ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 18

 - Marianne Moore (cont.)


The previous lecture’s examination of “The Octopus” is continued, focusing on Moore’s innovative use of quotation. The poem “Silence” is read in connection with nineteenth-century poetry and the poet’s personal reticence. Selections from Elizabeth Bishop’s personal memoir of Moore are presented with special attention to Moore’s relationships with other modernists and male poets in particular. The poem “To a Snail” is considered as a meditation on style and compression, and a reading of “The Paper Nautilus” rounds out a wider examination of the use and meaning of restraint in Moore’s poetry.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 18 - Marianne Moore (cont.)

Chapter 1. Marianne Moore Poem: “An Octopus” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Let’s see, last time I wanted to talk to you about Moore as a woman poet, as an American poet, and as a nature poet. I didn’t get very far with the latter. I started talking about that long, really tough poem, “An Octopus,” about Mount Rainier. I’d like to go back there and to work through a little bit of that poem with you.

I suggested that this octopus that Moore is writing about, this mountain, is at once something other, something out there, and an emblem of the power of the natural world. And on the other hand, something that Moore identifies with: certain qualities of the mountain – its energy, its force. The image of the octopus itself, the glacier on top of Mount Rainier, has, I think, sort of eight arms, and that’s what she is playing with. And I suggested that there’s something octopus-like about Marianne Moore, too, with those long lines that snake out and seem to grasp onto all sorts of stuff, producing this poetry of collage and multiple voices.

Let me see if I can work through the end of the poem with you, from around; well, there’s a long last stanza, or paragraph, whatever you would like to call it, that begins on page 444 at the bottom, line 161. Moore is talking about here, maybe confusingly or unhelpfully, Greek aesthetics, while she’s also talking about the creatures and people that inhabit this place that she’s writing about, Mount Rainier. She says on the middle of page 445 about the Greeks – it’s hard to quote from this poem. It’s hard to enter it at any point because each thing is connected to the other, and to make sense of anything you have to work back. She says:

[“An Octopus,” lines 186-193]

Well, how do you approach nature? In a sense, that’s the great question of the poem. Here, the brochure is telling us, well, we shouldn’t approach it with guns, nets, et cetera; we won’t be welcome there. Moore is going to develop this idea a little bit further. She says, in a sense, why bother putting all that down?

[“An Octopus,” lines 194-201]

Moore prodigiously includes these quotations from a hiking handbook, and then includes lyrical language like “this fossil flower concise without a shiver,” shifting between these registers of diction, and then sees the mountain as, in that sense, as some kind of special flower “intact when it is cut.” And then she calls the mountain “damned for its sacrosanct remoteness”; that is, she’s saying people damn this mountain because it’s too high and far and remote to climb. “Sacrosanct remoteness”: that’s a suggestive phrase. It would seem to imply that the mountain was being damned for possibly what we would recognize as ethical qualities in a person; that is, some kind of eliteness and some kind of reserve; in fact, properties that you might find in an author “like Henry James’s damned by the public for decorum.’”

Here, Moore makes a strange and wild association between the mountain and Henry James, as if the mountain were somehow a kind of image of that great early modernist prose writer, “damned by the public for decorum”; that is, damned for his elite posture, the demands he placed upon the reader, and his high level of decorum in writing. And then she corrects herself, she says: “not decorum [that’s wrong], but restraint.” That’s what James exemplifies and that’s what the mountain, it seems, exacts, too. She continues, and now she’s talking about Henry James, “It is the love of [well, and moving out of Henry James into a general principle] doing hard things [whether it’s climbing the mountain or reading late James] that rebuffed and wore them out [the public] – a public out of sympathy with neatness.”

“Neatness.” She arrives here, substituting one term for another: first “remoteness,” then “decorum;” not “decorum” but “restraint;” not “restraint” precisely, necessarily or only, but “neatness,” a kind of ascetic quality. “Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!” she says, she exclaims, those two exclamation points following as if, well, how does she say them? Is it in a spirit of exasperation with this public that’s worn out by the demands placed on them by a certain kind of writing or by a certain kind of mountain? Is she here mocking the idea of “neatness of finish” or raising it as a kind of banner and battle cry? Now she moves back again to the mountain. “Relentless accuracy [and here she’ll name it “the octopus” again] is the
nature of this octopus with its capacity for fact.”

