Prose from Poetry Magazine

My Marianne Moore

Modernist master as stealth weapon.

She has no heirs. She has several epigones but their detail-laden lacquered ships for me don’t float. She flares singular, exemplary, a diamond absolute the American East forged in a pressure chamber we have yet fully to excavate.

It is said that, for all her formality, Marianne Moore spoke exactly the same to everyone — child, adult, servant, ceo, baseball player, college president. She was a true democrat.

If her contemporaries often turned to myth (The Waste Land, Ulysses), to a new mode of modern enchantment, Moore made it new via a reverse enchantment: unlike Orpheus, she does not make the stones sing but rather sings the stones:

I sense your glory.
For things that I desire and have not got:
For things I have that I wish I had not,
        You compensate me,

From Flints, Not Flowers

Hear this refusal to swoon, this song of lack, this almost New-Englandy logic of flinty compensation. This bald rhythmic reckoning with, dispossession of, “things.” In such a poem, an early poem, it is as if Moore moves behind Eliot’s idea of the “objective correlative”—the object adequate to emotion, to a complex of thought and feeling—to show us the process by which “flints” might become that object, selected over and against “flowers.” For, as Milton said, and Moore surely knew, “reason is but choosing.”

Which in Moore’s case often means negating: “Flints, Not Flowers.”

“The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing.” So goes the title of a much later poem. What could be a fey little announcement—how enchanting the mind!—is in Moore a diagnosis: the mind enchants: it casts spells, sings songs, projects its magic on and through the object world and other creatures. The poems tack between a submission to and a critique of this enchantment. They are anti-Orphic more than Orphic—yet one has to know the power of Orpheus to create a poetics opposed to it.

At her worst she is twee, or, alternately, insistent. She could seem prudish, famously advising Elizabeth Bishop to delete “water-closet” from her poem “Roosters.” One could not imagine her liking, much less writing like, Sharon Olds. But perhaps this is unfair to both poets: there is more bodily mess and more extreme emotion in Moore than one might think. Moore is ill-served by many of her admirers, who put her on the mantle with Aunt Jennifer’s tigers, precious and breakable and old-fashioned, or who see her as a specimen of loveable eccentric poetic Americana. Americans like their artists folksy, palsy, just plain folks writing plain poems in plain American which cats and dogs can read! (“England”). She ran the risk of becoming a character and the weaker poems may suffer from that.

But she is the stealth weapon of American poetry, with a ferocity and a lacerating intelligence few poets have matched. She has a capacity for a Swiftian savage indignation, and for a courtly feline bitchiness one finds more regularly in Saint-Simon and Proust. Her very titles can be amusing little cracks of the whip: “In This Age of Hard Trying, Nonchalance Is Good and”; “To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity.” Like Pound, who wrote extremely funny character sketches and savage epigrams, she occasionally offers mordant little epitaphs on encounters with inflated morons and presumptuous numskulls:

I am hard to disgust,
but a pretentious poet can do it;a person without a tap root; and
impercipience can do it; did it.  
From Mercifully

Her pointed social satires remind one of Jane Austen, her baroque syntactical devastations reminiscent of Henry James:

I remember a swan under the willows in Oxford,
    with flamingo-colored, maple-
        leaflike feet. It reconnoitered like a battle-
ship. Disbelief and conscious fastidiousness were
            ingredients in its
                disinclination to move. Finally its hardihood was
                        not proof against its
                proclivity to more fully appraise such bits
                    of food as the stream

bore counter to it; it made away with what I gave it
    to eat. I have seen this swan and
        I have seen you; I have seen ambition without
    understanding in a variety of forms.
                             —From Critics and Connoisseurs

At how many inane social gatherings, or when watching how many porcine politicians on tv, might one take solace in these exhilarating lines! The ostentatious Latinate polysyllables (disinclination, proclivity), the intricate clauses, all move toward the punch of the monosyllabic epitaph: I have seen this swan and I have seen you. The thing itself, an observed scene, then glossed: I have seen ambition without understanding in a variety of forms. The emblem, the image, the gloss: the medieval emblem book made modern. Her epigrammatic wit is simultaneously a spine-straightener and a consolation. There should be a Marianne Moore brand of bourbon. “Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!” (“An Octopus”).

