MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
What should one call a new edition of Marianne Moore’s poetry? What can one call it, given the titles of her books that have been or are currently in use? During her life there were books of her poems called Poems (1921), Selected Poems (1935), Collected Poems (1951), and Complete Poems (1967). After her death came a revised version of Complete Poems (1981), and the Poems of Marianne Moore (2003). Looking over this list a reader might wonder what is left to do with a body of work already selected, collected, and presented complete several times over. The answer is that “selected” is the only adjective that accurately describes any book of Moore’s work thus far produced, or any that can be produced. Moore’s art has no straight path from beginning to end; there is no vantage point from which one can see it whole. She created new poems throughout her life, but she also created new arrangements of the old. At her direction major poems disappeared from print, early poems appeared in late collections, carefully planned series of poems were broken up and dispersed, and intricate stanzaic forms were truncated and left ragged as she revised her poems, sometimes out of all recognition.
Even in an age known for poets who reshaped their own work, Moore’s revisions are unique in their sheer number and in the length of time over which she persisted in making them. For Moore, the publication of a poem in a periodical, or the ordering of poems in a book, marked resting-places in her poetry’s development, not its final form. There is good reason to think that her own death is, in effect, only a particularly protracted pause in a process of revision that would otherwise have had no end. The complex, involuted textual history Moore left behind means that forty years after her death we have just begun to explore the ways her poems may be presented, and little about our view of her work as a poet is complete.
The outlines of her career, by contrast, are well known. She was born in 1887, in Kirkwood, Missouri. She and her brother, John Warner Moore (called Warner), were raised by their mother, Mary Warner Moore, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.1 Mrs. Moore, an educated and devout woman, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister; Moore’s brother Warner became a Navy chaplain. The tightly knit Moore household was unified by devotion to family, spiritual values, and academic study. Moore herself never married, and lived with her mother from 1910, when Moore was twenty-three, until Mrs Moore’s death in 1947.2 She began publishing her poems in student magazines during her undergraduate years at Bryn Mawr (1905–1909) and continued to publish them until her death in 1972.
Moore’s poetic maturity coincided with that of American Modernism, a movement in which she was a defining figure. Her poems appeared in its journals, both radical and established, and for four years, between 1925 and 1929, she edited the Dial, the most prestigious literary journal of its day. Her decisions in that role, about what to publish and from whom to solicit work, along with the hundreds of commentary pieces and book reviews she wrote, meant that her ideas directly shaped the literary landscape in which she and her peers worked. Among her friends, correspondents, and colleagues were Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and Langston Hughes. The next generation consciously challenged and enriched by her work includes John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, Robert Duncan, James Merrill, Lorine Niedecker, May Swenson, and countless others.
In the later decades of her life she had a career as a more popular public figure as well. In 1955 the Ford Motor Company invited her to suggest names for their new model (she gave them more than forty suggestions, including “Utopian Turtletop” and “Mongoose Civique”; they declined all of them and named it the “Edsel” instead). In 1963 she contributed to the liner notes for Muhammad Ali’s (then Cassius Clay’s) spoken-word album I am the Greatest!, and in 1968 she threw the first pitch of the season at Yankee Stadium, a privilege usually reserved for presidents and Hollywood celebrities. That late fame is now largely forgotten, founded as it was on a protective persona Moore developed and then inhabited until the end of her life: America’s beloved, eccentric maiden aunt, costumed in tri-corn hat and cape. There are many arresting and engaging photographs of Moore from that time, but they depict an artist far removed from the young, ambitious, driven, and voraciously intellectual poet who mattered to her Modernist peers and matters to poets today.
Moore’s private life was mismatched with the popular image of sexually free-wheeling and politically radical bohemian living in Greenwich Village of the 1920s. Nevertheless, she was drawn early to New York as a center of experimental and progressive art. She first visited the city in 1909, documenting her sense of being “bewitched, with pleasure” (Letters, 55) and “flourishing like a bay tree” (Letters, 57) in a series of letters to her mother and brother. When Moore visited New York City again, in December 1915, she was an informed cultural explorer, visiting Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue to see the latest in avant-garde art, and meeting the writers and editors who would become her friends and peers when she (and her mother) moved there for good in 1918. By 1925, having published several of her longest and best poems, and having assumed the editorship of the Dial, she was herself a writer and editor younger artists came to New York to meet.
