Where Feeling Dwells: On Reading Marianne Moore
Aside, perhaps, from sitting in my great-grandmother’s stuffy brick apartment on the outskirts of St. Louis, with its musty smells and odd mix of antique Queen Anne tables and velour couches eating pink and green mints from glass candy salvers until I was sick while learning to recite from memory “Kentucky Belle,” a long and melodramatic poem about a horse and a southern beauty and her beau who goes off to fight in the Civil War, it wasn’t until my freshman year in high school that I began to see how poetry might allow me to conceive of myself in a world evoked by words. In a windowless classroom in a brown brick building in a suburb of the Piney Woods north of Houston, our teacher, Mignon Walker propped herself on a stool at the front of the room and read us Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” I loved Mrs. Walker, with her French-manicured nails and her long auburn hair wound up into a loose nest on the top of her head. She was newly-married, and I remember that I saw her at the Oak Ridge Movie Theater one Saturday night with her husband, holding hands, which had made my girlfriends and I giggle, and which had made me feel a strange sense of loss I couldn’t quite explain. By the time Mrs.Walker read us Pound’s poem that spring, I was falling in and out of love with boys who were falling in and out of love with me, having my first taste of longing and desire and finding it both addictive and vile. I wasn’t even conscious of what it was that drew me, later that summer on humid nights, air thick as wet wool, to pull out my copy of “The River Merchant’s Wife” and sit in my window, reading it over and over again. I think at the time I must have imagined it was simply the sounds the words made. There is a sort of ache in them that matched the ache I felt—those blue plums, that river of swirling eddies, all those sorrowful monkeys, the paired butterflies in the West garden in autumn. Perhaps these images, concrete manifestations of emotional states, appealed to my own budding and actively cultivated sense of suffering and of the necessity for abiding patience in matters of love—without my knowing they were doing so. What I missed completely, though, was the wife’s restraint. No weeping, no desultory fainting, no fits of emotion like that of my great- grandmother’s Kentucky Belle.
I first read Marianne Moore in an undergraduate survey course in American Literature at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where I had ended up after trying to get as far away from pine trees and the Gulf Coast as I could. William Burroughs was still alive and living there, then, and I once went on a bike ride with a boy who knew I liked to read and who said he knew where Burroughs lived and that he would take me there someday. But we grew tired of each other before he ever could.
My American Lit class was taught by Robin Schulze, who had just finished her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and had recently arrived in Kansas, shocked, as I remember, by the heat. She had written her dissertation on the friendship between Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, and she told anecdotes about the two of them as if they were her own dear, dead acquaintances, which struck me as both odd and charming. One of the first Marianne Moore poems we read in that class, or the one, at any rate, that remains with me as a sort of residue from that time, was “Silence.” Working our way line by line through the poem as Professor Schulze strode about the room, her long silk jacket trailing after her, arms flailing, I saw how the poem questions the value of groveling before monumental, but perhaps largely impotent, icons of past knowledge, fragile as glass flowers, still and lifeless as a grave. For a young woman from the Texas suburbs studying in Kansas whose great-grandmother (and grandmother and mother, for that matter) had a penchant for the melodramatic and sentimental, the possibility of becoming a “superior” person by relying only on the resources of my own mind, of pouncing upon some discoverable knowledge, some prey, and then devouring it in private, like the cat, was, of course, terribly appealing: a solitary mind that didn’t need figures of authority to confirm its own discoveries. I loved this poem because I thought I’d found in it confirmation of a frustration I had never before articulated, which gave to me a sort of hope. What barely registered with me, then, though, is what seems to me now to be so central: “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence,” Moore says towards the end of the poem; “not in silence, but restraint.”
By graduate school, still in Kansas, I had largely abandoned the original impulse that had driven me to read “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” over and over again, sitting in my bedroom window looking out through the pines and sweetgum on summer nights. Instead, poetry had become for me a way of knowing, a place for exploring ideas. I think it was during this time that I heard W. S. Merwin say, or perhaps I read this somewhere, that all poetry is political, and I became enchanted with the idea that many of Marianne Moore’s poems could be read in political terms. This enchantment with such solemn and earnest matters originated, at least partially, I’m certain, in a desire to justify the unbelievable proposition that I could spend an entire graduate degree reading poetry.