It is remarkable that one of the best poems of the twentieth century, Moore’s “Marriage,” is apparently so little read. The best poem on marriage since, perhaps, Paradise Lost, to which it is enormously and confidently indebted. A poem on the romance, the fatality, of marriage, by a woman whom some could not but see as a spinster.

They toil not, neither do they spin.

But toil she did, and spin, a queer erotic weave suffused with feeling; an American original Pound and Williams had the great fortune and insight to hail.

As Williams said of Emily Dickinson and might have said of Moore: She was a real good guy.

Opposition is true friendship, said Blake.

But this is not about friendship—this is about marriage:

This institution,
perhaps one should say enterprise
out of respect for which
one says one need not change one’s mind
about a thing one has believed in,
requiring public promises
of one’s intention
to fulfill a private obligation:
I wonder what Adam and Evethink of it by this time.

One hears here a new note, not exactly a new tone—though a new tone sounds within this long, moving, weird, and grief-struck poem—but a new pace, an enormously caretaking pace, a slow regular walking step, as we move phrase by thinking phrase down the line, down the page.

It is perhaps obvious that we are talking here, that Moore was talking here, of heterosexual marriage. About that state-sponsored “institution” or “perhaps one should say enterprise” organizing what Adrienne Rich later called “the tragedy of sex.” Meaning, at the time she wrote, the tragedy of hetero-sex. Though this tragedy need not be confined to any locality or mode of sex.

The voice: a polemically neutral or rather clinical speaker, deploying an ostentatiously impersonal pronoun: perhaps one should say enterprise; perhaps one need not change one’s mind.

“Marriage” is in part a poem about seeing whether one need change one’s mind.
This presumes that women have minds—
which has long been doubtful
—even if occasionally “we are justified in supposing/That you must have brains” (“Roses Only”).

Need one “change one’s mind/about a thing one has believed in”? Are these carefully unfolding phrases a concession to all those who continue to regard marriage as “a thing one has believed in,” the opening clauses offered “out of respect” to those who continue to believe by one who might not?

We are in the presence of a dramatized scrupulosity as the poet considers the case. It is, then, with extreme precision that Moore gives us a strenuously ungendered, apparently unmarked speaker: one. It is as if she stands outside or beyond gender and indeed beyond the species, or rather that she aims for that position, that generous god-like yet unsexed position from which to assess them both, gently mocking, shaking the head. She forces us to reckon with the position of the speaker, generalized and impersonal as that one, but also, equally, forced into that impersonality, as if too close to a very live wire:

I wonder what Adam and Eve/think of it by this time.

The poem is simultaneously a celebration of opposition-in-marriage and a requiem for the possibility of its ever actually flourishing:

this amalgamation which can never be more
than an interesting impossibility...

This is a poem passionately inquiring into what theorists might call “the sex/gender system of companionate marriage”—a poem asking whether egalitarian marriage might work, and how: questions which, centuries before, were Milton’s as well.

Moore approaches the topos gingerly, carefully, judiciously and mock-judiciously, as if committed to laying out all aspects of the case. She offers a forensic essay—an assay, an attempt, a testing; it is a sifting of evidence, drawn from a vast cultural inheritance here mobilized with a sorrowing wit.

She writes for the defense and for the prosecution, in a sustained performance of due diligence:

Eve: beautiful woman —
I have seen her
when she was so handsome
she gave me a start,
“See her, see her in this common world,”
the central flaw
in that first crystal-fine experiment.

And of Adam:

And he has beauty also;
it’s distressing — the O thou
to whom from whom,
without whom nothing — Adam...

Partisanship withers in the distress of this witnessing, this recognition of this double beauty. And it is as if the poet cannot see Adam without invoking Eve’s own response to Adam, as Milton imagined it in Paradise Lost. There Eve’s address moves immediately into the syntax of dependency and of idolatry:

                                                O thou for whom
And from whom I was formed, flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end...

Adam is her pre-position: made from his rib, she is of him, from him, for him, without him nothing. Her relation to God is always already mediated—He for God only, she for God in him (Paradise Lost, Book iv).

