Becoming Marianne Moore


Something held women back when it came to the writing of poetry, and since whatever it was that held them back failed to hold women back from writing novels, we must suppose that the inhibition had something, at least, to do with the antiquity and prestige of the art. Certainly the social disadvantages under which women labored will not, taken alone, explain the conundrum away. I follow Germaine Greer in this when she writes: “Homer and Milton were blind; can we claim that being female is a worse handicap than being blind?” And when she says that

In large measure it is women who have deified the poet; it was women who fainted when Byron came into a room, who looked for signs of superhumanity in the brow of Wordsworth and grieved over the world-woe engraved in Tennyson’s cheeks. The more women adored poetry, the less able they were to write it. From being practical and external, the obstacles in the path of the woman who wanted to write songs for others to sing became progressively internalized. It is less crucial for women to work out how men did this to women than it is to assess the extent to which women did this to themselves.1

That line—“The more women adored poetry, the less able they were to write it”—leads us straight to the case of Marianne Moore, who claimed of poetry that she too disliked it and implied that the best way to read it was with perfect contempt for it. She wasn’t quite telling the truth, on this as on many other matters. We always expect her to be telling the truth, because we see her as a fearless old lady of an utterly independent mind. But we look at her, as it were, through the wrong end of her biography. It wasn’t the old lady who wrote the poems that made Moore’s reputation, that caused her to be recognized as one of the very best poets writing in America. It was a young woman, already possessed of a trick of sounding quite definite whenever she opened her mouth, but in fact cautious and elusive and quite capable of changing her mind.

Everyone with any interest in Moore would like a new edition of her poetry, one which would bring back rejected poems, show the history of her revisions, and above all make chronological sense. What we have in the first section of the Complete Poems is a reprise of Eliot’s arrangement made for the Selected Poems of 1935. It was a good arrangement in its day, since it began with her most recent work, the poems like “The Steeplejack” which she resumed writing in the early Thirties, after an eight-year silence, during much of which she had been editing The Dial. But Moore was forty-five when she first published “The Steeplejack.” The early poems don’t begin till page 31 of the Complete Poems, and of course many other early poems have been…

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