I worked all of one semester on a lengthy seminar paper on “The Buffalo” and “Nine Nectarines,” poems Moore had originally paired under the heading “Imperious Ox, Imperial Dish” when they first appeared in the November 1934 issue of Poetry. I wandered the university library’s dim periodicals stacks and dug out all the copies of Illustrated London News available for the months in 1931 and 1932 that I knew, from her letters, Moore had been writing these poems. I sat at a library carol reading an entry on “oxen” from an old edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. I copied pages of stories and photos on microfiche from the New York Times. And I found Alphonse de Candolle’s Origin of Cultivated Plants on the top shelf in the Science Library, and read the entries on peaches and nectarines perched on a ladder. In “About One of Marianne Moore’s Poems,” Wallace Stevens says that “Somehow there is a difference between Miss Moore’s bird and the bird of the Encyclopedia” in “He Digesteth Harde Yron,” which is, of course, true. But in these articles and entries and photos, I could feel, pulsing and alive, her argument in “Poetry”—the long original version—its call for the democratizing of suitable material for poetic subject matter, its desire not “to discriminate against ‘business documents and / school books.’”
The figures Moore hewed out of all that rough wood, I ended up arguing in the paper, were two poems searching together for a type of art, a way of being, that could withstand the overwhelming pressures of an increasingly vicious world—perhaps akin to what Stevens called in a later essay the “violence from within that protects us from the violence without.” I thought that the Indian water buffalo “standing in a mud-lake with a / day’s work to do,” its “free neck stretching out” should be read in comparison to all the domesticated modern oxen enumerated in the first half of the poem, those oxen who are somehow diminished, “decreased” from their ancestor, the “great extinct wild Aurochs.” The “Vermont ox yoked with its twin / to haul the maple-sap, / up to their knees in /snow” and the “freakishly / Over-Drove Ox drawn by Rowlandson,” these creatures who acquiesce and passively accept their fate are not that Indian water buffalo, resisting and fierce, even though constrained. This buffalo “has met / human notions best” because it possesses that violence from within that could protect it from the violence from without.
Because, as I said, I had begun to read all poetry as political, I couldn’t help but read “The Buffalo” against the historical context in which Moore wrote it: the time of the Indian struggle for independence under Mahatma Gandhi. The Indian buffalo, with “two horns which when a tiger / coughs, are lowered fiercely / and convert the fur / to harmless rubbish,” seemed to me at the time to embody those ideals of passive resistance and non-violent non-cooperation. And I thought, and still think, that through him, Moore was offering up an example of how artists might respond in a time of struggle. This was, after all, an Imperious Ox. The Imperial Dish, on the other hand, seemed something altogether different, co-opted as that heading suggests, by the imperialists. What is known in The Complete Poems as “Nine Nectarines” was originally entitled “Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain,” the title itself an image of nature frozen, glazed over—never a good omen blazing across Moore’s cosmos. The poem opens with the painted nectarines on “this much-mended plate” that “look like a derivative.” I was remembering Moore’s use of this word in her original version of “Poetry”: “When [things] become so derivative as to become unintelligible, / the same thing may be said for all of us, that we / do not admire what / we cannot understand.” “Derivative” is an ugly word in Moore’s vocabulary, and this fruit “arranged” in “intervals”—controlled and constricted the way the cattle in “The Buffalo” are also constrained—seems highly artificial. They are cultivated, after all, and, like the descendants of the great aurochs, given a lineage of descent. But unlike “the great extinct wild Aurochs,” Moore questions whether these fruits were ever wild. “Prudent de Candolle would not say.” What de Candolle did say, though, was not only that the peach Yu prevents death, or “If eaten in time, it at least preserves the body from decay until the end of the world” as Moore’s notes at the back of The Complete Poems indicate. He also says that “The peach is always mentioned among the fruits of immortality, with which were entertained the hopes of Tsinchi-Hoang, Vouty, of the Hans and other emperors who pretended to immortality.”
