Prose from Poetry Magazine

Willing to Be Reckless

Marianne Moore’s New Collected Poems, edited by Heather Cass White.
Marianne Moore

New Collected Poems, by Marianne Moore, ed. Heather Cass White.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.00.

It was Robert Frost who said, in a letter, “in verse as in trapeze performance is all.” Is it any surprise then to read of Marianne Moore that she kept a trapeze in her house — “mystifying visitors,” writes her biographer, Linda Leavell? Moore was a consummate performer in her work (the biography is even called Holding on Upside Down), and she admired athletes in particular, having famously pitched the first ball of the season at Yankee Stadium in 1968, and having written the liner notes for I Am the Greatest! by Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali). Among the best pieces of prose she wrote was an essay on Anna Pavlova, not because she was a balletomane, but because something about the dancer’s “persuasion of contrasts” spoke to her own sense of artistry: “undogmatic decisiveness, strength of foot with lightness of body; technical proficiency with poetic feeling; aloofness and simplicity in one who had chosen as her art that most exposed form of self-expression, dancing.” These traits abound in Moore’s poetry; 
I turn a page at random for a sample and land on “The Mind is an Enchanting Thing”:

is an enchanted thing
like the glaze on a
katydid-wing
subdivided by sun
til the nettings are legion.
Like Gieseking playing Scarlatti;

like the apteryx-awl
as a beak, or the
kiwi’s rain-shawl
of haired feathers, the mind
feeling its way as though blind,
walks along with its eyes on the ground.

Poetry’s great modernists were all performers jostling for supremacy on the “make it new” stage, but they were in rare agreement about Moore (including that performer of austerity, Frost, striding the modernist fault line). Ezra Pound, as ever performing the impresario, championed her as early as 1915. W.H. Auden, who performed the schoolmaster, wrote of her: “there are very few poets who give me more pleasure to read.” Wallace Stevens, who performed the dandy, reviewed her work in terms that could have applied to his own: “Miss Moore’s reality is significant. An aesthetic integration is a reality.” H.D., who performed the Delphic oracle, wrote that Moore’s poems were “frail, yet as all beautiful things are, absolutely hard.” With the help of T.S. Eliot and her heiress lover Bryher, H.D. surprised Moore with the secret publication of her first collection in 1921; Eliot brought out a later selection in 1935, and wrote the preface for it. William Carlos Williams wrote to her: “Why should I not speak in superlatives    ...    there is no work in verse being done in any language which I can read which I find more to my liking and which I believe to be so thoroughly excellent.” He, along with Pound and H.D., had missed meeting the self-styled “Byronesque” redhead in college, from 1906 to 1909, while the women attended Bryn Mawr and the men swanned around UPenn.

This unanimity among her most illustrious peers in the heyday of modernism is one justification for recent corrective scholarship on Moore. In 2013, Linda Leavell published a revelatory new biography. In 2016, Farrar, Straus and Giroux reissued her groundbreaking book Observations with an introduction by Leavell, which restored the original versions of poems that Moore had suppressed over the course of a career-long revision process. And now we have a New Collected Poems, edited by Heather Cass White, which also prioritizes poems in the forms originally encountered in their books, and replaces both Moore’s own Complete Poems from 1967 and the 2005 The Poems of Marianne Moore, overseen by Grace Schulman, which, among other things, obscured Observations and front-loaded Moore’s juvenilia.

What was Moore’s verbal trapeze work like, then? She was a genius metaphor-maker to begin with, but it was her daring use of form that drew gasps. Her only free verse was written between 1921 and 1924, producing masterpieces like “Marriage” and “An Octopus”; more commonly she worked in sui generis stanzas that draped highly wrought sentences (think Henry James, an early influence) onto a syllabic armature, replete with innovative end rhymes (often 
sight rhymes), that retained the look of poetry (slightly more angular, “stiffly geometrical,” said Harriet Monroe rather disapprovingly) while sounding nothing like metrical English verse. At the same time, she was an early adopter of the collage method — the signal modernist invention — interpolating her authorial voice with quotes whose provenance weren’t always clear, even after notes were added to the back of the book. Sometimes they were quotes from the diaries and letters of great writers; sometimes they were taken from anonymous news stories and pamphlets; sometimes they were lifted from ordinary conversation — her mother talking, say. This self-interruption, this choral effect, is most associated with Eliot and Pound, but no one made it sound as witty and conversational as Moore. (Auden: “Uncomprehending as I was, I felt attracted by the tone of voice.”) She could be funny, self-deprecating (picturing herself as an “intra-mural rat” for instance) and tart, titling a poem “To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity.” Moore said, of her years as a reviewer then editor at the avant-garde magazine The Dial, “I think that individuality was the great thing. We were not conforming to anything. We certainly didn’t have a policy, except I remember hearing the word intensity very often. A thing must have intensity.” She elaborated:

