Marianne Moore’s Imaginary Gardens

by Mara Naselli

6a00d8341c562c53ef01bb093062b5970d-800wiIn the spring of 1917, Alfred Kreymborg brought Marianne Moore to a baseball game. In his autobiography, he recalls how they stood on the crowded elevated on the way to the Polo Grounds, holding the straps as the train lurched. Moore held forth on technical matters of poetics, undisturbed. Kreymborg, the editor of Others, strongly supported Moore’s work and held her in “absolute admiration.” He was not alone. In the early years of Moore’s career, when she circulated among the art and literary avant guard of New York, men and women alike were enthralled. Artists asked to make her portrait. Scofield Thayer fell in love with her. Even Ezra Pound sent her pages of erotically charged prose, which she ignored. Moore was intelligent, striking, and famously felicitous in her speech. “We’re a pair of tongue-tied tyros by comparison,” said William Carlos Williams.

“Never having found her at a loss on any topic whatsoever,” Kreymborg writes, “I wanted to give myself the pleasure at least once of hearing her stumped about something.” Surely baseball was out of her reach. When Moore praised the first strike, Kreymborg asked if she knew who was pitching.

“‘I’ve never seen him before,’ she admitted, ‘but I take it it must be Mr. Mathewson.’”

“I could only gasp,” Kreymborg writes.

Actually, it wasn’t Christy Mathewson on the mound that day, but Moore had read Pitching in a Pinch and knew enough to thwart Kreymborg’s sporting attempt to find the limits of her knowledge. How difficult it is to put a smart woman in her place.

Moore defied category. Her approach to language was democratic, a bold departure from mannered stodginess and the emergent high-brow modernism. For Moore, poetry ought not “discriminate against ‘business documents and / school-books’; all these phenomena are important.” Her poems are something like Joseph Cornell’s boxes: found facts and text taken from conversations, religious tracts, advertisements, natural histories. “Words cluster like chromosomes, determining the procedure,” she once said of her process. She culled and spliced and patterned her stanzas. Her poetry would contain the raw and the genuine, and would “present / for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads / in them.”

“An Octopus,” a long, streaming poem, is a good example of Moore’s love of difficulty, that is, a love of hard things, and her genuine affection for the variety of material used in her work. The octopus is Mount Rainer—a landscape of ice, rock, towering evergreens, wildlife, and flora: “cavalcade of calico competing / with the original American ‘menagerie of styles’.” The “tourmaline crystals” and “penetrating draughts which make you wonder why you came” are juxtaposed, collage-like, with lines lifted Trollope and Ruskin. Her notes are as compelling as the poems: “Menagerie of styles” is taken from “The Mystery of an Adjective and of Evening Clothes, London Graphic, June 21, 1924: “Even in the Parisian menagerie of styles there remains this common feature that evening dress is always evening dress in men’s wear. With women there is no saying whether a frock is meant for tea, dinner, or for breakfast in bed.” Indeed not. It takes a genius to see mossbeds and fungi in an evening gown. In the teens and twenties, Marianne Moore’s process and her product were unlike anything any other poet had written.

When Moore was honored by the Poetry Society in 1967, Robert Lowell claimed she was the greatest female poet in America. Langston Hughes, understanding the diminishment, quipped she was the leading Negro poet in America. Moore’s celibacy and lifelong devotion to her mother befuddled her friends and contemporaries. One recent critic calls her weird. Even her modesty, which lay at the heart of her poetic project, was considered at odds with her career. When H.D. and Bryher took into their own hands the publication of her first book, she was not pleased. In her mind it wasn’t ready. Marianne Moore was chronically underestimated.

Donald Hall’s The Cage and the Animal, published in 1970, argued against conventional dismissals of Moore’s work as cold and unfeeling. So many armored animals, so little emotion. He describes Moore as transforming from “the shy girl in need of mothering” into a mature poet capable of writing about enduring subjects: “The opening to feeling, the womanly tenderness of the early 1940s must have signified a growing confidence, the courage to love and trust.” Hall may be defending Moore against critics, but this psychological reading is tacitly informed by assumptions of her biography. What else could explain her eccentric spinsterhood than a fear of love and a failure to trust?

Moore’s later poems circulate around themes of protection, self-sufficiency, and humility. Yet Hall finds Moore’s characteristic modesty contrived. “If one can do something well, what is the point of pretending one can’t? . . . Anybody who can write [as Moore does] is good and it seems highly doubtful that Miss Moore doesn’t know it. Humility is a shield because it seeks to disarm. If you get there first with your own self-criticism you effectively take the wind from the sails of subsequent critics.”

