The Cold Eye of Marianne Moore

New Collected Poems

by Marianne Moore, edited by Heather Cass White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 453 pp., $30.00
The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
Marianne Moore and her mother, Mary Warner Moore, Brooklyn, 1946; photograph by Cecil Beaton

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…

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