Ten years later, in 1935, T. S. Eliot, an admirer of Moore’s work since he first published it in the London-based Egoist, edited and wrote an introductory essay for Moore’s Selected Poems. In this essay he articulates her value for him in definite terms:
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. (xiv)
Moore’s best readers have often been fellow poets, who, like Eliot, celebrate her artistry in uninflated, even technical terms. The precision of Moore’s poems taught her readers precision in their praise, as when William Carlos Williams writes “Miss Moore’s [work] holds its bloom today … by the aesthetic pleasure engendered when pure craftsmanship joins hard surfaces skillfully” (Williams, 315). Williams calls her craftsmanship “pure” for some of the same reasons Eliot calls her sensibility “original.” “Using the same materials as all others before her,” Williams writes, “[Moore] comes at it so effectively at a new angle as to throw out of fashion the classical conventional poetry to which one is used and puts her own and that about her in its place … [T]here is a multiplication, a quickening, a burrowing through, a blasting aside, a dynamization, a flight over” (Williams, 311). In his review of Selected Poems Wallace Stevens, like Eliot and Williams, suggests that the newness of Moore’s “angle” on poetry arises from the singular quality of her mind. “Instead of being intentionally one of the most original of contemporary or modern poets,” he writes, “she is merely one of the most truthful. People with a passion for the truth are always original” (Stevens, 780). Elizabeth Bishop, recalling her first reading of Observations, put in a succinct question her sense of Moore’s unlikeness to anyone preceding her: “Why had no one ever written about things in this clear and dazzling way before?” (Bishop, 123).
Readers’ sense of Moore’s uniqueness has not diminished over time. Her poems are as startling today as they were when they first appeared; Moore’s work sounds like no one else’s. At its best it appears to have no precedents, to disclose no influences, to move in a self-created field of metrical, syntactical, and referential energy. One of her work’s persistent themes is the fight to value singular things in the face of the world’s propensity to dismiss what it cannot easily categorize. Moore’s work, especially of the 1920s, defends against many names people give to that which they don’t wish to take seriously: “idiosyncrasy,” “peculiarity,” “curio,” “delightful happenstance,” and so on. She understood all of these as potential synonyms for her poetry, and some of them have actually been used to describe it. Moore was working in no previously discovered vein of poetics when she wrote her poems, and in the decades following their publication they have gained new generations of admirers but almost no imitators.
The tension latent between Bishop’s terms of praise, “clear” and “dazzling,” suggests why this has been so. Moore’s poems are “clear” in the sense that they present for inspection real objects, immediately recognizable as parts of the everyday world, that are nevertheless transformed by the poet’s minute attention to them. Moore is her century’s greatest poet of visual analogy, as when she describes a cat’s whiskers as “shadbones regularly set about his mouth, to droop or rise//in unison like the porcupine’s quills” (45), or notes that the ostrich’s “comic duckling head on its/great neck, revolves with compass-/needle nervousness”(151), or describes how “a sea the purple of the peacock’s neck is/paled to greenish azure as Dürer changed/the pine green of the Tyrol to peacock blue and guinea grey” (93). Moore’s poems value looking at the world as a form of experience in itself, reporting in exact terms on what is to be found by paying attention.
Careful descriptive discriminations are also one of Moore’s keenest ironic tools when she has a point to make about human behavior. Are Americans “students” or merely “undergraduates”? What is the difference between living with “too much” and with “abundance”? Is marriage an “institution” or an “enterprise”? Moore structures some of her best poems around shades of meaning as finely differentiated as any of the visual detail she observes.
Yet another part of Moore’s poems’ “clarity” lies in the consistent presence of her authorial voice as she describes and thinks about the world. Her poems are often in first-person singular (“I too, dislike it,”  her poem on poetry notoriously begins). Even when they are not in the first person, the effect of a unified, particular, personal perspective pervades her poems first to last. Moore’s “I” is rarely a persona, and her poems in the third person are not written by a detached observer. “A/black savage or such/as was subject to the/deer-fur Crown is not all brawn/and animality” (135) we are firmly informed in “Virginia Britannia,” by the same poet who notes in “The Jerboa” that
the conqueror sent
from Rome. It should mean the
untouched: the sand-brown jumping-rat—free-born; and
the blacks, that choice race with an elegance
ignored by one’s ignorance.
