Marianne Moore (1887-1972)
Contributing Editor: Bernard F. Engel
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The general student block against poetry often causes difficulties. With Moore, it is useful to observe that she seeks accuracy of statement, that the alleged difficulty of her work does not arise from abstruse symbolism or reference to obscure autobiographical matters, but from precision: seeking exact presentation, she does not fall back on expected phrasings. The attentive who will slow down and read thoughtfully can understand and enjoy.
Advise students to read through once quickly to get perspective. Then they should read slowly, and aloud. I also advise them that after this first reading they should let the poem sit two or three days, then repeat the process. In class, I read through short poems a few lines at a time, pausing to ask questions; I also ask students to read passages aloud. With undergraduates, I prefer not to spend hours on any one poem. It is better that they read carefully, but without the extended analysis that is appropriate in some graduate classes.
Students need help with the rhetoric and syntax; they need to be shown how to read with care. They rarely raise the abstruse questions of aesthetics or moral philosophy that fascinate the literary critic. Advanced students, however, may be asked to compare Moore's effort to achieve precision with the argument of some deconstructionists and post-modernists that is not possible for verbal art to reach that goal.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. The fact that though there is usually a "moral" point in a Moore poem, the overall aim is aesthetic: The moral is to contribute to the delight, not to dominate it.
2. The way the poems relate to the modernism of Wallace Stevens and others.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In a freshman class, I focus on the poem itself; with juniors and seniors, I bring out relationships to modernism. The rhetorical form of a poem is usually worth pointing out; metrics should be mentioned, but only in passing.
I mention the fact that until the 1960s Moore's work was considered too difficult for any but the most elevated critics. I also point out that her early admirers were generally male, that only in the last few years have a number of women come to appreciate her. She does not fit the stereotype of woman as emotional (in contrast to supposedly rational man). Moore, indeed, once remarked that only two or three American women have "even tried" to write poetry--meaning, one may be sure, Emily Dickinson and herself. (In her last years, she might have added Bishop to her list.)
Early strong objections to her work came from Margaret Anderson of the Little Review, who in 1918 asserted that she wrote too intellectually; Anderson reprinted her remarks in 1953. Babette Deutsch in 1935, and again in 1952, voiced similar objections. Some recent feminist critics have also had doubts. Emily Stipes Watts in The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945 (1977) found Moore practicing a "feminine realism" that "will ultimately be unacceptable"; Watts saw male appreciation of Moore's poetry as condescension. Today, however, old stereotypes about male and female roles have broken down. Most women critics now praise Moore, and they are often the best interpreters of her work.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Moore knew and corresponded with William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. All of them published comments on her, and she in turn wrote of them. There are obvious comparisons and contrasts in the work of these, the chief American modernists.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I sometimes use study questions. They usually focus on the "mere rhetoric"--what the poem "says": its argument or moral, the way it expresses feeling (with Moore, often the feeling of delight).
2. "Poetry": In both versions of the poem, Moore's speaker says, "I, too, dislike it. . . ." Why would a lifelong poet say this? What does the speaker like?
"The Pangolin": The poem starts in a seemingly casual manner--"Another armored animal"--but moves quickly into exact, patient observation of the animal's structure and behavior. Is the speaker coolly rational? Delighted? Or . . . ? What kind of grace is the ultimate subject of this poem?
"England": The poem is about America (an example of Moore's waggish wit). Compare it to the essay by Randolph Bourne, "Trans-national America."
"Nevertheless": How can a strawberry resemble "a hedgehog or a star-/fish"? How do apple seeds, the rubber plant, and the prickly, pear illustrate the point that "Victory won't come/to me unless I go/to it"?
"The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing": What is the difference between "enchanted" and "enchanting"? Explain the paradox in "conscientious inconsistency" (stanza 4).
For students and the hurried instructor, the most convenient assistance may be found by looking up the pages on individual poems in the indexes to the books by Engel (revised edition), Nitchie, Hall, and Phillips. These books deal with all or most of Moore's poetry.
Excellent critical studies by Stapleton, Costello, and others give an overall perspective but usually deal with fewer individual poems. There is now a full-length biography by Charles Molesworth: Marianne Moore: A Literary Life (1990).