April 27, 2009

Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore with poet Langston Hughes

Marianne Moore [USA]

Born near St. Louis, Missouri, Mariane Moore grew up in the house of her Presbyterian minister grandfather, John Riddle Warner. Moore’s father, Milton, was an engineer-inventor who had suffered a mental breakdown before her birth; he had been committed to a psychiatric hospital, and Moore’s mother left him, returning to her own father’s home in Kirkwood. Moore never met her father.

At age seven, Moore’s mother moved the family to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she was to teach English at the Metzger Institute, a preparatory school for girls, and it there that Marianne received her education. In 1905, Moore began college at Bryn Mawr, near Philadelphia. Denied entry into the English program, Moore majored in Law, History, and Politics, and minored in Biology—an aspect that would be represented in her knowledge and love of animals, often represented in her poetry. Although she was not in English, she continued to write, becoming the editor of the college literary magazine.

After graduation, Moore returned to Carlisle, where she took a course in education at Carlisle Commercial College, and after which, she taught stenography and typewriting at the Carlisle Indian School. During the same period she worked for women’s suffrage, while beginning to publish poems in various magazines such as Others, Poetry, and The Egoist. When, in 1916, she and her mother moved to Chatham, New Jersey, she began regular trips to New York, developing friendships with H. D. and William Carlos Williams. In 1918 she and her mother moved to New York, and Marianne began working at a branch of the New York Public Library.

Moore’s poetry, particularly, her earliest work, which was collected without her knowledge by H.D. and Bryher in Poems (1921), was highly modernist, embodying methods of collage and bringing together various quotations and typological experimentation. In 1924 she published a longer book, Observations, which won The Dial Award and led to her being appointed, in 1925, as acting editor of that journal.

In 1935 she published Selected Poems, but in this volume readers begin to see the results of her severe revisions and rediting of her works. The poem “Poetry,” for example was cut transformed from a poem of 31 lines, was republished as a three-line statement-like work, and other poems, such as “The Fish” were utterly changed in with regard to typography, spellings and line-breaks. Indeed, her constant reworking of her poetry has led, over the years, to an outcry from several editors and critics (including this one) as over the years she winnowed down the complexity of her early works into brief, easily assimilated writings. Her popularity, however, only increased with the years, and she won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize for her Collected Poems, published in 1951.

In the poems selected below, I have tried to return to the earliest printed versions to demonstrate the nature of the work in its original, more experimental form. Two of these poems did not make it into her own Complete Poems of 1967.


Poems (London: The Egoist Press, 1921); Observations (New York: The Dial Press, 1924); Selected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1935/London: Faber and Faber, 1955); The Pangolin and Other Verse (London: The Brendin Publishing Company, 1936); What Are Years (New York: Macmillan, 1941); Nevertheless (New York: Macmillan, 1944); Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1951/London: Faber and Faber, 1951); Like a Bulwark (New York: Viking, 1956); O to Be a Dragon (New York: Viking, 1959); The Arctic Ox (London: Faber and Faber, 1964); Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics (New York: Viking, 1967); Complete Poems (New York: Macmillan and Viking, 1967/London: Faber and Faber, 1968); Unfinished Poems by Marianne Moore (Philadelpia: The Philip H. and A. S. W. Rosenbach Foundation, 1972)

[Please note: because of the restrictions of blog formating, line breaks in these poems
follow the left margin, while in the originals they appear in several indented formats.]

To a Steam Roller

The illustration
is nothing to you without the application.
You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down
into close conformity, and then walk back and forth on them.

Sparkling chips of rock
are crushed down to the level of the parent block.
Were not '”impersonal judgment in aesthetic
matters, a metaphysical impossibility,” you

might fairly achieve
it. As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive
of one's attending upon you, but to question
the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.

