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This article is taken from PN Review 243, Volume 45 Number 1, September - October 2018.

on Marianne Moore
Like Armour
Jena Schmitt
New Collected Poems by Marianne Moore, ed. Heather Cass-White (Faber & Faber, 2017) £30

WHILE READING New Collected Poems by Marianne Moore, edited by Heather Cass and published by Faber & Faber in 2017, I found myself making lists, lists of the people and places and things from within Moore’s poems. First and foremost, there are animals – pigeons, buffalo, pelicans, basilisks, swans, nightingales, octopuses, snakes, mules, beavers, antelopes, pangolins. There are nectarines and plums, orchids and palm trees; views of Boston, Fujiyama, Thebes, Pompeii; references to Queen Elizabeth, Dante, Francis Bacon, Pliny, an elderly gentleman playing a game of chess.

I found entries in the index for carrots and Chinese lacquer, fools and Flaubert, marriage and manganese blue, waterfalls and Waterford glass. There are quotes from Literary Digest, National Geographic, Field & Stream, Scientific American.

Further, looking back through Moore’s Selected Letters (1997), which I was lucky to find in a used bookstore more than twenty years ago, I noted the writers and artists she corresponded with – H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Cornell, Alfred Stieglitz, Harriet Monroe, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Louise Bogan.

There were the nicknames she called her mother (most often Bear) and brother – Biter, Ouzel, Winks, Beaver, Pago, Pen-viper, Badger Volcanologist, Mongolian gazelle, Snowflea, Impala K.C S. The names she called herself – Poisonous, Rusty Mongoose, Fangs, Uncle. The names – Weaz, Pidge, Winks, Rat (though most often Moore was Rat) – that she called all three of them, as though they were interchangeable, merely personae, or perhaps one formidable person. Moore lived with her mother most of her life, except while studying at Bryn Mawr College (1905–9), taking secretarial courses at Carlisle Commercial College (1910–11), and teaching bookkeeping, stenography, typing, commercial English and law at the Industrial Indian School at Carlisle until 1915, when she began to publish poems. She started living with her mother again in 1916, and they shared tiny apartments packed with books, knickknacks and other curios, first in New Jersey, then Greenwich Village, then Brooklyn, until her mother’s death in 1947.

I had my own lists to make, of course, groceries to get, appointments to make or keep, books to read, important things to do, but found myself recording some of the lists Moore made instead. On 6 May 1909, Moore wrote to her mother and brother:

You asked me for a list of things I want:

Books, Whistler’s Ten O’Clock and ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.’
Will Low’s Life of Saint-Gaudens.
Swinburne (prose)
a rain coat
Book on Wagner’s operas
[Henry Thornton] Wharton’s Sappho
Xenophon’s treatise on hunting
Watts’ Prometheus
Botticelli’s illustrations to The Inferno
Burne-Jones’ Paderewski
[Thackeray’s] The Newcomes
A bar pin on the order of ‘ ’ feather, Pleasance lost
The Oxford Book of Verse.
Chopin’s waltz e sharp minor.

Though not exhaustive, these lists were funny and intriguing at first, then exhausting, a glimpse into Moore’s eclectic interests, into her unyielding, wonder-filled mind.

I put New Collected aside and read other things, but references to Moore started appearing in the books I picked up. Poet Lucy Tunstall writes about ‘the three­cornered, fuck-off / hat of Marianne Moore’ in her collec­tion The Republic of the Husband, while the perhaps overused ‘What is more precise than precision? / Illusion’ is an epigraph in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx by Tara Bergin. Finally, in Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, novelist Yiyun Li writes:

The contrast between writers’ published work and private words makes one feel for them, but Moore’s poetry and letters, equally opaque, close a door to anyone’s curiosity. Perhaps my reading her is far from rebellion or intrusion. It is only to insist on being defeated. No one defeats better than Moore.

This might have been the point where I understood Li’s gentle acceptance of Moore’s forbearance, her discretion and protectiveness, of the walls she painstakingly built around herself and her work. Is that not what walls are for, after all? When Moore writes about ‘the exteriorizing of the interior’ in Bishop’s poems, I can’t help but think that Moore’s poems are an interiorizing of the exterior, that there is a compactness, an exactness of phrase and detail that narrows closely in, then suddenly expands, shifting the ground underneath, the ceiling, the walls, a swiftness that is immediate and urgent, full of strange angles and dark corners. As if there were some imagined place she was trying to get to, or away from.

