Matthew Zapruder, On Poems by Marianne Moore

15 May

“You are Like the Realistic Product of an Idealist Search for Gold at the Foot of the Rainbow”

(for Caroline Knox)

In the past week I received this in the mail

as a wedding gift, from a beloved friend who is also a marvelous poet.

Without looking anything up, here is what I remember about Marianne Moore: she lived in New York, she was a friend and mentor to Elizabeth Bishop (who wrote a poem about her in which the speaker “comes flying” across a bridge, also something about a triangular hat? could that be right?*), she wrote a poem called “Poetry” shortened in a later version to consist only of its first line, “I, too, dislike it,” there were many animals in her poems, her poems are brilliant and latinate, and that is all.

Holding this slim beautiful very old volume it occurs to me that this might very well be a first edition of the first book Marianne Moore published. When I look it up, this turns out to be true. And now this gift has revealed itself as even more precious. The Egoist Press (in London) was also apparently the publisher of a magazine called The Egoist, where Moore’s first poems appeared. This volume was published as it says on the front cover in 1921.

There are a lot of exciting things to look up here. First, “Prince Rupert’s drop,” which I at first guessed was some kind of over the counter medicine, actually is a parlor trick you can play by dripping small balls of molten glass into cold liquid, to make a long teardrop shape with a tail. Prince Rupert was Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a British noble and soldier in the 17th century. He was also the first Governor of the Hudson Bay Company, one of the oldest continuing corporations in the world.

Now I am remembering that Moore was also known for using quotations liberally in her poems. A little research on the internet reveals that all the ones in this poem are taken from a text called The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1650) by Richard Baxter, according to Amazon “one of the great classics of Christian devotion.”

Moore wrote the poems in this book in invented syllabic forms: that is, each line of a stanza had an idiosyncratic prefigured number of syllables (stressed or unstressed). So in this poem, for instance, each stanza is 5 lines long, and the syllable counts for the lines in the stanzas are 9, 8, 7, 11, 7. Also the last lines of each stanza rhyme: destruction, production, obstruction, reduction. The whole thing is like a very weird particular machine that crisply does something we cannot quite put our finger on.

I am reading the poem as a portrait of a person who is a pedantic literalist, and all the items in the poem, as well as quotations, serve to describe this person. But that seems less important somehow than the feeling the poem conjures, by alchemy of its word choice, syllabics, these odd quotations out of nowhere, its “tone” (i.e. how the speaker seems to feel about what she is saying? that seems like as good a definition of any of a word that gets thrown around a lot without explanation when talking about poetry is happening), both of pedantic literalism and a resistance to it.

I never know what I’m going to do when I sit down to write a poem. It’s best for me if I have a task, either self-imposed (like a writing exercise) or some commission. Like I’m my own little private poet laureate, of an imaginary ruler-less kingdom, my backyard.

I have to keep imagining my tasks, and also forgetting the fact that no one will chop off my head or fire me if I don’t do them. The whole thing is vaguely ridiculous and also pleasing. It’s great that people don’t know how much they need poetry. Ideally for me a poem would start as a mysterious phrase or a few words or puzzle or task or game and end up sounding completely organic, like speech that came from inside a person.

Moore’s ironic, incredibly confident tone continues throughout the book. “To a Steam Roller” is a poem I remember reading, again a portrait of a person without imagination (it is interesting from a speculative biographical perspective to note that the first two poems in the book are descriptions of know it alls). By the third poem in the book, “Diligence is to Magic as Progress is to Flight,” I can see that the poems in this book are among other things extremely exciting performances of virtuosity. It is difficult for me to imagine how anyone who read it could have avoided the feeling that he or she was in the presence of an extraordinary new poetic talent (Moore was in her early 30’s when this book was published).

Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight

With an elephant to ride upon—“with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,”

she shall outdistance calamity anywhere she goes.

Speed is not in her mind inseparable from carpets. Locomotion arose

in the shape of an elephant; she clambered up and chose

to travel laboriously. So far as magic carpets are concerned, she knows

that although the semblance of speed may attach to scarecrows

of aesthetic procedure, the substance of it is embodied in such of those

tough-grained animals as have outstripped man’s whim to suppose

them ephemera, and I have earned that fruit of their ability to endure blows.