In Moore, Eve’s Miltonic salutation becomes a kind of semi-ironized, fatal shorthand, with Adam glossed as:

                             the O thou
to whom from whom
without whom nothing—Adam;

an apposition semi-ironized in the poet’s handling, because one must concede that “he has beauty also,” that he should be adored; because one feels—

the strange experience of beauty;
its existence is too much;
it tears one to pieces
and each fresh wave of consciousness
is poison.

This staggers me always, the abrupt shifts of tone, the movement from the forensic to this sudden impassioned lyric outbreak which does not exalt but rather sears.

Yeats said that out of the argument with others, one makes rhetoric; out of the argument with oneself, poetry. “Marriage” is a higher-order poiesis, a sustained argument with oneself conducted through the medium of rhetoric. Within the poem it is Adam who makes the case for marriage, in a stately, slightly pompous formal rhetoric that ingathers phrasing and diction from a myriad of sources as we hear him—

commending it
as a fine art, as an experiment,
a duty or as merely recreation.
One must not call him ruffiannor friction a calamity—
the fight to be affectionate:
“no truth can be fully known
until it has been tried
by the tooth of disputation.”


She says, “This butterfly,
this waterfly, this nomad
that has ‘proposed
to settle on my hand for life’—
What can one do with it?”
no rival in that love.
She loves herself so much,
she cannot see herself enough —
a statuette of ivory on ivory,
the logical last touch to an expansive splendor
earned as wages for work done ...

The whole poem partakes of the rhetoric of the dubitatio:

Psychology which explains everything
explains nothing,
and we are still in doubt...

and of an impossibility trope tested and retested—

this amalgamation which can never be more
than an interesting impossibility...

Yet —

One sees that it is rare —
that striking grasp of opposites
opposed each to the other, not to unity.

One sees that it is rare; rare, that is, but perhaps possible.

I first read Moore seriously when I was studying in Oxford; I had also been reading in various schools of feminism and psychoanalysis, as they were in the air in those days, and as I needed tools for living. Moore’s poem may have taught me more than any debate between Anglo-American and French feminists, or between, say, object-relations and Lacanian analysts. Or perhaps it taught me nothing; poems aren’t for teaching; they insinuate; they are of the Tree of Life and of the Tree of Knowledge; they are “something feline,/something colubrine.” As wizards of projection, anthropomorphism, and trope, poets have their own long history of singing the song of introjection, of transference, of projection. And of course, of meditating on Woman.

Woman as ideal, as bane, as muse, as mother, as lover, as daughter, as harpy, shrew, whore, and bliss. Woman under erasure.

She loves herself so much,
she cannot see herself enough—

Female narcissism. The feminine as narcissism. Woman as lack. What sentient woman does not know all about this, does not live this out? What man does not also, in another way, live this out?

The horrible endless iteration of it all. The Dark Continent of It All endlessly explored.

What do women want?

“I should like to be alone”;
to which the visitor replies,
“I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?”

Woman as a mess of contradictions, as She Who Does Not Know Her Own Mind: viz. Moore’s Eve,

equally positive in demanding a commotion
and in stipulating quiet:

And it is true I did not know my own mind.

I wrote a long essay comparing Moore’s poetics with H.D.’s and Gertrude Stein’s; I read them intensively; I got engaged to be married; I thought and felt and felt and thought and floated ever more perilously away from myself, for I needed a kind of saving no one would offer and I could not provide myself. I read myself into all the contradictions; I knew the bourgeois bankruptcy of marriage, the long eviscerating history of it, the pleasures that might be found within it; I was engaged to a man who was kind and intelligent and loving and seemingly open to every thought, however disturbing. He was unfazed by contradiction, a maven of poststructuralist thinking, a person who tended to approach literature as a game for amused decoding. Print is dead, he would say cheerfully. Anything you write is fine with me, he would say, a great gift to one unsanctioned by family or background to write. I thought ours were equal and opposite searchings, but I had my own violent promptings and urgencies which he did not, could not, share, and the compulsion or impulsion to pursue these promptings was itself a weird eros that further drove me on, off —

I had fallen in love with another but not, it would seem, out of love with him. This was unwieldy. This was worse: It was a contradiction, a flaw in the world, unencompassable, “the central flaw/in that first crystal-fine experiment,” and everything shattered.