(1915/from Poems, 1921)

Black Earth

Openly, yes
With the naturalness
Of the hippopotamus or the alligator
When it combs out on the bank to experience the

Sun, I do these
Things which I do, which please
No one but myself. Now I breathe and now I am
Merged; the blemishes stand up and shout when the

In view was a
Renaissance; shall I say
The contrary? The sediment of the river which
Encrusts my joints, makes me very gray but I am

To it, it may
Remain there; do away
With it and I am myself done away with, for the
Patina of circumstance can but enrich what was

There to begin
With. This elephant skin
Which I inhabit, fibred over like the shell of
This coco-nut, this piece of black glass through
which no light

Can filter—cut
Into checkers by rut
Upon rut of unpreventable experience—
It is a manual for the peanut-tongued and the

Hairy toed. Black
But beautiful, my back
Is full of the history of power. Of power?
Is power and what is not? My soul shall

Be cut into
By a wooden spear; though-
Out childhood to the present time, the unity of
Life and death has been expressed by the circum

Described by my
Trunk; nevertheless, I
Perceive feats of strength to be inexplicable after
All; and I am on my guard; external poise, it

Has its centre
Well nurtured—we know
Where—in pride, but spiritual poise, it has its
centre where?
My ears are sensitized to more than the sound of

The wind. I see
And I hear, unlike the
Wandlike body of which one hears so much, which
was made
To see and not to see; to hear and not to hear,

That tree trunk without
Roots, accustomed to shout
Its own thoughts to itself like a shell, maintained
By who knows what strange pressure of the at-
mosphere; that

Brother to the coral
Plant, absorbed into which, the equable sapphire
Becomes a nebulous green. The I of each is to

The I of each,
A kind of fretful speech
Which sets a limit on itself; the elephant is?
Black earth preceded by a tendril? It is to that

The above formation,
Translucent like the atmosphere—a cortex
That on which darts cannot strike decisively the

Time, a substance
Needful as an instance
Of the indestructibility of matter; it
Has looked at the electricity and at the earth-

Quake and is still
Here; the name means thick. Will
Depth be depth, thick skin to be thick, to one who
can see no
Beautiful element of unreason under it?

(1918/from Poems, 1921)

The Fish

through black jade.
Of the crow blue mussel shells, one
adjusting the ash heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the
of the wave, cannot hide
there; for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swift-
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a
of iron into the edge
of the cliff, whereupon the stars

rice grains, ink
bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like
lilies and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

marks of abuse are present on
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm side is

evidence has proved that it can
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

(1918/from Poems, 1921)

Dock Rats

There are human beings who seem to regard the place
as craftily as we do—who seem to feel that it is a
good place to come home to. On what river;
wide—twinkling like a chopped sea under some
of the finest shipping in the

world; the square-rigged four-master, the liner, the
battleship like the two-thirds submerged section of
an iceberg; the tug—strong-moving thing, dip-
ping and pushing, the bell striking as it comes; the
steam yacht, lying like a new made arrow on the

stream; the ferry-boat—a head assigned, one to
each compartment, making a row of chessmen set
for play. When the wind is from the east, the
smell is of apples; of hay, the aroma increased and
decreased suddenly as the wind changes;

of rope; of mountain leaves for florists. When it is
from the west, it is an elixir. There is oc-
casionally a parakeet
arrived from Brazil, clasping and clawing; or a
monkey—tail and feet in readiness for an over-

ture. All palms and tail; how delightful! There is
the sea, moving the bulkhead with its horse
strength; and the multiplicity of rudders and pro-
pellors; the signals, shrill, questioning, per-
emptory, diverse; the wharf cats and the barge

is easy to overestimate the value of such things.
One does not live in such a place from motives of
expediency but because to one who has been ac-
customed to it, shipping is the most congenial
thing in the world.

(printed in Others, 1920)


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 that there is 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 became so derivative as to become unintelligible, 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 some-
thing to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse, that feels a flea,
the base-
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited did
one wish it; not it is 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 tell the autocrats among use 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 one hand, in defiance of their opinion—
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness, and
that which is on the other hand,
genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

(1919/from Poems, 1921)

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