“China Is the Magic Place”

Why Marianne Moore looked east for inspiration.

In 1923, at a critical moment in her writing life, Marianne Moore visited an exhibition of Song Dynasty Chinese paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was 35 years old; her mother, Mary Warner Moore, and her close friend Monroe Wheeler, the partner of writer Glenway Wescott, accompanied her. Moore’s poems already reflected her interest in Chinese landscape paintings: one of her collegiate poems, “He Made This Screen,” tells of an artist who “introduced a sea / Uniform like tapestry; / here, a fig-tree; there, a face; / There, a dragon circling space,” marking one of Moore’s first of many references to the Chinese dragon. The Met exhibition—featuring long scrolls in glass cases and images of delicately realized flowers—particularly moved her. “We have seen an exhibition of very old Chinese paintings at the Metropolitan,” she wrote to her close friend Winifred “Bryher” Ellerman, an early patron of her work. “One of ‘spirited horses’—a series of white horses with scarlet pompoms and smoky manes and tails; one of a dragon in the clouds, concealed but for a few claws.” Later, when Moore learned that Wheeler was to travel to China in 1932, she wrote to him with delight: “What a surprise! One of a thousand good ones for you, I hope. Japan I am sometimes interested in, but China is the magic place.”

Over the course of her career, Moore referenced China in no less than a dozen of her poems, but she would never get to go there. While Ezra Pound is often thought of as the modernist most influenced by Chinese poetry, it may actually be Moore for whom Chinese writing and art most served as inspiration and guide. As the scholar Cynthia Stamy argues in her 1999 book Marianne Moore and China, the poet “used the Far East to express her own dissatisfaction with contemporary trends in the writing of poetry.” As modernism came to dominate the avant-garde, Moore looked for a viable center of thought away from what she perceived as the staidness of Europe, and also for a way to resist the pressure of contemporary trends at home. In China, she found a culture and aesthetic that she could escape into and embrace.

The poet’s Greenwich Village living room is uncannily preserved at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Library, and there one can see that those references filled not only her poetry but also her life. Moore moved to the apartment in 1966, at age 78—the first time she had acquired a new home that she would live in alone. On the desk of this last apartment, Moore kept Chinese ephemera that could have sprung from her poems: an emblem in the shape of a Chinese foo dog or a small ivory Chinese dragon “of silkworm / size” that curls along the mantel of the desk, as if conjured from “O to Be a Dragon.” The apartment brimmed with Chinese lamps, boxes, coins, and Chinese porcelain, the making of the latter serving as the main drama of “Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain.” On an end table, an ivory pomegranate from China, hollowed out and carved with a tiny dioramic scene, evokes “the manner of Chinese lacquer carving,” described in “Bowls,” with “layer after layer exposed by certainty of touch and unhurried incision / so that only so much color shall be revealed as is necessary to the picture.”

Moore came into her own as a poet at a time when the Chinese art was gaining popularity in the United States, especially in New York. The Met exhibition that so piqued her interest was just one of over a dozen shows focused on China that were mounted in New York during this 15-year period. As Moore began to steadily build her reputation as a poet in the late 1910s and 1920s, Chinese literature too made waves among American intellectuals. Arthur Waley’s books and translations gained widespread popularity by the 1920s; Chinese translations also appeared more regularly in the Dial, the Egoist, and Poetry. Pound’s Des Imagistes came out in 1914, with its Chinese-style poems, and Cathay in 1915.

Some of the earliest items in Moore’s Chinese collection were gifts from the Norcrosses, a family that occupied a particularly close spot in Moore’s life. Dr. George Norcross, a minister, and his wife, Louise Jackson Norcross, mentored Mary Warner Moore and her two young children, Warner and Marianne, when Mary relocated the family to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1896. The Norcross daughters and nieces often traveled to China on missionary trips, sending home trinkets such as the jade pendant they sent to a college-age Marianne from Shanghai in 1915.