Wallace Stevens was really very much annoyed at being cataloged, categorized, and compelled to be scientific about what he was doing — to give satisfaction, to answer the teachers. He wouldn’t do that. I think the same of William Carlos Williams. I think he wouldn’t make so much of the great American language if he were plausible and tractable. That’s the beauty of it — he is willing to be reckless. If you can’t be that, what’s the point of the whole thing?

Intensity, but an attractive tone. Hardness — in the sense of both difficulty and unsentimentality — but recklessness. This is what moved her peers, and what drew criticism from more conventional 
readers (who accused her of obscurity and lack of emotion — of course! — but also of formal incompetence). As you read her poetry chronologically, from the experimental Observations through the 
later work, you sense that you are watching Moore figure out what she was about — her categories, if you will — and once she did, the 
recklessness ebbed away. She also grew more accommodating — “tractable” — writing for occasions and commissions, with lucidity but with less bite. If we think of, say, Emily Dickinson as our lyric poet, on the order of Sappho with her lone-voiced, private intensities, we might think of Moore in her later years as our Pindar: public, choral, odic. She did, after all, write a victory ode for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and America knew her as an icon in a tricorne hat and cape — on television even, as a guest on the Today show, a guest on the Tonight show, paired with Mickey Spillane in a commercial for Braniff Airways. This is not an unusual career trajectory (for all kinds of artists), but the constant rewriting of one’s work doesn’t just create a quandary for editors, it distorts the past. And the past, like poetry, is usually more complicated and surprising than we like to believe.

Marianne Moore was born in 1887 in a suburb of St. Louis. One of the piquant coincidences of modern poetry is that T.S. Eliot was born in the vicinity less than a year later; had their grandfathers not been ministers of rival sects — hers Presbyterian, his Unitarian — they might have met in childhood. As it was, her grandfather died when Moore was eight, and her mother, Mary Warner Moore, moved her and her brother to Carlisle, in south central Pennsylvania, where she lived until matriculating at Bryn Mawr.

Moore never mentioned her father; her fellow poets wondered about that, and about the unusual closeness between her and her mother and brother. Leavell’s biography clears up the mystery of 
paternity. Marianne and (John) Warner Moore never knew their 
father; John Milton Moore had had a psychotic breakdown within a couple of years of his impulsive marriage to Mary Warner, and died in an institution when Marianne was sixteen. The facts of his case are brutal: plagued with religious mania to the end of his days, he amputated his own right hand in accordance with the scripture in Matthew 5:30 — “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.”

Mary Warner had lost her mother in infancy, to the typhoid 
epidemic that swept Gettysburg in the aftermath of the ghastly civil war battle. Orphanhood and single-motherhood were mitigated by a small family trust, extended kin, and the stable milieu of genteel, educated progressivism both in Kirkwood and Carlisle. Mary ended up a teacher at the girl’s school that Marianne attended, and found herself romanced by a younger woman, Mary Norcross, an educator and Bryn Mawr alumna. The two were lovers for a decade while Marianne and Warner were growing up. The family read books like The Wind in the Willows to one another, adopting nicknames for each other from its characters; daily prayer and Sunday service were also features of the household. While this Christian lesbian ménage confounds our present categories, it may explain why Moore sought the safety of her immediate family all her life, while maintaining a public stance of profound nonconformism.

Moore started writing poetry at Bryn Mawr, where she was not a stellar student — biology, not English, was her best subject. Still, she was popular, and her teachers attended to her diligently. After 
graduation she became the kind of alert young woman who, though isolated from her poetic peers, would make her way to Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery to see experimental painting and photography, and send her poetic efforts to experimental little magazines like The Egoist, Others, and, yes, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. H.D. saw those first poems in The Egoist in 1915 and recognized her fellow alumna’s name. They struck up a correspondence and a friendship; by 1921, impatient with Moore’s reluctance to publish a book, she conspired to have a small one printed in London without her knowledge. Moore was unhappy with the unauthorized Poems, and it was poorly reviewed. She had another chance at a “first” book in 1924 with Observations, an expanded version of Poems which now contained masterpieces like “Marriage” and “An Octopus.”

