New Collected Poems by Marianne Moore: an original and enduring talent
Editor Heather Cass White has done a remarkable job restoring the work of the American poet
Poet Marianne Moore: published her first collection in the US in 1924
Marianne Moore published her first book in the US, Observations, in 1924. It made her name, drawing hosannas of praise and the big-money Dial Prize. TS Eliot subsequently issued much of that revised book in the UK, along with new work, as Selected Poems in 1935. From there, Moore’s poetic career resembles a game of Snakes and Ladders: some classic poems disappear entirely, others are pruned beyond recognition, a few appear with new titles, and old titles are repurposed for entirely new poems. All the while Moore became more and more popular and iconic, her image a fixture in magazines, producing liner notes for a Cassius Clay album, commissioned by Ford to name a new car, writing poems with the safety net of a first-refusal contract at the New Yorker.
Moore defended her changing practice, even adding the epigraph, “Omissions are not accidents” to a misleadingly entitled Complete Poems in 1967, but, since her death in 1972, it has been increasingly difficult to match the doppelgangers in available editions to those revered by Eliot, HD, Pound, Wallace Stevens and WC Williams.
In 2003, Penguin attempted to rectify the situation by publishing a new edition of Moore’s work, edited by poet and family friend Grace Schulman. Schulman chose to present the work in chronological order, but offset this by deciding to publish the editor’s favourite version of each poem, regardless of chronology.
Now, however, Moore has been re-edited: New Collected Poems (Faber, £30) restores the work of her first book publications (with later amended versions available in the copious appendix). Editor Heather Cass White has done a remarkable, clarifying job.
Who was Marianne Moore? She grew up in Philadelphia, but lived all of her adult life in New York. A recent biography describes her unusually close relationship with her brother and mother, Mary Warner Moore, with whom she lived in New York. As critic Tara Stubbs has shown, Moore liked to claim an Irish-American identity that was in fact more than a little remote: she addressed poems to Shaw, George Moore, Spenser and Yeats and, in 1964, visited Dublin and the Merrion Square house where, according to family folklore, a great-great grandfather named Warner had left for the US. As she made her way into radical artistic circles in New York, one of her guides was the Irish-born poet and activist Lola Ridge.
Moore went so far as to write a response to the Easter Rising, Sojourn in the Whale, which is characteristically sideways and then, suddenly, revelatory, conjoining the nationalist and feminist waves of that period. The poem’s speaker is told that the rebellious upheaval will pass, “Compelled by experience, she // will turn back; water seeks its own level”, but the poem responds, “and you have smiled. ‘Water in motion is far / from level.’ You have seen it when obstacles happened to bar / the path - rise automatically.”
Cass White notes that Moore’s work is at its best before the US entered the second World War, and it is difficult to argue with the primacy of Moore’s first two decades of publication. Thereafter, the poems remain curious and witty, but seem to be built for performance with line-breaks serving as cues for an audience to laugh or indulge her ingenuity.
Go back to the poems of the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, though, and Moore’s “observations” have a more mysterious purchase on the world, and an amazingly level way of drawing together different kinds of language. No special pleading, no received wisdom, nothing a reader can “take for granted”, these are – and what a relief this is among the modernists – a democrat’s poems which feel as if they lean on no one’s goodwill, and are written from the ground up. Here she is writing from (possibly not just) the point of view of an elephant in Black Earth: “Black / but beautiful, my back / is full of the history of power. Of power? What / is powerful and what is not? My soul shall never // be cut into by a wooden spear”.
Averse to imprecise or glib phrasing, Moore worries away at language, testing each syllable she uses. It is still a refreshing, spectacular experience to bear with her as descriptions careen away into more and more detailed and then expansive speculations, as when A Grave formulates her self-conscious and gendered art’s imperatives:
Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself,
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing
but you cannot stand in the middle of this:
the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.
This edition does not “stand in the middle of a thing”; it gets out of Moore’s way. In great long poems, like Marriage, An Octopus and Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play, she incorporates material from newspapers, magazines, eavesdropped expertise, dictionaries and her own looking – at people, rooms and animals – to make what Cass White accurately calls “intricately wrought meditations on history, ethics, commerce and art”, poems which attend as seriously as science to surfaces, but which also know the “beautiful element of unreason”.
In New Collected Poems, Moore’s ambition and originality are ever-present: we can now see why she meant so much to her contemporaries, as well as beginning to understand how her style – close-quarters observation, long-distance rhymes, word-by-word advances on a subject, thoughtful juxtaposition – inspired Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, John Ashbery and, closer to home, the work of Paul Muldoon, Dennis O’Driscoll and Caitríona O’Reilly.
John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He is professor of modern literature and creative writing at the University of Manchester