“I too dislike it”
The sculptress Malvina Hoffman found the poetry of her friend Marianne Moore hard to understand and would sometimes ask her to read a poem aloud. “Then I would say, ‘I really don’t know what that’s all about, because of my own ignorance, I’m sure, but just possibly you might explain it to me.’ She would start explaining it, and then she’d say, ‘You know, I don’t really understand much of it myself,’ and she’d laugh and say, ‘Of course, I was convinced I understood it when I wrote it. I’ll have to work some more on it,’ and then there would be jottings in the margin, and revision.”
This little anecdote reveals more than a little of how Marianne Moore viewed her own art. Throughout her career, she revised her work endlessly in an effort to achieve the dry, almost academic tone that Eliot praised in her verse. In the process, she sometimes edited out the phrases that might too easily betray her intention. The first published version of “The Pangolin,” for example, ends with a Wordsworthian contrast: “wind- / widened clouds expanding to / earth size above the / town’s bothered with wages / childish sages, / are to the child an intimation of / what glory is.” However, in later versions Moore dropped the explicit comment on materialism—”bothered with wages”—in favor of an ending that is possibly more aesthetically satisfying but certainly more puzzling.
In fact, Moore never wished to be obscure; she was an almost entirely conventional product of the late Victorian New England mind, with a strong sense of tradition, propriety, and uprightness. While she included such notorious reprobates as Edna St. Vincent Millay and e.e. cummings among her acquaintances, she heartily disapproved of their erotic irregularities. Her grandfather and brother were both ministers, and her mother, who lived with Moore, grew so increasingly devout with age that her children nicknamed her “Bible.” As editor of The Dial Moore’s attempts (stimulated constantly by her mother) to keep nude paintings and prurient fiction out of the journal inspired Hart Crane’s remark that the fate of American poetry was in the hands of two hysterical virgins. (The other hysterical virgin was Margaret Anderson at The Little Review.)
As a student at Bryn Mawr, Moore’s teachers discouraged her from majoring in English. The young lady, it seems, was unable to organize her thoughts in a coherent fashion. In one sense, a young poet should count herself fortunate that she does not have to snip and tuck her work to the fashionable patterns of the Bryn Mawr English Department, but this incoherence was to limit the audience for Moore’s work throughout her career.
The difficulties with Marianne Moore’s verse are largely technical. She is not, by and large, a poet of grand or very complicated ideas, and although a Christian she is neither mystical like Traherne and Blake nor theological like Milton and Donne. Moore’s poems are often little more than reflections upon the history of a place (for example, in “Spenser’s Ireland”) or meditations upon a conventional theme like civic virtue. What makes these essays in verse difficult are not the profundity of their conception but her playfulness with language and her fondness for inexplicable allusions. Her verse is as freighted with quotation as Pound, but while Pound and to some extent Eliot were attempting to set their own work within a context of a literary tradition that included Vergil, Ovid, Propertius, and Dante, Elizabethan drama and Provencal song, Moore draws from any book or magazine article she happens to have come across in the library. What is even more exasperating is her inclusion of family in-jokes and nicknames. It sometimes seems as if she were writing for an audience that included her mother and brother and, at most, a few close friends, although even her brother complained that her work lacked focus.
It is not that Moore’s work is not worth the effort it takes to plow through it. She has her own dissonant charm, a sense of irony about herself and all she holds dear, an oddly striking way of juxtaposing bits in what could be called the structural equivalent of the callida junctura. Her most impressive longer pieces, e.g., “The Pangolin,” ” Virginia Britannica,” “Spenser’s Ireland,” and “In Distrust of Merits,” are full of fresh observations and a humane concern with the implications of national history. What is most often missing is any sense of passion, any delight in the ordinary music of which English verse is capable.
Moore’s career might be taken as a paradigm of the modernist movement. Like Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, she was socially and politically reactionary, although closer in spirit to Stevens’ big-business Republicanism than to Eliot’s and Pound’s visions of clerical fascism. Her earlier poems are written in more or less conventional forms, whose eccentricities are more a tribute to Emily Dickinson than to a pioneering spirit. She eventually settled upon a sort of irregular ode, shot through with internal rhymes and broke-backed rhythms as her customary form. Hers is a bookish poetry, more bookish even than Pound’s, and Moore spent hours of preparation in libraries before actually composing a major piece.