Observations was reprinted with slight changes in 1925; the one ominous note was a shortened version of the famous poem “Poetry,” which continued to contract and expand over the years, python-like. I can barely quote its first line, “I, too, dislike it” — a line put to as many false uses as Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen.” If Moore found it difficult to sum up her ars poetica in one definitive poem, she needn’t have worried so much. Observations as a whole constitutes a prismatic exploration of art: what it is, what it means to create it, and what déformations professionelles it visits on its creators. Animal and plant specimens are presented as creatures and creators both, having to adapt to conditions they have inherited, not made. These solutions are then praised as beautiful: the chameleon “snap[s] the spectrum up for food”; the snail has a “principle that is hid”; the rat’s wit is “too brisk to be inspected.” There’s a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t aspect to all the animal-artist’s qualities, since both display and camouflage are essential to survival in the wild.

Actually I shouldn’t reduce Moore’s approbations to mere praise, “beautiful”; more often she’ll declare her object a “curio,” cognate with curious, connoting something both odd and worthy of attention. “Curiouser and curiouser!” said Alice in Wonderland; Auden, who playfully divided writers into “Alices” and “Mabels,” identified Moore as an Alice (along with Austen, Montaigne, Marvell, and Woolf). In “The Monkey Puzzler,” Moore identifies with the “true curio,” the Chilean monkey puzzle tree (she changes “puzzle” into “puzzler,” object into agent). It is an ancient, spiky thing — a living fossil, in fact, and Moore wonders: “One is at a loss, however, to know why it should be here, / in this morose part of the earth — / to account for its origin at all; / but we prove, we do not explain our birth.” Likewise in “Roses Only,” Moore instructs the artist: “You do not seem to realise that beauty is a liability rather than / an asset    ...    /    ...    / your thorns are the best part of you.” “Are they weapons or scalpels?” she asks another totem in “Those Various Scalpels.” It is this “hardness” that H.D. recognized and praised, the presence of the claw or tooth, blade or spine in the language. In her essay “Feeling and Precision,” Moore acknowledges this: “The lion’s leap would be mitigated almost to harmlessness if the lion were clawless, so precision is both impact and exactitude, as with surgery.”

Much of the great pleasure of a Moore poem, circa 1925, was in the way it played with argument. If the arguments had much to do with the identity between the creator and the created — How does a thing exist — a snail, a vase, me? — a sort of aesthetic ontology — it was really in the mimicry of debate that she made her points. The argument is usually between sentences rather than advanced by the sentences. Or the argument is begun rhetorically, then carried dialectically by opposing images (a “persuasion of contrasts,” as she said of Pavlova). This can be frustrating if you’re looking for the manifesto outright. Take “Marriage”: Moore’s background, and her rejection of marriage — specifically, a proposal by Scofield Thayer, her editor at The Dial — ought to have yielded a poem giving critics of the institution powerful ammunition, but it’s not that, despite some choice quotes (“experience attests / that men have power / and sometimes one is made to feel it” — yes, but “a wife is a coffin”). Moore’s note for her poem “Picking and Choosing” steers us to Eliot’s essay on Henry James; it’s the one where he accuses James of having “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Perhaps Moore was giving us the key right here — she would not violate her poems with mere ideas, though she would pantomime them, dance with them (Pound: “the dance of the intellect among words”), and then abandon them at the altar.

Yet tendencies and innuendoes tell us a lot about predilections. One of the unfortunate results of Moore’s later obscuration of Observations is that its covert gender critique could not be gauged by feminist poets like Adrienne Rich, who would not see past her “maidenly, elegant, intellectual, discreet” persona. “Marriage” may be intellectual and discreet — maidenly and elegant I’m not so sure:

That striking grasp of opposites
opposed each to the other, not to unity,
which in cycloid inclusiveness
has dwarfed the demonstration
of Columbus with the egg — 
a triumph of simplicity — 
that charitive Euroclydon
of frightening disinterestedness
which the world hates.

The Euroclydon is a destructive Mediterranean wind that may have shipwrecked St. Paul — he of 1 Corinthians 7:9: “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn” — on his way to Rome. The form of the Euroclydon is cyclonic; it is the wedding ring. The poem too is cyclonic; not only does it circle around its subject, it presents “circular traditions” as a theme and offers chiasmi and tautologies in a long free-verse excursus that exceeds the bounds of “elegant” poetry as defined by almost anyone in 1924.

