POETS Day! Marianne Moore

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

If you lived in France, you’d already be home by… actually you’d still be at work. Turns out that thirty-five hour work week we hear about is just something the French pretend to enjoy the way they pretend everybody in their family tree that’s old enough to be dead was part of La Resistance, stood up to Robespierre, or was Charlemagne (that last one’s true though.) They had me there. I thought those Gallic geniuses really had the four-day work week worked out, that they were the P.O.E.T.S. Day legends of song come alive. Their failure and subsequent fakery should not deter you. P.O.E.T.S. Day, like the war against the Axis, doesn’t require France to succeed. It’s still your time that’s being squandered in the waning hours of the workweek as organizational inertia forces you and your co-workers to go through the motions of production. Nobody’s getting anything done after lunchtime on Friday. It’s clock watching, text messaging, and paper shuffling until the whistle blows. Don’t be part of the farce. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Tell your boss whatever you have to. Dissemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, whatever. Your presence at your place of employment on a Friday afternoon is in service of the lie that you aren’t already mentally at the bar or the ballpark, wandering through a pleasant park, or dropping by a special someone’s for a bit of reverence. It’s your weekend. Do with it as you will, but in homage to the mighty acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over delicate pieties and so were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.


“It should be revised, Mr. Goodwin; wish it were better — I value your forbearance; — am encouraged that with all its faults you care to own it.”

Marianne Moore wrote that to Johnathan Goodwin on the front flyleaf of a first edition copy of her collection Poems, released in 1921. It sold for $3,824 at Christie’s in 2002. The inscription is dated July 7, 1962. I like that. It shows that she knows how to hold a grudge. The book was published behind her back without her permission by her former Bryn Mawr classmate, the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle,) and her partner, the English novelist, Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman of the ship owning Ellermans if you must know, but we don’t put on airs around here.) Moore is said to have disapproved of the selection and layout but was not displeased by the cover.

That’s quite a liberty to take. I’m curious how H.D. and Bryher handled the reveal.

“I’ll meet you two in an hour for lunch. I just need to stop at the bookstore first.”

“The bookstore? … Oh… Say, I’ve been meaning to go to the bookstore myself. Why don’t you just tell me what you need and I can pick it up for you.”

“You’re so nice to offer, but I wanted to browse about a bit.”

“Uhm… Oh boy… Marianne, we have something to tell you.”

Ideally, Poems would have been released around the time of Moore’s birthday or Christmas or something so they could gift wrap it for her.

“You shouldn’t have!”

“You have no idea how right you are.”

I read Poems as it was originally published. It’s a free download at Project Gutenberg if you’re interested. I didn’t have any problems with the selection or the layout but then I didn’t become Marianne Moore, editor of The Dial in the 1920s, winner of the Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Medal for Literature, Bollingen, Helen Haire Lev… all of them. She won all of the prizes, was given honorary degrees, kept a signed Mickey Mantle baseball in her living room, threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium to kick off the 1968 season when she was eighty, and was invited by Ford to pitch names for a new car. Who knows? Maybe the Edsel would have fared better if it was called the Utopian Turtletop.

She may be the most decorated poet I’ve come across and was probably one of the most influential shapers of English language poetry in the 20th Century. You can safely remove the “probably” when referring to her influence over American poetry of that time. Poets like Frost, Pound, and Eliot felt a need to move to England to establish themselves. Moore believed that America had something unique to offer the poetic tradition, as she cleverly put forward in her poem “England.” She wasn’t alone in this belief – William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane come to mind – but her position allowed her a say in what became representative.

I’m not sure what editorial decisions she would have made regarding Poems, but I suspect they would have been severe. Her poem “Poetry” appears in the book as thirty-one or twenty-nine lines depending on which source you read. My copy is on a Kindle and will be however many lines the font allows it to be – I assumed that at the smallest setting the lines would fall into a typeset structure but that isn’t the case – so no help from me. No matter how many lines the poem was in Poems, reprinted in Complete Poems it is by her editorial hand reduced to “I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.”

Three lines. In the original she muses that poetry can be found in unexpected places. “nor is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and school-books.’” I doubt she changed her mind on that between printings. In “An Octopus,” one of her most famous poems, she quotes liberally from what appears to be a hikers’ manual, so I feel like she was firm on inspired work popping up in unexpected places. For whatever reason, twenty-six to twenty-eight lines of “Poetry” had to go. Complete Poems begins with a warning on the upper corner of the page before the table of contents: “Omissions are not accidents. M.M.”

I liked the Poems version. Not that she would have cared what I thought.

In her own poetry, she largely eschewed traditional meter but despite that her form is incredibly regimented. She explains her syllabic verse form in an introduction letter to Ezra Pound.

“Any verse that I have written, has been an arrangement of stanzas, each stanza being an exact duplicate of every other stanza. I have occasionally been at pains to make an arrangement of lines and rhymes that I like repeat itself, but the form of the original stanza of anything I have written has been a matter of expediency, lit upon as being approximately suitable to the subject matter.”

In his online course, Yale Professor Langdon Hammer notes that there are two creative processes going on here. The first is free form or stream of consciousness where she weaves an opening stanza and the second is self-conscious. She’s not always perfect, but the following stanzas are written to match syllable by syllable the lead of the first. He says, “What came by chance she repeats by will.” Hers is rigorous craftsmanship.

Today’s featured poem, “Roses Only,” is a commentary on poetic form and substance. There are not a few analyses of the poem which claim it is about women being more than a pretty face, asserting themselves, and being confident. I completely disagree.

Moore marched with suffragettes. She wrote pseudonymous prose pieces about women’s rights. Her poems about a woman’s struggles were complex. See “A Grave” (aka “A Graveyard.”) A “You go girl!” poem seems more Teen Vogue than The Dial.

“Roses Only” is an open critique admonishing poets and readers alike that beauty is not the “without-which-nothing of preminence” of poetry. A seductive verse is expected to have point, or thorn as the case may be, and that point is of more consequence than the structure. She tells us that though we may admire the petals, it’s the thorns that impact us.

I suspect there is a bit of self-defensiveness intended toward those who don’t see her syllabic verse structure as on par with traditional meter, but even if I’m right it would be secondary to the overarching idea directing the beholder towards meaning.

It’s my favorite of the poems in the stealth published book but it didn’t make her later cut and so was left out of Complete Poems. I know what she said about omissions, but I like to think its absence was an oversight. Not that she would have cared what I thought.

Roses Only

Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972)

You do not seem to realise that beauty is a liability rather than
an asset—that in view of the fact that spirit creates form we are justified in
that you must have brains. For you, a symbol of the unit, stiff and sharp,
conscious of surpassing by dint of native superiority and liking for everything
self-dependent, anything an

ambitious civilisation might produce: for you, unaided to attempt through sheer
reserve, to confute presumptions resulting from observation, is idle. You cannot
make us
think you a delightful happen-so. But rose, if you are brilliant, it
is not because your petals are the without-which-nothing of pre-eminence. You would look, minus
thorns—like a what-is-this, a mere

peculiarity. They are not proof against a worm, the elements, or mildew
but what about the predatory hand? What is brilliance without co-ordination?
Guarding the
infinitesimal pieces of your mind, compelling audience to
the remark that it is better to be forgotten than to be remembered too violently,
your thorns are the best part of you.

For whatever reason the layout software ignores my indention instructions. Below is a screen shot of a pdf I made showing how the poem should appear.

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