Heather Cass White’s New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore is no small event in American poetry: it is the first edition of Moore’s work that actually is what it says it is. Moore expelled poems from her history, and substantially and continually revised many of those she permitted to remain. She prefaced her Complete Poems (1967)—which she herself edited, and which contains 102 poems, less than half of her actual collected poems—with the defiant epigram “Omissions are not accidents.” White’s book, gathering together the traduced and abandoned, should complicate the image of Moore in her later years—the quirky spinster in a tricorn hat who wrote album notes for Cassius Clay, appeared in airline advertisements, and threw out the first pitch for the Yankees—by interpolating her with the young and vital modernist giant.
In the appendix we find a fine selection of juvenilia from 1915 to 1918, though it omits the poems from Moore’s time at Bryn Mawr and the poem “Ezra Pound,” written in 1915 but published posthumously. That poem is notable for its use of the word “vigor,” an important concept for Moore, who was already in 1908 asking a college friend, “Don’t you think I manifest vigor?… I fairly sparkle inside now and then.” White also omits the poem “Prevalent at One Time,” which was added to the 1981 revised edition of the 1967 Complete Poems. But these are small subjective quibbles, and in making them I can hear Moore (in “Snakes, Mongooses, Snake-Charmers, and the Like”): “The passion for setting people right is in itself an afflictive disease.” White has returned the collections to us, and finally readers can meet Moore’s work as admirers like T.S. Eliot and Pound first did.
Alongside those poets, Moore opened the gates of the possible and granted latitude to later writers. Observations, her first book, published in 1924 when she was thirty-seven, is like nothing else in poetry: at once frustrating and absorbing, it’s a defining collection of the twentieth century, standing beside Eliot’s Prufrock, Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, and William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All. To read Moore is to see the pendulum swing away from nineteenth-century Romanticism, with its smooth rhetoric and chaotic subjectivity, toward her own methods of collaging “found” language, scientific diction, overheard phrases, or whatever else happened to interest her—all of which was to become integral to modern poetry.
Moore emphasized the precise, the concrete, the particular, the visual. The center of gravity moved outside of the poet. Emotion came in the form of Eliot’s objective correlative: “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Moore’s tone has the authority earned by a voice finally answering back.
Idiosyncratic meditations on subjects (“nonchalance,” say, or “statecraft”) or objects (often animals), Moore’s poems rarely spring from any specific event or occasion. Questions of where, why, how, who, and so on are ignored. Serious personal concerns, family, and close relationships are either absent or heavily camouflaged. Often the poems comprise a jumble of micro-impressions that appear unrelated, the voice mediated through collage: stacked-up phrases in quotation marks from disparate sources. As she makes clear in “Poetry,” Moore does not discriminate against “business documents and//school-books,” nor is the collaging worked into a harmonic whole using rhythm or tone, as you might find, say, in John Ashbery, one of her disciples.
In Moore, much is left jagged, serrated, jarring: there is often not much more of a rhythmic system than one finds in decent prose. (Moore described her rhythm, rightly, as “a kind of pleasing jerky progress.”) Her syntax is exceedingly complex, and the diction thickens frequently into latinate abstraction: “Efforts of affection—/attain integration too tough for infraction.” Rhyme is frequently so slight as to be inaudible (rhyming unstressed syllables in the middle of words, for example) or so heavy that it pushes everything else out: “It left nothing of which to complain,/nothing more to obtain,/consummately plain.” As to a poem’s architecture: “I tend to like a poem which instead of culminating in a crescendo, merely comes to a close.” She is a poet who proceeds by indirection and association, and though it is a commonplace of Moore criticism to praise her passion for precision (repeating the poems’ own assertions about “relentless accuracy…with its capacity for fact”), it is often hard to follow her referents. The detail is up close and forensic, as obscuring as it is enlightening.
Take the much-celebrated animal poems. Alongside brilliant details (her swan with its “gondoliering legs” or the pangolin, its “scale/lapping scale with spruce-cone regu-/larity”) there are passages like this one, about the jerboa, a rat that looks like a small kangaroo:
…Seen by daylight,
the body is white
in front; and on the back,
buffy-brown like the breast of
bower-bird. It hops like the
fawn–breast, but has
it turns its bird head…
But the bowerbird has nothing to do with the jerboa (it lives in tropical Australasian jungles, the jerboa in African deserts), and has been pressed into service here only because it is “brown,” while the jerboa itself gets lost in a tangle of alliteration, repetition, and confusion for the sake of it (“its bird head”?).