There are two peculiar poems about fathers that defy authority beneath their deft surfaces. “Silence” comes right after “Marriage” in the book (an ironic comment right there, no?). The first line goes “My father used to say    ...    ” but Marianne didn’t know her father; her endnotes tell us that she is quoting a friend, a professor of hygiene at Wellesley, A.M. Homans. And then, by an act of collage, she quotes Edmund Burke and makes an ironic epigram applicable to parents and children: “Nor was he insincere in saying, ‘Make my house your inn.’ / Inns are not residences.” Thus the Enlightenment thinker is collapsed with the hygiene professor’s father, collapsed with the speaker’s father, the speaker supposedly being Moore, who had no father. The layers of fictiveness are mind-boggling for so short a poem, and just as ironic — and funnier — is the other father poem, “‘He Wrote the History Book.’” It takes as its donné a child’s solecism, “My father wrote the history book.” (As if there were one!) “Authentically /  brief,” Moore almost drawls to the child, “Thank you for showing me / your father’s autograph.” As a further riposte, she rhymes it with chaff.

Maybe it sounds tendentious to say there’s gender critique in the book — there’s an anti-authoritarian streak, and it comes out in these poems as well as in “To a Steam Roller,” “To Military Progress,” “Pedantic Literalist,” and “Critics and Connoisseurs.” As befits a book largely about aesthetics, a great many of the poems deal with judging. We may deduce that she is addressing men in power, but she lets the images and their connotations imply rather than accuse. When feminists dismissed her as a “maidenly,” unthreatening token in the male-dominated world of avant-gardists, they could not have known that she was raised by lesbians and took on the male pronoun in the family’s private language (the over thirty thousand archived letters between Mary, Marianne, and Warner attest to this); they could not have read “An Intra-mural Rat,” the first poem in the book, as a self-portrait: “You make me think of many men / Once met to be forgot again.” Here was gender fluidity on the page avant la lettre — or perhaps Tiresias, if, per another poem, “The Past is the Present.”

In the end, the enigmatic and energetic poems in Observations evade the intelligence “almost successfully,” as Stevens’s adage would have it. The comparison is acute. Both poets counter the violence of reality with the violence of the imagination; Stevens fashioned this notion in the thirties, but he could well have gotten it from “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns,” the final poem in Observations and a brilliant study in symbolic counterpoint (the poem takes as its premise the notion, lifted from a sixteenth-century privateer’s explorations of Florida, that if a land is found to harbor lions then it follows that unicorns must inhabit it too, since lions and unicorns are nemeses in legend). Harmonium was published only the previous year, in 1923. Observations doesn’t have the same name recognition, the same reputation as a “best first book” of the twentieth century, but both the Farrar, Straus and Giroux reissue and the New Collected Poems should help to change that. It is every bit as strange, every bit as preoccupied as Stevens’s chef d’oeuvre with its own becoming, its own reason for being, its own aesthetic repleteness. It also celebrates the fun and joy in making that animates Harmonium. Consider too that he was forty-three, she thirty-seven when these first books were published. They are secret siblings, chaste yet resplendent.

After Observations, Moore went silent for a few years. She had 
taken on editorial responsibilities at the little magazine The Dial, where she had been a regular reviewer, and had a spell of ill health. Both she and her mother would take to bed frequently in the next 
few decades, with ailments ranging from bursitis to bronchitis. Moore had always been delicate in fact — the aforementioned trapeze had been prescribed for her scoliosis, and she was chronically underweight (there is even speculation about anorexia). But then Moore began a few more masterpieces that would appear in her next book, Selected Poems, edited by Eliot: “The Steeple-Jack,” “The Jerboa,” and “The Plumet Basilisk,” to name just three. These poems expand and amplify the discoveries Moore made in Observations. They have that rarefied strangeness of her best poems: the “eight stranded whales” of the town in “The Steeple-Jack,” the “pine-cone / or fir-cone — with holes for a fountain” that launches “The Jerboa.” The objets d’art seem productively otiose (like “No Swan So Fine”), the animals unpretty but resourceful. “The Plumet Basilisk” contains some of her most agile writing, surprising in its line breaks, its pacing:

     Among tightened wires,
minute noises swell
and change as in the woods’ acoustic shell

     they will, with trees as
avenues of steel
to veil invisibleness ears must feel — 

black opal emerald opal
emerald — the prompt-delayed loud-
low chromatic listened-for down-
scale which Swinburne called in prose, the
noiseless music that hangs about
the serpent when it stirs or springs.