Leaning on the top rung of the ladder in the Science Library reading de Candolle’s entry on the peach, my political argument for this poem began to form. I went on in my paper to argue that, by using this symbol which ancient emperors had wielded in their claims to immortality, Moore seemed to me to be suggesting that China had been appropriated by the Japanese imperialists. After all, throughout much of 1931 and 1932, Japan, having invaded Manchuria, maintained control of the Chinese province. Articles about the situation were all over the New York Times; allusions to it wove in and out of the articles Moore was reading in Illustrated London News. On this plate, “One perceives no flaws”—no curculio eating away at the leaves, all in perfect order. Which seems to be, on the surface, great praise, but which I think, drove Marianne Moore to distraction—so removed from the natural world, so frozen in time was it. “Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!” she nearly screeches in “An Octopus.” “Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus / with its capacity for fact.” So, I concluded, this is what can happen to art in a world facing a violence from without—it can become static, “enameled on porcelain.” And it can be imprecise. Which one is it, after all, “asleep against the old / thick, low-leaning nectarine”? “unantlered moose or Iceland horse / or ass”? This art must not reveal the truth, the way things really are, because the way things really are is too horrific, too revealing of the offenses perpetrated by those in power. Instead, a veneer of beauty and tradition had to be upheld so that the imperialistic forces would not bring down their might upon an artist’s head.
What I loved about these poems, what I still love about Moore’s early poems, is this unwillingness to impose her own opinion. “The Buffalo” and “Nine Nectarines” are not stridently political poems. And yet I was convinced that Moore wanted to say something about the rise of imperial and fascist regimes in her time—but that to have said more bluntly, less circuitously, how she felt and what she thought needed to be done might have been to her too imperialistic, too much like the actions of those forces against whom she was struggling. She felt something deeply, but she used restraint.
It was sometime after this, after I had turned my paper in and had begun to let Moore go from me a bit, that a friend of mine and I were walking together through the halls of the English Department discussing poetry. It was late in the day, a cold winter sun disappearing behind the hills, the bones of trees rising up against the gray flesh of the sky, and we were making small talk until we reached the doors and the chill and our separate ways. Somehow Marianne Moore came up. Maybe he was reading her then and had said something about her. Maybe I mentioned my paper. I don’t remember. All that stays with me is how, when I asked him if he liked her, he remarked, casually and with no intended malice, “Well, you know what Ezra Pound says? ‘Only emotion endures.’ ” He meant that for him, her poetry would not last because it does not derive from deep feeling.
Some years later, long after I had left the hills and fields of eastern Kansas and graduate school behind and returned to the flat coastal plain and pine trees where I grew up, after I had gotten married and moved to the suburbs, in the time of having babies and of being home with them and of adoring them and of feeling constrained, I turned to Moore the way I had turned to Ezra Pound in high school, seeking. I remember it was naptime and a quiet had settled over the house like a cotton quilt. It was late winter in Houston, cool enough outside for sweaters still, and the sun, muted, pulled its way through a haze of clouds. I had made myself a cup of tea to try to wash away the drowsiness and my desire to crawl back into bed with my daughters, their breath against my ear, their cheeks growing pink in their sleep. “You’re warm as toast,” my mother used to say to me when I would wake up from my naps, and this would come back to me every time my own children wandered into my room when they had awakened, flushed and frowsy and wanting to curve into my lap.
Motherhood always begins in confinement—that exquisite euphemism for the time attending and consequent to childbirth. But for me, anyway, though I loved my daughters to distraction, motherhood had become a continuing confinement, against which I rose, but from which I really did not want to escape. That afternoon, while the girls slept, I flipped through my pink paperback copy of Moore’s Complete Poems looking for phrases I vaguely remembered. It had been years since I had read Marianne Moore, and the words I had hinged myself to back in Kansas glittered out from the pages, little jewels. There was the town in which Dürer would have seen a reason for living, the plumet basilisk in the swamp, that shattering sudden splash marking his temporary loss. There was the frigate pelican wasting the moon and all those fish wading through black jade. There were the critics and connoisseurs and Moore’s apish cousins, the monkeys. There was the sea. And then I arrived at “What Are Years?” which is what, I realized then, I had set out to find. In graduate school, I might have seen this poem, published in The Kenyon Review in its Summer 1940 issue and then later as the title poem in her 1941 book, as Moore’s response to the stirrings of world war overseas. After all, she begins, “What is our innocence, / what is our guilt? All are / naked, none is safe,” as if questioning the role of American citizens in the barbarism being committed in Europe and in the Pacific Rim, implicating all. But this wasn’t what I clung to anymore. In my own desperation, I needed something else. I think perhaps I found it (whatever it may be: recognition, confirmation, solace) in that central stanza:
He sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality and in his imprisonment rises upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be free and unable to be,
in its surrendering finds its continuing.
