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
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
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.