The true legacy of Marianne Moore, modernist monument.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 11 2003 11:49 AM

Paper Trail

The true legacy of Marianne Moore, modernist monument.

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When a book's spine says Complete Poems most readers assume the book includes all of a poet's output, or at least everything published in that poet's lifetime. Marianne Moore's poems yield a different story. Throughout her career Moore (1887-1972) revised her work meticulously, some say compulsively; the 1967 Complete Poems, which she compiled and arranged, leaves out much of the early work that first won her notice, and includes other work only in later revisions. But the Moore who in 1919 wrote the poem titled "Poetry" (which begins "I too dislike it" and contains the famous phrase "imaginary gardens with real toads") was a recent Bryn Mawr graduate, committed to her own poetry but deeply unsure about its merits; an ex-schoolteacher who had just moved to New York City with her mother; a reader of "little magazines" published abroad; and a self-declared socialist. The Moore who revised "Poetry" in 1951, and the even older poet who cut it to a mere three lines in 1967, was long ensconced in her adopted Brooklyn, a minor celebrity noted by Time and Life for her ornate hats and her interest in baseball, and a reliable Republican.

Many American poets see Moore as one of the monuments of modernism, up there with Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens (or, depending on which poets you ask, with Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein). Yet Complete Poems long remained the only book of Moore's poems consumers could purchase. In 1997 Bonnie Costello—known for her critical studies of Moore and Elizabeth Bishop—produced, together with two other editors, Moore's Selected Letters (a tough selection; Moore sometimes wrote 50 a day, and over 30,000 survive). The sparkling, informative, well-received correspondence set the stage for a Moore resurgence.

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That resurgence has begun. Last year the University of California Press offered Robin Schultze's Becoming Marianne Moore, a scholarly facsimile edition of Moore's early work. With The Poems of Marianne Moore, edited by the poet Grace Schulman, the nonacademic public can for the first time view all Moore's strongest poems, in their first—or close to their first—finished states.

One of Moore's best-known poems, "Nevertheless," begins "You've seen a strawberry/ that's had a struggle." Here, one might say, are some poems that have had a struggle to find their true forms, and readers may sometimes struggle to pick the fruit of Moore's labors out from among the leaves: Schulman's edition brings together (without distinction, except in the notes) poems Moore later chose for Complete Poems; poems she included in earlier books, then suppressed; poems she gave to magazines, but did not collect; and poems she chose never to publish at all, and may have considered unfinished. Nevertheless, the fruits are, finally, here. Take "Radical," finished in 1919, revised for Observations, and unpublished since, which begins:

     Tapering
     to a point, conserving everything,
     this carrot is predestined to be thick.
            The world is
            but a circumstance, a mis-
            erable corn patch for its feet. With ambition, im-
                 agination, outgrowth,

     nutriment,
     with everything crammed belligerent-
     ly inside itself, its fibres breed mon-
            opoly—
            a tail-like, wedge-shaped engine with the
            secret of expansion, fused with intensive heat to
                the color of the set-

     ting sun and
     stiff.

If other American innovators (such as Walt Whitman) offer the pleasure of immediacy, Moore offers instead the pleasure of reflection, of poems that refuse to be simpler than the world is, and that make more sense the more you reread. The young Moore worried about her poems' difficult forms: She wrote to her friend Winifred Ellerman (Bryher), "to put my remarks in verse form, is like trying to dance the minuet in a bathing-suit," and told her in 1920 that she would not publish a book of poems until she had written "some that are easy to understand and that are beyond doubt, alluring." Yet an easily alluring poem would sacrifice some of Moore's strengths. Finished in 1919—and published that year in a magazine, but never since—"Radical" describes both a carrot (a root vegetable) and a left-wing movement. The poem shows many of Moore's best features: a syntax most readers have to work to decipher; careful if whimsical descriptive phrases, marked by colliding comparisons ("tail-like, wedge-shaped"); a moral at (or near) the end. (Moore's stanzas and lines count syllables, rather than metrical feet: All four first lines here, for instance, have three syllables, and all second lines have nine.)

The young Moore used those intricate structures to think about (radical) politics—one reason the older Moore kept the poem out of print. This is, after all, a socialist poem based on a pun: This root vegetable is both conservative (it grows thick because it gives nothing away) and radical (radix being Latin for root). ("Of course we all are Socialists," Moore wrote in a letter from college in 1909, "in so far as we know economics and are halfway moral, and want clean politics.") Ripe carrots are not quite red (Moore was no Bolshevik), but they're close, "the color of the set-/ ting sun"; Moore seems to laud an American tradition of homegrown radicalism, "agrarian" in its origins and still present in the "fibres" of American democracy along with its foe "monopoly." Burrowing (carrots suggest) is harder work than almost anything—almost as hard as the moral work of "progress" away from "slavery" and toward "freedom." The straw-hatted farmer (of indeterminate race) admires his carrot partly because it constitutes his livelihood (he needs it, either to eat or to sell) and partly because its struggles suggest his own. Is "it" ("it tells him this") the "agrarian lore" Moore thinks we should disregard? Or is "it" the carrot itself, opposing that wrong lore with good advice? The poem wants us to ask and not to be sure—just as it wants us to ask after (and to encourage) the elements of American character that might harmonize "ambition, imagination" and the economic reform about which Moore would later change her mind.

Early and late, Moore valued the meticulous, praised scholars, and collected her favorite phrases from all sort of texts; sometimes she placed those phrases in her poems, where she often set them between quotation marks. It may befit a poet so concerned with ethics, attributions, and accuracy that textual and critical debate will continue to surround her own verse. "Poetry" appeared so often, with so many changes, during Moore's life that Schulman's notes offer five separate versions. Experts will argue other editorial choices: Should Schulman have aimed for consistency and chosen the first published version of each and every poem? Has she sometimes mistaken run-on lines for line breaks, soft returns for hard? (In "Radical" I fear she has.) Why not print more notes, since she had room? (Schulman's Moore comes in under 400 pages: The recent Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, by contrast, has 1,203.) Readers still discovering Moore's opus can avoid such questions for now. Ezra Pound praised (and assisted) Moore early on, but wrote to her bitterly in 1918, "You will never sell more than five hundred copies, as your work demands mental attention." Moore proved him wrong several times over during her life; The Poems of Marianne Moore gives American readers a chance to do so once again.