Essay

Track Changes 

Marianne Moore’s penchant for revision makes her a fitting poet for the digital age.

Marianne Moore had a long-standing aversion to publication. She did not want to publish her first book, but several friends, including H.D. and Winifred “Bryher” Ellerman, went ahead in 1921 and assembled one, which they titled Poems. “I wouldn’t have the poems appear now if I could help it,” Moore wrote Bryher, “and would not have some of them ever appear and would make certain changes.” In 1924, she published her second book, Observations, which she compiled to showcase her considerable talents, and it cemented her reputation. But that didn’t mean she was satisfied. Her Complete Poems, first published in 1967, is famous for its dedication: “Omissions are not accidents.” In that volume, she excluded many poems and excised large portions of others, namely those in Observations. Moore might be unnerved if she knew now, after her repeated efforts to erase a large part of her output, that her early work was being republished. This past April, Farrar, Straus and Giroux reissued Observations in its original form, edited and introduced by Moore biographer Linda Leavell. Moore’s acclaimed poem “Poetry” is best known for its opening line, “I, too, dislike it,” but did Moore really dislike her own poems? 

No poem was complete in Moore’s eyes, and her belief that the record of her work could be rewritten—despite the impossibility—is a 21st-century problem. She slashed “Poetry,” which first appeared in 1919 in the journal Others, from 30 or so lines to only three in the 1967 version. She changed the titles of other poems—“A Graveyard” became “A Grave,” for example. Her habits of research and revision presaged the far-reaching sourcing and pliability that defines writing made in the age of the Internet. Her hypersensitive focus on subject matter—her poems reflect the hours spent researching such diverse subjects as Mount Rainier guidebooks, jellyfish mechanisms, and the history of Ming porcelain—mimics how taste today is expressed on the web. But her incessant editing of her own work has proven frustrating for readers and scholars; versions of her poems are myriad. (A Google search, for example, can bring up one of three versions of “Poetry.”) 

Those who grew up with the Internet, writers or not, have an intimate relationship with erasing what they write: redacting Facebook posts, closing Myspace accounts, deleting LiveJournals, discarding usernames. But almost all of this is discoverable. Should someone want to disavow an early poem or change a line, it could be traced. Google Docs even tracks each edit to the page. There will be fewer protracted quests in the future for the original version of a poem written in 2016, let alone a Tweet. Particularly with respect to the way she changed her work, Moore has always struck me as more of a digital-age artist than any of her contemporaries. Her poems were as malleable as something written online. 

Robin G. Schulze’s Becoming Marianne Moore served as a key source for the Leavell edition: the 2002 work comprehensively compiles all known versions of Moore’s early poems from 1907 to 1924. “For Moore, no text was ever stable or finished,” Schulze writes. “Each opportunity to publish offered an opportunity to revise.” 

“The Moore of 1924 declares that art can never be ‘neat’ or ‘finished,’ that intellectual discovery is always, by nature, changing, messy,” writes Schulze. And the poetry would “reveal something of the messy distances and differences.” Moore never achieved the “historical specificity” she wanted as the world began to look more like her poems.

The 1967 version of “Poetry”: 

I, too, dislike it.
              Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in 
              it, after all, a place for the genuine.

The kernel of consistency throughout all three versions is “the genuine.” In the two longer versions, the word appears twice, at the beginning and end. In the final version, it is the last, and most striking, word. If Moore’s goal was to isolate what is genuine, then it is understandable that her task of whittling away any excess, anything too high-minded for those who dislike poetry, was never complete to her mind. 

When Moore republished “Poetry” in  Observations in 1924, she changed some punctuation and line breaks from the 1919 version. A few words are omitted or tweaked—among the most enigmatic, “poets among us” becomes autocrats; the critic “twinkling his skin like a horse that feels a flea” instead twitches. She also cuts “case after case could be cited did one wish it,” which refers to things we do not admire that we don’t understand—a sensible cut because she had already named case after rarefied case. The endings of her 1919 and 1924 versions conclude that should one: 

demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in 
all its rawness and 
that which is on the other hand 
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

In those versions, it is more clearly a poem concerning interest versus disinterest, with the genuine as the deciding factor between the two. 

