In the midst of the energetic discussion around the recent "Listening to Poetry" post, I happened to come across the following extraordinary poem again. It was in a wonderful format, an illustrated anthology called Parallels: Artists/Poets published by MidMarch Arts Press, accompanied on the facing page by an abstract charcoal sketch by Claire Heimarck. I found myself staring face to face with the poem, and I couldn't stop re-reading it —in part because, as far as I can tell, it belied everything I had been saying.
W.H.Auden and Marianne Moore

My post was about listening to poetry, reading it with the musical part of the brain, as I might do with a poem by Auden. But really, it was about ways that poetry takes us into "the zone"—that place of oneness of being that is so hard to describe but that we recognize when we are there. Moore's poem was taking me into the zone, but not in any of the ways I had been describing.
Certainly the rhetorical stringencies and the idiosyncratic idiom, playing off of the syllabic constraints, are part of what's going on—but how much does that really tell us? What makes Moore's poem vibrate and hum in its own beingness, feeling while behaving and continuing while surrendering, steeling its form straight up, just in the way it itself describes?
If logic can be used to create a sense of the zone (as some of Kay Ryan's do, though in a less strange and stringent way than Moore), then "What Are Years" may be working in a way like that. Something like a Zen koan, it twists the logical brain into knots and then takes a deep breath and lets us stand back with it to take a detached look at its handiwork. Or maybe not.
John Ciardi asked, "how does a poem mean?" while Archibald MacLeish said "a poem should not mean, but be." But I have a different question about "What Are Years": "how does this poem be?"
What Are Years
What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

Originally Published: March 18th, 2009

Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...

  1. March 18, 2009
     Don Share

    As often happens, a textual crux complicates one's desire to interpret a poem, especially when it comes to Miss Moore's poems, which changed over time. So if you ask how this particular poem comes comes to be and mean, you have to take into account the following note from her recent editor, Grace Schulman:
    Miss Moore told me [where? when?] that she did not want the question mark after the title. “In my 'What Are Years’ the printers universally have insisted on putting a question mark after the title: 'What Are Years?’ It’s not that at all! It’s a meditation: 'What Are Years. What Are Years.’ You’re not thinking about it, not asking anyone to come and answer you. But they won’t have it that way.”
    Since the poem appears in many publications with a question mark, Schulman (questionably?) decided in her edition to retain the question mark despite Moore's wishes, and it appears that MM didn't do much about it herself.
    So... what are years. I mean: what are years?

  2. March 19, 2009

    Thanks, Annie, for the poem; and thanks, Don, for the textual commentary. Moore's 1951 Collected Poems gives the title without question mark in the table of contents, but with question mark on the page. A Marianne Moore Reader, 1961, has the question mark in both places.
    How funny to see her quoting Charles Ives in the first stanza! Was Ives's piece known then? I just looked it up: Published in 1940. Moore's book, What Are Years [no question mark, according to the 1951 Collected] came out in 1941. Possibly a knowing allusion; I wouldn't guess either way.
    And that singing bird at the end, straight out of Blake! ("How Sweet I Roam'd.") But maybe I have Blake on the brain; that marvelous, difficult Greville poem you pointed us to, Annie, brought some of the poems in the Pickering Manuscript to mind; the sense of being trapped, and the atmosphere of supernatural paradox. I should go read Pinsky's commentary.
    Moore is hot!
    "how pure a thing is joy" --
    True -- and contagious! -- but whence the tradition of calling emotions "things"? It's all over pop music, particularly the thing called Love.
    Thanks again.

  3. March 19, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Don, this is a wonderful gift to this thread. Because, in a sense, the lack of question mark enacts the same defiant and arguably counterintuitive self-sufficiency that seems to constitute both the theme of the poem and its effect on the reader.
    Thanks to you, I have gone back and omitted the question mark. At least here, on Harriet, is one place where we can consider the poem as Moore said she intended it to be considered.

  4. March 19, 2009
     Ben Friedlander

    According to C. David Heymann, Ezra Pound recited this poem at a Moore memorial service in Venice's Protestant church, his very last public reading. One can see why he would have liked this poem.