She’s talking about the mountain, but the mountain itself seems now to be the embodiment of a certain kind of mind, a certain kind of imagination that grasps at and absorbs and comes to assimilate fact. And then she will turn herself over in these closing lines to a series of quotations that describe the mountain and do so with a lyric exultation that climbs to the romantic “sublime” and does so in this strange collage form:

[“An Octopus,” lines 209-227]

It’s an extraordinary kind of celebration and declaration, a celebration of the frankly savage forces that the mountain both embodies and endures at its altitude. And as she does, she suggests that there are similar forces of primal violence and intensity that are contained and indeed expressed in the writing of Henry James, in the aesthetic project of restraint that she herself engages in and that she calls us to and calls “the love of doing hard things,” whether that’s climbing a mountain or reading poems.

This closing passage is so powerful and interesting because Moore moves from a kind of writing which is often ascribed to her or identified with her, that is, description: precise observation of the natural world, a kind of writing that is frequently seen as limited in its ambition and its emotional power, but that, amassed here in this sequence, in fact, takes on a kind of remarkable force and lyric intensity. It makes Moore seem not at all like the restrained or prudish, virginal poet that many of her peers and subsequent readers have found her to be. The fastidiousness, decorum, restraint — these aesthetic and ethical values in short are here attached to powers and intensity that we don’t ordinarily associate with them.

The volcano, its whiteness, that’s important: “the white volcano with no weather side” because the weather side of the volcano has been broken off in an ancient blast. The volcano signifies a kind of virginal force. It is a specifically female version of elemental power and of the Sublime, of Emersonian self-reliance, that comes to Moore via Emily Dickinson, who has her volcanoes too. Self-reliance: by “self-reliance” I mean Moore’s hardy American insistence on self-sufficiency, on independence, and on originality. And she is, again, the most radically original of all the poets we read, the least like anybody else, and this, interestingly, despite her reliance on quotation as her distinctive medium. There’s a powerful tradition of American romanticism that’s present in Moore, with feminist ramifications. And it’s interestingly in Moore joined to a modernist and Eliotic aesthetic of impersonality, which we’ve seen defined in Eliot’s essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and elsewhere. Eliot’s modernist aesthetics were attractive to Moore, I think, in part because Eliot’s idea of impersonality was compatible with female modesty, with Christian virtue.

Chapter 2. Marianne Moore Poem: “Silence” [00:12:48]

Let me turn to another poem, a poem in your RIS packet, as helpfully concise as “An Octopus” is long. And that’s the poem “Silence.” And you’ll hear a kind of echo of the lines I just read.

[“Silence,” entire poem]

Another, I think, powerful poem. We saw Moore correct herself in “An Octopus,” saying “not decorum but restraint.” Here she says “not in silence, but restraint.” “The deepest feeling,” she says, “shows itself” in restraint. “Shows itself” in restraint: somehow the very act of restraint is allied to an expressive act of self-disclosure, paradoxically perhaps. The keys to our deep identity are disclosed in some of the ways in which they are withheld.

This is a theme from one of the poems behind this poem, which I’ve quoted for you on your handout, from Longfellow, from his poem of grief called “Resignation”: “by silence sanctifying, not concealing, / the grief that must have way.” Moore’s writing, though remote in form from Longfellow or Emerson, for that matter, or Holmes, another poet we’ll look at later today, is nonetheless deeply involved in nineteenth-century American poems. Here, the poem’s silence itself seems to be an example of what it’s talking about; that is, it reveals something about Moore silently through what is not said, or rather through the ways that what is said gestures towards what is not.

It’s a poem that presumes to speak or presents itself as speaking for the poet, in the first person. “My father used to say”; well, curiously Moore is really not in at least an explicit way speaking about her father or what her father said. Moore included in her Selected Poems notes that disclose some of the sources that she was quoting from, borrowing from, and collaging. And this particular poem bares a note that attributes much of this quotation to a certain A.M. Homans, who is, in fact, a distant relative of my colleague Margaret Homans. This Miss Homans, who supplies most of what’s in the quotation there, is not Marianne Moore’s father, so she’s sort of borrowed words for her father from another source. And yet at the same time there’s real poignancy in this and an expressive poignancy. Moore is telling us something about herself. She’s being silent about the very early death of her own father who was therefore, in fact, a silent presence in her life, who told no stories to her and said no sayings, and whom she couldn’t, in fact, quote in this manner.