One would think the raw material of poetry is the genuine—its genesis, which takes the same root of genu, Latin for knee (referencing the Roman tradition of a father’s claiming paternity by placing a child on his knee). To be interested in poetry, she means, is to be confused. Everything her litany describes is “the genuine,” which poetry finds a place for; this other thing, “raw material,” is something that readers must demand, something more difficult to obtain. There is a kind of obscurity to the genuine. Sincerity is a kind of mask. 

The preceding line presents this same idea: poets, or autocrats, have to present their imaginary gardens for inspection, presumably for their verisimilitude. The raw, untouched, and what is real are two different things—presumably the poet interprets one into the other, and those who recognize that fact are “interested.”

So we lose, too, in the final version:

                             …these things are important not because a 

  high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are 
      useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, 
      the same thing may be said for all of us, that we 
          do not admire what 
         we cannot understand …

Maybe Moore looked at these verses and realized excluding them made her case better than keeping them.

“In various ways, the two incarnations of the poem annotate, challenge, and criticize one another,” Robert Pinsky wrote of the 1924 and 1967 versions on Slate. “I think they amusingly challenge and criticize us readers, too.”

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes, a new book about the literary history of word processing, is a reminder of what Moore tried to accomplish. He considers the writing of poets, quoting Pinsky: “I find the computer utterly a human artifact. It reeks of us. … Technology is exactly like humanity.”

The interface of writing bears particular relevance when it comes to Moore. If the Internet reeks of us, her process gives a hint of how a poetic mind might use the Internet. In poems such as “An Octopus,” she collages together text from newspapers, guidebooks, and overheard remarks at the circus in a shimmering representation of Mount Rainier. “Marriage” contains roughly 30 sources from Francis Bacon to Ezra Pound to the inscription on a statue in Central Park. Such poems are a reflection of the hours she spent scouring countless books at the library and attending lectures. Her democratic sphere of influence apes the Internet—and, to follow, her aggressive self-editing reads like a symptom of that kind of capacity. One wonders what she would have written if she had had references at her fingertips.

Too many literary histories in the last few years have focused on pens, ink, and paper, not on the programs people use to write today. Kirschenbaum also pays attention to tracking changes, computer software that allows the act of editing to be braided into the forum of writing as never before: “the materiality of word-processing,” he calls it. It’s different from paper versus screen: not how we should we create our writing but how to contain and care for it.

Kirschenbaum distrusts that the type of processor—computer, typewriter, et al.—can have any real effect. But, on the other hand, what would the legacy of Moore look like if she had had access to Word or any of the many online interfaces? Her poetry could have been as pliable as she wished.

In his Slate post, Pinsky wrote that “Poetry” was “one of the most egregious examples ever of terrible revision.” Other poets resent the changes.

The introduction of Schulze’s Becoming Marianne Moore begins with Anthony Hecht’s struggle to locate the original versions of Moore’s poems: he called her changes a “defacement.” In a 1968 review in the Hudson Review of The Complete Poems, Hecht wrote, “Personally, I wish Miss Moore had been more sparing of her work, and as an admiring reader I feel that I have some rights in the matter.”

Moore’s changes seem caught between two moments, in which little could be changed and everything could be changed. Her final expression was revealed so soon before the digital revolution—if someone made the same move today, it would be futile. Instead, being ahead of her time has muddled her image.

Ben Lerner’s recent volume The Hatred of Poetry begins with a description of his hatred of Moore’s “Poetry,” which he tried and failed to memorize when he was young. (He blamed the poem’s tricky meter.) Lerner has written more than one essay on the defacement of art, yet The Hatred of Poetry does not talk about the vandalism that often follows poets’ publications, and there is no mention of Moore’s changes. As Lerner wrote in Harper’s in 2013, “Much of the story of twentieth-century art can be told as a series of acts of vandalism.” In that essay, he describes the destruction and reconstruction of artists’ ideals through acts, both literal and not, of protest. In the same vein, Moore’s revisions are a kind of vandalism and an act of contemporaneity.

The material quality of her writing—the endless references, the notes—is a subject not fully embraced. If it’s difficult enough to think of omissions as “not accidents,” it’s harder to think of them as the substance themselves.

“The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint,” Moore wrote in “Silence,” which might help explain her own suppression of her work. To follow, there is no such thing as a definitive edition of her poetry. Her restraint went so far as to deny readers a singular vision of her work. Instead, we have refracted images of what her poems might have been at various points in time, more like something as seen through a diamond or like something that was alive.

Originally Published: June 29th, 2016

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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