Moore’s beasts are always essentially free-floating, their natural habitats replaced by the primordial soup of her consciousness, each creature carefully clipped out and decontextualized in order to serve her purposes of self-revelation through metaphor. The animal poems tend, for example, to lack weather. Much of her knowledge of the natural world came not from firsthand immersion but from magazines and books, and this sometimes results in the simply inadequate: a wood-weasel is said to have a “sweet face and powerful feet,” adjectives that wouldn’t earn their keep in an undergraduate ode. When she writes of “the wild ostrich herd/with hard feet and bird/necks,” the reader might wonder how much sense has been sacrificed for the rhyme. (What other kind of neck could an ostrich possibly have?)
A favorite writer of Moore’s was the seventeenth-century physician Sir Thomas Browne, and her writing has a circuitous rhythm and consistently vivid texture that recalls Browne’s. Browne, too, was preoccupied with animals. Of “Bees, Aunts, and Spiders” he writes, “In these narrow Engines there is more curious Mathematicks” than in “Whales, Elephants, Dromidaries, and Camels…and the civilitie of these little Citizens, more neatly sets forth the wisedome of their Maker.” But when Browne talks of animals, he is talking about God; when Moore does, she is talking about herself.
And yet not intimately. Her work calls forth novel perspectives on the self, but interested as she is in the veneer of life, the semblance of civilization—the “polished sculptured/flowers” (“No Swan So Fine”)—she appears to hold her own personhood at arm’s length. She approves of “a picture with a fine distance.” We see it in her lists of particulars, which allow Moore, who took laboratory courses in biology at Bryn Mawr, to exercise a scientific and taxonomic impulse. Yeats thought a list had to “articulate sweet sounds together.” Moore wants something cleaner and harder and more modern than that.
Her taxonomies are also modern in their relative freedom from dogmas, hierarchies, and prejudices: “one keeps on knowing/‘that the Negro is not brutal,/that the Jew is not greedy,/that the Oriental is not immoral,/that the German is not a Hun.’” She instinctively identified with the marginalized (“politically I cannot contemplate anything but freedom for all races and persons”) and yet could come across as puritanical and could find in the smallest tensions a battle of morals in which she is invariably on the right side. (Of King Arthur’s knights she says, “I should, I confess,/like to have a talk with one of them about excess.”)
There is an admirable, formidable coldness in her work. The forms of her stanzas, for example, feel forced down from above, cookie-cutter style, with lines deformed, ending on split words or articles. The stanzas are human artifacts with complex mechanisms, but they lack the appearance of being self-organized, of being given or in any way intrinsic. It’s poetry of a mechanical age, written on a typewriter, designed more for visual than sonic appraisal. (Moore herself felt that “the form is the outward equivalent of a determining inner conviction, and that the rhythm is the person,” which is hard to argue with and harder still to instantiate.) The sense of coldness in the technique is often reinforced in the poems themselves. “The Steeplejack” gives the impression of a poet looking down—god-like—from a great distance on a whole community:
It could not be dangerous to be
in a town like this, of simple
who have a steeple-jack placing
danger signs by the church
while he is gilding the solid-
pointed star, which on a steeple
stands for hope.
Perhaps this separation is the point: in Moore’s work we glimpse an immense loneliness. Where the speaker lives, it is implied, is in some sense “dangerous,” and the pointed star for the “simple people” recalls Kafka’s response to Max Brod when he asked if there was hope in the world: “O plenty of hope, infinite hope—but not for us.”
By the time she was born, in 1887 in Kirkwood, Missouri, Moore’s father, John, had been committed to an insane asylum (she never met him) and her mother, Mary Warner Moore, had returned to her hometown with Marianne and her son, Warner. Mary Warner Moore had an unusually intense relationship with her children, telling them repeatedly, “Don’t forget that we three are ‘a peculiar people’…a people set apart.” Home life revolved around family, religion, academic study, and devotion to books. The Moores continually read aloud to one another.
In 1900 Mary began a relationship with a young English teacher, Mary Norcross. Norcross became family to Marianne, albeit in a family whose set-up was highly unusual. After 1901, when Mary Warner had surgery on her uterus, the siblings took on the responsibility of looking after her. The thirteen-year-old Marianne began dressing and feeding her mother. Marianne and Warner began calling themselves bachelor “brothers” to each other and “uncles” to Mary, their adopted orphan child, whom they called Fawn (or Bunny or Mouse). Norcross, Mary’s lover, was Beaver. The catered-to, helpless mother’s concerns were paramount: Warner (Fish or Badger or Bible) and Marianne (Rat or Basilisk) remained “brothers” to each other and guardian “uncles” to Mary for the rest of their lives.
