On Marianne Moore’s explication of the everyday in its interconnected reality
Marianne Moore drew poetic inspiration from every source available to her, filling her many notebooks with "random" sayings, odd facts, curious details, and scientific truths. She had an excitement for the reality of the everyday, and brought these revelations to the fore in her poetry. One of her many leitmotifs is the question of the subjective versus the objective, questioning where the poet ends and the observation begins. This paper will focus on the scientific and analytical inspiration behind Moore’s poetry in a manner that will reveal (with examples from the poem "An Octopus") an evolution of thought behind Moore’s work, developing her poetry into "observations."
Upon reading the first stanza of the poem "An Octopus", we come across an octopus of ice, the nature of which is revealed to us as one of deception based on falsity. It is "deceptively reserved and flat" with "pseudo-podia" or fake feet. It is an "invention" by definition, something which is written of and exists only in reference to the poem. Further relating the speciousness of the octopus we have that, although it is in some places five hundred feet thick, it is of "unimagined delicacy" "misleadingly like lace."
Moore is, of course, relating much more information to the reader than a simple description of a scene, real or imagined. She is expressing her own questioning nature and that of any justly poetic work. In the process of relation and description, the poet utilizes metaphor and other literary devices, much like a scientist must when explaining phenomenon. However, for Moore, problems of semantics arise, explosive as a volcano. We are attacked by what Costello refers to as "particularity of a nonpoetic nature [that] overwhelms association."
The trap is set for the logician/reader. The question evolves as to the true nature of something which cannot necessarily be well-defined. What happens to the reader and poet alike when faced with the problem of subjective discourse?
"Completing a circle,/ you have been deceived." The reader has been reading along, following the chain of logic, when the poet informs the reader that they have been fooled. "You have not progressed at all," she says. It was only a circle, as are all chains of logic that may be connected beginning to end.
She develops the image of "The Goat’s Mirror" for its false reflection. Through this, the poem states one of the problems that surfaces when writing poetry, that in pointing out one fact, conversely, the writer must leave out others. One develops prejudices, perhaps for beauty, or in the case of this writer, for exactness.
The list of elements located in the first section beginning with "vermilion and onyx" is now revealed to be incomplete. Reading further into the structure of the mountain, there is wondrous life, but "concealed in the confusion." We are still dealing with a verisimilitude of an environment with its "waterfall that never seems to fall." After this, we have a confession that seems to come directly from the poet, the true "fear of being stoned as an impostor." Can the reader be "happy seeing nothing?"
It is never truly known to a writer if the audience of the poem gets every little detail and is able to put it together in their minds in the same way that the poet intended. Doubt rules. She returns to fear, but does not get wedged into this needling idea, instead comparing this situation with a similar one faced by Henry James. The poems corrects itself with the line "not decorum, but restraint" which is, to her, the quality required for writing with this type of exactness with relation to the inherent subjectivity of the writing process.
At one end of the spectrum we have every fact and every nuance of existence, including the darkness of the soul, crime and excess. Marianne Moore does not include certain aspects of the scene. In fact, critics argue that she was polite to the point of prudishness, that "there is no sexuality" in the poetry of Marianne Moore. To both sides, she is "first and last a proper lady." But there is science and like science, she evades the crude and improper. She almost says, "Let’s take the fact of it up an octave," bringing the art of exactness in poetry to a celestial level. She espouses "Relentless accuracy" through the "octopus/with its capacity for fact."
Grace Shulmen relates this philosophy of Moore: "set forth in "Poetry" and reiterated throughout her work, the artist may never attain ideal perception, or "the genuine," but it is all in the trying." In the end, we ask ourselves if Marianne Moore did achieve "Neatness of finish!" Knowing the eye would dissect the last lines for exactness, she carefully chose and placed each word with, yes, neatness. She is nice, as in precise.
From the great to the little, we small humans as readers are placed in direct contrast to the grandeur of the mountain of poetry, in its wide-reaching scope and voluminous sources of inspiration. In a poem where each word is a gem itself, and the related imagery goes far beyond the readers’ eyes, Moore does indeed help us to realize "the humanized sublime" with her observational dialectics.
Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possession. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Shulman, Grace. Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
Title from: the class reader, MM and the 17th Century Prose