The Norcross family, who encouraged Moore to attend Bryn Mawr College and first introduced her to China, has recently become ever more important in the poet’s history. A new biography posits that a Norcross daughter, Mary Jackson Norcross, had a long-term relationship with Moore’s mother. In her new biography of Moore, Holding On Upside Down, Linda Leavell focuses on how Moore’s largely opaque personal life can be read through the prism of her poetry, while also bringing her codependent relationship with her mother into the foreground. Moore lived with her mother in cramped quarters in New York City, often sharing a bed, from the time Mary Norcross left her mother until her mother died in 1947. To Leavell, Moore’s armored and elusive animals, with their shifting methods of survival, represent Moore’s own role within her household, trying to protect her tightly constructed creative world. But her poems became the space within which her mind could wander freely. These poems take us far away geographically—often to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. And Moore always gave special dignity to her mentions of China, and the “Chinese ‘passion for the particular,’” which she references in “Tell Me, Tell Me.” For Moore, Chinese thought presented a viable way of ordering the world.

Leavell tells of a trip Moore and her mother took in 1911 to London, where strong interest in China had taken hold. She surely saw or heard about Laurence Binyon’s smash-hit exhibition of Chinese art at the British Museum, which ran from 1910 to 1912. She acquired Binyon’s 1911 Flight of the Dragon, a book-length essay on art theory and practice in China and Japan, and her copy at the Rosenbach boasts prolific notes. In London, she also saw Chinese bronzes—of bears, elephants, and owls—at the Medici Society, from which she saved postcards bearing these images.

Some of her early poems gesture at her interest in China, if not directly stating it. One of her best-known poems, “The Fish,” written in 1918, glitters with references to Chinese tradition: the fish “wade / through black jade” as a mussel shell adjusts itself, “opening and shutting itself like / an / injured fan,” and then stars appear above as “pink rice-grains” among “ink-bespattered jelly-fish.” Years later, the 1935 “Critics and Connoisseurs” begins with outright deference to Chinese skill: “There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious / fastidiousness. Certain Ming / products,” she writes. She plainly asserts her preference for the Chinese arts; like her own poetry, its erudition and effort cannot be gleaned at first glance.

In “Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain,” originally published in Poetry in 1934, she uses a Chinese word for the first and only time—yu for peach—and the poem has some of her boldest strokes that direct us to her interest in the region. She substitutes nectarines for the nine peaches, which, according to Chinese legend, promise longevity: “Arranged by twos as peaches are, / at intervals that all may live— / eight and a single one.” Projected and at once receding, the nectarines appear from overlapping, conflicting strokes, as if encountered on a scroll. The action of the poem happens in color, an entire narrative conjured by a color such as “puce-American-beauty pink” or “beeswax gray.”

Later in the poem, after she mentions that “wild spontaneous fruit was found in China first,” locating it in a specific physical space, she asks, “But was it wild?” Has the poet’s isolation of the object made it unspontaneous in a way, or not wild? By cataloguing and coloring in each object, she has made the wild object not like what it is—she embodies the concerns of the painter.

References to the concerns of Chinese artists and artisans appear often in her later work. She visited dozens of exhibitions in the 1940s and ’50s: a 1943 show of Chinese bronzes at the Brooklyn Museum, “Costumes from the Forbidden City” at the Met in 1945, a 1955 show of jade at the Worcester Art Museum, and animals in scroll paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 1956.

Cynthia Stamy takes great care in dissecting the poet’s language, syntaxes, and rhythms to reveal influences by Chinese traditions, and she writes of the poet’s “persistent efforts to reconcile American and Chinese traits.” The poet's reverence, Stamy argues, “for what she saw as uniquely Chinese attributes arose out of a complex set of associations, not only with the execution of Chinese paintings and artifacts or with the forms of Chinese poetry, but with what she saw as China’s ancient and enduring culture.” In particular, the poem “England,” written in 1920, becomes an important early touchstone, as Moore searches the globe past England, Italy, France, and Greece for more established traditions of thought beyond the newness of America’s own. She turns to “the far East with its snails, its emotional / shorthand and jade cockroaches, / its rock crystal and its / imperturbability, / all of museum quality.” The poem orients us to Moore’s position on the Old World: “One has not looked far enough,” she writes in the final stanza, of the lazy deference to European influence, just before she praises “[t]he sublimated wisdom of China.”

Pound is credited with numerous Chinese friends and correspondences. While Moore kept up mainly through books and clippings, she also befriended Chinese intellectuals, particularly Achilles Fang—Moore called him “the word wizard”—and Mai-mai Sze, a painter and writer based in New York and London, who became a close friend and ally later in Moore’s life. Sze and Moore corresponded about Sze’s The Tao of Painting (1960), and in one letter to Sze, Moore gushes, “angel to me and friend of the dragon—symbol which has metamorphosed for me an existence too mundane—I have long wished to speak to you; now I do.” (The letters are discussed in an essay by Zhaoming Qian in the recent book Modernism and the Orient.) For Moore, The Tao of Painting came as a revelation, and she ordered copies for multiple friends. The two-volume, nearly 1,000-page tome is made up of highly specific chapters—on creating pigments, the myriad brushstrokes to create a tree—and echoes Moore’s precise verse. One chapter details the many ways one might paint a rock: with “raveled rope strokes,” or strokes “like the vein of a lotus” or “entangled hemp.”