For Moore, however, humility is an aesthetic disposition, an attitude toward the experience of making art. In her lecture “Humility, Concentration, and Gusto,” she claims humility, indeed, is an “armor, for it realizes that it is impossible to be original, in the sense of doing something that has never been thought of before.” What she leaves unsaid is that one forges ahead anyway. In her poem “Critics and Connoisseurs,” humility enables an almost selfless application of attention: “There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious / fastidiousness. Certain Ming / products, imperial floor coverings of coach / wheel yellow, are well enough in their way but I have seen something / that I like better—a / mere childish attempt to make an imperfectly ballasted animal stand up.”

Hall’s intentions are good, but he misses the scope of Moore’s ambition. So did Mr. Pound. “Ezra has written me and speaks most disrespectfully of America,” Moore complained to Bryher in a letter dated May 9, 1921. “Defiance being a form of dependence according to Freud, we perhaps should be honored.” The next day, she replied to Pound with tart diplomacy: “You imply that what we are doing in America might be of interest to artists in Europe; it is, of course, important to me.”

Moore’s ambition for her art was distinctly American. Her humility was not a simple Presbyterian traditionalism, but had its roots in pragmatism, a new approach to philosophy that was emerging in the work of William James, John Dewey, and others. Pragmatism advocated an intellectual humility for what can be known at all. Eschewing inflexible abstractions, pragmatists sought to focus intellectual attention on particular inquiries of everyday life. They favored small successes over grand gestures, experience over theory.

“We need a cautionary and directive word, like experience,” writes John Dewey, “to remind us that the world which is lived, suffered, and enjoyed as well as logically thought of, has the last word in all human inquiries and surmises; this is the doctrine of humility. . . For it tells us to open the eyes and ears of the mind, to be sensitive to all the varied phases of life and history.”

By wresting philosophy away from the marble temple on shining on the hill and thrusting it into the pluralistic universe of everyday experience, William James and Dewey turned American intellectual concentration toward particularity. “The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond the imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed,” writes James. “This colossal universe of concrete facts, on their awful bewilderments, their surprises and cruelties” is what demands philosophical investigation. Not refinement. Not simple, clean, and noble Truth.

When Moore was a student at Bryn Mawr, she was exposed to these thinkers and their work. William James’s work was widely read and Henry James, whom Moore would take as her model in life and art, visited campus. She would meet John Dewey in New York. Also at Byrn Mawr, Moore fell in love with Peggy James, William’s daughter and Henry’s favorite niece. (Peggy later married Henry’s paramour and had two children.) As Moore was coming of age, she was within arm’s length of the greatest intellectual forces in American literature and science in the early twentieth century.

Literary modernism shared some of this pragmatist disposition, favoring the concrete over abstraction, but T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound had more essentialist aspirations. The language they sought to ground modern literature needed a lineage. A grounding. For pragmatists, and certainly for Moore, there is no grounding. There is only a flux of elements to be studied and observed in their particularity. This deflationary focus on small concrete things—on the pangolin’s armor, “scale / lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity,” or the “thin glass shell” of the paper nautilus—is not self-protection from criticism. It was, throughout the first part of the twentieth century, a new way of thinking, of conjuring experience in art. Moore’s ambition is in the focus and concentration of the task.

“For my own amusement,” writes Elizabeth Bishop, “I had already made up a completely unscientific theory that Marianne was possessed of a unique, involuntary sense of rhythm, therefore of meter, quite unlike anyone else’s; . . . That Marianne from birth, physically, had been set going to a different rhythm.”

Moore’s upbringing was unusual. She never knew her father; when he suffered a nervous breakdown, her mother, Mary Warner Moore, returned to her own father’s home with her children. When Reverend Moore died, Mary had to support her family on her own—a harrowing task in any era, but especially at the turn of the last century. Not long after, she fell in love with Mary Norcross; their amorous bond lasted ten years—much of Marianne’s childhood. When Mary Norcross broke off the relationship, Mary Warner Moore was devastated. Despite a promising job offer in New York, Marianne returned to live with her mother. They would remain together until her mother died in 1947.

It is not hard to see how Marianne Moore, growing up in late-nineteenth-century America in a lesbian household and reared by educated, independent women, would march to a different drum. Perhaps this made it possible for the young Moore to compose “Progress,” published the Bryn Mawr College literary magazine in 1909. “If you will tell me why the fen / Appears impassable, I then / Will tell you why I think that I / Can get across it, if I try.”

Many years later, Moore would choose a line from William James to close the introduction of The Marianne Moore Reader. It can be read as a kind of answer to the confidence and optimism of her irrepressible younger self, a testament, perhaps, that she had made it: “Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in his exuberant excess of his subjective propensities. Prune his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.”