November 6, 2013


Omissions Are Not Accidents : The life of Marianne Moore, whose legend grew as she winnowed complexity from her work. (Jennifer Szalai, November 2013, Slate Book Review)

More essential to Marianne was poetry, to which she demonstrated her devotion as both a writer and the editor of the legendary Modernist journal The Dial. For four years, until The Dial closed shop in 1929, Moore chose which poets and critics to publish, subjected them to her scrupulous edits (even though she would publicly maintain that it would be a "sacrilege to change or add even a comma"), and encouraged new talents like Hart Crane and Kenneth Burke. (Awaiting Moore's editorial decision, an anxious Crane grumbled to friends about "the Rt. Rev. Miss Mountjoy" and the "hysterical virgin.")

Moore had already established herself as a poet in her own right, though her work was only half-understood, even by her most admiring critics. They complimented her poems for their chilly intellect: "Emotion in her," as one critic put it, "is calcined to a thin ash." Moore disagreed. However much she valued precision, she also insisted her writing had a real "gusto." In "When I Buy Pictures," she described how "too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one's enjoyment."

"When I Buy Pictures" is one of Moore's earlier poems, written long before Moore became America's public poet, the little old lady in the tricorne hat. Leavell sees a turning point around World War II, just after Moore had tried and failed to sell a novel--"a poet's novel," according to one gentle rejection letter--and started submitting her poetry to general-interest magazines like the Atlantic and The New Yorker. Those poems were rejected too. Moore might have been disappointed, but she told her brother that she understood why those magazines declined to publish her work: "Technical virtuosity is not the essential nourishment we need at this time." She herself started to write poems whose syntax was looser, the symbolism and import more readily apparent. A caged bird, for instance, "though he is captive,/ his mighty singing/ says, satisfaction is a lowly/ thing, how pure a thing is joy."

Leavell concedes that Moore's new poems still demanded what Pound called "mental attention," but "that attention is now rewarded with a meaning closer to what readers expect from poetry." In 1943 Moore published "In Distrust of Merits," a war poem whose heightened emotion and sincere use of "O"s garnered both admiration and condemnation. Helen Vendler simply called it a "bad poem" that was "monotonously anthologized because of its concurrence with popular sentiment." W.H. Auden, however, anointed it "the best of them all" and wrote about Nevertheless, the collection in which "In Distrust of Merits" appeared," for the New York Times Book Review, confessing the difficulty he had with her earlier work. He wanted to "assure" new readers that they, too, could learn to love her poetry as much as he did. Within three months, Nevertheless went into a third printing. 

Posted by at November 6, 2013 4:36 AM

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