Chapter 3. Marianne Moore and Her Complex Relationship to Her Male Peers [00:17:11]

“Silence,” this short poem, is at once a modernist poem that Eliot would have understood and admired and close to nineteenth-century poems in its ethical values and concerns. It suggests too, I think, some of Moore’s perhaps ambivalent, certainly complex relationship to her male peers: a topic that I talked about last time with her poem “A Grave” in front of us, which was connected to that correspondence with Pound. I also mentioned her correspondence with Hart Crane who submitted his poems to her in her role as editor at The Dial, where she was, in fact, in a very powerful position in literary culture. In certain ways, Moore had a kind of established authority in that culture that Crane never had. Here, she had an important job picking poems, editing writing, reviewing, and otherwise shaping the tastes of American readers through this important magazine, The Dial.

And yet, at the same time, Moore always has a kind of marginal and combative relation to her major male peers that is suggested in “A Grave” and in her irritation at the man who’s blocking her view. When you read Elizabeth Bishop’s memoir of Moore – Elizabeth Bishop, Moore’s great protégé – that really wonderful bit of both biography and autobiography that I asked you to read for this class called Efforts of Affection, in there you see Moore interacting with the male poets of her era in interesting and comical ways. Remember how some of them appear. Bishop notes the presence of Ezra Pound in the Moores’s apartment when Moore notes that Pound had burned the banister with his cigar. He had to keep his cigar out of Mrs. Moore’s apartment, and this sort of flaming phallic object burns the staircase. Bishop also tells about seeing a valentine that T. S. Eliot had written to Marianne Moore; Pound with a cigar and Eliot with his valentine. And then there’s an account of a reading where Bishop heard Moore read with William Carlos Williams who – Williams did – made “loud” and “realistic” “sea monster” roars. All of these are kind of comic, and yet suggestive, symbolic representations of phallic power through display, imposition, condescension, et cetera, all of which Moore seemed to manage to keep at arm’s length through her distinctive life choices, which entailed living with her mother in an apartment in the Village and then on Cumberland Street in Brooklyn.

Moore’s literary life, her imagination, was rooted in this domestic space that Bishop describes powerfully and minutely in her memoir; a domestic space that had all sorts of eccentric rituals and charms, a specifically female-centered world where Moore could admit men like Pound but where mother and daughter could lead their cultured literary lives very much on their own terms, without any men to answer to. Moore’s poem, evoked in Bishop’s essay, is a version you could say of the many shelters that you find, or shells or protective armor, that you encounter in Moore’s poems. She admires, is always fascinated by, armored animals and the kinds of protection they seem to carry with them. “The Pangolin” is one example. Poems are also for Moore forms of shelter, I would say. They’re spaces in which she could construct a world, or parts of a world, again, very much on her own terms, according to her own rules. Like her home, her writing was made safe, habitable, strong, and pleasurable by virtue of the limitations that she imposed upon herself.

This is connected powerfully to Moore’s ethical ideas and to her feminism. Bishop writes about Moore in “Efforts of Affection” often expressing ways in which she, Bishop, as a young writer chafed under the curious rules and disciplines of the Moore household. And yet, she seems to understand the power that was in those rules for Moore. And Bishop defends Moore’s feminism specifically against the kinds of attacks made on Moore or dismissals of Moore by specifically sixties and seventies feminism. Bishop says:

Do they know that [that is, feminist critics of Moore] Marianne Moore was a feminist in her day? Or that she paraded with the suffragettes…? Once, Marianne told me, she “climbed a lamppost” in a demonstration for votes for women. What she did up there, what speech she delivered, if any, I don’t know, but climb she did in a long skirt and petticoats and a large hat… [She, Bishop, continues:] Now that everything can be said, and done, have we anyone who can compare with Marianne Moore, who was at her best when she made up her own rules and when they were strictest – the reverse of “freedom”?

She puts that as a question, but it’s not really a question, is it? She’s really making a strong defense of Moore and of the ways in which Moore used rules and disciplines to exercise a certain kind of freedom and certainly to obtain a certain kind of power.

