Observations was Marianne Moore's second volume of poetry, and the first over which she exercised control. The collection stands midway between her first volume, Poems, published in 1921 in London, and her Selected Poems of 1935, which carried an introduction by T. S. Eliot, and which was the volume that solidified her reputation as a major figure of American letters. Observations not only stands chronologically between the two other books, its poems form the heart of them. The 1921 Poems was published by the Egoist Press apparently without Moore's knowledge or participation, and she wrote to her brother on July 10 that she was startled to receive the book from London. Its 24 poems included three that Moore did not include in Observations. Moore wrote in a number of letters that she felt that the publication of Poems did not come at the right time, and also that there were poems that she wished had been included, or that she had had an opportunity to revise.
The opportunity to publish a volume under her own control came through her increasingly close association with the important modernist journal The Dial, which was published in New York. Moore progressed from being a frequent contributor to becoming acting editor in 1925, and editor in 1926 until the journal folded in 1929. This influential editorial position, along with the award of the prestigious Dial Prize for 1924, the publication of Observations, and a number of essays praising her work, brought Moore significant recognition. However, her editorial duties led to her publishing no verse of her own from 1925 to 1929. When the Selected Poems appeared in 1935, her reputation remained largely that established by Observations. T. S. Eliot - in his role as editor at Faber & Faber, the London publisher of Selected Poems - suggested using the word "Selected" in the title to imply the more substantial corpus that her reputation deserved, even though she had only published two volumes, and one of them had been substantially reprinted in the second. The 1935 volume reprinted forty of the poems from
Observations and added nine written subsequently. There were in both Observations and Selected Poems revisions of previously published poems, a practice that Moore undertook throughout her career.
Observations opens with the modest claim that the volume is "with additions... a reprint of 'Poems'. . . that collection being made and arranged by H.D. and Mr. and Mrs. McAlmon." (In later years Moore clarified that H.D. and her companion Bryher had arranged the 1921 volume, and that Robert McAlmon, briefly married to Bryher, had not been involved.) The volume contains many of what were to become Moore's best-known poems. Many are written in her characteristic syllabic verse, the poem patterned around lines reflecting a precise syllable count, with rhyme, when it is used, often de-emphasized by its placement within a line. Many poems follow the process of setting out a proposition, carefully describing details -often of an animal or natural scene - shifting to a unifying perspective that takes in Moore's call for an attitude recognizing the coexistence of the spiritual and the material worlds, and ending with a clipped summary comment. As Moore says of significant painting in "When I Buy Pictures": "it must be 'lit with piercing glances into the life of things'; it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it."
The voice of a Moore poem in this volume and in her subsequent work is conversational, but the careful, detailed description in many of the poems, and the accompanying wide-ranging vocabulary, distance the voice from that of a speaker in a more conventional lyric. That distance is reinforced by Moore's habit of quotation. In Observations the sources of these quotations form 14 pages of notes which follow the poems, and which are then followed by a ten-page index that ends the book. The word often used by critics to describe this distanced quality - and by Moore herself, for example in discussing the work of Henry James, or the quiet, determined resolution of an animal, is "restraint." She uses the word of James in "An Octopus." The starting point of the poem is a mountain "Of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat." Through a series of logical, thematic, and descriptive connections, the poem arrives at the "fossil flower":
concise without a shiver, intact when it is cut, damned for its sacrosanct remoteness -
like Henry James "damned by the public for decorum";
not decorum, but restraint;
it was the love of doing hard things that rebuffed and wore them out - a public out of sympathy with neatness.
Moore is unapologetic about the "restraint" of her own poetry, or its difficulty.
The argument of "The Fish" takes the poem through a description of the organic processes of the sea and the creatures within it, but concludes with praise of a cliff, a "defiant edifice" suggesting an eternal presence that, despite erosion from the sea and human activity, lasts longer than either, living "on what cannot revive / its youth." Human actions and values are also put into a larger context in "A Grave," where the sea defies human attempts to minimize its power and danger. Such human constructs as lighthouses, bell-buoys, and fishing boats merely touch the surface of its power, part of the arrogant human presumption that man can "stand in the middle of a thing." Such arrogance is the opposite of "restraint."
Two poems in Observations that discuss writing that does not display "restraint" are "Bowls" and the poem that follows in the volume, "Novices." In the former, discipline and discrimination are replaced by such pointless queries as "why I like winter better than I like summer," while in "Novices" quotations provide examples of empty verbiage, and the poem ends in a welter of tired, meaningless clichés illustrating the very qualities of bad writing that the poem describes.
"Restraint" also translates into social values and good manners, as described in the well-known "Silence" - Moore's poem on how to be a model visitor: "The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint." The social and personal tensions that need to be balanced between man and wife form the subject of "Marriage," the longest poem in Observations (the poem had been published separately the year before as a chapbook). The poem explores the compromises and understanding necessary for this "institution, / perhaps one should say enterprise" to work. These begin with the tensions between "public promises" and "private obligation," and are colored by what has been said and written of marriage through the centuries. The poem explores the demands that can be made of a husband or wife to achieve an apparently successful union. The poem's final image is of the public stance of "an archaic Daniel Webster" uttering familiar, well-intentioned rhetoric of "Liberty and union" - but behind which lies the dissecting and revealing language of this poem.
In "Poetry," reduced by Moore from the more than 30 lines of the original to three lines by the final edition of her Collected Poems, she makes a modest claim for the usefulness of poetry: that it contains within its imaginative frame "the genuine." Her famous formulation for such poetry in this poem is "imaginary gardens with real toads in them."
William Carlos Williams did not agree publicly with T. S. Eliot on many matters concerning the direction of modernist poetry, arguing as he did against the kind of international modernism represented by The Waste Land, but both poets wrote important essays on Moore at this time that contributed to the impact of Observations on her stature. Williams, who had offered at one point to write an introduction to the volume when Robert McAlmon's Contact Press had proposed bringing it out, praised Moore for her renovation of the language of poetry - for putting words into a context that was fresh and exact. Eliot's essay, which appeared in The Dial a few months before Observations appeared, praised Moore's language for its range of feeling and reference, as well as praising the rhythms of her verse. When Eliot wrote the introduction to Moore's Selected Poems in 1935, he felt that he had no reason to change his opinion:
My conviction, for what it is worth, has remained unchanged for the last fourteen years: that Miss Moore's poems form part of the small body of durable poetry written in our time . . . in which an original sensibility and alert intelligence and deep feeling have been engaged in maintaining the life of the English language.
Eliot's 1935 introduction also summarized and anticipated some of the charges that have been levelled against Moore's work by some critics since her death. These include most centrally a response to her poetry that finds its careful descriptive and technical qualities over-fastidious and unemotional - "something that the majority will call frigid." But for Eliot in the 1920s and 1930s, and for many readers of Moore then and since, "restraint" does not preclude emotion, and the poems at their best reflect the kind of balance, determination, and grace that so many of the poems praise in individual animals, and often find lacking in human values and taste.
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