  5. March 20, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Yes, one can! It is as close to florid as Moore ever gets...and yet there is an acerbity to it.. .
    I would love to hear it in Pound's voice.

  6. March 21, 2009

    In your recent post, “Listening to Poetry” (I’m still catching up here) I lit upon something Henry Gould said (HENRY GOULD ON MARCH 15, 2009 3:19 PM). “I am leery of efforts to apply biology & brain science to literature, myself. When I think of rhythm & meter in poetry, I think not of brain waves, but of children playing hop-skotch.”
    Since I too had recently dabbled in Neuroscience (vide “Wernicke’s area”) I wondered what Henry had against this, as though “playing hop-skotch” were not a brain game, and Henry’s lithe and fetching little poem about the experience were not a further conceptualization, a rhythmic mimesis of the game in language. In both cases, brain/mind/body, the bicameral mind, etc. are wholly implicated. Because we are poets and not brain scientists does not mean we cannot look for explanations outside our field.
    I often listen to Bach’s English Suites or his Goldberg variations when I write poetry (and even sometimes Glass’s very early piano compositions) because I find the counterpoint, the thematic repetition, the wordless rhythm frees me from my own tendency to censor my language before it even hits the page. Listening to music and writing poetry are two different operations, and by performing them together we are calling upon different brain functions, different mind functions and different body functions.
    As a translator, I find that “not thinking” is a form of “thinking”. In other words, if I can’t solve a particular problem, I get up and walk away from it, make a cup of tea, and then come back to it. Often the problem is solved. And I congratulate my brain/mind/body for having completed a task without me.
    In this post you seem to be backpedaling a bit, looking for something beyond (or between) the “bicameral” dichotomy, which you call “the zone”.
    “But really, it was about ways that poetry takes us into "the zone"–that place of oneness of being that is so hard to describe but that we recognize when we are there. Moore's poem was taking me into the zone, but not in any of the ways I had been describing.”
    You don’t actually define “zone”, though you do tell us how it functions for you. It seems very close actually to what I said in my last poet in the last paragraph about something “clicking”… in fact, I might have had your zone “in mind” when I wrote what I did, since I’d been following these posts of yours before I wrote my new one.
    At any rate, we’re led back to the mechanics of the brain, and resolutions of the mind and why poetry seems most often closer to music than it does to prose. Historically (and this seems to fit Jaynes' theory of the origin of consciousness perfectly) poetry as a linguistic system evolved to satisfy what seems to be our essential need for narrative. Prose, much later, then evolves out of poetry.
    ps: thanks for the Moore poem. She is one of our major poets I know least well, and this poem is very startling. It reminds me of Laura Riding (one of my favorite poets) in one of her more left-brain modes.

  7. March 22, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Yes, startling seems to be the word for this poem, Martin. it seems so very discursive and conscious, and then it just blithely forgets all that and cuts itself short with such confidence. And does so repeatedly. But without wilfulness or violence, in such an organic and simple way That's a stab at it. I'd really love to hear others' experiences of reading it.
    By "the zone" I meant mostly what i referred to in the other post as "right brain"--a kind of nonlogical being in appreciation/apprehending. As you noticed, I was backpedaling a bit from the bicameral analogy here, since it wasn't integral to what i wanted to say and seemed to distract some of the conversation from poetry. Still. it's nice to know that you also find it useful.
    Speaking of brain science, Here's a remarkable youtube video. Stroke of Insight, by a brain scientist who had a left brain stroke, describing the experience. Whether it describes left/right brain differences or something else, it's worth a watch if these things interest you.

  8. March 22, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Martin, The New Yorker seems to publish a lot of articles about the brain. You might find this one interesting - "The Eureka Hunt"
    I'm pretty sure this is the article that discusses how problem solvers push and push at a problem until they can push no more. But while taking a break, like a shower, where the hot water relaxes the brain, they have the eureka moment.
    Yes, here's a quote: Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. As Kounios sees it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections.
    And another:
    Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity.