Edgar Guest, Marianne Moore, and the Place Where Pop Meets Modernism

What makes them great.
Oct. 4 2011 12:48 PM

Speaking in Tongues

Where pop meets Modernism.

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On the other hand, there is no element of surprise in Guest's poem, and nothing is left to the imagination. What the poem has to say about the idea of home is clear from the first line, and the rest is elaboration, in a certain manner. Here is another, quite different American poem about an idea of home. This one is by an American poet only six years younger than Guest, though they seem to inhabit different centuries:

“Silence”

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My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
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.

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read Marianne Moore's "Silence." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

Marianne Moore is a Modernist, and her poem is built on imagination and surprise, in how it moves and what it says. The old rose vines and little shoes of Guest's poem do their work efficiently and clearly: The reader understands them comfortably and completely. You can read the images, feel them, and forget them. Utterly different from that, the mouse's tail in Moore's poem dangles in the mind, with a meaning that while clear includes an indelible mystery. As an evocation of psychic privacy, the inaccessible interior peculiar to each of us guests and hosts, the image is inexhaustible. Moore's language, in a certain way, is more plain than Guest's elaborate countrification. On the other hand, the social class of “superior people,” Longfellow and Harvard is unabashed—in relation to our American evasions and confusions about class, you might call it shameless.

In another contrast, Guest elaborates, repeats and re-emphasizes; Moore amends, departs, contradicts, and revises herself: “in silence;/ not in silence, but restraint.” Even her repetitions involve movement, reversal or change of perspective: “and can be robbed of speech/ by speech which has delighted them.”

In the realm of poetry, the Modernist approach of Marianne Moore long ago replaced the reactionary, nostalgic, populist mode of Edgar Guest. But in ways easier to intuit vaguely than to describe precisely, the two contrasting modes, with their cultural and political forms and implications, are still with us.

Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be joining in discussion of Edgar Guest's "Home" and Marianne Moore's "Silence" this week. Post your questions and comments on the work, and he'll respond and participate. You can also  browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems. For Slate's poetry submission guidelines, click here. Click here  to visit Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project site.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.