Moore has her own version of that statement in that essay at the back of the anthology called “Humility, Concentration, and Gusto.” “Gusto” is the sort of virtue of, let’s say, energy that Moore approves in writing and art, above all, in certain ways, and she says at the bottom of the page: “Gusto thrives on freedom, and freedom in art, as in life.” And art and life are always versions of each other for Moore, “is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves.” “Freedom in art, as in life, is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves.”

I’ve been talking today so far about forms of self-effacement or restraint that one finds, let’s say, fanatically in Moore where she is impersonal in her self-presentation, where she quotes and creates her own voice by quoting others, and where she seems to withhold the first person in multiple ways. The most obvious and vivid and visible form of the rules that she sets herself is of course the way these poems look. “An Octopus” and “Silence” are very unusual poems for Moore because they are free-verse poems.

By and large Moore’s poems are always organized into these complex syllable counts and the crazy patterns that they produce such as in, well, let’s say, just look at “The Steeplejack” or “The Pangolin” on pages 447 and 449, or “The Paper Nautilus,” which I’ll talk about in a moment – poems that have intricate visual patterns on the page. They are examples and instances of Moore making up her own rules and finding freedom in them. They are also images of what she calls in “An Octopus” a “neatness of finish,” you could say. They present the poems as highly crafted almost – not just visual but almost tactile objects. “Ecstasy affords the occasion and expediency determines the form,” she said about her poems, again, referring to those two different moments of composition that she mentions in her letter to Pound that I talked about last time, where poems seem to come in a kind of vatic inspiration, producing a certain pattern which then she determines quite consciously to reproduce and extend.

Chapter 4. Marianne Moore Poem: “The Fish” [00:29:10]

Let’s look at “The Fish” for a moment. It’s one of the most intricate and distinctive and strangest, on 436.

[“The Fish,” lines 1-7]

And wait a minute, whoa! She’s rhyming. This is actually a rhymed poem, too, something you might not immediately hear. But yes, but look at it: the fish “wade / through black jade” or “an / injured fan”. This is really adding an extra twist of the rules, making the challenge of writing that much harder and in so doing you might say, to quote “An Octopus,” expressing “the love of doing hard things.”

Remember Pound, his idea of the image. He wanted to give you direct presentation of the thing. What did he think about this? Here, you’ve got poems that are so conspicuously artificial, that stress a kind of discontinuity between form and content, and that really present themselves as arbitrary and constructed, rather than given and necessary. In this way, Moore is calling attention formally to the contingency of all her statements and utterances. She’s also calling attention to the fact that these are made objects and that they are the record of their making. They’re the record of a motive, what I call “the love of doing hard things,” or which Moore just as often might refer to simply as love.

Chapter 5. Marianne Moore Poem: “To a Snail” [00:31:09]

Let me point us to a couple of other Moore poems. “To a Snail” for example, on page 446, another short, free verse poem written in the two- or three-year period where she wrote free verse poems, around 1924: If “compression is the first grace of style,” you [snail] have it.

Compression, “contractility”: these are virtues, “as modesty is a virtue,” and they’re forms of modesty:

[“To a Snail,” lines 4-12]

What we value in writing in style is the principle that is hid, a kind of animating motive that informs what we have, what’s there before us, but which is necessarily in some sense silent and expressed through restraint, as it were. A compressed style such as Moore’s seems to compress and contain an important human motive.

Chapter 6. Marianne Moore Poem: “When I Buy Pictures” [00:32:28]

Another poem about the aesthetics of style that, again, moves between principles in art and principles in life is the poem in your RIS packet called “When I Buy Pictures,” in which Moore says:

[“When I Buy Pictures,” lines 1-3]

And then she gives a number of different examples. Further down, she starts to generalize again. She says:

[“When I Buy Pictures,” lines 13-18]

The shelters, the objects, the artworks that Moore finds exemplary that she wants to care about, that she wants us to care about and that she wants her poems to exemplify, would be forms of acknowledgement, acknowledging the spiritual forces that have brought them into being: the principles that are hid in them, those forces about which they are ultimately and can only ever be ultimately silent. Those spiritual forces, they have a kind of energy, they have light. They’re lit by “piercing glances into the life of things.” That “life of things,” that phrase, that’s Wordsworthian, a rich, simple phrase. She means by it the life of things. Those things that have life in that sense are not merely things but creations that are infused with creative force. Artworks for Moore, like God’s creation, carry a kind of burden of acknowledgement to give us access to and honor the forces that bring them into being.

