ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 17

 - Marianne Moore


The poetry of Marianne Moore is considered alongside its preoccupations with gender, American culture, and nature. The poem “A Grave” is presented as characteristic of the prose rhythms and discursive manner of Moore’s poems, including their use of expository language without meter or rhyme. The poem “England” is read as a defense of American culture, in opposition to the Eurocentricism of Eliot, Pound, and other modernists. In the poem “An Octopus,” Moore makes use of excerpts from pamphlets and other unusual prose sources to suggest that inspiration is not limited to any one voice or to literary models.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 17 - Marianne Moore

Chapter 1. Women in Modernist Literary Culture [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: I was wanting to carry over more Williams today. Poor Williams, he only got a day, like Langston Hughes, but it’s hard to give everybody their day. And I think on reflection I’d rather give two full lectures to Marianne Moore because first of all, she’s a difficult poet. “Oh good,” you’re saying, “as opposed to all these other people.” She’s difficult in a different way, and in some ways she doesn’t seem difficult, as you get started, but she’s idiosyncratic and I’d like to give her a chance to get your attention and give you a chance to learn how to read her.

It also strikes me that we haven’t read a lot of women poets in this course, have we? We’ve read H.D., but that’s really about it so far. The giants of modern poetry, they’re men: Yeats, Eliot and company. Moore has a claim to stature like theirs. I think she is a remarkable poet, and one who interestingly, I think, has had as much or perhaps even more practical influence and effect over the development of poetry since modernism, as much or more than any of the poets we’ve been reading. The general question of the position of women and of women poets in modern poetry is interesting and important, and an important context for thinking about Moore. Women in the modernist literary culture that we’ve been studying are identified very frequently with popular and gentile forms of writing and taste; think about Hart Crane complaining to Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine, as if she’s just too square to get it. This is not an unusual attitude. Women are associated to a degree with political writing of the period, certain kinds of experimental writing, and also above all with the legacy of the nineteenth-century poetess. James Joyce said The Waste Land “ended the idea of poetry for ladies”; this is its achievement. Poor ladies!

Well, you maybe get the idea in Joyce’s comment that here was a poem that broke with a nineteenth-century culture of poetry that was in certain ways feminized, at least as imagined here by Joyce and certainly by other modern poets. At the same time you can think about the very rich and complicated role of women in The Waste Land in order to get some sense of the complexity of the position of women in modern poetry in general. Think of the ways in which Eliot as a poet draws on female speakers and female voices and, you might say, even aspires to sound like Isolde or Philomel or, well, one of his own inventions in “The Fire Sermon.” In general, you could say that the modern poets we’ve been reading aggressively and self-consciously masculinize poetry, in particular by trying to disassociate poetry from what is commercial, polite, soft, dreamy, ideal, leisured – all qualities and attitudes gendered in their imagination – and instead connect poetry to what is technically rigorous, advanced, learned, unsentimental, hard, and often hard work: terms that are, again, clearly gendered. H.D. in her own distinctive way is also doing this, taking part in this.

Modern poetry wanted to make poetry culturally central and powerful, to reposition it, to achieve for it the power to define and describe culture. And this was very often, as I’m suggesting, played out in very gendered terms, trying to claim for poetry a set of capacities that were strongly gendered in these poets’ imaginations. At the same time this desire, as I’m saying, is conflicted and complicated, and we need only think of Eliot’s case, but you could look back to Yeats’s relationship to women speakers, his own complicated set of identifications with them, and so on.

How does Marianne Moore fit in this? What did it mean for her to be a modern poet and a woman? These are questions that I’ll take up today, first of all addressing this question specifically of, well, what did it mean to write from the position of a woman, for Moore? And then I want to go on and talk about Moore as an American poet, which she was self-consciously, and then to begin to talk about Moore as a nature poet, which she also was.

Chapter 2. Marianne Moore Poem: “A Grave” [00:07:00]

Let’s get started by looking at one of her earliest publications, a poem that like many of the other important early poems by these poets appeared in Poetry magazine, this time I think in 1919; I’m not sure, I’ll check the date. I’m talking about the poem called “A Grave” on page 440.

