Marianne Moore and the poetics of gendered modernism

Of all the women modernists, only Marianne Moore was able to occupy a secure position within the male-dominated literary world. Moore exerted an important influence on the development of modern poetry through her poems, her extensive correspondence with other writers, and her position from 1925 to 1929 as editor of The Dial. She was also able to establish and maintain significant literary relationships with most of the important male modernists ofher day (Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Cummings, for example), as well as with women poets such as H. D., Bogan, Sitwell, and Elizabeth Bishop.

Moore was born in 1887 and grew up with her mother and brother, first in Missouri and later in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She attended Bryn Mawr College (where H. D. was also a student) and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1909. By the time of her graduation, Moore had decided to attempt a career as a writer, but it was several years before she was able to begin placing her poems in little magazines. In 1918, she moved with her mother to New York City, where she worked as a tutor before taking a job as an assistant librarian at the New York Public Library. During these years, Moore continued to develop her tastes in literature and the visual arts: by 1916, she was reading the work of Pound, Eliot, H. D., Stevens, and Williams, while also paying attention to current trends in painting and sculpture. The publication of her poems during the late 1910s and early 1920s in magazines like Poetry, The Egoist, The Little Review, Others, and The Dial placed Moore squarely in the center of the burgeoning poetic avantgarde. Her first volume Poems (1921) was published in England by The Egoist Press, and her second book, Observations, was published by The Dial Press in 1924, winning the press's second Dial Award for achievement in poetry (the first having gone to Eliot in 1922). Moore also wrote a number of influential reviews of modernist works, including Williams' Kora in Hell, H. D.'s Hymen, and Stevens' Harmonium. In July 1925 she was appointed acting editor of The Dial, and she became the permanent editor the following year, holding that position until the magazine closed in the summer of 1929.

Despite her close ties to Imagist poets such as Pound and H. D., Moore was not herself an Imagist. Her poetic style was highly idiosyncratic, and owed little to the influence of any particular poet or movement. What Moore shared with the Imagists was a clarity and precision of language, a highly evocative use of visual imagery, and a desire to make a strong break from post-Romantic conventions of poetic style. Moore may have been more closely allied with Imagism than with the symbolist strain in modernist poetry, but her use of stanzaic forms, end rhyme, and syllabically regular lines marked her style as distinct from Imagist practice. Moore felt "oversolitary" at times in "not being able to be called an 'Imagist.'" Yet it was this very freedom from the constraints of a given poetic school that allowed Moore to establish her unique poetic style, one that was almost universally appreciated by the major poets of her generation.

According to Cristanne Miller, it was Moore's poetic response to the three modes of poetry available to her - the post-Romantic, the male modernist, and the sentimental - that created her "anti-poetic mode of expression." Moore rejected the mode of Romantic and post-Romantic poetry during her college years; she also rejected early in her career the "voice of female experience" characteristic ofmany women poets ofher generation, seeking instead a poetic voice "divorced from openly personal experience." Finally, she rejected the impersonal and culturally hierarchical poetic of male modernism, forging in its place a poetry that was "distinctly gender-conscious and distinctly new."9

Moore was less interested than either Lowell or H. D. in finding a female poetic tradition in which to ground her own work. Though clearly a feminist in the most general sense - as a woman determined to express herself as an individual within a male-dominated literary world - Moore preferred not to identify herself overtly as a "woman poet." As Miller puts it, Moore spoke "for herself, as woman, rather than for [all] women": instead of writing poems that were overtly feminist or female-identified, she attempted to write poems "in which the female writer may assertively articulate diverse feelings and beliefs, appealing to and invoking a strong sense of (largely female) community."10 While Moore does not deal explicitly with questions of gender or gender-relations (with the notable exception of her 1923 poem "Marriage," which I discuss below), Moore conveys messages about gender through the style, structure, and voice of her poems.