While such clarities of the eye and voice are touchstones throughout Moore’s work, they are also part of its simultaneous “dazzlement,” the poems’ sometimes overwhelming complexities of statement, form, and metaphor. If clarity allows us to see better, dazzlement, however exciting, may mean we can hardly see at all. It is seldom easy to say what a Moore poem as a whole is about, even when it comes with a seemingly straightforward title. Moore was serious, but also witty, and not above liking to shock her readers. Her titles range from the brisk (“Bowls,” “Novices”) to the comically gigantic: she titled an early poem “So far as the future is concerned, ‘Shall not one say, with the Russian philosopher, “How is one to know what one doesn’t know?”’ So far as the present is concerned.”
Her poem “Poetry” (27) is pointedly catholic about the range of things appropriate to be subjects of poetry, including “the baseball/ fan, the statistician […] business documents and//school-books,” and she lived that precept, writing with equal ease about steamrollers, snails, New York, racehorses, unicorns, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Yul Brynner (to choose examples at random). Her own best commentary on the wild heterogeneity of her poetic materials is the impish “Index” she prepared for Observations. A sample (chosen, again, at random) from the “S” section lists:
SOJOURN IN THE WHALE, 35, 298
Southey, R., 302
spectrum, a fish, 16; as food, 7
Spenser, E., 307
spider fashion, 72, 305; returning, 60
STATECRAFT EMBALMED, TO, 25
Statue of Liberty, 133
Moore’s poems are often studded with quotations, pieces of found language from the books, newspapers, and magazines Moore read in quantity. John Ashbery, in writing about “An Octopus,” calls it the greatest of her poems and describes its author “tacking imperturbably among excerpts from Ruskin, the Illustrated London News, the London Graphic, The National Parks Portfolio and a remark overheard at the circus” (111).
Moore’s poems compass floods of detailed images, only occasionally making connections between them explicit for the reader. Understanding a Moore poem means keeping pace with her own exactingly nimble mind. For example, the unwary reader of “Marriage” might be surprised to encounter this description of Adam:
something colubrine”—how true!
a crouching mythological monster
in that Persian miniature of emerald mines,
raw silk—ivory white, snow white,
oyster white and six others—
that paddock full of leopards and giraffes—
long lemon-yellow bodies
sown with trapezoids of blue.
Moore’s notes on the poem will not help; they report only that the quoted lines about “something feline, something colubrine” come from a book review in the New Republic. The first three lines suggest that Adam is alluring and dangerous, catlike and snakelike, poised to spring and so rare and unfamiliar as to seem “mythological.” The lines that follow, however, veer sharply into an aesthetic reverie in which the literal referent is private (what Persian miniature? does it contain raw silk in nine shades of white and a paddock of leopards and giraffes as well as an emerald mine, or is the poet recalling a series of artworks?). In the absence of answers to these questions all that is present to the reader is the poet’s pleasure in detail, in workmanship, and in the sensuous possibilities of color. To the extent that the lines are unified by anything it is by the intensity of that pleasure, expressed most strongly by the last two lines’ resolution into a regular trochaic pulse enriched with alliterative “l”s and assonant “o”s.
The reader who, like F. R. Leavis in 1935, finds herself “defeated and exasperated” (Gregory, 110) by the quick motions of Moore’s sidelong, associative method, will not be consoled by many of the usual pleasures of poetic form. With respect to meter Moore’s poems usually follow strict and strange rules of her own invention. Her characteristic unit of poetic measurement is the syllable rather than the foot; her stanzas are syllabic grids, shaped to please the eye rather than reward the ear. Through those grids her long, hypotactic sentences flow with a syntactical music distinct from their metrical scansion. The poems nearly always rhyme, but Moore’s parenthetical qualification on the subject must be taken seriously: “after 1929—perhaps earlier—[I] wrote no verse that did not (in my opinion) rhyme” (Reader, xvi). The last three stanzas of “The Fish” (39–40) neatly exemplify her characteristic form, and suggest why her use of rhyme might seem like a matter of opinion:
marks of abuse are present on
all the physical features of
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm side is
evidence has proved that it can
on what cannot revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.
