Heather Cass White, ed.
A-Quiver With Significance: Marianne Moore 1932–1936
ELS Editions, $22 (paper)
Adversity & Grace: Marianne Moore 1936–1941
ELS Editions, $35 (paper)
Marianne Moore is always hiding in plain sight. She is the paradoxical radical, either distracting the reader from her traditionalism with avant-garde trappings or concealing rebellion in prim camouflage. She picketed for women’s rights and voted for Herbert Hoover. She distrusted the “obscenities” in William Carlos Williams and encouraged the “ability” in Allen Ginsberg. She breathed horror of “a sodomite” to one lesbian friend and signed letters to another “your affectionate albino-dactyl.” Those three-corned hats and men’s polo shirts: do they reflect an old-fashioned aversion to frippery or an innovative preference for androgyny? And her resolute urban celibacy (she lived in an apartment with her mother): a species of piety or a refusal of stereotypes? Moore’s mix of puritan and progressive seems quintessentially American—alert to the virtues of brown bread and the glories of Brancusi’s sculpture, to Pilgrim’s Progress as well as Ezra Pound. Likewise her get-to-the-point distrust of dreaming: “No wonder we hate poetry,” she writes in “Armor’s Undermining Modesty,” and “stars and harps and the new moon.” When Moore ends that poem on an “imperishable wish,” she means something as solid as the “hard yron” of another of her titles. Moore was indirectly forthright, demure and definitive at once.
Such outspoken concealment marks her publishing history as well as her poems—a fact which renders these two new volumes essential for any consideration of Moore’s work, American poetry, or twentieth-century verse. Previously, taking in Moore’s late writing meant making do with the 1967 Penguin paperback of her Complete Poems, a book that comes with a caution from “M. M.,” in epigraph, that “Omissions are not accidents.” Indeed Moore culled much from this mistitled collection, not only leaving out whole poems—some of them undeniably major, like “Black Earth,” “Pigeons,” “Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarks”—but also presenting many in far-from-original form. (“Poetry,” which went from five stanzas to three lines, is the most extreme example.) Such re-packaging may be a poet’s prerogative, but it belies “completeness” by obscuring the size and progress of Moore’s career. A 2003 volume, The Poems of Marianne Moore, tried to rectify the obscurity, presenting an expanded corpus in chronological order so as to “enable us to watch her grow,” in the words of the book’s editor. But particular decisions worked against that goal, since a poem’s later revision often appears in its earlier chronological spot: the 1941 version of “Walking-Sticks,” for example, is presented as if it were published in 1936, and the vast differences are nowhere to be found in secondary apparatus. Twenty-first century readers still didn’t have the texts necessary to understand Moore’s work from the 1930s.
Now we do. In A-Quiver with Significance and Adversity & Grace, Heather White presents in full the two books that Moore published during the years 1932–1941, The Pangolin and Other Verse and What Are Years. White then reproduces each poem in its first, magazine version. Facsimiles and notes offer the right mix of untrammeled reading and valuable contextualization, letting readers experience each instance of a poem directly while also drawing attention to differences. Limpid introductions provide the necessary biographical and historical background: Moore’s wrangles with publishers, attempts at fiction, reaction to the rise of fascism. The result not only allows us to read, for the first time, adequate texts of such masterpieces as “The Pangolin,” “The Jerboa,” and “The Frigate Pelican,” it also allows us to understand their significance. We can pinpoint the crucial bits of “Walking-Sticks” by tracing the poem’s changes from journal to book. We can take in the provocative George Plank drawing (one black and one white hand, divided by a flag) that once accompanied “Virginia Britannia”—with Moore’s approval. We can note how “The Student” first appeared between “The Steeple-Jack” and “The Hero” under the intriguing title “Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play.” There is some duplication between the two volumes—since the tables of contents in The Pangolin and What are Years overlap—but both books are necessary. With Robin Schulze’s invaluable editing in Becoming Marianne Moore, which traces the textual history of Moore’s early poems, White’s work provides a big step forward in our quest for an accurate and complete record of a great poet.
That record brings us back to Moore’s paradoxical progressivism, since these 1930s poems reveal an ambition—a provocation—that is easy to overlook in her detailed delicacy. Moore’s syllabic, footnoted lines ally with twentieth-century artistic developments—vers libre, collage—and take inspiration from lesser-known members of the animal kingdom. When Moore admires the “not un- / chainlike, machine- / like form and / frictionless creep” of “The Pangolin,” for example, a creature “made graceful by adversities, con- / versities,” she tutors her readers in appreciation of her own art.