One way in which Moore's poems differ strikingly from those ofher male modernist counterparts is in her use of a first-person speaker to establish a voice that is neither ironically distanced from his subject (in the manner of Pound or Eliot) nor lyrically expressive (in the manner of Crane or Millay). We see this characteristic voice in one of her earliest anthologized poems, "Critics and Connoisseurs" (1916):

There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious fastidiousness. Certain Ming products, imperial floor-coverings of coach wheel yellow, are well enough in their way but I have seen something that I like better - a mere childish attempt to make an imperfectly ballasted animal stand up, similar determination to make a pup eat his meat from the plate.

This first stanza exemplifies several aspects of Moore's poetic style. First, we see the highly prosaic quality of her poetry: Moore's language here, if taken out of its form as poetic lines, could easily be that of a prose essay. The first sentence, for example, is in the form of a declarative statement: "There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious / fastidiousness." Even here, however, Moore plays with language in interesting ways. The relatively straightforward syntax and simple diction ofthe first part ofthe sentence play against the more unusual and somewhat ambiguous expression "unconscious fastidiousness" with which the sentence ends.

Moore's wide-ranging diction is one way in which she expresses her non-hierarchical approach to poetic language: in many of her poems, she moves freely from an erudite and precise vocabulary to a style that is either journalistic or conversational. Similarly, her syntax ranges from the very simple to the highly complex, making it difficult for the reader to find any sense of a traditional lyric elegance in her poetry. Moore also uses sound (alliteration, assonance, and rhyme) as well as the rhythms created by lines and line-breaks to disrupt normal reading strategies. Here the breaking ofthe line between "unconscious" and "fastidiousness" emphasizes the syntactic relationship between the two words (one is the modifier ofthe other) as well as their sonic resemblance. The line break also introduces a level of humor or irony into the poem: just as the image of making "a pup eat its meat from a plate" undermines the aesthetic dignity of "Certain Ming products" later in the stanza, the splitting of "unconscious" from "fastidiousness" helps undercut the dignity of such an epithet. Moore's catalogue of examples of "unconscious fastidiousness" further emphasizes her playfully ironic intent: beginning with "Ming products" (Chinese porcelain tiles appreciated by the "connoisseurs" of the title), she moves to several humorous examples the observant viewer might find in everyday life: a children's game of trying to make a toy animal stand up; the attempt to make a puppy eat from his plate; and an ant's repetitive activity of carrying a stick back and forth on the lawn.

If the ant becomes Moore's emblem for "unconscious fastidiousness," it is a swan that represents its alternative, "conscious fastidiousness":

I remember a swan under the willows in Oxford, with flamingo-colored, maple-

leaflike feet. It reconnoitered like a battleship. Disbelief and conscious fastidiousness were ingredients in its disinclination to move. Finally its hardihood was not proof against its proclivity to more fully appraise such bits of food as the stream bore counter to it; it made away with what I gave it to eat.

When describing the swan, Moore elevates her diction - relying heavily on latinate words (reconnoitered, ingredients, disinclination, proclivity) and compound words (flamingo-colored, maple-leaflike, battleship) - and she heightens the musicality of the language through the use of assonance and repeated vowels ("leaflike feet"). But as the description progresses, both the sound and the diction reveal the swan to be a stubborn, greedy, and somewhat unpleasant creature: the close-lipped vowel sounds of "its . . . proclivity . . . bits . . . it" emphasize the swan's artificially stiff demeanor, while the term "made away with" suggests an almost guilty bearing. What begins as a magnifying appraisal of the swan ends as a diminishing one: the modulation of tone from nostalgic reminisence to suspicion reflects the mind's changing view of reality, and sets up the analogy Moore wishes to draw.

I have seen this swan and I have seen you; I have seen ambition without understanding in a variety of forms.

If the "unconscious fastidiousness" was that of the connoisseur, the "conscious fastidiousness" is that of the critic, who exhibits "ambition without understanding." Moore plays with the two distinct meanings of "fastidious": on the one hand the more positive sense of careful, exacting, or meticulous (the connoisseur and the ant), and on the other hand the more negative sense of overcritical and difficult to please (the swan and the critic).