There are keenly felt omissions and sophisticated excesses, countless negative constructions, multiple multi-tonal voices, a strangely staged modesty, lines and syntax that crash into one another, line breaks (‘ac- / cident – lack / of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and…’) that feel as though they are actually breaking, an intertextuality as thick as a wool blanket. I started to see Moore as a study in opposites: light and dark, dated and contemporary, refined and ornate, clear and confounding, formal and experimental. There were battles going on, spaces you could fall through, look down toward, gaze up at. Not unlike Cornell’s shadow-boxes, Moore constructed not only worlds, but worlds within worlds, as habitable as they are uninhabitable. Like a mise en abyme, the golden-hued mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, for instance, or a painting by Diego Velázquez or Giotto: rich, finely rendered, layered, darkly bright.

Her poems, at times, are loud menageries, at times refined, succinct affairs. Sometimes they fascinate, sometimes not. There are the enamouring ‘gondoliering legs’ of the swan in ‘No Swan So Fine’ and the description of a jellyfish in ‘A Jellyfish’:

Visible, invisible,
a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
inhabits it, your arm

Or the cave-like echo in ‘The Mind is an Enchanting Thing’ ‘is an enchanting thing’. There is also her wit, her sharpness in ‘To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity’ about an unwanted encounter, and ‘Silence’, the one poem where she talks about her father, who suffered a nervous breakdown before she was born and whom she never met:

My father used to say,
‘Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard…

The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.’
Nor was he insincere in saying, ‘Make my house your inn.’
Inns are not residences.

Moore has a way of talking to the world while not talking to the world, of talking back, of withholding just enough (‘omissions are not accidents’, she famously wrote) so that the reader must put the pieces – mosaic- or collage-like – back together. These are the glass-sharp moments that easily prick the skin. If words could do such a thing.

But there is also the boredom of the animal poems, being that there are so many of them. No more elephants or fish or porcupines or lemurs, I couldn’t help but think. There are poems such as ‘Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain’, ‘The Old Dominion’, ‘A Carriage from Sweden’, ‘The Jerboa’ and ‘The Hero’ that make generalised, outdated comments about culture and race – ‘theirs is a race’, ‘that choice race’ – that come from a position of power and privilege, an ‘other’ that is ultimately damaging and racist.

It is in such defeats that we might learn the art of letting go. I set New Collected Poems aside again, which is, really, the point of a collected, to read, to wander away, to go back. There are moments when I like Moore and moments when I don’t, moments that feel as exciting and original as when they were first written, others that have lost their lustre. Once we throw our hands up, we have the chance to stop, really stop and observe, press an ear against the glass – or brick wall – and listen. To some of Moore’s ideas and ideals, to her unwavering judgement, but also to her unique, highly calibrated language, her grand, associative leaps, her wit and sarcasm, her cacophony of opinions and voices and sounds.

Everywhere I looked – in Moore’s poems and letters, a Bishop biography, in the rooms of my house (a shell on the windowsill, a lizard skeleton on the mantle, a postcard of Cornell’s Grand Hotel Semiramis pinned to the wall) there were references to the books and magazines she was reading, the literature and music and art that influenced her, the conversations she was having, the opulent interiors with objects she could never afford (‘the peacocks, hand-forged gates, old Persian velvet – / Chinese carved glass, old Waterford, / lettered ladies’); the cherished gifts friends gave her (a nautilus, snake-fangs, a serpent star, anemones, a cricket-cage, a ‘cocoa-nut’ tied with a pink ribbon, a guidebook to Cornwall); the thoughts she might have been thinking, worried about, working her way through. As in a game of hide and seek, these are the kinds of details that zoom in before zooming, quickly – or not-so-quickly – out. Moore, as always, is in charge of the game. She’s the one who’s doing the hiding, and she hides well.