[“A Grave”, entire poem]

It’s a great poem and it’s a poem that announces a speaker that sounds like no one else, and sounds like certainly no one we have been reading. Think about “The Seafarer,” another poem about the sea. How did that sound? “Bitter breast-cares have I abided, nigh on the night-watch.” You remember Pound’s sonorous and even perhaps ponderous, heroic Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, which I talked about as, in Pound’s case, a deliberate and interesting evasion of iambic pentameter norms – blank verse as a kind of model for heroic speech. Well, so is this, but it sounds nothing like that. It’s on the other end of the spectrum, right? It sounds like what? Prose, in certain ways; a remarkable, elevated prose, but prose, prose that uses words like “consciousness” or “volition,” “however.” When was the last time you saw a poem that said “however”? It really announces a speaker who is using a kind of expository language. There are Latinate words. There’s obviously no meter and rhyme.

At the same time there is a developed and, as almost always in Moore, intricate formal design, an idiosyncratic formal design that is operating in the poem, but almost secretly. What’s it look like on the page? A lot of long lines, right? A lot of long lines, some of which run over. Well, this, like other Moore poems, is a poem structured around counting syllables per line and counting, in fact, numbers of lines. This is not a kind of formal organization that you hear, and it’s even difficult to see, but it’s an operative one for her and it’s one of the ways in which she organizes her verse. It’s as if Moore has in some sense set up her own rules, clung to them, and kept them secret. She doesn’t always keep them secret; sometimes they’re quite conspicuous and even flashy in certain poems in their designs. But here it’s quite inconspicuous.

What you have is a poem that is made up of two eleven-line groups, two eleven-line stanzas or paragraphs, each beginning with a short seven-syllable line: “Man looking into the sea,” “for their bones have not lasted.” This is the pattern that structures the poem. In all these ways that I’m describing – the syllable count, the expository writing, the Latinate diction, the self-conscious, prose-like nature of the language, all those semi-colons – this is poetry that has distanced itself from traditions of song, and certainly from nineteenth-century traditions of versification. The form of the poem is, again, not something you see or even hear necessarily. It’s there almost as a kind of absence.

Now, there’s also, wonderfully, a certain combativeness. Moore is a combative and pugnacious poet. You, again, may not see this immediately because of the poem’s impersonality, the way in which it seems to present itself and the often intricate forms of syntax or oblique approach. But she is a fighter, and this poem is really a kind of fighting that we’re seeing. The poem begins in irritation. It begins as a complaint – a complaint that’s addressed to whom? To man; “Man looking into the sea.” “Man” suggests, well, maybe humankind. You think about the people on the shore in Frost’s poem, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” who are standing there looking out at the water.

Well, Moore might be addressing them. But I think there’s a more specific and particular “man” that is the irritant that sets the poem going: a man, the figure of a man who, like a romantic poet, has arrogated to himself the position to take in the view, to stand like the figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting and gaze into the sublime. Meanwhile, Moore is somewhere else. Where is she? She’s somewhere behind him, because he’s blocked her view: “Man looking into the sea, / taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to yourself.” Well, “it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,” she says, trying to make sense of this. Moore has a couple of comments here that describe the origins of this poem. It’s the first quotation on your handout. She says:

As for “A Grave,” it has a significance apart from the literal origin [but here is the literal origin], which was a man who placed himself between my mother and me, and the surf we were watching from the middle ledge of rocks on Monhegan Island after the storm. (“Don’t be annoyed,” my mother said. “It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing.”)

It is important that, however, Moore was annoyed. She was annoyed into poetry, you could say, and she took her mother with her. The poem is really written from the perspective of a daughter and mother, and a daughter with an intimate relationship to her mother who absorbs, here and very often elsewhere in her poetry, actual quotations from but even more importantly a style of speech and attitude associated with her mother, who talks a lot like Dr. Samuel Johnson or some other eighteenth-century figure and moralist like that. Mrs. Moore is someone whom Marianne always identified with herself. It’s significant here that Moore is using a quotation from her mother and not acknowledging it in any particular way, as if the two women had one voice and one perspective.

The man who blocks their point of view, and blocks their point of view, you could say, in many senses – their literal point of view of the water – but also the point of view he takes in effect ignores and suppresses theirs. He is standing in the posture, as I suggest, of a kind of conventional, romantic visionary staring into the sea, emblem of infinity. Well, it might be Hart Crane writing “At Melville’s Tomb,” although Crane wouldn’t write that poem for a few more years; and when he did, incidentally, he sent it to Marianne Moore, who was then the editor of The Dial, who sent it back and rejected it. Moore’s poem is, in fact, as I suggested, an early poem of hers and an early act of self-definition that’s quite important in both the impersonality of the point of view and yet the insistent individuality of that point of view. Moore’s poems are like this. They seem impersonal and yet they’re at the same time deeply personal and deeply individual.

