Tell Me, Tell Me
Marianne Moore’s first book was called, simply, Poems; her second, Observations. The titles are interchangeable. “I like to describe things,” she remarks in “Subject, Predicate, Object,” an aesthetic given in three modest pages of her new book. Her favorite mood is the indicative, pointing to things. Optatives are rare; imperatives, addressed only to herself. The pleasure of writing a poem, for this scrupulous and exacting poet, is “consolation, rapture, to be achieving a likeness of the thing visualized.” Poetry is a way of looking, various because vision is irregular, reasonable because, irregular, it is not indiscriminate. Yeats distinguished between the glance and the gaze, and William Empson took care to discover what a man sees through the corner of the eye. The distinction between appearance and reality is not to Miss Moore a cause of persistent distress. To think appearance significant is not, even yet, a mark of folly; it is a mode of appreciation, predilection. Things may be deceptive, but a relation between one thing and another is something achieved. William Carlos Williams said of a poem by Miss Moore that it was an anthology of transit; prompting us to see that a poem like her “Marriage” is traffic on the move, a parallelogram of forces, or a great highway seen from a helicopter. It is a privilege to see so much confusion mastered.
Mostly, the observations are her own; plants, animals, birds, the giraffe, the pangolin, clocks, baseball, jewels. But Miss Moore, gorgeous in observation, is the first to acknowledge that someone else has been observant. Recognizing a recognizing eye, her poems are often words of praise for the seers. “Blue Bug” started from a photograph by Thomas McAvoy in Sports Illustrated; eight polo ponies, one of them like a dancer or the acrobat Li Siau Than. “The Arctic Ox” was set astir by an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, the essayist John J. Teal, who rears musk oxen on his farm in Vermont, A new poem praises Leonardo da Vinci, impassioned calligrapher of flowers, acorns, rocks. The hero of “Granite and Steel” is John Roebling, here and elsewhere praised for inventing Roebling cable. Everywhere in the new book Miss Moore is on hand to defend the rights of “small ingenuities,” keeping open the line between the eye and the “eye of the mind.” Gracious, she delights in grace, skill, gusto, charity, the rescue of Carnegie Hall, the “enfranchising cable” of Brooklyn Bridge.
SO THESE POEMS ARE POETIC as natural science is poetic; botany, meteorology. Miss Moore loves dapple, dappled things, the evidence of living in a palpable world. Some years ago in an interview with Donald Hall she defended the comparison of poet and scientist. “Both are willing to waste effort. To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each. Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision.” There is a poem, “The Staff of Aesculapius,” in praise of cancer research, virology, knowledge “gained for another attack” upon suffering. And there are many poems in defense of experimental waste. Anything is poetic, these poems imply, conducted in the proper spirit of disinterestedness and charity. A poet writes a poem, perhaps, to revive a root meaning long buried. A reader consults a big dictionary, finds the old meaning, and recognizes it, revived, in its new context. These are poetic acts, honorably wasteful. Both acts are given in the service of the human world, historical and finite. One of Miss Moore’s favorite writers, understandably, is Christopher Smart, poet of Jubilate Agno. Another is Landor, praised in a new poem, who could throw a man through a window and yet say, “Good God, the violets!” Miss Moore does not like a big splash. She likes circumstance, released from pomp. She thinks Caesar a great writer and Defoe observant to the degree of genius.