Each stanza of “The Fish” follows the same pattern of syllable count, indentation, and rhyme. A schematic representation of these elements might look like this:
Such patterning of language calls attention to itself, and in particular to its arbitrariness. It does not call back to a history of other poems written in the same form. It does not arrange its words into recognizable units of meaning (as, say, do the quatrains and couplet of a Shakespearian sonnet). Its rhyme scheme is difficult to hear out loud, hard to see unless one is looking for it, and based purely on phonemes: “ac” rhymes with “lack,” a fact of the ear that in itself means little to the mind. Partly on the basis of Moore’s choice to rhyme words on conjunctions like “and” (and/stand), and participial suffixes like “-ed” (dead/repeated), T. S. Eliot called Moore “the greatest living master” of light rhyme. Opinion differed on that point; even an early admirer of Moore’s “invariably interesting” poems like Edith Sitwell was driven to wonder “why end a line—and sometimes a stanza—in the middle of a word? Miss Moore is too good of a poet to do that kind of thing” (Gregory, 35). Moore herself, in thanking Eliot for his introduction, wrote:
I might tell you with regard to my froward rhymes that my mother acknowledges being converted from what for years has been an aggrieved sense of the family gone astray. When a friend recently noted my “using no rhymes,” she said, “don’t enlighten him.” (Letters, 329)
Moore was not “froward,” however. Her nearly inaudible rhymes, along with her lack of interest in both end-stopped and conventionally enjambed lines, remained integral parts of her work’s topography, in which the sentence and the image, rather than the stanza and the word, function as magnetic poles. Moore’s form was not the trick of a young attention-seeker, but the preternaturally accomplished artistry of a poet for whom the sound and sense of words were always to have equal, though sometimes competing and seemingly inharmonious claims. Moore’s early poems are unapologetic about form that looks ungainly to the uninitiated. In “Diligence is to Magic as Progress is to Flight” (18), for example, she praises laborious travel by elephants rather than the “semblance of speed” attaching to magic carpets. She calls the latter “scarecrows/of aesthetic procedure”:
With an elephant to ride upon—“with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,”
she shall outdistance calamity anywhere she goes.
Speed is not in her mind inseparable from carpets. Locomotion arose
in the shape of an elephant; she clambered up and chose
to travel laboriously. So far as magic carpets are concerned, she knows
that although the semblance of speed may attach to scarecrows
of aesthetic procedure, the substance of it is embodied in such of those
tough-grained animals as have outstripped man’s whim to suppose
them ephemera, and have earned that fruit of their ability to endure blows,
which dubs them prosaic necessities—not curios.
Moore’s identification of “the substance of aesthetic procedure” with whatever is able to “endure blows” and earn the title “prosaic necessities—not curios” is a mission statement of sorts for her work up through the 1930s. These poems often thematize her commitment to formal innovation, however unconventional, and her belief in it as the only way to create what will last. In her eye beauty and resilience are one: “Black Earth” admires the elephant’s thick skin for being “cut/into checkers by rut/upon rut of unpreventable experience” (41). “Roses Only” tells a rose approvingly that its thorns, “Guarding the/infinitesimal pieces of your mind […] are the best part of you” (37). The creation of an original, densely worked, highly controlled formal structure was at the heart of Moore’s poetry and the reason she is lastingly important. Her poems through the 1930s derive their power from the tension they create between the poet’s exquisite attunement to the pleasures of sound and the strictness of the form she employs to concentrate and refine that pleasure. The poems are also closely concerned with questions of morality, but those questions function as Robert Frost says subject matter, in a real poem, must: as the “dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter” out of which arise “endless possibilities for tune” (Frost, 776).
By the early 1940s, however, her poetic priorities had changed, as had a number of circumstances in her life. 1940 was a hard year for Moore. She suffered significant professional disappointments, including primarily Macmillan’s rejection of a novel on which she had worked in secret for at least a decade.4 Right after that rejection Selected Poems, the book in which T. S. Eliot made his case for her work’s membership in “the small body of durable poetry written in our time,” was remaindered. She was also, for the first time in at least a decade, having trouble finding an audience for her new work: her most recent poems were being rejected by the Atlantic and the New Yorker, magazines with the wider reading audience she now sought. Her letters from this time frequently mention her own and her mother’s ill-health, and show how much of Moore’s time was devoted to caring for her mother. The war, and the United States’s potential involvement in it, troubled Moore deeply. Throughout the late thirties she corresponded about the rise of Fascism with her European-based friend and patron Bryher (an artist, philanthropist, and the companion of the poet H.D.), and was an early and impassioned partisan of European Jews.