I hear not Swinburne so much as Hopkins’s sprung rhythm. Moore admired Hopkins, citing his exemplary line, “about some lambs he had seen frolicking in a field, ‘It was as though it was the ground that tossed them.’” It hearkens to her image of poetry as a “lion’s leap” — perhaps she had a mind to revise Hopkins for a more Darwinian century.

Selected Poems, like Observations, was received with ovations by her peers, but Moore still found it difficult to place her work with major magazines like the New Yorker, which had by the forties embraced her protégée, Elizabeth Bishop. “Technical virtuosity is not the essential nourishment we need at this time,” Moore wrote philosophically, on the cusp of WWII. Her remark reminds me that she titled one of her essays “Humility, Concentration, and Gusto” — a triumvirate of virtues that could go down with Bishop’s “accuracy, spontaneity, mystery” and Stevens’s “It must be abstract,” “it must change,” “it must give pleasure.” But humility can be taken too far, and Moore’s poems in the forties began a slow creep toward détente with the reading public.

And her mother. For it remains the overwhelming fact of 
Marianne Moore’s life that when her mother’s lover left her for another woman, in 1910, Marianne was called home to comfort her, and remained under her roof — first in Carlisle, then Greenwich Village, then Brooklyn — for the next thirty-seven years, until the supposedly frail older woman died at the age of eighty-five. And not only under her roof, but in a shared bed. They rarely spent a night apart; after her spirited college years (“Byronesque,” although schoolgirl crushes, one on William James’s daughter, were about the extent of it), there is not even the hint of a love interest for the rest of her life. “Love is more important that being in love, as memories of childhood testify,” Moore remarked.

Even more appallingly, this domestic arrangement all but ensured that Mary Warner Moore was Marianne’s first reader for all those decades. Leavell sees Moore’s work as enacting, right from the start, the struggle for freedom that eluded her in her mother’s grasp, and at first she didn’t mind much that the poems eluded her mother’s grasp in her stead. Not only did Mary dislike Marianne’s “An Octopus” — which John Ashbery, for one, regarded as her greatest poem — but declared her daughter’s first book “a veiled Mohammedan woman.” When world events began their excruciating pressure in the late thirties, the women would read the newspaper to each other. Mary’s Presbyterian-schoolmistressy piety surely must have collaborated with Axis forces to wear down her daughter’s defenses: “What Are Years” (1941) starts off with the question, “What is our innocence, / what is our guilt?” And though it spoke to the nation, as it were, and was subsequently anthologized, it is squarely within the bounds of “fine writing,” lacking an imaginative dimension. With every passing decade, Moore’s poems contained less and less of the thorny and the furtive.

To gauge the difference, take “O to Be a Dragon,” from her 1959 book of the same name. It hearkens back to Moore’s “To a Chameleon” (1916):

Hid by the august foliage and fruit of the grape vine,
Twine,
Your anatomy
Round the pruned and polished stem,
Chameleon.
Fire laid upon
An emerald as long as
The Dark King’s massy
One,
Could not snap the spectrum up for food as you have done.

Here are the hallmarks of modernism with its odd juxtapositions. The poem is in couplets but not in isometric lines. It mixes perfect and imperfect rhymes. Its non-accentual-syllabic meter doesn’t sound musical (until the last line offers itself as a swift, sure hexameter with a caesura in the middle). One might say that it’s in double couplets, since it is composed of two sentences, and the two sentences finally rhyme (chameleon/have done). That the middle couplet carries the rhyme but divides the sentences suggests the twining (or twinning) of the reptile with its branch. The final, negative image of the emerald that can’t “snap the spectrum up for food” flashes a fugitive 
defiance at “the Dark King.”

But what we get in 1959 is watered-down children’s book verse:

If I, like Solomon,    ...    
could have my wish — 
    my wish    ...    O to be a dragon,
a symbol of the power of Heaven — of silkworm
size or immense; at times invisible.
      Felicitous phenomenon!

