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 …