“Accessibility to experience” is Henry James’s phrase, invoked for admiration in Miss Moore’s poem “New York” and elsewhere recalled in prose. It seems reasonable to remark that this is Miss Moore’s way of being an American, perhaps like James in this respect a characteristic American. In her essay on James she speaks of this accessibility, and we have only to substitute her name for James’s to see the cap fit. If we want to say what she has been doing in poetry all these years, we cannot do better than this: “Often she is those elements in Amercan life—as locality and as character—which she recurrently studies and to which she never tires of assigning a meaning.” When she quotes a sentence from James’s Life of Hawthorne, its light returns upon herself. Hawthorne was dear to James because he “proved to what a use American matter could be put by an American hand.” An American “could be an artist, one of the finest, without ‘going outside’; quite, in fact, as if Hawthorne had become one just by being American enough.” Miss Moore is American enough, and she has become a true artist by being so. We think of Williams in Rutherford, Stevens in Hartford, Miss Moore in Brooklyn and latterly in Manhattan. “The Gods of China are always Chinese.” Miss Moore likes to quote from James the advice to Christopher Newman: “Don’t try to be anyone else”; and if triumph comes, “let it then be all you.” But she does not sponsor a predatory grasp of reality, grist to the mill. Indeed, she is the first to concede to a thing its own independent right; an acknowledgement rather than a concession. In her imaginative colony there are no slaves, no chain gangs. It does not gratify her to bring things to heel, seeing them cower. She is a poet of limits, acknowledging them; accessible to them for what they are, not for anything they can give her. She does not lust for the absolute or “the ultimate Plato.” If she is never glib in the presence of difficulty, it is because she is always patient, accepting the disability of being finite. One of the poems in the new book is “Charity overcoming Envy,” which issues in an axiom, patiently earned: “The Gordian knot need not be cut.” Not every Gordian knot, anyway.
OF ETERNAL THINGS in this poetry there is little to be said. Miss Moore has her own sense of them, we may assume, but this is private. She praises Landor for a corresponding reticence; who, considering infinity and eternity, would only say: “I’ll talk about them when I understand them.” Miss Moore does not claim to understand everything; not even everything she sees. She speaks when, observant, she has something to report. This is the measure of her care for things, for relationships, for words; a care habitually engaged in accuracy, precision. Quoting Martin Buber: “The free man believes in destiny and that it has need of him”; she adds, “Destiny, not fate.” A sentence culled from James’s Notes of a Son and Brother is to her “an instance of reverent, and almost reverend, feeling that would defend him against the charge of casualness in anything, if ever one were inclined to make it.” Miss Moore’s poems and essays are full of quotations because she has come upon many things which have only to be exhibited to be appreciated, and appreciation is poetic. If she puts her own work on display it is not to make a show of herself but to share felicities. If she keeps on revising her poems it is not to see them in new books but to get things right, to do the best she can.
So her revisions are always instructive. Usually they are the result, she says, of “impatience with unkempt diction and lapses in logic, together with an awareness that for most defects, to delete is the instantaneous cure.” One of the new poems is “Sun,” which in an earlier version included the lines:
O Sun, you shall stay with us. Holiday and day of wrath shall be one, wound in a device of Moorish gorgeousness, round glasses spun to flame hemispheres of one
great hour-glass dwindling to a stem.
The internal rhymes are gay, but perhaps they are too much, gaudy. And the repetition of “one,” if not unkempt, is loose. But the author of “The Pangolin” would not wish to delete the invocation to the sun, “that comes into and steadies my soul,” so she tidies the diction by eliminating the repetition, letting the rest stand:
O Sun, you shall stay with us: holiday consuming wrath, be wound in a device of Moorish gorgeousness, round glasses spun to flame as hemispheres of one
great hour-glass dwindling to a stem.
The relation between the holiday and the wrath is changed, but the new relation is more in keeping with the urgency of the prayer, more splendid in its surge. Miss Moore cares for these things, her small ingenuities. She loves to recite the fable of La Fontaine about the song that preserved the life of the swan mistaken by the cook for a goose; the moral of the story being, “Sweet speech does no harm—none at all.” Liking “an elegance of which the source is not bravado,” she writes as if every poem were a swansong, sweet but not lugubrious; there are certain things a swan may not do, even to save her life. Many of the new poems are the result of stitching and unstitching, but they sound like “a moment’s thought” (Yeats’s criterion in “Adam’s Curse”). And some of them, speech after long silence, have that fatality of cadence which is Miss Moore’s trademark, the poet’s craft:
You understand terror, know how to deal
with pent-up emotion, a ballad, witchcraft.
I don’t. O Zeus and O Destiny!