Here she celebrates the power of the sea to resist the imposition of the observer’s will, or the will of the sailor or seafarer; you can even think of Odysseus or Pound’s seafarer. The sea is “a collector, quick to return a rapacious look”: i.e. if you want to take possession of the sea in some way, well, don’t think you can do that because this is a grander force than you and it will take you up and drown you, which is what the poem goes on to describe. The sea has here the force that it does in other great poems by Moore like “The Fish” or “Sojourn in the Whale.” It seems to stand for death. It is a grave; it is a grave in which you could say a certain idea of romantic and, I think, specifically male subjectivity is overcome and buried, shown its limits. In this poem the human, imagined finally as something that twists and turns in the depths, is converted by natural forces into a part of the natural world that it sought through the man’s perspective to dominate.

Moore sent this poem to Pound. These poets are always sending their poems to Pound. He responded with admiration in that second quotation there, and he says: “Thank God, [even though you are a woman] I think you can be trusted not to pour out a flood (in the manner of dear Amy [Lowell] and [Edgar Lee] Masters),” who though not a woman was a sentimental regionalist and not an international modernist. Pound is approving of Moore here. He approves that she does not gush, she does not emote. She has not written a sentimental poem. In fact, in certain ways she’s written an anti-sentimental poem. I think it’s important that Moore’s rhetorical choices have prevented her from doing so, that the poem has the kind of formal self-discipline it does. Again, these are aspects of restraint in the poetry. Moore is dry in all respects. At the same time, these are modernist values, values that Pound would describe in his Imagist manifesto and elsewhere. At the same time, Moore gets her dryness not by disavowing femininity or suppressing it or attacking it, as one of her peers might have. She does it, rather, specifically in this act of challenging “man.”

Let me look with you at the letter that Moore wrote to Pound in response that acts as a kind of, now, letter of introduction. And it has a lot of interesting things in it and it’s probably a good introduction to who she is for us, too. She says:

I was born in 1887 and brought up in the home of my grandfather, a clergyman of the Presbyterian church. [She comes from a Christian and God-fearing home.] I am Irish by descent [and that’s where some of the combativeness comes from], possibly Scotch also, but purely Celtic, was graduated from Bryn Mawr [where she knew and befriended H.D.]… and taught shorthand, typewriting…. [She’s worked for a living.] In 1916 my mother [Mary Warner Moore] and I left home in Carlisle to be with… [her brother, a] Chaplain of the battleship Rhode Island…. [There’s a lot of Christianity in the family. She says that she’s living with her mother in New York, and indeed she would spend the rest of her life living with her mother in New York, in Greenwich Village and in Brooklyn in a small apartment.] [C]ontrary to your impression, I am altogether blond and have red hair. [Pound had asked whether she was Ethiopian, after he read the poem “Black Earth”: read “Black Earth” and decide whether Marianne Moore is an Ethiopian.] [This is important. She says] …Any verse that I have written, has been an arrangement of stanzas, each stanza being an exact duplicate of every other stanza. [This is not always true but she claims it is.] I have occasionally been at pains to make an arrangement of lines and rhymes that I like repeat itself, but the form of the original stanza of anything I have written has been a matter of expediency, hit upon as being approximately suitable to the subject matter. The resemblance of my progress to your beginnings is an accident….

“I wasn’t influenced by you, Pound, when I started writing syllabic verse” because Pound had experimented with this himself. There’re a couple of ideas here that are important. First of all, that Moore identifies, as it were, two moments of creativity involved in the making of her poems. One is a moment of spontaneity and expediency in which lines, almost like some kind of channeled speech, arrive in a certain form, and then she makes that form in its contingency and accidentalness repeat itself. She goes on and what came by chance she repeats through will, through discipline. This is significant and it’s related to, well, her originality of form, which is something that, as it were, comes to her naturally and that she builds on self-consciously and through a kind of rigorous self-discipline.