All that afternoon and in the evening, giving baths, reading stories, laying there in the dark, and for days and weeks beyond that quiet winter afternoon I thought about those lines and about confinement. About how the forms of Moore’s poems—those syllabic templates, those invented rhyme schemes—are a sort of self-imposed captivity within which Moore found, like the bird in the same poem, such freedom to sing out. And I began to think about how too much freedom is not always a good thing, necessarily, how freedom can impose its own limits: my childless high school friends with Pottery Barn houses and J. Crew clothes and William Sonoma cookware and terribly satisfying careers and all sorts of liberties my husband and I never had, probably never would have. I began to think that “satisfaction is a lowly / thing, how pure a thing is joy.” And I began to think, in those weeks as spring came on, humid and oppressive, that it wasn’t the escape from the chaos of raising young children I was longing for. It was simply, but perhaps with more difficulty, the ability to accept what exists, the ability to sink in Wallace Stevens’ vision, “downward to darkness, on extended wings.”
There was something else, too, I discovered, reading Moore in those days of early motherhood, something about her looking closely at the thing at hand—jerboa or camellia or frigate pelican, New England village, porcelain plate, Peter the cat, mountain, buffalo, Egyptian pulled glass bottle in the shape of a fish. Though Moore was editor of the Dial, one of the most influential journals of her day, from 1926 until it ceased publication in 1929, and though she associated with many writers and artists, intellectuals and, yes, ballplayers, her life seems to have had its own circumscriptions. Perhaps it’s the fact that she never married, never had children, and lived much of her adult life with her mother in an apartment in Brooklyn. Or perhaps it was merely a quirk of personality, a self-imposed confinement. In a questionnaire for The Little Review in 1929, Moore had listed as her weakest characteristic unsociability. And even towards the end of her life in 1962, with idiosyncratic verve, Moore told Esquire that her most paradoxical quality was wanting to be inconspicuous, but to look well. And so I wondered a lot then, in my own sometimes splendid captivity, whether these careful observations of plants and animals and objects were in some way the result of Moore’s confinement—regardless of whether that confinement was due to external circumstances or natural inclination. At any rate, to look this way, I thought, was an act of great humility—this laying oneself down before an object, to observe, as she says in “Bowls,” “layer by layer exposed by certainty of touch and unhurried precision,” and to allow the object to offer up its secrets, and then to tell them through the verse. We need more poetry that puts constraints upon itself, that listens closely to things outside the self and allows these things to speak, that speaks on their behalf. We need a little more humility in our poetry, as in our politics. A little less concentration on how fragmented modern life is, on how meaningless language has become. The observable world is full of repetition, which is, it seems to me, a sort of insistence we should take note of. We may be constrained by this world, by our own mortality, but within these constraints lie great possibility for freely singing out that which we see and have come, through careful observation, to know.
I had been reading Marianne Moore again. It was spring in Houston, in the city where we live now, but this was the spring after the horrific fall of 2001. That past September, I had thought a lot about how those poets I love would have responded had they been here as witnesses on that fall day when the skies were so clear no one could possibly mistake what it was they saw against the perfect blue. Imagine Hart Crane perched on the Brooklyn Bridge, Walt Whitman crossing the Brooklyn Ferry, Miss Moore watching out the window of her apartment. What should they have said? And would it have soothed? Could they have given voice to such suffering and such helplessness? Shown us what to do with our empty and restless hands? After listening to the non- stop news coverage, the same impossible gestures over and over again, would Moore have turned off her television and reminded us that deepest feeling always shows itself in silence, or not in silence but restraint?