Between 1905 and 1909 Moore attended Bryn Mawr, where she began to publish poems, short stories, and criticism. In 1910, Norcross left Mary Warner Moore for another woman, and Marianne moved back home to look after her devastated mother. The household resumed its den-like intimacy. (Moore went on to live with Mary, usually sharing her bed, until Mary died in 1947, when Marianne was fifty-nine.) Marianne wrote and worked part-time as a librarian. Introducing Observations, Eliot noted:
Miss Moore’s poems form part of the small body of durable poetry written in our time; of that small body of writings, among what passes for poetry, in which an original sensibility and alert intelligence and deep feeling have been engaged in maintaining the life of the English language.
She won the Dial Award in 1924 and the following year took over The Dial, which she edited until 1929 (and in those four years wrote no poems). She was instrumental in setting the course for modernism, publishing, reviewing, and corresponding with everyone: Cummings, Frost, Eliot, Auden, Pound, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy, HD, William Carlos Williams.
At Bryn Mawr she had been infatuated with Peggy James, William James’s daughter (and Henry James’s niece). Reading Moore’s letters it’s clear that this relationship was the defining love, outside the family, of her life. And there wasn’t much outside her family: Mary dominated Marianne’s life to an astonishing degree, even visiting Bryn Mawr to evaluate and “court” Peggy. After that, Marianne had no further romantic interests in men or women, presumably so she wouldn’t have to share them with her mother. She took years to forgive Warner for his marriage, which both sundered the tripartite family and left her with the sole responsibility for their mother. Mary referred to herself and Marianne as a “young couple,” and her interests extended to her daughter’s work: she was fully engaged in Marianne’s writing, editing it and even contributing lines.
In “Picking and Choosing,” Moore writes, “If he must give an opinion, it is permissible that the/critic should know what he likes,” and what I like is the Moore who lets us glimpse her rage. She is one of the great poets of secret contempt. Images of concealment, of loneliness, of enforced conformity recur: “you have lived and lived on every kind of shortage” (“Sojourn in the Whale”). She exists as she does “from motives of expediency” (“Dock Rats”), but there is resistance. She will not be contained. As she says in her poet-as-carrot poem, “Radical” (the title’s etymological root is itself Latin for “root”), “that which it is impossible to force, it is impossible/to hinder.” One thinks of Stevens’s definition of poetry as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without.”
Moore’s emotional material is so radioactive that she can only work with it from a distance, but in any event we feel it: she understands that “only the most rudimentary sort of behavior [is] necessary/to put us on the scent.” She writes in “To a Giraffe” that “it is unpermissible, in fact fatal/to be personal and undesirable//to be literal,” but as she knows, a poem is an agent of metaphor, and is helplessly both personal and literal; it is vehicle and tenor. And since certain tropes appear often in the work (armor, nocturnal creatures, manners, claws, America trying to throw off its colonizer), it is impossible not to read them as the poet’s terms of existence, her constricted ways of being in the world. The poems about secrets, defensiveness, and deprivation are revelations about the lengths the poet’s self must go to in order to survive. “To a Giraffe” continues: “one can live only on top leaves that are small/reachable only by a beast that is tall.” Another speaker’s “feigned inconsequence/of manner” is the “weapon” of “self protectiveness.”
In Moore, the rage is latent, glimpsed in the depths, and it is thrilling when the constructive ambiguity gives way to destructive clarity: “when you take my time, you take something/I had meant to use.” Here is “To a Steam Roller,” in its entirety:
is nothing to you without the
You lack half wit. You crush all
the particles down
into close conformity, and
walk back and forth on
Sparkling chips of rock
are crushed down to the level of
the parent block.
Were not “impersonal judgment
matters, a metaphysical
might fairly achieve
it. As for butterflies, I can hardly
of one’s attending upon you,
the congruence of the
complement is vain, if it
The stanzas are not self-contained and the lineation and enjambments contribute to a peculiar sense of breathlessness when we read. We don’t know where to stop. There is the hint at an oppressive domestic narrative, and the ranging of tone that Moore excels in: the insult (“you lack half wit”), the ambiguous and demotic “fairly,” the inkhorn declaration about aesthetic matters, the awkward repetition of “crush…down” and “crushed down.” And then the argument’s winning line, which appears immediately decisive and yet takes a while to grasp in full. It suggests that butterflies and steamrollers do not belong together, but if they are together, to question the compatibility or harmony of the arrangement is pointless.