Chapter 7. Marianne Moore Poem: “The Paper Nautilus” [00:34:35]

The really great poem, I think, on this theme is “The Paper Nautilus.” And let me end our contemplation of Moore with this poem on 451. It suggests a way to understand the specifically female artist that Moore is. It’s a kind of shell left behind that protects the eggs of the sea animal, the paper nautilus. It’s a beautiful object and I wish I had the images of it to show you. She begins in this first stanza maybe a little confusingly by saying:

[“The Paper Nautilus,” lines 1-7]

In other words, why does the paper nautilus make its beautiful art that is its shell? Does it do so for celebrity, money, tea-time fame, the comfort of commuters? No, no, none of these things, none of these potential and base motives for making art. No, the paper nautilus’s shell is something else:

[“The Paper Nautilus,” lines 8-28]

The shell is, first of all, made not for popular or genteel reasons. It is specifically a perishable because all art, everything we make, is perishable; it is a perishable “souvenir of hope.” It’s such a beautiful phrase, “souvenir of hope.” It is a memory of our desire and wish and aspiration for a future. This is what the shell holds and contains. It’s not immortal, it’s material; it’s delicate and perishable. It carries a memory of desire, of hope that strives towards the future, and of a belief in the worthiness of striving. It exemplifies the “love of doing hard things,” carries this into the future. The shell is maternal, or the sign of the maternal, let’s say rather. It is a kind of shelter for the future. It carries hope in the specific form of the creature’s eggs. This, you could say, is a kind of revision of the earlier image of female power as volcanic. Again, there’s something inside of great power, but it’s another way of rendering or imaging this power. And interestingly, this creature, like the mountain, is an octopus, viewed as if it were a poem or as a kind of version of what a poem is.

You could say that the shell Moore’s writing about, like a Moore poem, gives birth to images of heroic action, and her poems are full of heroic characters: some human, some, many more, animal; all of whom in certain ways, like Hercules here, are “hindered to succeed.” And that’s a wonderful and interesting phrase, “hindered to succeed.” I think it means “hindered to succeed” in the sense of held back or restrained. But when something is restrained in such a way, it is restrained in order that it succeed; “hindered to succeed,” in that sense, restrained in order to succeed, to overcome its hindrance, and to overcome its self-imposed rules and guidelines or stanza forms in order to produce the future that it dreams of. Ultimately, those eggs, they free themselves and free the shell at the same time. The shell in its freedom is a model of the poem as a kind of autonomous object, a thing that stands on its own – impersonal, taken away and apart from the maker. It is strong and it’s delicate. It acknowledges and points to the spiritual forces that made it or illuminated it.

“The Paper Nautilus” is actively revising the famous poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes that I’ve given you a copy of, “The Chambered Nautilus,” which celebrates the maker, you could say, and the energy of the maker that moves on to its ever more beautiful mansions. Moore celebrates, rather, the made object, because it refers us back to the process of making, which is not a process of will only but a process in which the will is hindered or restrained, in which aspiration meets resistance. Look at the final lines of the poem, they’re very beautiful. The shell is described as having “wasp-nest flaws /of white on white, and close-/ laid Ionic chiton-folds.”

And there she’s seeing the white shell as if it were a Greek marble. And it puts her in mind of the Elgin marbles that decorated the Parthenon:

[“The Paper Nautilus,” lines 30-35]

The shell is ultimately compared to a horse which has lost its rider, whose arms no longer go around it and restrain it. Well, there’s an analogy between the horse and an implied absent rider, and the shell and the creature that was once inside it, and the poem and the poet who wrote it. Hope, here at the end of the poem, is renamed love, a force imaged, again, through a kind of silence, through its absence, or rather through the traces of its continuing presence, which are the traces that we see in the strength and beauty of the object which is, I think, ultimately the difference between silence and restraint: that is, love is present in the poem. It’s not merely silent. It’s present through its restrained expression. And what remains in the poem, in the shell, and in the Parthenon horse is a kind of acknowledgement of the spiritual forces that brought these objects into being.

Well, we will go on and talk about Moore’s great peer, Wallace Stevens, next week.

[end of transcript]

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