Standing & Listening: Marianne Moore's Strategies

Nancy Sherman | December 1992

Nancy Sherman

In the 1970s American poetry lost Louise Bogan, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop-three women whose collective power can't be underestimated, though their individual legacies have differed vastly. From the distance of these twenty years, we can see that their art forms a kind of triangle of restrained self-expression: the "compacted compactness" of Bogan; the elaborate, encoded constructions of Moore; and Bishop's eventual achievement of poetic statement sui generis. Bishop alone has remained an active influence on contemporary poets, and recent biographical revelations are bound to increase our interest in how and why she made those brilliantly accessible, near-perfect poems.

A judgment of restraint, of course, is posited on Moore's dictum: "'The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;/not in silence, but restraint."' In contrast looms the definition of late 20th-century women's poetry as proposed by Alicia Ostriker in Stealing the Language-a definition based on the explicit expression of anger, on candid sexual imagery, on the assertion of desire, and on bold psychological exposure. Autobiography becomes a springboard rather than a trap. According to Ostriker, "this sequence of motifs constitutes an extended investigation of culturally repressed elements in female identity"; the first feminist poems thus constituted appeared around 1960 in the work of Rich, Rukeyser, H.D., Levertov, and others.

By 1960 Bogan had virtually stopped writing poems and had turned to criticism; Bishop was living in Brazil, gathering material for the third of four books; and Moore, at 73, was entering the last and very public phase of her career, during which she would be showered with prizes and honorary degrees and named one of the decade's "unknockables" by Esquire-along with Jimmy Durante, John Cameron Swayze, Kate Smith, and other post-war personalities no one was permitted to hate. Nevertheless, Moore was a model of success for Bogan, who met her first in 1922 when both had day jobs pasting library card jackets in the St. Marks Place Library. Much later, in 1954, Moore turned up as a student in Bogan's YMCA creative writing class, to the teacher's apparent discomfiture. As Bishop's mentor. Moore instilled in the young poet fresh from' Vassar the highest artistic standards, and guided her through the first years of her career.

If we look beyond the apparent dichotomy between expressiveness and restraint, we can see that Bogan, Moore, and Bishop dealt implicitly with the difficulties of being women in America. As Ostriker points out, they developed strategies to counter if not subvert the patriarchal order, as did Dickinson, and provided powerful templates for American women poets who followed. Each focused quite consciously on meeting the world head on (if that isn't feminism. what is?). If their work fails to meet the particular criteria we have currently set for feminist poetry it is because they were profoundly distracted from the job of being female by the requirements of their social and literary milieus. (Bishop ventured mildly, in a late interview, that she might have written more had she been a man; but she did not say she would have written differently.)

And they were deeply distracted psychologically, without the benefit of post-modernist feminist psychology to help them understand what had happened to them. Each suffered remarkable trauma in the early shattering of conventional family-life. We can imagine each of these three children in the throes of the shock following loss, disillusion, displacement. Bogan persisted in her lifelong struggle to come to terms with her memories of a deceitful, treacherous, but loving mother, while Bishop wrested great poems and at least one great story out of her father's death, her mother's madness, and her own childhood exile.

We understand less about Moore's need to correct for the loss of her father, who broke down mentally after failing financially, was remanded to an institution and never seen again by Moore and her family. As Robert Pinsky has pointed out, that publicly humiliating family scandal must have shaped Moore's poetic and critical sensibility, with its "delicately hardened protective architecture." It certainly shaped her acute lifelong attachment to her mother, who stood as a kind of stem, restrictive muse to Moore's genius. The demands on the poet by Mary Moore have yet to be fully delineated, but it's a logical assumption that the relationship involved some conflict between daughterly devotion and the pull of literary life. Indeed, David Kalstone's study of the Bishop-Moore relationship in Becoming a Poet, while illuminating the apprentice more than the teacher, hints at important facts about Moore's experience as a poet in mid-life and the oppressive forces that acted on her. "One day," Kalstone says darkly, "we may know the full details of Moore's sufferings in the 1940s." The apartment on Cumberland Street was the locus of her own and her mother's illnesses, and correlated periods of isolation. Mother and daughter often had a hard time venturing forth to attend the most mundane rituals of social and literary life. Exhaustion related to vaguely defined ailments plagued them. It was from this position of a classic 19th-century female confinement that Moore prevailed in her art, to emerge as a media darling in the years before her death.

Bogan's struggles with depression are depicted with sensitivity in Elizabeth Frank's biography and through the loving editorial work of Ruth Limmer. Thoughtful articles about Bishop appear in a steady stream in leading journals; students are hungry for her art, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. But Moore, who emerged as the popular heroine towards the end of her lifetime, has faded in influence and rouses far less sympathy among contemporary readers. Her light is dimmed. The difficulties presented by her writing no longer compel much interest outside the academy; there's conviction that her artfulness became a wall to hide behind rather than a means of revelation. We hear about her passion for armor, shells, fortresses, and ornate surfaces, but the implication is that her urge for protection left her wanting as a poet. Some feminist critics refer to Moore as a great writer crippled by her failure to come to terms with her female nature; she is a lesson in what not to become. In Rich's often quoted 1971 opinion, she kept "human sexual relationships at a measured and chiseled distance" to the detriment of her art. Rich was speaking as well of Elizabeth Bishop, several years before the appearance of Geography III.

Though there has been excellent criticism about Moore, she seems to be left floating like a witch of 20th century morality in the air above our heads, permanently damned by Bishop's charming but fiercely ambivalent invitation:

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

That frown, that censorship, embody all we think we don't want in strictly defined feminist poetry and in fin-de-siecle political consciousness. But Moore had her methods.

I think we can understand Moore as the crucial midpoint of a poetic continuum. She pushed well past the lyric convention so beautifully deployed and exemplified by Bogan, a convention based on deep feeling artfully portrayed within the limits of high formalism. On the other hand, she did not forge the syntactic clarity and tonal grace that have made Bishop increasingly influential and widely read. While Moore implicitly challenged the order, of the day, she did so through complex subterfuges and subliminal movements not always discernable-or acceptable-to the contemporary reader.

Moore's achievement owes much to her power as a strategist, operating as she did at the head of imaginary forces with the aim to succeed, if not conquer. Like all good generals, she guarded her secrets for the sake of victory. Her declared enemy was mindless "ambition without/understanding." Our postmodern interest in process (and its supporting structure of introspection and analysis) was not hers: results were everything, and are there in the best of her excruciatingly crafted poems. She maneuvered her way through the minefields of modernism by devising outrageous geometric experiments in form. And even these intricate structures are not what they seem, but visual and aural sleights-of-hand: to read Moore, Williams told us, is to be reminded that "white circular discs grouped closely edge to edge upon a dark table make black six-pointed stars." While manipulating light and dark, fluid and solid, human and animal, art and life, and countless other tensions and the fields between them, she insisted on a "relentless accuracy" in observation and expression that won her respect among her peers and keeps her, as a technician, in a class by herself.

Bristling with witticisms, commentary, morals, and revisionist aphorisms, Moore's poems are not only tracings of her enchanted and enchanting mind at work, they are plans of action. Complex syllabics, stanzaic structures, and unique rhyme schemes contain and make permissible neatly inserted directives, first-person reflections, and moral instructions that linger in our ears, sneaked in as the mediators of the tensions between Moore's natural and artificial places. These personal insights, safely embedded in the bedrock of an elaborate prosody, are like the comic asides of restoration comedy, revamped to confront the rigors of modem life. The seductive technique imitates the means by which many of us move through the public arena as actors and actresses, participating in an agreed-upon reality but occasionally permitting an ironic or pained or didactic remark:

When you take my time, you take
something I had meant to use;
("People's Surroundings")

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

"it is better to be lonely than unhappy."
("The Monkey Puzzle")

Ecstasy affords
the occasion and expediency determines
the form.
(''The Past is Present")

The power of the visible
is the invisible.
("He 'Digesteth Harde Yron"')

Satisfaction is a lowly thing, how pure a thing is joy.
("What are Years!")

(that) you're not free
until you've been made captive by
supreme belief,
("Spenser's Ireland")

what we hoped for came to nothing, we revived.