The poem is so rhythmically strong and confident, intelligent and modern. Why aren’t people reading Moore all the time now? For some reason, I am thinking now of the first book by another great talent, Barbara Guest, The Location of Things, which includes one of my favorite poems, “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher,” probably not only because I love that poem, but also because the title is amazing, like all of Moore’s. People who are struggling with titles should just read Moore’s poems and use the titles as templates.

“Those Various Scalpels” is, again, a virtuoso portrait, here of a woman, presumably of high society, whose words are “various sounds consistently indistinct, like intermingled echoes/ struck from thin glass successively at random,” and also (later in the poem) either “weapons or scalpels.” The first three quarters of the poem are one long sentence composed of successive dependent clauses that with startling invention describe this woman:

… your dress, a magnificent square

cathedral of uniform

and at the same time, diverse appearance — a species of vertical vineyard rustling in the storm

of conventional opinion ….

Again the poem is written in strict, glittering syllabics (the first line of each stanza for instance is a single syllable).

There are 20 poems in this book, which I guess today would make it a chapbook. Chapbooks have been around for a long time, hundreds of years. They were made to be disposable, sold for cheap, and usually were printed on one large sheet of paper which was then folded again and again to make a number of pages in multiples of four (try folding a large sheet of paper and you will see how it works, and why you used to have to cut the pages of books, and certain problems that might have presented themselves in the area of binding, etc.).

Reading through the book I see some pretty famous Moore poems, including “Roses Only,” “The Fish,” and the aforementioned “Poetry,” long version. It’s such a strange poem, very didactic of course, in a way that is highly unfashionable today. But I think shouldn’t be. I remember in On the Level Everyday, Ted Berrigan’s book of lectures from Naropa, that he talks about how he suggested to Alice Notley to write a poem that was entirely didactic, and she came up with the incredible long poem “The Prophet” one of my favorite poems by her, or anyone.

It is magical when a poem can communicate understanding, even wisdom, in a strong, confident way, without the false modesty and convoluted pretentious so-called reticence that strangles the rhetoric and structure of so much contemporary poetry. Somehow to me it almost always comes down to taking responsibility for speaking, to imagine a reader, not to look down on or attempt to educate about the foolishness of his or her own simplistic use of language, but to talk to, and with.

This poem, didactic as it is, does all that. Behind the stern argumentation there is some kind of vulnerability and deep equality, maybe because one can feel the despair and hope of the person who has chosen despite all the obvious signs of disinterest and scorn in our culture to write poetry (clearly I am projecting here, which doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wrong), or maybe it is in the lines in the second stanza, that bring us all together: “the same thing may be said for all of us, that we/ do not admire what/ we cannot understand.”

I think I mostly agree with that, though of course that depends on your idea of what the word “understand” means.  I press my students to try to write in language that is not pointlessly obscure or esoteric or private (usually that just hides an idea that might very well not be worth hiding, or bringing out into the light for that matter). “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” yes.

But it is also the presence of what I cannot understand that draws me into the reading and writing of poetry. Maybe Moore sensed that there was something a little one-sided about her argument in the poem, which is why she eventually shortened this poem just to its first four words. Who knows? Anyway I like the longer version much better.

The real toads are words, not necessarily “beautiful” in some kind of obvious sense (even ugly on first impression) but very much there and functional and familiar, at least we think, but what is their function, it is quite mysterious, they are definitely aliens, then you see how stable and marvelous and confident they are, squatting there, and look into the eyes of a toad and what do you see?

* of course the poem is “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”


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 in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a
flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician–
nor is it valid
to discriminate against ‘business documents and

school-books’; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
‘literalists of
the imagination’–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Matthew Zapruder‘s most recent book of poems is Come on All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon, 2010). The recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship, he lives in San Francisco, where he works as an editor for Wave Books, and teaches as a member of the core faculty of UCR-Palm Desert’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing. For more information go here or here.
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