Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Contractility as a Virtue - Modesty in Three Short Poems of Marianne Moore

  Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

Among Modernist poets, Marianne Moore shares certain qualities common to her time, with certain figures of equal or greater fame. Like Eliot and Stevens and Williams, she had a certain modesty and tact which expressed itself in the care and precision of her verse, which she thought of as an aspect of her politesse. Like them, too, she seems to have had, or felt she had, a life "outside" of literature, a position that might be regarded with curiosity or consternation today. Manners required that one's person, one's personal presence, not intrude upon the experience of art (or literature). Art wasn't about personality, she thought, but about the quiet and sensible debate that people of taste and intelligence shared with one another. Art was a pleasure designed to be experienced in the privacy of one's space. It wasn't advertising, it wasn't talking on street corners or in boardrooms. It wasn't the fussy categorical ratiocination of the academy. It derived from the human apprehension of the world at large, it was responsible for as much of tradition as it might well absorb--and the more of that the better.
But art--as Moore undeniably understood--is also about surprise, testing limits, and responding to the changes that history presents. Though she was a master of rhetorical flourishes, complex conceptual arguments and deliberations, it was by way of (her) highly charged, original, and exacting syllabic edifices that she was most "modern." What would Tennyson, or Browning, have made of her intricate constructions ("The Frigate Pelican," "The Fish"), or her obdurate, resistant, even petulant assertions ("Poetry," "Marriage")?
The taxonomic inclusiveness of her grammarian's delight in oddity, obscure facts and coinages, is matched by her great, patient skill in drawing parallels and comparisons between things so seemingly separated by "continents of misapprehension," that it defies belief! But all this is nothing without a sharp rein to control it, and it is in this aptitude that Moore's genius most serves her purpose.       
My father used to say,
'Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat--
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth--
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.'
Nor was he insincere in saying, 'Make my house your inn'.
Inns are not residences.
If the deepest feeling shows itself in silence, then the best poetry may inspire deference, admiration, or quiet delight. And that qualification--the grudging acknowledgment of a too quick definition--adjusts that feeling to "restraint." Intense feeling is by its nature unrestrained, but it is through exactly such controlled restraint that the most powerful and persuasive lessons may be realized, and expressed. There is a hierarchy of taste here which is initially assumed, and then castigated. But the deeper realization--that privacy and graciousness have limits which guide our behavior--is like a razor-sharp irony undercutting that presumption. This is an ethics of sensibility, in which character and training and practice and standards all serve an efficient purpose, gratuitous and measured. The one metaphorical image in the poem, the cat carrying a mouse in its mouth--its tail "hanging like a shoelace"--vividly captures both the wildness and care of domestic accommodation. Strength and necessity express themselves--hand in glove--beneath every locution of thought and social maneuver. 
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 acquisition 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.
If contractility is a virtue, then subtraction is one of its cognates. Compression--or concision--like the removal of unnecessary connections--may be expressed as apostrophized definition. Intensity of feeling is never the occasion of extremity in any Moore poem. We admire grace in compression, the "hidden" principle which is itself the very condition of modesty, though modesty is only a way of talking about nature. Every wild thing is a synthesis of function, and what we make of it may begin in decorative innocence, but will usually end in fascination, revulsion, or confusion.
In Moore's work, art and science, faced with the seeming wildness and occasional malevolence of nature, share the same disinterested passivity with respect to its ultimate meanings. As for manmade things, their purpose lies only in their use, not in an inner spring of vitality. 
To a Steam Roller
The illustration
is nothing to you without the application.
    You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down
        into close conformity, and then walk back and forth
            on them.
Sparkling chips of rock
are crushed down to the level of the parent block.
    Were not 'impersonal judgment in aesthetic
        matters, a metaphysical impossibility', you
might fairly achieve
it. As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive
    of one's attending upon you, but to question
        the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.
The concision and lacunae generally associated with Modern verse, its insistence on image and act to serve as the carriers or transmitters of meaning, is nowhere more evident than in Moore's poems. Yet you would hardly know it, given the tortuous and labored passages in many of her best poems. The organic metaphor for such conundra or tortured passages is that, as "additions to nature," difficult poems reflect or mirror the convoluted formulae of all material things. The mechanical oppression implied in the crushing logic of enforced uniformity is one consequence of the conformity of duty, an unimaginative existence, the grimness of an unexamined life. The poem is an argument for the improbability of unlikely simile, of comparisons which stretch our sense of meaning to the absolute limit. If a steamroller were to roll over a butterfly, we might have the same feeling of pointless compression. 
Modesty, patience, care, restraint, decency. Pride, courage, daring, intelligence, sympathy. If--given Moore's dictum--you possess these virtues, and on the other hand, you demand the raw material in all its rawness, you are interested in poetry.     



J said...

Ah well Stendhal for a day or two.

Now back to butterflies--though modernist ones, and...fem at that-- at The Schizo Rose. :]

Does Dreiser eat brunch with TS Eliot, CF? Nyet. Maybe he should have once or twice, but.....perhaps TS Eliot shoulda had some ham n rye, watched the yankees vs dodgers with some cheap beer a few times as well.

Kirby Olson said...