These asides, like deftly delivered punches, are the blunt exceptions that prove the rule of restraint, and their subject is nearly always restraint itself. Amidst the glitter of Moore's descriptions, these comments are like photographic negatives, which illuminate meaning by reversing our habit of perception.

A considerably more prominent strategy, and one that has always been for me most daunting, is the use of countless allusions and quotations which the notes, in the back of Colkcted Poems, do not so much illuminate as further mystify. The sources range from the obscure to the commonplace, and they are insistently random; they do not bear further investigation but at the same time they demand it, as if a perusal through a Report on Introduction of Domestic Reindeer into Alaska or The
Saints' Everlasting Rest or the Illustrated London News would really help. They accrue into a kind of labyrinth of erudition that is presented, in a manner both disingenuous and forthright, as everyday knowledge. Through this method Moore expands our typical definition of the world by confronting us with our ignorance of so many other palpable, pressing realities.

Rather than dwell on that maze of allusion as if to unravel it, I want to make a purely critical (and quasi-feminist) assumption about it. I want to consider those quotations-the phrases from naturalists' lectures at the Brooklyn Institute, the lines from her brother's letters, her mother's cautions intoned in the privacy of their apartment-as consciously applied appropriations. And I want to consider them in the context of Moore's textual collages. Writing about Moore and the visual arts, Bonnie Costello has discussed this in Marianne Moore Imaginary Possessions:

Moore's poems... take advantage of the diverse relations among words; grammatical, imagistic, aural, visual, semantic, stylistic, contextual, to create powerful incongruities and bidirectional signals not just between the ways things are seen but between the fact of art and the fact of external flux. In its drawing together of diverse functions and modes of language into proximate and dynamic difference, Moore's work can be called "collage." The term collage itself signifies the explosive bond created on the canvas by multiple incongruous representations and materials.... Collage presents a process.... Moore's pastiche of images and quotations is not only a gesture of objectivity, an attempt to present an object from many points of view. It is also a gesture of democracy, as it challenges a tendency to order language.... It is finally a gesture of irony.

The elements of collage- from Braque's bits of newspaper to Cindy Sherman's costumes-come from elsewhere, from outside the maker's immediate domain. To appropriate the language of another is to claim it as one's property in full and public cognizance of its rightful owner. Perhaps it's something like "effort of affection" gone wild, an intellectual's answer to romantic love whereby one possesses the object of desire with the aim of redefining it. Most poets fear above all the accusation of consciously or unconsciously "sounding like" someone else, of a line, phrase or image that was not hacked out of some original "impulse" and set down in original "style." Moore, the ultimate armchair traveler, took everything she could from everyone and defied her readers to have problems with that technique. From this, in combination with her prosody, arose her style- or as Pinsky better titles it, her idiom. Where Bogan and her fellow lyricists were terrified of being imitative (she warned Roethke that his ambitions toward greatness in the tradition of the Western canon would ruin him), and Bishop intent on discovering the universal in the personal, Moore must have seen the game as wide open.

Art criticism has taught us that appropriation is essentially a political gesture, revolutions being built, whether we like it or not, on the acquisition of the property of the rulers. Appropriation-of images, objects, texts-combine in the artist's hand to form a montage or collage that defies traditional authorship. The primary author disappears, but the appropriating author is then defined by a willful failure of originality. What has occurred is change and redefinition for its own sake: identity as an act of piracy. The interest in montage was implicit in visual modernism, beset as it was with the need to define, assert, form itself out of the chaos of its surroundings. Deliberate juxtaposition and unification of the disparate may have been the only correct act of self-definition in the face of an imposed disorder.

Costello believes that the collage method satisfied Moore's modernist interest in "the democracy of subject matter." All things, like Rilke's Dichte, stand equal under the all-knowing eye of the poet as maker and casual dissembler. On a psychological level, Moore may have been attracted to the technique because of its wonderful potential for deviousness and disguise, for a homebase from which she might sally forth and attack. George Grosz wrote that montage enables the artist to "speak publicly with hidden meaning," in an aesthetic response to the prohibition of public speech. Part of Moore's response to the sense of confinement and suppression that her critics and biographers have discussed may have been to appropriate the language of others- the men's world?- and make it uniquely her own. By such imaginary possession, she was also able to productively transform, to some extent, the given-the intractable, the unenchanted, and the ugly, up to and including loss and death.