She says then, “I do not appear.” She meant, “I don’t appear in literary periodicals; you can’t find my poems anywhere.” But the sentence itself is wonderfully suggestive and simple, “I do not appear.” And in fact, Moore does not appear very much in her poems. She is interestingly backgrounded or even invisible in her poems, in the ways that she is in “A Grave.” And then she says:

I grow less and less desirous of being published, produce less and have a strong feeling for letting alone what little I do produce. [And then she continues] …To capitalize the first word of every line is rather slavish [as they do in nineteenth-century poetry] and I have substituted small letters for capitals in the enclosed versions of the two poems that you have. [This is another sort of distinctive, formal choice Moore makes, not to capitalize her first lines – something Williams does, too.] …In “A Graveyard,” [she goes on, now talking about the poem “A Grave” (a grave is better than a graveyard, don’t you think?)] [the change] that I have made is to end of the line [the very end of the poem] as you suggest and for the sake of symmetry, have altered the arrangement of lines in the preceding stanzas. I realize that by writing consciousness and volition [this is the order of the words that Pound had proposed at the end of that poem] emphasis is obtained which is sacrificed by retaining the order which I have [that is, Moore’s order, “volition” and then “consciousness”], and I am willing to make the change, though I prefer the original order [which, in fact, ultimately she kept].

Let’s look at the end of the poem again. I’ll read from line 20:

[“A Grave,” lines 20-22]

Pound said, “Well, that ending just doesn’t quite do it. Why don’t you switch ‘consciousness’ and ‘volition’?” With what implication? That somehow “volition” is more important than “consciousness,” that it’s the last thing to go and the most dramatic thing to lose. Moore, however, insists: no, that’s not the case; it’s the other way around. “Consciousness” is more important than “volition.” In fact, that’s really what this whole poem is about, you could say. Pound wanted the emphasis, to take Moore’s word, that comes with stressing “volition” as most important and, in fact, volition is nothing but a kind of expression of emphasis. She says no, “consciousness” is more important, and as she does, she emphasizes it. She introduces another kind of emphasis, one associated not specifically with volition so much as the drama and power of consciousness, which she insists on here.

Chapter 3. Marianne Moore Poem: “England” [00:28:23]

Although Moore’s poem could be, in fact, read as a kind of rebuke in advance to Hart Crane and his poem “At Melville’s Tomb,” Moore, in fact, got to know and like Crane in the twenties, sometimes acting as his editor when he sent poems to The Dial for publication. She turned back “At Melville’s Tomb.” She accepted other poems. One poem she accepted, “The Wine Menagerie,” was a poem in quatrains. She accepted it and then converted the poem into free verse and reduced it by half its size. Crane accepted it, accepted this publication along with ten dollars, which he needed. But both Crane and Moore, like Williams, were, I think, self-consciously American poets, and their American-ness is important to how they define themselves as modern poets. And there is really in all of them a certain kind of combative, cultural nationalism, which has aesthetic and ethical implications.

As an example, let’s turn a page back and look at the poem “England.” Okay, the poem begins here as a series of national caricatures and then eventually it will move from these caricatures, which suggest ways of life and also aesthetic dispositions, ways of doing and thinking about art, I think; she’ll move from that to talk about America, and what is American. And this is, you could say, her real subject here.

[“England,”lines 1-10]

And then she will go on and describe America. She will go on and contrast everything that she has just caricatured in a polite but essentially negative way, in each of those cases, with the American, and specifically with American speech and American English.

[“England,”lines 10-18]

In other words, just because Americans who say “psalm” or “calm” sound like that instead of “psalm” or “calm,” that doesn’t mean they’re stupid or that the rest of America is.

[“England,”lines 18-22]

In other words, if you don’t think you can get poetry in America, you haven’t looked.

[“England,”lines 22-28]

It’s a wonderful poem. It’s a defense of America and American creativity, American language. It is an attack on Eurocentric, cultural snobs. At the same time, Moore is not only or merely adding America as one among other nations. Rather, America is the locality where this principle of hers is honored, a place that incorporates many other places, many other cultures, many other ways of feeling and thinking and speaking. This principle, the idea that inspiration has never been confined to one locality, to one place, affirms a kind of art that is not only a matter of high culture but that is also vernacular, regional, heterogeneous, popular, and includes in it all kinds of materials. And you remember the quotation I pointed to in the first day of class when I quoted from Moore’s poem “Poetry”? And she was talking about all the things that should go in poetry, even business documents and school books. Well, America is a place where you can put those things in poems.

This is a proud, also a comical principle. It’s a democratic principle for Moore. Is it maybe also a feminist one? I think so, in so far as Moore defines what is American as specifically and distinctively a non-hierarchical point of view: that is, not so much a woman’s point of view so much as a point of view that accommodates that of the woman among others, within a multiplicity of human perspectives and, in fact, non-human perspectives. She’s serious about including those cats and dogs.