BUT THESE CADENCES are not, as we say, “merely verbal,” they are a form of good manners, “values in use.” Indeed, Miss Moore’s poems have the kind of grace, civility, and candor which we find in English verse epistles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If we still had a society capable of sponsoring such things, she would participate in it by writing, as Ben Jonson did, “To Penshurst.” She would be our Countess of Pembroke, civility (wild), manners (impeccable), verve (always). As things stand, she serves to remind us of that loss. When her lines are unforgettable it is not because “in the accepted sense” they do things “in a big way”; it is because they are true and because they have that “tame excitement” on which she thrives. Already the new lines have settled down beside the old ones, keeping good company. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the new book is its continuity with the early collections, the old invocations, favorite phrases revisited now because life has not disabled their relevance, When she quotes Robert Frost, it is pleasant to recall that she did so seven years ago, the same quotation, pleasant to know that it still seems fine to her. And surely it is a good sign, a certificate of possibility, that Miss Moore has been reading Floyd Patterson;s Victory over Myself and finding so much where one would expect so little. And the phrases come. “Grudges flower less well than gratitudes.” “Even when the bird is walking we know that it has wings”; this, translated from Victor Hugo. Asked whether a poet must be a good man, besides, if he is to write good poems, she replies: “The villains in Shakespeare are not illiterate, are they? But rectitude has a ring that is implicative.” Advising young people to listen, to keep still for a while, she gives the reason: “to make possible promptings from on high.” Someone is praised “in whom the Graces find a school.” Paul Rosenfeld is set forth, “the interested mind with the disinterested motive.” Defending simplicity and proportion, Miss Moore says: “Nor can we dignify confusion by calling it baroque.” The objective, now as before, is “fertile procedure.” In a new poem Envy is delineated:
Envy, on a dog, is worn down by obsession,
his greed (since of things owned by others
he can only take some).
Things well done are “inventions with wing.”
Miss Moore can do more with abstractions than any modern poet, Eliot always excepted; as here with the following: reticence, propriety, mobility, probity, magnanimity, deference. Her favorite word, I guess from internal evidence, is ardor, in French and English. “Sentir avec ardeur: with fire; yes, with passion.” Her favorite image, the kite. “With no resistance, a kite staggers and falls; whereas if it catches the right current of air it can rise, darting and soaring as it pulls and fights the wind.” Hence “the mind is an enchanting thing,” at work or play. In the new poems Miss Moore makes the language work as if it were always at play; as she speaks of poetry, “the Mogul’s dream: to be intensively toiling at what is a pleasure.” It is wonderful to see her using the word “brother” as a verb and making it seem the most natural and agreeable usage in the world. Wonderful, too, in a poem about baseball, Yogi Berra, and skill, to see her playing with language; playing with gusto and concentration, not doodling. And suddenly she praises a dazzling shot while making one of her own:
You would infer
That the bat had eyes.
IT IS TIME TO SAY, incidentally, that for those who relish the wit and gaiety of the early books the new book is ready with satisfactions; like “punitive” here:
Nothing more punitive than the pest
who says, “I’m trespassing,” and
does it just the same.
So the poems come, endlessly resourceful in detail and architecture, like the “catenary curve” of Brooklyn Bridge. It is tempting, and I yield to the temptation, to go through the book, quoting, marking the choice phrases in the margin, noting the old allegiances renewed. I suppose it makes a difference that Miss Moore writes of one thing rather than another, the topics odd and congenial to her nature, but after nine or ten poems as vivid as these the reader declares that, for his money, she can write of anything under the sun, she writes so well. This is to say that she is a mistress of style, flair, winged invention.
If the new poems are to be distinguished from the old ones, in manner or character, it is enough to report that they are more explicit in consolation. Sursum corda, they seem to say. In spite of everything, Miss Moore implies, the reasons for being ungainly are not convincing, Look, “at the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour,” Carnegie Hall is rescued. Isn’t that something? Miss Moore has a book called Nevertheless, an apt title for these new poems if they lacked a title. This is her note, a gallantry of observation, “rushing to the rescue.” Many years ago she quoted Coleridge on the mark of the true artist, “a continuous undercurrent of feeling everywhere present, but seldom anywhere a separate excitement.” This is the energy that directs the poem from its first word to its last; like geometry, if we allow to geometry an unusual power of absorbtion, to Euclid a corresponding passion. In the title poem of the new book Miss Moore speaks of fleeing
to metaphysical newmown hay,
honeysuckle, or woods fragrance,
and a note explains to an importunate lady who demanded the meaning of metaphysical newmown hay: “Oh, something like a sudden whiff of fragrance in contrast with the doggedly continuous opposition to spontaneous conversation that had gone before.” I hope the lady is satisfied. I am satisfied.