“Felicitous phenomenon!” — ? Trade secret: a pinch of alliteration will distract from the blandness of the dish. Yet “O to Be a Dragon” is trademark anthology-friendly Moore, appearing in Life magazine in 1967 under the gushing heading, “Four poems that show her mind’s wide range.” In all those years, there wasn’t a poem to rival “Marriage,” or that broke from the formula of animal- and object-lesson.

In her later years, Moore attracted not only more readers, but invitations to read and lecture, magazine profiles (Life, the New Yorker, Sports Illustrated), television appearances, rich patronesses, and of course prizes. She returned the favor with poems that celebrated pop culture (Yul Brynner, the Brooklyn Dodgers), and answered to commissions or occasions. Wasn’t Auden doing much the same thing at the time — writing poems on cuisine? But no one wrote an essay about Moore on the order of Philip Larkin’s “What’s Become of Wystan?” When she died in her sleep at age eighty-four, the headline appeared above the fold on the New York Times, and President Nixon issued a statement about the death of “one of our most distinguished poets.”

Moore’s final legacy to her readers was her 1967 Complete Poems. “Mendaciously titled,” says Cass White, “that collection is anything but complete, containing only just over half of the poems she actually published during her life. Perhaps more importantly, many of the poems it does contain are extensively altered versions of poems she first wrote decades earlier.” Leavell adds, “The Complete Poems presents her final intentions but not necessarily her most compelling ones.” Both Cass White and Leavell, in restoring original versions of Observations, follow on the heels of Robin G. Schulze’s Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 19071924 (2002), in which she presents a facsimile version of the 1924 Observations, as well as facsimiles of poems published in college and little magazines. Schulze’s introduction gives a condensed version of Moore’s publication history, and shows how Moore — and modernist — scholarship was warped by reliance on the older Moore’s truncated selection of her oeuvre.

To ask why Moore was such a destructive reviser seems somehow both futile and obvious. Poets revise because we can — we are the petty tyrants of our work — and because we are attracted to a form that in its compactness offers the illusion of perfectibility. It is also, quite simply, much easier to revise than to create something out of nothing; revising gives one the illusion of productivity in the face of the fickle muse. Auden too was compulsive about his revisions; his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, has restored two important poems to Auden’s canon which the poet tried to suppress (“Spain” and the renowned “September 1, 1939”). Mendelson refers to the “gothic-tower model” of revision:

Here the original conception is merely a rough sketch....    The work is never entirely finished, because the author continually finds weak links that need repairs or improvements, and the work continues to be altered — even after the author’s death — by editors and publishers, sometimes to the point where a later century calls in professional restorers to undo the mistaken restorations and doubtful improvements made by earlier centuries.

Grace Schulman, who knew Moore, thought that she had “a predilection for change,” evident in her poems’ subject matter. Yet Moore also allegedly told her, “I aspire to have a taproot, but I don’t have one.” What she meant by that is up for debate: did her treatment of her poetry as a medium in flux have to do with her semi-orphaned childhood? Over-reliance on her mother? Or was poetry’s innate “negative capability” a source of anxiety rather than, as it was for Keats, a source of “Beauty [that] overcomes every other consideration”? It might be that, as with Auden (and contra Arcadian Keats), Moore’s Protestantism made moral, rational demands on her poetry that poetry, in all its generative anarchy, cannot sustain. The revisions were an attempt to reconcile them.

It was only in the last couple of decades that the principles of  “final authorial intention,” which guided midcentury editors of the Anglo-American school (related to New Criticism), made room for theories of “textual instability,” which has given us, among other things, the variorum edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Dickinson scholars have been undoing layers of editorial intervention, revealing an even more experimental, perhaps indeterminate, poet than we’d dreamed. Moore’s case — the undoing of authorial intervention — reverses the scenario. Someday there will be a variorum edition of Marianne Moore. Yet the fact remains that most of us don’t need or want to read twenty versions of a poem: we want the gasp of immediate recognition, “a few ‘strong wrinkles’ puckering the / skin between the ears,” as Moore put it in — irony of ironies — “Picking and Choosing.” Someone must do the picking and choosing, requiring exquisite 
sensitivity: nerves over intellection, pleasure in puzzlement, an appreciation for the “lion’s leap.” “My aim is simple,” writes Cass White, “I have here presented Moore’s poems as they were when she first wrote and published them, not as she later revised them.” It must be odd, though — perhaps unprecedented — to be put in the position of having to rescue poems from their makar, a fabulous creature, which has been known to cannibalize itself.

Originally Published: December 1st, 2017

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

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