The ant - Moore's example of "unconscious fastidiousness" - is introduced very differently from the swan:

Happening to stand by an ant-hill, I have seen a fastidious ant carrying a stick north, south, east, west, till it turned on itself, struck out from the flower-bed into the lawn, and returned to the point from which it had started.

Moore makes a skillful use of the stanzaic form to reenact the visual movement of the ant, turning back on itself and then returning - across the stanza break - to where it started. At the same time she uses a far less pretentious diction than she did in describing the swan, employing everyday language to create a tone that is sympathetic rather than ironic. The language used to describe the actions of the ant is straightforward - it "turned," "struck out," and "returned," rather than "reconnoitered" or "appraised" - and the entire event is presented as a casual observation ("Happening to stand . . .) rather than as a self-consciously remembered scene ("I remember a swan under the willows in Oxford"). While there is no elegance about the ant, there is also no falseness or hypocrisy: it simply does its job, carrying the stick until it proves useless, and then abandoning it to try "a particle of whitewash" instead.

"Critics and Connoisseurs" can also be read as a poem about writing poetry - an ars poetica. Like the ant, Moore suggests, the poet simply tries different materials - different ideas, themes, or combinations of words -until she finds the right one. The form of the poem itself plays with its own fastidiousness: on the one hand, it is exacting and meticulous in its rhythmical pattern - the lines ofeach stanza conforming to the same syllabic count - yet on the other hand it breaks formal rules about rhyme, line endings, and even the coherence ofstanzas. The poem is constructed rather like the "imperfectly ballasted" animal of the first stanza: it stands, but its imperfections are allowed to show and become part of its charm.

Moore ends the poem by returning to the examples of the swan and the ant, using a rhetorical question to challenge the attitude of (male) critics more interested in "dominating" the literary world and "proving" their worth than in the kind of unselfconscious experimentation necessary for real poetry:

What is there in being able to say that one has dominated the stream in an attitude of self-defense; in proving that one has had the experience of carrying a stick?

Moore's attack expresses her distrust of the world of male power, a world in which she was forced to struggle to find acceptance in the early part ofher career. Moore's speaker in the poem is not strongly identified with the poet herself and is not explicitly identified as female; instead, the voice is that of a fictionalized speaker who is educated, witty, and intensely engaged with the physical world. Moore's poetic voice can be contrasted with the typical post-Romantic speaker who attempts to harmonize with some greater being or force, or who refers to intense moments of personal feeling or experience.

Moore's 1923 poem "Marriage" is a satire in which she calls into question the central institution ofpatriarchal culture. Though Moore insisted that the poem was not an expression of her views on the subject of marriage, this disclaimer is difficult to accept at face value. The poem is, as Miller suggests, "the climax of Moore's exploration of the relationships between poetry, gender and power" and a "tour de force of the various poetic strategies that Moore has been perfecting for the last ten or more years."11 Moore may have written the poem in response to the difficult marriages of couples she knew, or she may have been speculating about the possible effect marriage would have on her own work. "Marriage" presents an extended portrait of relationships between the sexes, using the mythical couple of Adam and Eve to represent the typical man and woman. A collage-poem which draws on various sources - from articles in Scientific American and The English Review to books by Anthony Trollope, William Hazlitt and Anatole France -"Marriage" is Moore's longest poetic work, and given its date and ambitious length it can be read at least in part as a response to the production of such poems as The Waste Land and The Cantos.

