Brief commentary, new slants, current scholarly finds are invited for our Alerts section. Poets and scholars are equally welcome to comment.
Marianne Moore possessed words: she tamed, manipulated, curled them around her ankles; set them against each other at lapidary angles. She was a polisher, an artificer, but did she have a language truly her own? She knew, she told us, how things were "In the Days of Prismatic Colour," "when Adam was alone." Complexity, artifice, smoke, the impurities which result when elements mix and realities become confused, were non-existent. Does she then imply that all these cominglings arrived with Eve? Sophistication, Moore tells us, is "principally throat." Does she mean that, as in singing, the pure, true tones of the voice come only from the chest? That those which come merely from the throat cannot be deep, authentic, genuine? Is she describing her own dilemma here as well, her own unavoidable turning toward sophistication and artifice, even as she fights against it?
This conflict between the natural and the natural-becoming-artifact appears constantly in Moore's work. The jerboa, finally, assumes a "Chippendale claw." If Moore's omissions are not accidental, neither are her inclusions. The small desert rat who "honours the sand by assuming its colour" does not become "Chippendale," does not "stop its gleaning on little wheel castors" without the knowledge of she who created him.
What is the language of those days before Eve, when "colour was / fine . . . with nothing to modify it but the / mists that went up . . ."? Is Moore telling us of some Heideggerian proto-language, which descends only from the male? If this is indeed the case, that language--pure, original (pre-verbal?) song--is a male prerogative, then truly how could it ever be hers?
Marianne Moore elaborated complex relations to poetry as an institution and to text as a concept. Indeed, the textual problems of Moore's uvre are central to it--and not in a finicky technical sense, but given her conceptual gestures of, at once, building up and straining against her uvre. Among the textual issues one might adduce are: self-erasure--she shrunk her uvre by cutting whole adequate poems from the Collected, which are really "selected," Poems. Self-revision--she cut and remade poems even after their publication. Collaboration--with her mother, who according to a housekeeper cited to me by Patricia Willis, was given a fresh Moore poem and a fresh pencil and piece of paper presumably for editorial work. (1) And citation--tactic she shares with Pound, Eliot and Williams, but to different effect. (The latter two there is not room to discuss.)
But before even getting to some of these issues of textuality, it is worth pondering that Moore denied her work was poetry. "I can see no reason for calling my work poetry except that there is no other category in which to put it." (2) A form of writing--like her essays which need as well to be discussed as "prose poems"--called "poetry" for reasons of convenience. Her writing is a test of poetry: the "plausible" arrangement of "statements." Moore's sotto voce shrug of a genre category fundamental through most of the history of literature is a radical gesture of rejection. A writing, called "poetry" for the convenience of others, denies Poetry as an institution, may even thereby deny Literature.
Within the denial of poetry is an implicit claim of being sui generis , as unique, particular, and well-adapted as the animals who appear as a variety of Others through her work, and who thereby make comment on us. Moore's sui generis claims may be glossed with reference to an early (1916) and important poem about gender. Because "He Wrote the History Book"--because text and authority were so fully gendered--a woman writing had to claim other spaces and modes, not more of the same patterns of authority. But what other modes could not be reinscribed in a pattern of binary gender-gestures? Something very radical, very undermining.
In her inordinate "revision by subtraction" (Patricia Willis' phrase in Moore's Complete Prose), it is possible to see an unsettling perfectionism and self-deprecating self-erasure. But self-erasure to that point of modesty is already immodest. The tactic is not only negative. Perhaps in a mode familiar to us from Dickinson, many of Moore's poems exist not as text but as version. That "omission" which is "not accident" (Moore's own pointed phrase which sits like the dedication of her "Collected" Poems) propounds skepticism with all authority, including her own. It is the much-anthologized poem "Poetry," bastion of her own "fame," which Moore subjects to the most devastating erasures--its one-page-long version has been chopped to its first 3 lines, lines whose notable "I too dislike it" has been amazingly demonstrated, and upon the body of that same text! The line has moved from being ironic and playful to (without the toads and the gardens) a direct, unstinting poetics.
It is possible to see in this gesture several delegitimating moves on authority: the authority of canon-formation, and the author's consumption by and containment in selections of her work. And an attack on a more fundamental notion of textual institutions: "copy text"--the final authorized version of any given work of art, or the one editorially judged to be the final intention of the author. Moore's depredations upon her own "Poetry" (note the allegorical layers of puns) could be saying: there is no "copy text" and no authorized, authoritative authority. There is not even a single poem. But in the space where "one" poem(s) was there are two or several writings. Versions. Variants. Her uvre enacts, in textual strategies, the heterogeneity of its rhetoric and texture. Moore's critique unsettles deep assumptions about Literature, Poetry, uvre, Canon, Text.
Yet, like the clowns who pull the tablecloth out from under a stack of crystal wine glasses, Moore presents a facade that she has not at all disturbed the arrangement of things. This is why Moore--not H.D. or Stein--entered the dominant canon as a female mascot of male modernism. To reclaim her, one might say, in a phrase from Stein's "Forensics": "After a long decision they will wait for what she does."
Take the odd fact that Moore invents her own syllabic and stanzaic patterns, writing almost uniquely in syllabic stanzas--artful, fictive in the extreme--yet extremely odd. Sui generis, again. By so doing, she relocates her poetry outside the long traditions of prosodic usage which make up the history of poetry seen from this particular craft perspective. Her poems are something that she, and she alone, controls. There is no tradition of use (read: perforce, of male poets' use) against which she will be judged, or into which she will or must fit. She is her own standard. And furthermore, she takes away what you are used to (meter, rhyme, conventional stanzas), but gives back something almost the same (syllabics, slant "rhyme," unique but exact stanza shapes based on syllable count). This kind of mimicry has recently been the subject of some scrutiny by feminist theory. In Luce Irigaray's terms, Moore "works at 'destroying' the discursive mechanism" precisely by this mimicry. Assuming the mandated "feminine role deliberately," she mimics all the rituals of poetic order and excellence in order to substitute her own--to invent a control which she alone controls, a law of which she alone is arbiter.(3) There is no "Authority" before hers. She has made, for female purposes, a female "symbolic order."
Rachel Blau DuPlessis's new book of poems, Tabula Rosa, is just out from Potes & Poets Press, 181 Edgemont Avenue, Elmwood, Connecticut 06110.