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Monday, February 29, 2016

The new release of Observations by Marianne Moore

In the new release of Observations, which publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux kindly sent me to review, the poems of Marianne Moore have been restored to their original appearance.

After the book first came out in 1924, the poems were so well received that Moore became the second recipient to receive the highly prized Dial Award, won previously by T.S. Eliot. Nevertheless, Moore later omitted at least a dozen of the poems in subsequent collections of her work and radically revised some of the poems that remained.

As the “Introduction by Linda Leavell” reminds us, Marianne Moore “was the first major poet to appropriate for poetry the language of textbooks and commerce.” Occasionally, her poems even included quotations from ads or from comments she had overheard!

Equally innovative were the syllabic patterns Moore set for herself, which, as Linda Leavell tells us, “are most easily seen in ‘The Fish,’ where each stanza contains six lines of 1-3-8-1-6-9 syllables each, and the rhyme scheme is aaxbbx. The title, as is often the case with Moore, serves as first line.”

Such titles as “Bowls,” “Novices,” and “The Octopus” also act as the opening lines to their respective poems, but, unexpectedly, that octopus consists “of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat” and lying “beneath a sea of shifting snow dunes” in a long poem whose lines sprawl and retract like their namesake.

Other titles bear note, too, not for their brevity or line placement but their quirkiness, for example: “Is Your Town Nineveh?” “An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish,” “To a Steam Roller,” “Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight,” or “Nothing Will Cure the Sick Lion but to Eat an Ape.”

Notable, too, among the poet’s many experiments and innovations are the Moore-made patterns she set for herself in writing syllabic verse with such odd line breaks that readers might miss the sound echoes and rhymes unless they read the poems aloud.

Anyone who has read Moore’s poetry has likely noticed her experiments in forms and free verse, but the contents of the unusual lines bring to light a poet who challenges the status quo, for instance, in “Roses Only” when the poet tells the flower often memorialized in poetry, “You do not seem to realize that beauty is a liability….”

Or, when the poet writes about “Poetry,” the 1924 version begins, “I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle./ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one/ discovers that there is in/ it after all, a place for the genuine.” Moore aimed to show that genuine while disdaining the obtuse poetry in and out of vogue during her lifetime. In 1925, her heavily revised version of “Poetry” tells us:

“I too, dislike it:
there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
The bat, upside down; the elephant pushing,
a tireless wolf under a tree,
the base-ball fan, the statistician –
'business documents and schoolbooks' _
these phenomena are pleasing,
but when they have been fashioned
into that which is unknowable,
we are not entertained.
It may be said of all of us
the we do not admire what we cannot understand;
enigmas are not poetry.”

Those of us who remember Ms. Moore sweeping onstage in her floppy hats and outgoing personality know how entertaining she could be, chatting with Jack Parr on The Tonight Show, but apparently that image of her as poet lingered too. Years later, at my high school reunion, a friend asked if I'm still writing, and when I answered, "Yes, poetry," he said, "Then, why don't you dress like a poet?" Why, indeed.

Review by poet-author Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2016

Marianne Moore Observations, Poems, paperback

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