But the stakes for Moore were never just innovation or grace. Take “Virginia Britannia” from A-Quiver with Significance. Moore describes the first English settlement in North America with finicky detail, quoting archival sources and arcane natural-history records, then uses this information to judge a botanical habit with political implications: “in taking what they / pleased—colonizing as we say—” our forebears “were not all intel- / lect and delicacy.” Exactly quantified lines and stanzas, a pattern of syllables almost impossible to hear and difficult to notice, reach exclamations like this one: “Rare unscent- / ed, provident- / ly hot, too sweet, inconsistent flowerbed!” Painstaking form, here, means definitive sentiment. Poetry rises to the passion of its disapproval through the scruples of its structure.
White’s two books clarify the course of such passion over the course of a career. Common narratives of Moore’s development pit early, aesthetic experimentation against late, moralistic conservatism, with the ’30s as a dividing line. On the one hand lies the sensibility of “Picking and Choosing,” published in 1920, where Moore allows that “it is permissible that the / critic should know what he likes”; on the other hand, the stridency of “In Distrust of Merits,” collected in 1943, where Moore would “fight till I have conquered in myself what / causes war.” But A-Quiver with Significance and Adversity and Grace complicate any easy contrast. Moore’s artistic precision—that discrimination of “choosing”—always implied an ethical vision—the search for a viable standard of “merit.” Creative effort, to her, was never more or less than moral action. What changed in the ’30s was an increasing emphasis on the public consequences of that action: the first-person plural of “The Student,” for example, would teach a whole country how to improve one’s mind. If Moore in this decade strengthened her right-leaning voting record, she also deepened her convictions as a small-r republican. Good citizens both fostered and needed good government.
One result of this development, revealed in these new books, is Moore’s fascinating interest in the early history of her country, whose colonists strove to embody republican values on an alien continent. If we read “The Steeple-jack” as a discrete title, opening the Complete Poems, it could seem to be quaint description, praise for a whaling village of lobsters and fishnets and “sweet sea air.” Now read the same in its original presentation, where it’s followed by “The Student” and “The Hero”—the former rousing a “nation” of “undergraduates” and the latter ending at the grave of George Washington—and “The Steeple-jack” reveals its subtle political advocacy. We notice afresh the poem’s concern for “presidents who have repaid / sin-driven // senators by not thinking about them.” Over the course of a decade, Moore changed the school of her much-revised “Student” from a “tree of knowledge— / tree of life” into a “tree of knowledge / and of liberty”—freedom assuming its central place in the nationalism-cum-religion of her educational Eden. Pupils there might learn the motto of her exemplary pelican, “Festina lente,” which Moore revealingly mistranslates as “Be gay / civilly.” It’s a recipe for living well, in Moore’s worldview, combining her trademark belief in both “gusto” and “humility.” But it blends personal conscience with political consciousness.
An accurate account of Moore’s poetry in the ’30s, therefore, contributes to a larger narrative of American modernism in the era, as it moves from a phase of high-art experimentation into a phase of social concern. Moore’s work proves how relevance could depend on—rather than supersede—the creative habits of that earlier era. Her copious, confusing details are a case in point. As White notes in one of her introductions, Moore’s revisions sometimes aimed at greater lucidity by diminishing “the specificity of her references.” But it is just those details that sharpen her critical point. When “Virginia Britannia,” for example, loses its citation of “the strangler fig, the dwarf- / fancying Egyptian, the American, / the Dutch, the noble / Roman,” the result weakens Moore’s distrust of North American colonization. So does the excised reference to a “black savage” subjected, along with the “redskin,” to the “kind tyranny” of European settlement. Proper names are not secondary, in Moore’s meditation on “Indian- / named Virginian / streams, in counties named for English lords.” The particulars of labeling reveal the hypocrisies of “a new republic,” with its “tactless symbol” proclaiming “don’t tread on me.”
Moore’s record of facts serves as an antidote to such weighty breaches of “tact,” such far-reaching bad manners, when she counters the indiscrimination of “greed” with the meticulousness of notice. Her brand of “heroism” is “exhausting,” as she writes in “He ‘Digesteth Hard Yron’,” because it “bespeak[s] relentlessness,” as she emphasizes in “Spenser’s Ireland” (another sly invocation of colonial conditions). Yet such heroism remains Moore’s steady preoccupation during these years, from the “infinitely complicated starkness” of “The Monkey Puzzle” to the “care, not madness” of “Ireland.” When she writes of her exemplary pangolin, then, that “to explain grace requires a curious hand,” her adjective seems an apt choice for the strange and inquisitive habits that she demanded—of herself, of her readers, of her fellow citizens. The challenge is freshly posed with these two volumes. Exquisite and exciting, they reward the curiosity that Moore’s work exhibits and requires.