know that notwithstanding a principled avoidance of definitive statement, he is no less capable than Marianne Moore of crisply meticulous detail. Given her lively interest in couture, she would have loved his account of Mania “dressed in the style of Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, in a severe suit with padded shoulders and a pillbox with a veil crowning the pincurls of her upswept hairdo, and  . . . one of those little white dogs on the end of a leash.” More typical, of course, and thus more influential, are such ruminations as these, from “A Wave”:

                                  But for the tender blur
Of the setting to mean something, words must be ejected
A certain crispness be avoided . . .


                                                              Much later on
You thought you perceived a purpose in the game at the
Another player broke one of the rules . . . .

Given John Ashbery’s acknowledged admiration for Marianne Moore, can this be anything but homage to “An Octopus”? The possibility increases as one considers the following passage—a crucial one in that it comes close to having a subject and to saying something about it:

The cimmerian moment in which all lives, all destinies
And incompleted destinies were swamped
As though by a giant wave that picks itself up
Out of a calm sea and retreats again into nowhere
Once its damage is done.

It’s not simply a matter of a giant wave being like an avalanche. It’s also that nearly toneless timbre, that constitutional reluctance to raise one’s voice even at the onset of an apocalyptic giant wave. This distinctive murmur would seem, as Bonnie Costello has suggested, to draw upon the example of Marianne Moore, and from a like fear and dread of all that Poetry with a capital P has come to stand for. If this hunch is correct, it would appear that her influence on the poetry now being written is greater than has been generally supposed. And if the current rash of affectations is treatable at all, it can only be so through a renewed attention to its sources—by paying heed, finally, not to the manner but the matter of the thing:

Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise if it must, these things are important not because a high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are useful; when they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, the same thing may be said for all of us—that we do not admire what we cannot understand.

I don’t think Marianne Moore would have minded having all those line breaks knocked down and plowed into a block of prose for the sake of argument. To be more imitated than read is a worse fate still than to be told that what one writes is not poetry.



Adapted from a review originally published in the Boston Sunday Globe and from a paper originally read at the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center on May 20, 1986, later published as “The Matter and the Manner” in the Cream City Review (Summer 1988).