Marianne Moore: Complete Poems (2nd Take)

Marianne Moore as a Child (altered from Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Marianne Moore as a Child (altered from Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

…I felt I should give Moore  another chance. I’m glad I did. What made it easier was someone pointing out “The Fish” specifically — what a beautiful piece.

I have figured out, I think, what frustrated me so when I first tried to read her poems. Let me give you a hint: think syntax (thing 1) and code (thing 2). Let me explain. Sometimes, — frequently, actually, — Moore’s sentences are almost a page long, or longer. And while my brain, having been wired for the complex sentences of German, should be able to handle this just fine, it often doesn’t. In part, that’s due to (thing2), code. What I mean by code is Moore’s plentiful allusions and quotes.

Since she was born over a hundred years ago, in a different culture and very different generation than mine, it’s not all that surprising that I don’t catch some of them. It’s just that they are vital, I think, to getting into some of the poems, and that can be frustrating. That said, I have read and re-read a number of poems that I actually found much more accessible and enjoyable the second (or third) time around.

Moore’s imagery, when it is concrete, is lovely in a non-trivial way — take this image from “Silence”:

Self-reliant like the cat — / that takes its prey to privacy, / the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth —

Then, there is her poem about “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns”. Unicorns. Need I say more?

the dogs persistent in pursuit of it as if it could be caught, / “deriving agreeable terror” from its “moonbeam throat” / on fire like its white coat and unconsumed as if of salamander’s skin.


Like Bishop, Moore likes creatures. Animals. The cat, mouse, and unicorn are just a few among many. Sometimes, the animal itself is the focus of the poem, such as in “The Fish”, “The Buffalo”, “The Frigate Pelican” and “The Jerboa”. At other times, the animal is an avatar, a placeholder for something (or someone) else. “To The Peacock of France” for example, starts out simply enough as a description of a peacock, but quickly moves on to Molière (who, Patricia C. Willis argues, is the actual subject of the poem). “The Octopus” as described by Moore is a mythical, awe-inspring creature, and doubles for climbing Mt.Rainier, which she did in the 1920s or so:

An Octopus / of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat, / it lies “in grandeur and in mass” / beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes; / dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined pseudo-podia / made of glass that will bend — a much needed invention — / comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred feet thick, / of unimagined delicacy.

I had to chuckle here:

Distinguished by a beauty / of which “the visitor dare never fully speak at home / for fear of being stoned as an impostor,”

What do we say when, for once, a cliché rings true? It’s unspeakable, or at least disconcerting. Meaning something words don’t fit any more.


Marianne Moore

A new favorite, from reading again: “People’s Surroundings.” I could see the surroundings, down to the impossible dogs and the grids of Salt Lake City.

The palace furniture, so old-fashioned, so old-fashionable; / Sèvres china and the fireplace dogs — / bronze dromios with pointed ears, as obsolete as pugs; / one has one’s preferences in the matter of bad furniture, / and this is not one’s choice.

I like the idea of people in uncomplicated places having “extra sense-cells in the skin” that enable them, “like trout, [to] smell what is coming — / those cool sirs with the explicit sensory apparatus of common sense, / who know the exact distance between two points as the crow flies; / there is something attractive about a mind that moves in a straight line –”

This poem, like quite a few of them, has several long lists of things & people. Here, I think, this works really well and creates an interesting effect, especially in the last third of the poem, where she lists a whopping 25 different types of people and then their respective surroundings.

Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore

And then, there’s “The Student” —

“In America,” began / the lecturer, “everyone must have a / degree. The French do not think that / all can have it, they don’t say that everyone / must go to college.” […] It may be that we / have not knowledge, just opinions, that we / are undergraduates, / not students; we know / we have been told with smiles, by expatriates / / of whom we had asked “When will / your experiment be finished?” “Science / is never finished.”

I’m not sure when she actually wrote this, but it was published in 1941. She saw, back then, what I’m seeing here, now: masses of young people who feel they must have a college degree. They don’t feel that way because they are necessarily in love with studying, reading, writing papers, and that’s the only reason this is sad. I get the impression a good number of students are in college because they see no other way they could possibly get a job and support themselves (and, maybe, a family). This is not what Moore’s poem is about, but I thought her comment, her observation was interesting. The attitude toward higher education was, and without doubt still is, different in continental Europe than it is in the US.

Now, the moral of the (re-reading) story is, don’t give up on what rubs you the wrong way. Or maybe, some things get better with exposure? Or, when you give second chances, you’re also getting a second chance — I’m glad I didn’t just shelve Moore.

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


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