Why is the poem called “England”? By incorporating the title into the first line of the poem, Moore makes it seem accidental. The device foregrounds Moore’s concision and practicality. Why waste any extra words on the title? Pound wants you to use no word that does not contribute to the presentation; okay, then we’ll make the title part of the presentation, too. The gesture is also of a piece, I think, with Moore’s distrust of hierarchy itself. She says, in effect, the title is not more important than the rest of the poem. It doesn’t stand outside it or above it, it’s just part of it; just as Moore found it slavish and probably pretentious to capitalize the first word of every line of verse. She wants to, in that sense, give dignity to the lowercase, to non-capital letters.

At the same time Moore is very wily and clever. England really is important here; that is, it’s not merely the first nation in an arbitrarily arranged list. She’s defending America and American English specifically against the noted superiority of England and English literature, where of course Pound, Eliot, Frost and others had gone to establish themselves as poets. And to this extent she’s saying that the title is not so important that it stands above the poem; England is not so important that it stands over and above America. And in this sense the title, in fact, turns out to be important and to give us important information, because she’s out here to make England less important and to deny it its pride of place.

Chapter 4. Marianne Moore Poem: “An Octopus” [00:35:58]

Well, we’ve got just a few minutes left to start a long, difficult and truly marvelous poem called “An Octopus” that exemplifies Moore as a nature poet and exemplifies many of the distinctive features of her writing. Again, this is on page 441. The title of the poem is the first line. We might think that this is going to be a poem about an octopus. Well, not exactly. In effect, the title is a kind of riddle that the poem will go on and explain and expand on. It’s a poem about Mount Rainier, Mount Rainier where Moore went with her brother John in 1922, that same year that Joyce published Ulysses and Eliot ended the idea of poetry for ladies in The Waste Land.

The poem involves a kind of essential contradiction which it works through in complex ways. On the one hand, the mountain that Moore calls an octopus, that she’s writing about here, is something that is exactly “other.” It’s outside the poet; it’s out there, like the sea in “A Grave.” It’s objectified; it’s something Moore has to stand apart from, perhaps try to conquer in the form of climbing it or conquer in the form of representing it in her writing. And yet, in the course of the poem, the mountain and its glacier, which is really the octopus that she’s talking about, is something that Moore identifies herself with, that comes to look like Moore in certain ways. It comes to be identified with the force of her art. So, it’s both a kind of version of herself and it’s a version of something “other,” too.

The poem is filled with an extraordinary and bewildering detail that evokes the natural world as one of extraordinary and bewildering detail. At the same time, it combines and creates a fantastic collage of quotation from a wild variety of sources. It’s hard to know where to start and stop in this poem, what its parts are. It’s a question that, in a sense, Moore is asking about the mountain itself. There’s in general a kind of analogy throughout the poem between the mountain and the woman who admires it, whose mind itself can seem octopus-like, and reaches out in these long tentacle-like lines to grasp the world, make it her own, freeze it in poetic language, even while she’s insisting on the wonderful otherness of the world.

I won’t start reading now at the end of class but let me say a couple of further things about the poem and ask you to re-read it, and to, knowing that it’s hard, re-read it more than once, and maybe not continuously. It’s a very hard poem to read continuously. Be sure to read the last paragraph of it carefully that begins on page 444.

And let me say something before we stop about quotation. You remember that the sea in “A Grave” mocked the rapacious collector. Moore herself was a great collector. She collected, among other things, quotations. She engrosses them; she gathers them to her; she masters her reading. She brings them into this poem in, as I say, a kind of collage. It gives the poem a kind of, well, a very strange polyvocality. There’s many, many voices here. Think of The Waste Land. Well, Moore rivals it in this poem; many voices that again democratically allow for, you could say, multiple perspectives, multiple kinds of material.

Unlike The Waste Land, Moore is not quoting only high art sources by and large; well, Eliot has his popular culture, too, but we know that it’s pretty much a high culture poem. Well, Moore is making her poem out of magazines, out of a pamphlet from The National Parks Portfolio, through her reading in Ruskin and many other sources. And it treats those various texts, you could say, non-hierarchically, without a kind of regard to generic valuations. She doesn’t play off high and low as Eliot does in “A Game of Chess,” for example.

It makes the sources of poetic language and of poetry continuous with ordinary life, her activities of reading; and at the same time, it makes Moore’s inspiration deeply personal, because who else but Marianne Moore would have read all this stuff, or just these things? Like Pound, a kind of visionary scholar who found his muse in a translated Homer, Moore, knowing that literary inspiration is not confined to any locality, finds it all over the place in her reading. But again, what she’s reading is something different from Eliot and Pound. And I’ll say more about that next time.

[end of transcript]

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