Moore does not idealize either sex in the poem, but criticizes both sexes for their failure to see beyond their own vanity and selfishness. While the man "loves himself so much, / he can permit himself / no rival in that love," the woman "loves herself so much, / she cannot see herself enough- / a statuette of ivory on ivory." Still, Moore is somewhat more sympathetic to her female protagonist, and she analyzes the relationship in ways that can be read as feminist. Moore overturns the biblical story by having Eve come first in the poem and by giving her a linguistic ability that is at least the equal to Adam's. Eve is presented as a polyglot who is able to "write simultaneously in three languages. . . and talk in the meantime." Adam is also highly verbal ("alive with words"), but his speech is stiff and uninspired: he "goes on speaking / in a formal, customary strain" of "everything convenient / to promote one's joy." In the modern world, Moore suggests, the woman's position is more difficult than the man's. For women, marriage is an institution "requiring all one's criminal ingenuity / to avoid." As a woman in conventional society, to refuse marriage is to be seen not simply as eccentric or marginal but as "criminal." When she does marry, the woman can only be "the central flaw / in that first crystal-fine experiment, / this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility." While the woman is objectified as a object ofbeauty who can never be perfect enough, the man is portrayed as hopelessly awkward in his approach to love and marriage: he "stumbles over marriage," a "trivial object" which has "destroyed the attitude / in which he stood- / the ease of the philosopher / unfathered by a woman." Marriage is a constant reminder to the man that he cannot exist apart from the physical world of biological process.

The poem concludes with a quotation taken from a statue of Daniel Webster, one of the most famous American orators and statesmen of the nineteenth century, and a quintessential representative of the form of patriarchy Moore seeks to critique.

the statesmanship of an archaic Daniel Webster persists to their simplicity of temper as the essence of the matter:

'Liberty and union now and forever'

the Book on the writing-table; the hand in the breast-pocket.

Webster, a United States senator, attempted to preserve the Union at a time when some Southern states favored separation, but in order to do so he helped pass the Compromise of 1850 which allowed the spread of slavery to the Western territories. Webster's "Union" symbolizes the more private union represented by marriage in the poem, a union which is similarly believed to be permanent: "now and forever." Moore makes ironic use of the famous quote to suggest that if one must compromise one's most deeply held values in order to remain in any union, such a union may not ultimately be desirable. The poem voices a deep cynicism about marriage as both a public and private enterprise. The radically juxtaposed statements that make up most of the poem suggest that Moore will not take the kind of settled stand represented by Webster. Her stance is not that of the orator, more interested in appearing statesmanlike than in upholding moral or personal principles. Instead ofexpressing a fixed or authoritative position ("the Book on the writing-table / the hand in the best pocket"), the poem suggests the impossibility of achieving positive knowledge about human relationships. Love is both a "mystery" and a "science," worthy of careful scrutiny but ultimately beyond the reach of human understanding.

In the late 1920s, Moore's work at The Dial left her little energy for her own writing, and she published no new poems between 1925 and 1932. Moore's poems of the 1930s and 1940s are often considered to be less strikingly original than those of the 1910s and early 1920s, but they continue to display her unique poetic talents. Her most famous and most commonly anthologized poems are those which take as their ostensible subject different creatures from the animal world: in poems like "The Monkeys," "The Frigate Pelican," "The Plumed Basilisk," "The Pangolin," and "Elephants," Moore displays her keen powers of observation, giving emblematic and moral significance to the animals she describes. Moore's predilection for the form of the fable is clear in her verse translation of the complete Fables of La Fontaine (1954).

Moore's voice is unique among the women poets of her generation. Her characteristic speaker is neither the intensely personal "I" of a poet like Millay, nor the dramatized persona adopted by Lowell or H. D. Instead, we find a speaker who is able to express opinions and ideas while remaining somewhat abstracted from them: the speaker adopts political, aesthetic, and intellectual positions without conforming to what we normally think of as a "personality." Moore is a decidedly didactic poet, but she illustrates her points through example rather than simply by making statements. Most often, she reveals the play of her own mind around the complexities of a subject and then leaves it to the reader to put the pieces into a coherent whole. Even when the primary argument is relatively clear, the complexity lies in the poem's wealth of detailed observation and description.

Chapter 5

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    Why was marianne moore considered a modernist writer?
    6 days ago

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