Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Birthday: “Does your stuff ‘appear’ in America?” asked Pound after first encountering her poems in England. “Dear Mr. Pound,” replied Moore, “I do not appear.”

Marguerite Zorach, Marianne Moore and Her Mother, 1925

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

A good, sound Presbyterian all her life, was Marianne Moore. Granddaughter of the manse, we’d have said in my childhood; her mother was a minister’s daughter, and they lived with him after Moore’s father had a psychotic episode and was put in an asylum. He was the sort who, literally, took Matthew 5:30 literally.

Mother and daughter were practically inseparable, living together until Mary Warner Moore died in 1947. Marianne graduated Bryn Mawr in 1909, with a degree in history, politics and economics. She taught at an Indian school for a few years, and for a private club at Lake Placid organized by Melvil Dewey, the creator of the decimal system.

She was remarkably attractive to men and women but never seems to have a had a serious relationship, and never married. Bryher, the partner of the poet H.D.- who was a college classmate of Moore’s for a year, likened Moore to “a heraldic pterodactyl”.

Mother and daughter moved to New Jersey, then to Greenwich Village in 1918. Moore worked part-time as a librarian; her first books, in 1921 and 1924, won her much acclaim. She edited a literary magazine, The Dial, from 1925 to 1949. She was also a great collector of friends: William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound, from World War I on; by letter with the reclusive Joseph Cornell through the 1940s and ‘50s.

She was known for innovative expression within strict form and line counts; she often drew on her Presbyterian faith, writing about issues of strength and adversity, as well as the experimental forms of the British poet Edith Sitwell. Many critics dismissed her work as witticisms for intellectuals, but Eliot- who wrote the preface to one of her collections, said she was one of the masters of modernism, and history has upheld his verdict.

She was a formidable, deceptively fragile, writer. As James Longenbach noted in an appreciation published in March, “I am in perfect terror of Marianne,” admitted her friend William Carlos Williams. Why would that be? Consider a few of the many challenging tasks cataloged in “The Labors of Hercules”:
to teach the patron-saint-to-
atheists, the Coliseum
meet-me-alone-by-moonlight maudlin troubadour
that kickups for catstrings are not life
nor yet appropriate for death—that we are sick of the earth,
sick of the pig-sty, wild geese and wild men:
to convince snake-charming controversialists
that it is one thing to change one’s mind,
another to eradicate it—that one keeps on knowing
“that the Negro is not brutal,
that the Jew is not greedy,
that the Oriental is not immoral,
that the German is not a Hun.”
Longenbach writes, "The author of these lines has zero patience for what Moore elsewhere calls “the storm of / conventional opinion,” whether sentimental (maudlin poets spouting romantic clichés) or political (controversialists reveling in racial and national prejudice). Moore’s sensibility mellowed with age, but like Dickinson, the poet of Observations is one of the most ferocious in the language, a poet whose passionate convictions are nailed to the page. 'Your thorns,' says Moore of a rose, 'are the best part of you.'"
She could find inspiration in the most unlikely places and express it in improbable ways, Longenbach adds:
“Her turn to free verse represents not a disavowal of formal patterning but a different kind of patterning—a collusion of line and syntax in poems whose extravagantly list-like organization needs to be managed.

“This strategy culminates in the longest poem of Observations, “An Octopus,” which is no more about a cephalopod than “England” is about a small island nation on the periphery of Europe. The poem grew out of Moore’s 1922 expedition to Mount Rainier, the 14,000-foot peak towering above Seattle, and as Clifton Johnson puts it in What to See in America (one of Moore’s sources for the poem), the 28 glaciers covering Mount Rainier reach “into rich gardens of wild flowers and splendid evergreen forests like the tentacles of a huge octopus.” But just as the octopus is a figure for the mountain, the mountain is Moore’s figure for America—its vastness, its multiplicity, its tortured past and its infinitely promising future. Except for Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, there is no poem that more passionately fulfills Emerson’s conviction that “America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination.”

“The poem itself must be experienced in its vastness. Brief quotations can’t reveal the power of Moore’s exquisite control of its almost unwieldy array of materials, for its argument emerges through the excessive iterations of catalog, managed by the lineation, rather than from the logical procedures of cause and effect. Grippingly meticulous accounts of Mount Rainier’s geography, fauna, and flora, much of the material quoted from a bewildering variety of sources, ultimately spill into a charged comparison between this “American ‘menagerie of styles’” and the ancient Greek preference for mere “neatness of finish.” The Greeks wore themselves out, but this New World poem, like the glaciers of Mount Rainier, keeps expanding, building a concatenation of materials that feels simultaneously inevitable and impossible—an octopus “of ice,” as the first line tells us, distinguished by a relentless “capacity for fact.” How, one wants to ask when reading Observations from start to finish, could the book have come to this?