Although she numbered Eliot, Pound, Cummings, Stevens, and Glenway Westcott among her admirers, Moore was never able to attract anything like a wide readership. In the 50’s and 60’s, however, and after her best work was done, she was gradually turned into a publicity icon: the dotty old poetess in the tricorne hat who loved the Dodgers. Even after she had moved (in 1965) from the nightmare that Brooklyn had become, she would be invariably described as a Brooklynite. It was a small part of 50’s ideology of anticommunist good times, the great public lies on which we were refounding the postwar nation.
Earlier in her career Moore had been quick to see through the literary politics of Alfred Kreymborg and Archibald MacLeish (who offered to make her poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, as she thought, in order to ingratiate himself with Pound and Eliot). As she evolved from poet into celebrity, she allowed herself to be used by George Plimpton, who wanted to take her to ball games and prize fights and then write up the event for Harper’s, or Truman Capote, who invited her to his famous “black-and-white party”—a rich white-trash occasion that confirmed the status of American literature as a branch of interior design: we now order writers in 12 running feet of leatherbound editions or arranged as part of a nicely contrasting pair of Marianne Moore and the Fiat heiress (the actual seating at Capote’s party).
Nearly all of the ironies are lost on Moore’s biographer, who cannot mention Pound without bringing up his anti-Semitism, who thinks chauvinism per se has something to do with male arrogance, and who wastes page after page speculating over the lives and thoughts of Moore’s college friends but cannot bring himself to quote a single instance of the poet’s growing political conservatism. Professor Molesworth does, however, do a competent job of tracing the themes in Moore’s poetry and of excavating the layers of personal and historical allusion. The result is a commentary masquerading as a biography.
But even as a commentary, Marianne Moore: A Literary Life fails to elucidate the essential qualities of her work as successfully as a few sentences of Robert Bly, who describes her poetry as “a treasure-house: a feminine one.”
The objects in the poem are fragments, annexed, and the poem is a parlor full of knicknacks carefully arranged. Melville leaves such a room and goes to sea: there he sees whales moving about in the sea their whole lives, winds thrashing freely, primitive forces that act out their own inward strength. Returning to land he becomes a revolutionary because in society he sees such elementary forces curtailed. . . . The purpose of Marianne Moore’s art is exactly opposite: it is to reconcile us to living with hampered forces. She brings in animals and fish, but only fragments of them. . . . Everything is ‘ reduced in size, reduced to human dimensions, as in old New England parlors, where there was a “shark’s backbone made into a walking stick.”
Here in a nutshell is what is right and wrong with Moore, here is also an explanation that relates her political conservatism to her modernist technique, and here is a concise metaphor for what Robert Bly thinks is wrong with American poetry. It is too cautious, too domesticated, too taken up with things rather than with the interior life. While Spanish and Italian modernists have been exploring the private world of conscious experience, Americans like Moore, William Carlos Williams, and their disciples have been insistent upon detailing the surfaces of things.
Even where such poetry is successful, Bly argues, it should breed a counterrevolution. It hasn’t because poetry is now an academic machine that cranks out young disciples as so many replicas of their masters. The M.F.A. programs can teach the students certain tricks of the modernist and postmodernist trade; they cannot serve as a substitute for experience or passion, as Bly tells Wayne Dodd in an interview. “What has taken place is the domestication of poetry,” and while otters or minks “will reproduce better in captivity,” their offspring will grow up without knowing anything of the real world in which their kind is meant to survive. “That’s one metaphor to explain the amazing tameness of the sixty to eighty volumes of poetry published each year, compared with the compacted energy of a book by Robinson Jeffers that appeared the same year as a book by Wallace Stevens, and those appearing the same year as one of Eliot’s extremely kooky books.”
Bly blames the domestication of poets on the universities and the National Endowment for the Arts, which has enabled publishers to put out books of bad or indifferent verse without taking risks or suffering consequences. In addition to the “genial corruption” of small publishers paying tax-subsidized salaries to wives and friends, the NEA is stunting the growth of writers who are encouraged to rush into print before they have really found their own voice or polished a body of work that deserves public attention.