The strategy is operating at full tilt in the long poem "Marriage," which Moore described, in a particularly maddening note, as "statements that took my fancy which I tried to arrange plausibly." In this manifesto, which Williams nicely dubbed an "anthology of transit," a subject foreign to the poet's immediate experience is defined almost entirely by quotations, by authorities ranging from Francis Bacon to Ezra Pound. Shifts in logic may be difficult to trace; but by the end of the poem it is clear that marriage, that most personal act of commitment, is transformed by its appropriated definitions to a most public act, epitomized by the declamations of our country's spokesman for liberty and union, Daniel Webster. When we learn that Moore, in her sixties, had a place left on her engraved tombstone for the name of her potential husband, we may understand why the pastiche of information had to be pieced together from the outside. What was anticipated, or at least made speculative room for, had no life of its own except the one derived from other people's descriptions. Longing was born and portrayed as semantic wanderlust, a forced aimlessness brought on by a lifetime of constraint and relieved by an aggressive intellectual curiosity. Moore knew that she knew not whereof she spoke, and made of that ignorance a strength. Through appropriation, she created psychological and poetic unity.

In seeking to understand Moore's strategy in contemporary terms, we might look at the appropriators of the 1980s and 1990s, for the collage method has been continued or resurrected under the aegis of poststructuralism. Sherrie Levine, who in the early 1980s had the audacity or desperate melancholy to exhibit self-portraits by other painters, such as Egon Schiele, retitled as her own self-portraits, has said of her technique: "I appropriate these images to express my own simultaneous longing for the passion of engagement and the sublimity of aloofness." Might these words have come out of Moore's mouth? She never brought to her poetry the intense political self-consciousness that visual artists of the 1990s are fueled on. But the urge towards engagement, as Grace Schulman has discussed, drove Moore's aesthetic, as did her sense of alienation' and that aloof temperament: after all, "one detects creative power by its capacity to conquer one's detachment...." The world of visual, verbal, and written material available to her in letters, books, and conversation provided her with ammunition for "that weapon, self-protectiveness." It was not mere erudition that Moore prized, but relief from the condition of

going where one does not wish
to go; suffering and not
saying so; standing and listening where something
is hiding.

As she stood in the shadows eavesdropping, she was gathering her material.

Inevitably, the relationship between the act of appropriation and restraint or reticence draws or drags us into the contentious arena of poststructuralist academics and the analysis of the world in terms of those who have and have not. If Moore was interested in this, it was only in the most abstract sense. Her famous "political" poem, "In Distrust of Merit," seems to avoid arguments about power by claiming an interiorized religious goodness as the answer to world peace. But I think it is safe to say that appropriation and montage, derived as they are from the modernist search for individual expression in an oppressed state, have as much to do strategically with Moore's poetic voice as do her choice of shells, animals, and objets d'arts as subjects. Appropriation is a way out of a difficult situation, a means of saying who you are by not saying it, and in the process creating an aesthetic unity. If some readers think of Moore as explicitly denying female nature and succumbing to patriarchal pressures, perhaps it is because appropriation, after all, is an old-style manly tactic. Traditionally, the more powerful take what is not theirs and declare it their own. In this act, though, motive matters; and Moore's motive was to make of poetry "a place for the genuine," not a club.

Moore, finally, must have found much pleasure and relief from her own claims to probity in the exploration and appropriation of other voices. Like Ambrose in '"The Steeplejack," like the student, like the hero, she equated knowledge with liberty, both personal and political, and knowledge was where you found it, waiting to be used. Like Bogan and Bishop, Moore forged brave and worthy methods which reconciled a fierce poetic ambition to "make it new" with an equally strong instinct towards natural reticence. But Moore was particularly inventive in her capacity to acknowledge the ways in which cultural and social forces shaped personal reality. The poet who believed that "we prove, we do not explain our birth." tore fiercely into the world of other people's observations in order to prove her own peculiar-and peculiarly powerful- originality.


Nancy Sherman has had poems published in Seneca review, Ploughshares, Massachusetts Review, and other periodicals. She is a staff member and faculty associate at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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