For I was in fact out of love with him but not with the globe that had seemingly enclosed us. And the woman I now loved was a darting thing, flickering and uncapturable, given to pronouncements like, Well that is what one does, no? Marry. Everyone of course feels ambivalent.

This was to me outrageous as well as a great grief. My great vocation was not to feel ambivalent. This was, of course, childish. It bespoke of the vain purity of the child. Which I should have honored.

          satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.

From What Are Years

For our wedding ceremony I chose passages to be read during the liturgy. It was to be a Catholic mass—every element of the experience becoming a thorough immolation of the self on the bier of given expectation. The wedding dress, one my parents preferred; the mass, residual ritual of my upbringing; the marriage itself, a public consecration of the right to be an adult, that is, to have sex, and to answer to no one except those to whom one chose to answer.

This bespoke a peculiarly impoverished sense of adulthood.Liberty and Union, now and forever.This was a form of self-directed soul-murder. As well as, more obviously, a revolting abuse of my soon-to-be-husband.

What can one do for them —
these savages
From Marriage

There was nothing to be done or nothing I could do and no one could or did help me, nor did anyone help him. I chose a poem for the liturgy which I thought might honor and see us through this difficulty—

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark ofthe ache of it.
        —The Ache of Marriage by Denise Levertov

We were in the ark of it, the ache of it, though our aches were different and the ark of our covenant ultimately, necessarily, belatedly broken.

this amalgamation which can never be more
than an interesting impossibility...

became an excruciating impossibility. Below the incandescent stars, below the incandescent fruit, something was broken and there was nothing to be done and

it tears one to pieces
and each fresh wave of consciousness
is poison.

When but to think was to be full of sorrow, when to be conscious was to wish to be dead, when in some moods one had to admit—

“I am such a cow,
if I had a sorrow
I should feel it a long time;
I am not one of thosewho have a great sorrow
in the morning
and a great joy at noon”
        —From Marriage

—there was this other prior thing of thinking sorrow, this wonderful keening and sometimes ludic thing. In the midst of all rending and beyond all unknowing there is a gratitude for those who survey what’s impossible, for those who say that “love/is the only fortress/strong enough to trust to” (“The Paper Nautilus”), those who cry out saying—

                                If that which is at all were not forever,
why would those who graced the spires
with animals and gathered there to rest, on cold luxurious
low stone seats—a monk and monk and monk—between the thus
        ingenious roof-supports, have slaved to confuse
            grace with a kindly manner, time in which to pay a debt,
        the cure for  sins, a graceful use
            of what are yet
        approved stone mullions branching out across
        the perpendiculars?
                              —From The Pangolin

a gratitude for those who wonder if that which is at all were not forever, how to persist —

     What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
     naked, none is safe.
        — From What Are Years

All honor to those who wave the pure flag of a difficult joy —

       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 lowlything, how pure a thing is joy.
       This is mortality,
       this is eternity.
                —From What Are Years

Originally Published: May 1st, 2012

Maureen N. McLane grew up in upstate New York and was educated at Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Chicago. She is the author of five books of poetry: Some Say (FSG, 2017), Mz N: the serial: a poem-in-episodes (FSG, 2016), This Blue (FSG, 2014—Finalist for the National Book...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. May 6, 2012
     Tim McGrath

    What I like most about Marianne Moore, besides her
    virtuosity, is that she counted syllables with
    precision. According to R.P. Blackmur, Tennyson said he
    knew the "quantity" of every word in the English
    language except the word "scissors," which has an
    indefinite gap between two slippery syllables. Moore
    was a perfectionist, and she could hear, in Blackmur's
    phrase, "the music of Lord Tennyson's scissors."

  2. May 31, 2012
     James Winchell

    When I met Raymond Queneau in Paris @ Editions Gallimard in 1974, he
    told me that his favorite American poet was Marianne Moore and that he
    had translated her work into French in the early days.

  3. December 2, 2012
     John Tatum

    The Paper Nautilus...a perfect image of feminity,
    egg holder, hope for the future...Jeremiah 23:11
    a perishable souvenir of hope. I love the spiritual
    force of Marianne Moore and think of her as the first
    voice of feminism and the voice of a woman's right to
    have a voice in American Literture.