“Restraint becomes a method of achieving silence,” Stamy writes of Moore’s interest in the genre. “Its power in Chinese landscape painting, as in poetry, was recognized by Moore as a means to harness the quiet energy of the reticence and solemnity, the ‘deepest feeling,’ which drives her work.”

Neither Stamy nor Qian writes explicitly about the personal development of Moore’s fascination. But if these books are paired with Leavell’s biography, which is almost entirely focused on the interior life of the poet, one might glean the origins of the pivotal role China played in Moore’s imagination. Her friendship with Sze blossomed long after the death of her mother and could be seen as a kind of release for Moore: Sze’s work shone with a clarity and instructional precision that closely resembled Moore’s best work. Between her mother’s cycles of sickness and their self-imposed frugality, Moore hardly got to travel abroad, certainly not as far as China. By the time her mother passed away, the country had effectively closed to foreigners and would remain so until Moore died.

The country continually eluded her. Later in life Moore found in China more apt elucidations of the tropes with which she had built her interior life, as she had with The Tao of Painting. For example, Leavell makes much of the close-knit Moore clan’s nicknames based on their 1914 reading of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Mary became Mole, Marianne was Rat, Warner became Badger—Moore would find that these same kinds of personifications of animals often figured into Chinese poetry, at one point in near exact terms as these nicknames. The names befitted the family’s obscured, idiosyncratic style of letters, and they often referred to themselves in the third person. Marianne wrote her short poem “To an Intra-Mural Rat” just days after reading the book, and it was published in Poetry in 1915:

You make me think of many men
Once met, to be forgot again;
             Or merely resurrected
In a parentheses of wit,
That found them hastening through it
              Too brisk to be inspected.

Moore later owned a 1968 anthology of ancient Chinese poetry with accompanying watercolor pictures, titled …the silent Zero, in search of Sound… The first poem, “Look at the Rat,” appears alongside an embedded abstract ink illustration. It undoubtedly would have intrigued her:

Look, at the rat has skin
A man, but no manners
A man, but no manners
Doesn’t die: why?

Look, at the rat has teeth
A man, but no stopping
A man, but no stopping
Doesn’t die: why wait?

Look, at the rat has limbs
A man, but no rites
A man, but no rites
Why not hurry, die?

Leavell writes that Moore is “barely known” outside of English departments, though it is probably more fair to say, given her fame during her lifetime, that it is surprising she has been so eclipsed by the more expressionistic poets of the 1960s and ’70s. But Moore, along with the other modernists, has a considerable popularity in China.  Qian’s 1995 publication of Orientalism and Modernism helped to launch the first International Symposium on Modernism and Asia that was held at Yale in 1996, and later in England as well as in China. In 2008, the Center for Modernist Studies was founded at Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou, China.

In the final pages of her book, Leavell posits that the Chinese dragon best illustrated the kind of existence Marianne Moore chased. “Like a dragon, she wants to be ‘of silkworm / size or immense; at times invisible,’” Leavell writes of the poet’s attitude toward her fame later in life. Leavell goes on to use the metaphor to contrast Moore’s star turn as a poet with her diminishment after her death as other styles came en vogue. But clearly, particularly as Moore aged, and thus grew her world outside the small sphere of her family, that identity could still carry over from the early to the late part of her life. It slowly becomes a more perfect metaphor for Moore, once the meek and darting Rat, who became the proud, but no less elusive, dragon.

Originally Published: June 17th, 2014

Alexandra Pechman is a writer living in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Artnews, Artforum, the Paris Review Daily, and the New York Observer.

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  1. June 19, 2014
     Kathleen B.Collins

    Let me tell you how wonderful it is to find for the first time The Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia. What a lovely small treat enclosed in two beautiful old houses and on an ancient (comparatively) tree lined street. They are serious here but not heavy. That they house Marianne Moore's living room struck me as just astonishingly delightful. GO see for yourself.