“But there’s more. Following the poems of Observations come Moore’s fascinating notes to them, ranging from Pliny to Punch, and following the notes is her 504-entry index, which references not just the titles of the poems but their extraordinary range of subject matter—an index that (if one actually reads it) feels like the explosive long poem in which Observations ultimately culminates:

Andrews, John
ant with a stick
ape, curling with an
Apish Cousins, My
art, arcanic
artist and money
artists, fools
attack and concord
average moments

“These juxtapositions are thrilling, and there remain 25 letters to go. What could be more predictable, more confirming of our expectations, than the organizing pattern of the alphabet? What could be more unpredictable, more inviting and inclusive, than the alphabet? Read as a whole, as it was designed to be, Observations emerges as one of several books that in the 1920s created our lasting sense of what constitutes the modernist achievement—books that court chaos through exquisite artistry: Eliot’s The Waste Land, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Pound’s A Draft of XVI Cantos, Joyce’s Ulysses.

“Moore did not covet this company; she wrote poems. The one dismaying aspect of this long-overdue republication of Observations, consequently, is an introduction persuading new readers that Moore is a defensive artist in need of defense. To praise her at the expense of Eliot or Pound is to descend to a kind of argument that Moore herself found witheringly distasteful; the conviction that something is great “because something else is small” (as Moore put it) diminshes what is great. Observations is one of the great verbal works of art of the 20th century, in part because of its infectious devotion to everything small, and like The Waste Land or Ulysses, it speaks for itself.”
She lived in Brooklyn for 36 years, and wrote poems about the Dodgers. When they left town, she became a Yankees fan, and threw the opening day pitch for them in 1958. Her love of sports was not narrow: she adored Muhammed Ali, and, at 76, she wrote the liner notes for a spoken word album he produced, I’m The Greatest.



After Moore’s mother- a truly odd character who constantly oversaw her daughter’s work and proved an erratic critic- died, More, then 60, came into her own. Honors began to shower her. Her 1951 Collected Poems won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Bollingen Prize came in 1953. Honorary degrees abounded. With her retro look- a cape and tricorn hat- she made good copy, and great TV. She appeared on The Tonight Show With Jack Paar. She took the young poet Elizabeth Bishop under her wing. Her 1954 translation of the fables of La Fontaine, nine years in the making, was a great success.


Perhaps her most unique experience, in a life filled by them, came in 1955. A Ford Motor Company executive wrote, asking her to help them name a new car line:

“We should like this name to be more than a label. Specifically, we should like it to have a compelling quality in itself and by itself. To convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design. A name, in short, that flashes a dramatically desirable picture in people's minds.”

Moore took Ford at its word. Between October and December Moore sent Ford a number of lists, totted up by Lists of Note to contain forty-three names in all:

The Ford Silver Sword
Hurricane Hirundo (swallow)
Hurricane Aquila (eagle)
Hurricane Accipter (hawk)
The Impeccable
The Resilient Bullet
Intelligent Bullet
Bullet Cloisoné
Bullet Lavolta
The Intelligent Whale
The Ford Fabergé (That there is also a perfume Fabergé seems to me to do no harm, for here allusion is to the original silversmith)
The Arc-en-Ciel (the rainbow)
Mongoose Civique
Regna Racer (couronne a couronne) sovereign to sovereign
Fée Rapide (Aerofee, Aero Faire, Fee Aiglette, Magi-faire) Comme Il Faire
Tonnere Alifère (winged thunder)
Aliforme Alifère (wing-slender a-wing)
Turbotorc (used as an adjective by Plymouth)
Thunderbird Allié (Cousin Thunderbird)
Thunder Crester
Dearborn Diamanté
Taper Racer
Varsity Stroke
Tir á l'arc (bull's eye)
Cresta Lark
Triskelion (three legs running)
Pluma Piluma (hairfine, feather-foot)
Adante con Moto (description of a good motor?)
Turcotinga (turqoise cotinga—the cotinga being a South-American finch or sparrow) solid indigo.
Utopian Turtletop

Ford rejected them all, and christened the car the Edsel. Moore outlived it by twelve years.

Once, she wrote a poem called “Poetry.” This is what she thought:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, 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
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a
flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against 'business documents and

school-books'; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
'literalists of
the imagination'--above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them', shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you 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.

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