The centennial of Marianne Moore's birth--what better conjunction for Women's History and Poetry Months? The current exhibition at the Rosenbach Museum and Library is an ingenious incitement to the only proper way to praise a poet--by reading more of the verse with an attention that imitates the high seriousness with which it was written.
Patricia C. Willis' catalog, Marianne Moore: Vision into Verse, distills the expertise that has mellowed since Willis' Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago, the recent publication of The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (Viking, $24.95) and her current editorship of The Marianne Moore Newsletter.
But all of this heavy-hitting scholarship has not rendered Willis heavy-handed. Moore had an untiring eye for illuminating metaphors lying fallow in the natural world. As she wrote late in her career in the Christian Science Monitor: "I think books are chiefly responsible for my doggedly self-determined effort to write: books and verisimilitude: I like to describe things."
Does she ever! Such as "A Jelly Fish" observed in a Bryn Mawr biology class in 1908:
A fluctuating charm,
An amber-colored amethyst
inhabits it; your arm
It opens and
You have meant
To catch it,
And it shrivels;
Willis juxtaposes a page from Marianne's biology lab report with the poem it engendered. Those Rosenbach vaults are richly freighted with the raw materials of Moore's shaping imagination.
Her eye caught on the most diverse phenomena: a glacier in the Pacific Northwest, the main garden at Versailles, a desert rat in Egypt, a rare Costa Rican lizard in the London zoo, the Bell lab's quartz clocks for the precisest of time keeping, Kiwi shoe polish, the jockey Ted Atkinson, fat Hampshire pigs in Missouri, a new chemical for moth suppression in an industrial lab, an old photo of the amusement park that gave way to LaGuardia Airport, the Venerable Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park she helped save from the "improvers." It is astonishing how ecumenical this Midas of the mundane could be.
I was surprised to read that Bryn Mawr denied her the English major. One professor, upon whom mercy bestows anonymity, quibbled: "Please, a little lucidity! Your obscurity becomes greater and greater." What a felix culpa. Her fall from English department gracelessness endowed her with several more semesters of biology. (Because her engineer father entered a mental institution early in her life, she, her minister brother and her mother were always hard-pressed financially.)
Fate dealt her another happy blow--she flunked her interview for work at the Ladies Home Journal. What a melancholy "what if," Moore punching a Curtis time clock in the Lazy Land of Norman Rockwell. Her first job, alas, was a summer one at Lake Placid, typing for the library-innovating spelling reformer Melvil Dewey.
The detailed, high-pressure work was not her cup of tedium. A year intervenes before she works again--as a teacher of business subjects at the United States Indian School in Carlisle. I relish the decorum of her addressing her Olympian student Jim Thorpe as "James."
Out of this nondescript background emerged a major modernist poet praised alike by T.S. Eliot ("an original sensibility and alert intelligence and deep feeling") and William Carlos Williams, who couldn't resist taking a poke at T.S. in his praise of her ("nothing is hollow or waste to the imagination of Marianne Moore").
A fit epitaph for the poet whose poem "Poetry" taught my generation to dislike the fiddle of pseudo-poetry and to displace high-sounding interpretation with closely observed particulars. Bless her fine eye.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 4, 1987