Bly is one of those radicals who is so far outside the mainstream that he often sounds like a reactionary (never like a liberal or conservative), and American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity is as brilliant as it is irritating, wonderfully wise as often as it is simply opinionated. Disagreeing constantly with Bly on his particular judgments, I am struck over and over by his general good sense and intransigent honesty. Why don’t our poets write about politics, he asks. Why is it necessary to be a full-time poet, he wonders. Can’t they find something better to do than report on the state of their feelings, day in and day out? He had the nerve to praise Mencken and Johnson as critics, while deploring Harold Bloom as a literary promoter; he condemns John Ashbery as academic, and slyly suggests that the M.F.A. is prized mostly by the socialclimbing offspring of poor immigrants.
Bly appears to regard himself as one of the last of a vanishing breed: the writer as revolutionary, and he repeatedly laments the docility of young poets who refuse to rebel against him as he rebelled against Tate and Jarrell. This criticism, valid as it is, needs to be qualified. There is, in fact, a revolution—or, more properly a counterrevolution—against the poetry establishment, but this neoformalist movement to recover meter, form, and narrative has little or no presence on the circuit of M.F.A. programs and writers’ workshops at which Bly is used to voicing his complaints. Among neoformalists it is now a cliche to portray the movement as a revolution against an entrenched older generation. Bly cannot believe this, because he has accepted Walt Whitman’s equation of form and meter with the feudal order.
Many neoformalists have written tracts and essays in defense of form. The most ambitious project so far is Timothy Steele’s Missing Measures. Steele, among the better known neoformalist poets, is not so much concerned with defending meter as with demolishing the arguments that have been marshalled against it. His principal antagonists are, inevitably, Pound and Eliot, who insisted that modern poetry had to be based on the language and rhythms of real speech. In Steele’s view, the modernists have confused questions of language and dialect, which are always changing, with the formal foundation of all poetry, which is meter.
To make his case, Steele examines the great periods of poetic revolution: the ages of Euripides, Horace, Dryden, and Wordsworth. In none of them, he insists, was there anything like a revolution against meter and form, only a concern with the proper language of poetry. The rebellion against meter, he suggests, is a byproduct of the changed status of poetry in the 19th century. In earlier ages, verse had been the preeminent vehicle of imaginative writing, but some time in the last century, fiction caught up and surpassed poetry. Consciously or not, poets began to adopt views of rhythm that were remarkably similar to ancient discussions of prose, which was supposed to display rhythms appropriate to speech, without being absolutely metrical.
This is a provocative analysis, to say the least, and Steele argues his case patiently and reasonably. However, his brief would be far more effective if he had been able to establish a direct connection between ancient rhetoricians and the advocates of free verse. Instead, he contents himself with a conjecture: “One would think that Eliot and Pound, both of whom expressed an interest in classical literature, might have known some of the material.” Indeed, and the scholar’s first task would be to determine which ancient rhetorical treatises had been part of the poets’ school curriculum, and which authors they have quoted or mentioned. I should be very surprised to learn that Eliot had not read Aristotle’s Rhetoric, for example, and it would be a relatively simple matter for a scholar to determine. But Mr. Steele, although he is an able poet and a forceful essayist, is no scholar, and his book is riddled with inaccuracies and mistakes that a well-trained dullard could easily correct.
His discussion of Euripides'”revolution,” for example, is somewhat misleading. Steele assumes that Euripides was not, like Aeschylus, a moral writer. What is worse, he does not even discuss the revolution in lyric form that is associated with Euripides and Timotheus, and then when he leaps from Euripides to the Roman poet Horace, he entirely skips over the really important revolution in Hellenistic poetry, the Alexandrian movement, which provides the context for any serious discussion of Roman poetry. The omission of Callimachus and the other Alexandrians is all the more embarrassing, since Pound and Eliot have more than once been compared with Alexandrian poets whose works combined great erudition with colloquial speech—another Alexandrian trait that is also found in Horace. In noting that Horace recommended a pedestrian style but wrote his odes in a higher style, Steele blurs the crucial ancient distinctions of genre that dictated different styles (even dialects), forms, meters, and diction for different types of poetry.
A man would have to squander a good part of his life on thoroughly learning Greek and Latin, mastering the technical terminologies of metrics, music, and rhetoric, plowing through the enormous bibliography (all in German) before he could begin to write about the theory and technique of ancient verse, and this is even before one could begin to contemplate the influence of ancient theory on English verse. There may be today as many as half a dozen scholars who could have undertaken this project, and even they would be reluctant to assume such a burden.