New Collected Poems gives us a chance to see multiple versions of ‘Poetry’, ‘Propriety’, ‘The Steeple-Jack’, ‘The Frigate Pelican’, ‘The Paper Nautilus’, ‘Walking-Sticks and Paper-Weights and Water Marks’, ‘The Buffalo’ and ‘Nine Nectarines’, merely a handful of the poems Moore notoriously revised and whittled away at over the years. The notes at the end of the book also include poems where the titles have changed from one publication to the next – ‘To a Chameleon’ was first published in The Egoist as ‘You Are Like the Realistic Product of an Idealistic Search for Gold at the Foot of the Rainbow’. Early poems from 1915 to 1918 in the appendix, placed in a roundabout way after Poems 1963–1970, set the foundation for her later work, all of which give the reader a chance to catch glimpses of a less curated, less guarded Moore, one she took great pains, no doubt, to conceal.

And this was where I wanted more and less from New Collected Poems. The Complete Poems, a 1981 not-quite pink bismuth edition with the author’s final revisions, which I found in the same used bookstore noted above, is a streamlined, easier, more focused read. In New Collected, I saw the potential to include more versions and variations of poems, to include more of the poems the reader doesn’t usually get to see; delete the poems that no longer serve the poet or the time. At the same time, the notes section could have been tapered down, and the original index at the end of Observations (1924), which falls about a quarter of the way through, on pages eighty-one to eighty-nine of New Collected Poems, ultimately disrupts the flow of the book.

Or maybe it’s time to challenge the approach of a collected altogether, shake up the linear order of the poems, add versions of the same poems beside one another rather than relegate them to the back pages.

This, perhaps, is easier said than done. There are untold versions of poems Moore wrote and other changes she made, not to mention the writing she simply didn’t want the public to see. It was stipulated in her will, for instance, that her novel could never be published. As it was, her first book of poetry, Poems, was published in England, in 1921, by H.D. without Moore’s permission.

In an interview with Donald Hall, Moore said, ‘I think each time I write that it may be the last time; then I’m charmed by something and seem to have to say something. Everything I have written is a result of reading or of interest in people, I’m sure of that’. It seems as if Moore’s restless mind was perpetually in a book, that it was the best, most reassuring place for her to be, that her encyclopedic interests were reflected in her poetry, and that her poetry was a way of recording what she saw, a way of writing through and against what she wanted to see.

As in the ‘Anatomy of Man’ section of the Collier’s Encyclopedia, a series of transparencies can be peeled away to reveal different, more minute and intricate systems of the body underneath. With time and patience, a poem about a swan becomes a swan in a painting or a piece of porcelain – or perhaps the swan was always in the painting and suddenly becomes, with Moore’s impeccable wording, ‘real’ – which then becomes a poem about beauty and patriarchy and ownership. A poem about fish wading ‘through black jade’ and a sun ‘split like spun / glass’ moves deeper, darker still, to an edifice that only appears to be dead.

I reread, fondly, the beautifully wrought sea in ‘The Steeplejack’, the meeting between Moore and Bishop outside the New York Public Library, the early poem ‘Blake’ (‘I wonder if you feel as you look at us, / As if you were seeing yourself in a mirror at the end / Of a long corridor –’); I think about the subway tokens Moore and her mother insisted guests take at the end of a visit, the photographs of Moore looking most at ease beside a parakeet and elephant.

‘Poetry is personal’, Stevens said in a lecture Moore recorded in a letter. Moore wrote complex poems about love, institutions such as marriage, femininity, virtue, the treatment of people and animals and the world around her, all the while embedding found voices and quotes that are unattributed and stripped of context to shift power dynamics, derailing commonly held beliefs. All while constructing the calmest of facades, places where she could be Rat or Mr while Bear looked over her shoulder, where she could wear lovely blouses and hats adorned with flowers one moment, a cape and bowtie the next.

In ‘Armor’s Undermining Modesty’, Moore writes, ‘There is the tarnish; and there, the imperishable wish’. If lists are reminders, then New Collected Poems reminds us of a distinctly vivid and necessary voice, a Modernist who laughed with Alexander Calder and Martha Graham, threw the ball out at Yankee Stadium, dined with Cassius Clay (a.k.a. Muhammad Ali), and published her last book close to her eightieth birthday. Moore’s poems are like armour, a lasting, much-needed protection, thick and tough and shiny, battered in places but ready for battle at any time. 

This article is taken from PN Review 243, Volume 45 Number 1, September - October 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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