Restraint and decency: did Ginsberg possess these qualities? Did Whitman?

Moore didn't like Whitman much, and was scandalized by Ginsberg's proclivities.

Her poetry has very great virtues, but there's reason to believe that other virtues can ALSO be found in poetry, too.

What is amazing for me is not that there was an audience for Ginsberg and Whitman (they would have created it had it not existed) but that such a big audience exists for Moore's work.

Her work is VERY difficult, and rather quiet.

Plus, she's not a brawler for the leftist factions: she liked Taft as a youth, and liked Hoover even as his popularity plummeted in the later thirties, forties, fifties, sixties.

She had a black maid for the last thirty plus years of her life, and left a big chunk of her $400,000 estate to the maid.

That's not a well-known fact.

She was very clever about getting her work out. Editing The Dial helped, but her work always found its way into big vehicles.

New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and so on.

Right frmo the beginning she had that kind of star-quality.

She went far for a girl from a very small town in central PA (Carlisle is just a hop from Gettysburg, where she is now buried).

Curtis Faville said...

Well, I didn't know about the large estate. That would make sense in terms of her scrupulous scrimping turn of mind--nothing wasted. One imagines she counted pennies. I can see her, with one of those little change purses, at the post office, putting down exact change and watching the transaction very closely. Like the little landlady in The Lavender Hill Gang.

I think Moore would have regarded the rashness with which we discuss politics online, as a kind of sin against good taste. One didn't, after all, smoke cigars on the street!, or argue politics in the parlor!

Kirby Olson said...

I went to her church and met an older black woman who was appalled at the day's sermon. The pastor talked all about social good deeds and very little about Christ.

I asked her if that was the norm back in the day and she said Good heavens, no one then talked about politics. It was no one else's business what you thought. Now, she said, it seems to be the first thing on everybody's tongue.

She was African-American. She regarded MM with tremendous affection, as everyone who I met who knew her, did.

TREMENDOUS real love and affection. Not JUST honored to know her, but somehow, life-giving. There didn't seem to be a nasty bone in the woman's body.

A very good PERSON, seemingly.

J said...

Moore's writing --like overly polite parlor music, IMHE---done semi-competently .

Comparing her work to that of the Whitman gang (KO's....ahem......old amigos)...about like comparing Erma Bombeck to Jenna Jameson (well not to flatter beatCo).

Poet Im not but the scrawling of Miss Sylvia (as in Plath) lights a fire on the proverbial pyre whereas Moore barely glows

Kirby Olson said...

Part of the money came from the mother's clever real estate schemes. They owned houses in the midwest and in Carlisle, and got rent from them. The mother was very clever with money. Moore made some money from her poems, though not much. She was getting about a hundred dollars for a poem from the New Yorker in about 1960. That would be what now, 700? A Thousand?

No poet probably could live strictly on royalties. Billy Collins has made a small living, as did Ginsberg. Both were very aggressive about readings and publicity.

Moore made a little money from her work for the Ford Co. naming the Edsel. Her names didn't get through, of course. It ended up named after the owner's wife.

And she did work quite a bit, but usually only half-time. I don't know how much she got for her essays. Not a lot. She also taught quite a bit. She taught in Carlisle, and later at various summer university situations. Plus, she had some friends who gave her money. Bryher for instance gave her a stipend, and I think some others helped her, too.

Curtis Faville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curtis Faville said...

Actually, J, I can't think of any reason to "compare" Moore to Whitman. Certainly one could make an argument that Moore derives to a considerable degree from Dickinson. They both used meter and rhyme, though the comparison would widen after that.

You tend to state things in very broad generalizations. I'd be interested to hear you discuss some of your references with greater specificity. I know you're not a "creative writer" but your thoughts on on these subjects would be of interest.

J said...

Actually on the generalization meter, KO quite outdoes me. As do you often, CF. KO's discussing royalties.

Moore's verse seems rather formless and imprecise to me, too unlike Emily D. (So...in a sense not unlike Walto) Not that I really care for ED either but IIRC she used the hymn forms well. Her attempt at being "intellectual" doesn't impress either --"modesty is a virtue". Heh. She was in the wrong business, then IMHE most poets are. They're too lazy to write novels or plays and don't have the spine or honesty to enter journalism, or something like that

Then my real comparison was Plath to Moore, and to me Plath seems quite "more innovative" however shocking or even ugly some of her writing is--SP also understood form to some degree.

J said...

I am a creative writer btw but not a poet--more interested in fiction--, history, science-writing, philosophy than verse. But at times I read p****y. Rilke, even ein bisschen Deutsch. Or the older stuff like Coleridge and Shelley. Ive read a bit of Pound's Cantos not always understanding but admiring--.
an old Robinson Jeffers book which entertains at times (tho unlikely EP would approve). I still enjoy 19th century lit--EA Poe, Crane, Bierce, a bit of TWain (not Melville too much who I think greatly needed an editor). Nietzsche, even some...logic choppers (ie, St Frege) Then realists, FScott Fitz. history of WWI /II. Hem. Detective writing. Chandler. some sci fi. Ms Moore sounds like a schoolmarmie or...maybe female pastor. What did Dr Johnson say about the lady preacher?? "A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs....It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."