Marianne Moore

Observations: Poems

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

American poet Marianne Moore (1887 – 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Her early writing was well-known but remained unpublished after the First World War.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. From “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 weapons up, and
Bow you out.

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”:

[t]he 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.

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.

Moore’s call to care and observe reverberates in the work of many others. 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. Italian novelist Italo Calvino contemplated maps, knots, and sand as a way to understand humans. I wonder if any of them found comfort or inspiration in Moore’s poetry.