One can appreciate Mr. Steele’s desire to touch upon these matters and even admire his ambition. Indeed, his intelligent and well-intentioned book may prove to be the most influential critical work produced by the younger neoformalists. When he puts off the trappings of the scholar and reassumes the mantle of the poet-critic, he writes very sensibly of the trap into which modern poets have fallen. Nonetheless, Steele remains optimistic: “Who could have predicted in 1560 that Shakespeare would be born? Who could have anticipated, at that rather undistinguished point in English literary history, the extraordinary work that he and contemporaries like Jonson and Donne would be producing before the century was out?”
One can only wish that such optimism were justified. But great poetry is not the result of some genetic accident. Poetry grows out of the life of a community, not out of a poet’s brain or in a workshop, even a formalist workshop. Robert Bly may have hit upon an important point in noticing the preponderance of immigrants’ children and grandchildren among M.F.A.’s. Comparatively few of our better poets have been of anything but old American stock. Quite as much as the Yankee and Southern poets of the 19th century, the moderns—Frost, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Crane, Moore, Cummings—all had roots in the American past. In fiction the case is different: there have been many fine novels on the immigrant experience. In poetry, however, it has been the national experience that has, for the most part, occupied the attention of poets who have been concerned with social history. Adams and Jefferson are important personae in the Cantos, and The Bridge is Hart Crane’s attempt at a national epic, but I cannot think of major works of poetry that are the equivalent of Giants in the Earth, My Antonia, or Call It Sleep.
I think the answer lies within the nature of poetry itself. At its best, verse has been able to express a community’s idea of itself. Homer and Aeschylus, Vergil and Horace, Shakespeare, Scott, Wordsworth, and Tennyson all wrote explicitly as recorders and interpreters of their nation’s histories. There are, of course, many other types of poetry, but in the Anglo-American tradition, most of the best work has been done by writers responding to a community to which they belonged. Could Milton have been anything but a 17th-century Puritan? Hellenistic Greeks managed to write a cosmopolitan poetry, but even they were obsessed with local history, to say nothing of their common Greekness.
Is the decay of poetry’s estate—both of poets and readers—a reflection of a deeper decay in the national character, of a nation without an identity, a people without a history? Even at the beginning of this century Frost worked hard at being a Yankee, and poor Vachel Lindsay stumped across the length and breadth of the heartland, looking for its soul. Two generations later, Lowell and Berryman seemed to have learned their America out of books. Is it an accident that today so much of the best poetry is being written by a few Southerners who, whether they hate or love the South, cannot escape it?
Fred Chappell still believes in the poet’s vocation—not, it is true, in this chauvinist sense. In his recent essay, “The Function of the Poet” (an address presented at Roanoke College), Mr. Chappell writes of the social difficulties occasioned by his eccentric choice of profession. He used to tell strangers he was an English teacher, which always elicited one of two responses: “I guess I’d better watch my grammar,” or “That was my worst subject in school.” But now he tells the “shiny young executives” he is a poet:
Then comes the longest pause you could ever imagine: the Byzantine civilization comes and goes while this nice young man ponders. Finally comes the sentence, the phrase that enables him to turn back to his figures and bottom lines with equanimity, dismissing me and my concerns to Etruscan obscurity. “I suppose,” he says, “there’s not much money in that.”
But even people who have twitted Chappell for years for being a poet send him the poems they have written in response to the great moments of their lives. We cannot, it would seem, live without poetry, at least occasionally, and the vast sums of money that America spends on the generally poor verse of songwriters and rappers is powerful testimony to this need. Being Americans, it is true, we pay for a lot of bad verse that sounds exactly the same, just as we spend enormous sums in a year on hamburgers that all taste the same. Neither is terribly nourishing, either for the body or the soul, but they enable us to get by. Most of us have not yet, however, sunk to the point of eating texturized soy protein and synthetic food, and few of us are willing to read the synthetic verse by-products of the poetry workshops.
[Marianne Moore: A Literary Life, by Charles Molesworth (New York: Atheneum) 472 pp., $29.95]
[American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, by Robert Bly (New York: Harper & Row) 341 pp., $22.50]
[Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter, by Timothy Steele (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press) 264 pp., $22.95]
[The Function of the Poet, by Fred Chappell (Salem, VA: Roanoke College)]
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