These pressures, and most especially her commitment to the Allied cause, are evident in her next book, 1941’s What Are Years. The title poem meditates on the nature of individual courage against the implicit backdrop of war, beginning with a stark assessment: “What is our innocence,/what is our guilt? All are/naked, none is safe” (147). The book’s final poem, “The Paper Nautilus,” ends with an ode to maternal love, calling it “the only fortress/strong enough to trust to” (158). Moore had always been an epigram-maker, but in the 1940s the epigrams began to drive the poems’ attention to sensuous detail and expressive form, rather than the other way around.
Moore’s poems through the 1930s have urgent things to say about the world, but they understand the complexity of their forms as part of what they need to say. After the 1940s, by contrast, Moore increasingly prioritized saying what she thought her readers ought to hear in the simplest terms she could manage. Readers’ responses to that change varied widely when it happened, as they still do today. Peers equally as ardent about her work as W. H. Auden and Randall Jarrell, for example, split sharply. Writing about Moore’s 1944 war poem “In Distrust of Merits” Auden called it “the best” of all recent war poems, and “a surprise to those who think of Miss Moore as a poet incapable of, or too reticent to employ, the organ note” (Gregory, 138). Jarrell, while asserting his ongoing admiration of Moore, calls the same poem a collection of “abstractions she is unfamiliar with and finds it hard not to be heroic about” and “a mistake we sympathize with thoroughly” (Gregory, 141).
Whatever one thinks of it, the shift in her poems’ emphasis has had enormous repercussions for her reputation. Nearly 60 percent of the poems she chose to reprint in her Complete Poems, which has been the text of record since its first publication in 1967, were written after 1940 (the figure for the present edition is closer to 45 percent). Moreover, the poems from the twenties and thirties that she did reprint in 1967 are often extensively revised versions of their originals. In other words, Moore frequently did what she could to turn her poems written before the 1940s into poems she would have written later. The end result is that Moore has been widely misperceived as primarily a (witty, but nonetheless insistent) moralist, and this has happened because she took pains to ensure it would.
By the 1950s Moore was publicly disavowing her earlier work, in person and in print. In 1950 she introduced a talk at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with what would become a standard joke, saying she would read some “verse,” but would “scruple to call it poetry” (Leavell, 341).5 Such charming self-deprecation made her audiences laugh and augmented her growing popularity, but she was serious about it, ominously so for those readers who valued the complexities of which she made light. In a 1951 letter to a family member she referred disparagingly to her poems of the teens, twenties, and thirties, the poems that made her name and on which her achievement still rests, as “my ‘cats and dogs’ of former days,” calling them “hard reading” (Leavell, 344). In editing her 1951 Collected Poems she pared away many brilliant early poems, and printed revised (which nearly always meant shortened) versions of many more. She repeated the process in editing her 1967 Complete Poems, further pruning and shaping (or truncating and deforming, depending on one’s perspective) her oeuvre.
* * *
The complex history of Moore’s revisions requires a separate essay, which can be found within the “Editor’s Notes” to this volume. That essay also lays out in detail the work I have done in selecting and arranging the contents of this book. In essence, however, my aim is simple: I have here presented Moore’s poems as they were when she first wrote and published them, not as she later revised them. In her own collections Moore treated her early work as ephemeral forms of what it later became. I have reversed her procedure, treating later revisions as footnotes to the original poems.
My underlying belief (which I share with Moore herself) is that there are at least two major Moores: pre- and post-war. Where Moore sought to bring the former into line with the latter, however, I have worked to keep them distinct. The reader who values Moore’s late achievements, including the way she refashioned her earlier work, can find them here. The reader in search of the poet Moore was before she changed her mind about many important things will find her here as well. That poet whom Eliot, Stevens, Williams, and Bishop loved has been substantially, increasingly lost with each passing decade since 1951, when Moore herself began her long erasure. An accurate assessment not only of Moore’s work, but of the Modernist culture she helped create, requires that we come to terms with the poet she was in the beginning. It is not too late to bring her back.
Copyright © 2017 by The Estate of Marianne Moore
Introduction and editorial matter copyright © 2017 by Heather Cass White