It’s hard not to see Moore as the butterfly attending to the steamroller of her mother, or Moore as the sparkling chip crushed by “the parent block.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Moore distrusted psychoanalysis (“Psychology which explains everything/explains nothing”). But few readers of Moore will be able to cleanly separate life from work. In her astute biography, Holding On Upside Down (2013), Linda Leavell observes that “the mother exacted from her adult daughter the emotional subservience of a young child. Marianne had no place to hide—except in her poems.” The domestic oppression raised a political consciousness, and Moore is clearer on the other things that she must suffer through: the breaking down of social order, the imposition of the patriarchy. “Men have power/and sometimes one is made to feel it.” The aura of oppression in the work is also transmuted into a deep sadness at something unfulfilled: the poet
is reclusive, and reserved; and has
ways, not because he has no
feeling but because he has so
Survival depended on restraint. Those lines have an elegant rhythm: the frequent pauses and the accumulating buildup of stresses on “has such/ways” mean that the last line, the admission, comes as a rhythmic release as much as a psychological one.
Anger is also ironized, and Moore is often funny. (“Sweden,/what makes the people dress that way/and those who see you wish to stay?”) In 1924 she defined marriage, in a poem of the same title (written after Scofield Thayer, the co-owner of The Dial, unexpectedly proposed to her), as an “amalgamation which can never be more/than an interesting impossibility.” By 1928, in a letter to Warner, she held to a more cynical meaning: marriage for some couples is “a question of which could get the jointly acquired loot from the other without being shot or blackmailed.” She may, though, have felt matrimony a possibility after her mother died in 1947. She requested the engraver of her mother’s headstone to put her own name on the stone also but leave “a space for a line beneath it (above my date of birth) were a line ever to be inserted there, designating marriage.”
Moore lived on as a revered and much-loved poet until 1972, a quarter-century after her mother’s death. The critics were almost unanimous in their admiration for her work. Pound celebrated it as “poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and characters,” but though there are masterpieces (“The Paper Nautilus,” for example) in the last thirty years of her writing life, and plenty of very fine poems, the later work, beginning with the collection What Are Years (1941), becomes less ambiguous and ambitious, and more sententious: “What is our innocence,/what is our guilt? All are/naked, none is safe”; “Shall/we never have peace without sorrow?” At times there’s a strained reaching for the reassuring epigram (“Because the heart is in it all is well”) or even inadvertent comedy worthy of William McGonagall: “O/quiet form upon the dust, I cannot/look and yet I must.”
The ongoing battle in Moore between submission and defiance (“an animal with claws wants to have to use/them”) is embodied in the revising she did as well. In the end, submission won. Moore thought her earlier poems needed to be less obscure, and she edited to clarify them. “Poetry” got whittled down over the years from twenty-nine lines to three:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a
contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Moore described the rest of the poem as “padding,” and it’s true that the lines were in parts self-contradictory and hard to explicate, but that, surely, was the point: they showed a consciousness at war with itself, demonstrating simultaneously the pointlessness, strangeness, and necessity of poetry. The poem was “maintaining many minds” (“An Octopus”). At the same time as she wants poetry to be “above/insolence and triviality” she can’t resist, in one version of the poem, listing animals in those states:
holding on upside down or in
quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild
horse taking a roll, a tireless
Insolence is resistance, triviality is detail. As she writes in “The Steeplejack”: “it is a privilege to see so/much confusion.”
Whereas the earlier Moore widened the remits for poetic technique, sources, and diction, striking new tones and atmospheres, the later Moore was concerned that certain decencies of subject matter be respected. In 1952, she wrote to Allen Ginsberg that she found too much “sweat, skin, feces, sperm, saliva, odor” in his work. “The subject-matter of poetry is…the life that is lived in the scene that it composes,” Stevens writes, and reading Moore one feels that the life was circumscribed and stilted, did not climb clear of its wrong beginnings (in Larkin’s phrase). The poems are all withdrawal and probity, but we also want sensuality, the tactility of things, a revelation of the profound physicality of the world and other beings. Reading Moore’s body of work, it is hard not to want more of the blunt engagement and courage that wrote “To be Liked by You Would be a Calamity” (“You tell me frankly that you would like to feel/My flesh beneath your feet,/I’m all abroad; I can but put my weapon up, and/Bow you out”) and less of the sensibility that excised that poem from her canon after 1924.
But every so often in Moore’s later poems there’s something new, something cool and direct that arrests us. (One is reminded of Moore’s brother’s writing advice to “starve it down and make it run.”) “By Disposition of Angels” demonstrates hard generalities of death and knowledge: it’s a poem of self-annihilation, of retreating from the explicable. It feels like an author, in Yeats’s phrase, recovering “radical innocence.” She writes of the night sky: “Above particularities,/These unparticularities praise cannot violate,” and “how by darkness a star is perfected.” Instead of the relentlessness of “accuracy,” Moore enters Yeats’s heaven where “ice burned and was but the more ice,” where knowledge of others and self-knowledge could exist equably, in nondefinition and paradox, both “steady” and “a-quiver”:
Steadier than steady, star dazzling
me, live and elate,
No need to say, how like some
we have known; too like her,
Too like him, and a-quiver