Marianne Moore: Poems

Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was an influence on Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. If “Pound worked with the clause, Williams with the line, h.d. with the image, Stevens and Stein with the word,” then “Moore, unlike these modernist contemporaries, used the entire stanza as the unit of her poetry” through syllables, rather than stress.

“THE FISH,” 1918

through black jade
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the
split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices–
in and out, illuminating
turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,
rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.
marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice–
all the physical features of
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is
evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

Moore’s correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop in the early 1940s on Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” in which Bishop catches a fish and sets it free, make this poem particularly interesting. It would also be nice to put it in dialogue with the fish in Murdoch’s The Bell. Are fish to female poets what birds are to men (occasions for considering epistemology and death) and if so, why? And why is the fish absent from this poem, other than the way the title invites us to consider them as the ones who wade? (The first line could otherwise be an imperative). The poem suggests itself to the reader through its very absences as a poem about the choices of writing – here we have a brutal seascape, with the harsh water like jade and iron, the mussels like broken fans, huddled together in the hardship.

“POETRY,” 1921

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all 
this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one 
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a
flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician–
nor is it valid
to discriminate against ‘business documents and

school-books’; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
‘literalists of
the imagination’–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

I have italicized the first 2 sentences (5 lines) of the poem, which comprised Moore’s entire first version. The layers of metaphors in later stanzas, giving way to the simile of the poet “like a horse” remind me of Plath’s “Metaphors,” on her pregnancy. The poem “lays bare the device” through its attention to its own metaphorized layers, especially the “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The line “business documents and school-books” is from Tolstoy, who thought these the only texts outside the domain of poetry. The line “literalists of the imagination” is Yeats on Blake – his vision was “too strong” to have the patience to delineate the forms in which he was so interested.


is an enchanted thing
      like the glaze on a
            subdivided by sun
            till the nettings are legion.
Like Gieseking playing Scarlatti;

like the apteryx-awl
      as a beak, or the
kiwi's rain-shawl
            of haired feathers, the mind
            feeling its way as though blind,
walks with its eyes on the ground.

It has memory's ear
      that can hear without
having to hear.
            Like the gyroscope's fall,
            truly unequivocal
because trued by regnant certainty,

it is a power of
      strong enchantment. It
is like the dove-
            neck animated by
            sun; it is memory's eye;
it's conscientious inconsistency.

It tears off the veil; tears
      the temptation, the
mist the heart wears,
            from its eyes -- if the heart
            has a face; it takes apart
dejection. It's fire in the dove-neck's

iridescence; in the
of Scarlatti.
            Unconfusion submits
            its confusion to proof; it's
not a Herod's oath that cannot change.

The first line of the poem reflects the title in a meditation on the perception of the world – the mind is that which is enchanted and enchanting. The mind is reflection (a pun), but also, importantly, flux and movement – “conscientious inconsistency.” The poem is aestheticizing and depoliticizing.



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