In so much of American poetry these days, we seem to have either too much restraint (the highly academic poetry convinced that language holds no real meaning anymore) or not enough (the confessional poetry that can’t move beyond the repetitive story of the self). But the element that both these strains seem to lack is that deepest feeling. And what I longed for after September 11 was a poetry that spoke to grief out of grief, that did not fear emotion but at the same time refused to abandon reason.
“Only emotion endures,” my friend had quoted to me. And yet, reading Moore again the spring after that September, I was convinced that a great deal of Moore’s poetry does arise from deepest feeling. And to find this feeling requires a reconfiguring of what we recognize as a display of emotion. In an age of Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey, Chicken Soup for the Soul, “Survivor” and SUVs with American flags gallantly waving, the “genuine” Moore so admires is especially difficult to discern. But perhaps it’s always been difficult to discern, and out of this difficulty, her reputation for mere filigreed observation has arisen. Moore herself seemed aware of how her poetry might have been misread when she wrote in her 1944 essay, “Feeling and Precision,” “Feeling at its deepest—as we all have reason to know—tends to be inarticulate. If it does manage to be articulate, it is likely to seem overcondensed, so that the author is resisted as being enigmatic or disobliging or arrogant.” But what might seem overcondensed and thus enigmatic and disobliging and arrogant seems to me to be that restraint she describes in “Silence” which I had so completely missed when I first read Moore with Professor Schulze—the same sort of restraint I’d so admired in “The River Merchant’s Wife,” the same sort of restraint that was utterly absent from “Kentucky Belle.”
Reading Moore again, both her poetry and her prose, I could see her appreciation for all art that begins in the deepest feeling and arcs out from within. In a 1941 review of Poems and New Poems, Moore praises Louise Bogan for this exact movement. “Women are not noted for terseness,” Moore commences, “but Louise Bogan’s art is compactness compacted. Emotion with her, as she has said of certain fiction, is ‘itself form, the kernel which builds outward form from inward intensity.’ ” The assumption upon which Moore seems to be writing is that deepest feeling creates a core from which the true work of art emanates and takes its shape. “[W]hatever sort [of art] it is,” Moore concludes in “Why I Buy Pictures,” “it must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’; / it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which made it.” Reading through Moore’s poetry and prose and finding this ongoing grappling with the notion of feeling in art, I could trace its path like a trail of bright pebbles through the dark forest. And as the trees in Houston began to bud out, as the leaves on the trees pushed away from the branches, as the figs, tethered by petioles, began to fill, I decided not only does Moore accede to Pound’s dictum that “Only emotion endures;” she embraces it. But, I am wondering to myself now, what does it matter, all this worrying over feeling, this claiming that art must begin with emotion? Does asserting its essentiality render emotion into existence in the verse itself? Where, I find myself asking, does the deepest feeling reside in Moore’s poetry?
“True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom,” says Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” This kept coming back to me, reading Moore again, fearful that emotion does not endure in her poetry. And I thought back over my reading of Moore when the girls were babies, how her looking closely at something—often an animal, but also all those other objects, the plates and bowls and clocks and carriages from Sweden—had seemed to me an act of great humility. In another essay, “ ‘New’ Poetry Since 1912,” Moore says regarding Scofield Thayer: “We have a mixture, apparently, of reading and of asserted detachment from reading, emotion being expressed through literal use of detail.” And this, I began to think, is how we must read Moore in order to penetrate the emotion. Her attitude towards those objects and beings who have no power at all seems to me something even more than humility now. It seems to be where that deepest feeling in Moore dwells. She writes out of a fascination, an enthusiasm, an admiration for what exists. “Deus, novernim te, novernim me,” Saint Augustine pleas in his Confessions. “God, let me know You and know myself.” Moore’s poems are for me now an enactment of this cry, except that it is, perhaps, God’s observable world she wants to know, through which she can know herself.
Which is why we turn to poetry, is it not? To come to know? To discover some connection between what exists outside of us and what lies within us? To be moved to weeping?