Marianne Moore

Observations: Poems

“[On Poetry] I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.”

American poet Marianne Moore (November 15, 1887 – February 5, 1972) was a prominent modernist poet of the 20th century. With precise language, playful but relatable imagery, and learned tributes to literature, she shone.

Her early writing was well-known but remained unpublished after the First World War. Nevertheless, her contemporary poets took note. T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound encouraged her to publish and become more broadly known.

Moore, however, demurred; she knew she wasn’t ready.

To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity

“Attack is more piquant than concord,” but when
You tell me frankly that you would like to feel
My flesh beneath your feet,
I’m all abroad; I can but put my weapon up, and
Bow you out.
Gesticulation – it is half the language.
Let unsheathed gesticulation be the steel
Your courtesy must meet,
Since in your hearing words are mute, which to my senses
Are a shout.

Listen to a reading here.

Garden snail, Sussex. Photograph by Joshua Burch. Featured in Marianne Moore's "Observations" in The Examined Life Library.
“If compression is the first grace of style, you have it.” wrote Moore in her poem “To a Snail.” Photograph by Joshua Burch.

Moore’s writing was refreshingly unsentimental, intellectual, and even unnerving in connections and metaphors. Moore reluctantly published Observations in 1924 to great acclaim. From “A Grave”:

Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to 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.
The firs stand in a procession, each with an emerald turkey-foot at the top,
reserved as their contours, saying nothing;
repression, however, is not the most obvious characteristic of the sea;
the sea is a collector, quick to return a rapacious look.
There are others besides you who have worn that look—
whose expression is no longer a protest; the fish no longer investigate them
for their bones have not lasted […]

Read the full poem here.

There is a brilliant—and authentic—vulnerability in Moore’s poems. Longing. Her writing demonstrates a heroic effort to care, to notice, to pay attention. She is intelligent and playful; however, not mournful like Dickinson.

My favorites are the poems about the ever-purposeful snails’ of which Moore notes the “curious phenomenon of your occipital horn” and one of her most beloved poems, “An Octopus,” which recalls this marvelous creature “made of glass that would bend.”

Il Piovra, Jonathan Gibbs
“Il Piovra” woodblock print by British artist Jonathan Gibbs.

And another insightful study is “People’s Surroundings” about how the things we keep near narrate us to others:

they answer one’s questions:
a deal table compact with the wall;
in this dried bone arrangement,
one’s ‘natural promptness’ is compressed not a crowded out;
one’s style is not lost in such simplicity:

Moore won the Pulitzer Prize, the Dial Prize, and the National Book Award, but perhaps the greatest honor is how timely, relevant, and interesting her work remains today. Give Observations a read—it is delightful and imaginative.

Her entertainingly satirical thoughts on establishment knowledge and empty drive to accomplish.

Critics and Connoisseurs

I remember a swan under the willows in Oxford
with flamingo colored, maple
-leaflike fleet. It reconnoitered like a battle
ship. Disbelief and conscious fastidiousness were the staple
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. I have seen this swan and
I have seen you; I have seen ambition without
understanding in a variety of forms. 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. Then abandoning the stick as
useless and overtaxing its
jaws with a particle of whitewash pill-like but
heavy, it again went through the same course of procedure. 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?

Photo of Marianne Moore.
Marianne Moore.

Speaking against a fastidious ant, Moore’s call to care and observe reverberates in the work of many. People who say “Look! Notice this!” Rachel Carson urged us to notice the environment because it was so connected to us. Psychologist Irvin Yalom lifted our eyes to human connectedness as an antidote to existential anxiety, my own call to notice the world around us, and Italian novelist Italo Calvino contemplated maps, knots, and sand as a way to understand humans.

Did any find comfort or inspiration in Moore’s poetry?