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Saturday, June 17, 2017

New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore

If you’ve only read later editions of poetry by Marianne Moore, you might not have read the poems that actually made her famous. We discussed this previously in my review of Observations, but basically, Miss Moore’s original work helped to create a modernist culture in poetry while earning impressive awards – from the National Book Award and Bollinger Prize to a Pulitzer. Giant names in poetry, from Elizabeth Bishop to William Carlos Williams to T.S. Eliot, applauded her work too.

Many (most?) poets would be thrilled to have such literary accolades and appreciation of their work, but apparently Miss Moore was not one of those. She continued to revise and rework her already-published and highly acclaimed poems until some might say she occasionally butchered them!

In hopes of remedying this, English professor and writer Heather Cass White undertook the massive task of trying to find the earliest versions of each poem to show the proper trajectory of Moore's work. Ironically, this collection from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who kindly sent me a copy to review, has been entitled the New Collected Poems since Poems, Selected Poems, Collected Poems, and Complete Poems had already been taken. However, the Introduction points out, “…’selected’ is the only adjective that accurately describes any book of Moore’s work thus far produced, or any that can be produced,” since “Moore’s art has no straight path from beginning to end.”

As Professor White explains, “For Moore, the publication of a poem in a periodical, or the ordering of poems in a book, marked resting-places in her poetry’s development, not its final form.”

Having seen Miss Moore’s flamboyant personality on television, which, for years, personified the general public’s perception of poets, I wonder if her revisions were part of the act – i.e., showmanship born, not of the perfectionism that might make some of us incessantly revise our poems, but of her inclination to dazzle.

As the Introduction reminds us, the clear eye and distinctive voice of Moore’s poetry were “also part of its simultaneous ‘dazzlement,’ the poems’ sometimes overwhelming complexities of statement, form, and metaphor.” i.e., “If clarity allows us to see better, dazzlement, however exciting, may mean we can hardly see at all. It is seldom easy to say what a Moore poem as a whole is about, even when it comes with a seemingly straightforward title. Moore was serious, but also witty, and not above liking to shock her readers.”

Yes. That’s it, exactly.

At the time of Moore's writing, rhymes ending the ragged lines of her poems would have been a novelty as would her use of quotations pulled from obscure literature, magazine ads, and even information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As we look at “To a Snail,” for example, notice the delayed rhyme (adorn/horn), the use of words with four or more syllables, and the quotes included:

To a Snail

If ‘compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquision of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

Moore’s Notes 296 . Editor’s Notes 361

To assist us in finding the eclectic sources of the poet’s quotations, this edition presents each poem followed by a page reference to Moore’s Notes and/or the Editor’s Notes at the bottom of the page. So, “To a Snail,” includes a reference to Moore’s note on page 296 and the Editor’s note on 361.

With these aids, we can find the prior publications Editor White has tracked down for us, and, if the poet made a comment about a poem, we can find that too.

For instance, “compression is the first grace of style” in Moore’s poem above is credited as a quote from Democritus, whereas she cites Duns Scotus as the original source for the phrases “method of conclusions” and “knowledge of principles.”

Since the later phrases don’t seem to warrant quotation marks today, it’s hard to know if they were fresh at the time of her writing or whether the poet was just playing with us and the literary scene. Since that scene changes drastically, you can see why a highly innovative poet might think her poems needed to do the same.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2017, poet-writer, reviewer

New Collected Poems, hardback

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