- The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore edited by Bonnie Costello and Celeste Goodridge et al
Faber, 597 pp, £30.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 571 19354 4
We are told by the editors that some 30,000 letters of Marianne Moore survive, many of them extremely long, and that she sometimes wrote fifty letters a day. When she was young and not famous her family saved her letters; later on people kept some because she had become rather famous, and then a great many because she had become very famous. Correspondents, some as famous as she was, treasured every word she wrote them. There survive a hundred letters to Ezra Pound and another hundred to T.S. Eliot; five hundred to the historical novelist Bryher (Winifred Ellerman) and sixty to Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), who was Bryher’s lover. Elizabeth Bishop, a favourite in later years, received more than two hundred, over a period of almost forty years.
Faced with such abundance the editors have had to make severe choices, and have occasionally and understandably made cuts in letters they did include. On the whole they seem to have done their work well. Their interchapters on the life of the poet are relevant and informative, and there are useful glossaries. Their annotations, however, are irritatingly scanty. It would be too much to expect annotation on the scale of the Oxford edition of the Yeats correspondence; that is quite another world. But even on this humbler scale much more could have been done; and notes so modest in scope might have been expected to avoid inaccuracy. On page 300, for instance, there is a translation of an Italian book title that could only have been made by somebody under the not uncommon but incorrect impression that Italian is a transparently simple language, understandable without effort. Avoidable slips of that kind would have irritated Marianne Moore, who repeatedly insists on the virtue of accuracy, whether in Wallace Stevens’s poems or in Ralph Kirkpatrick’s harpsichord playing (‘gossamer precision’) or, indeed, in translation, at which she showed herself to be exceptionally good. Still, her editors have, as they claim, fulfilled Eliot’s 1959 prediction that ‘one of the books which obviously must in the fullness of time be published . . . will be the Letters of Marianne Moore.’
One aspect of American Modernism, baffling at first sight, is the diversity of means by which its principal figures developed their gifts, and the variety of manners and modes they eventually exploited. Exigencies of occupation and location did something to prevent the formation of influential metropolitan cliques, though groups of that sort did exist in New York and also in Chicago. But the great ones, though they may have occasionally frequented these foyers, were usually about their business elsewhere. Think, for example, of Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens, both New England insurance executives and both doing the entirely unexpected things they chose to do, while remaining unknown even to one another, and quite out of the public eye. W.C. Williams was a hard-working New Jersey physician. They were all originals but all in the American grain, declining the European alternatives chosen by Eliot and Pound, and all engaged in discovering idiosyncratic but American ways of being modern. Marianne Moore, emigrating from Kirkwood, Missouri to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and only a good deal later to Brooklyn, looks at first glance like a sheltered spinster who inexplicably devised complex stanzas of syllabic verse quite unlike anything that was being done elsewhere. It is an indication of her independence of mind that among the influences she admitted we find Thomas Hardy, whose poetry, on the face of it, belonged to another age: she took what she wanted wherever it came from. Yet she very well understood the modern American virtues of Williams, Stevens, Cummings, Eliot, Pound, Kenneth Burke and Yvor Winters; and, in return, they were remarkably quick to see hers.
Poets did come together in powerful little magazines such as Poetry (Chicago), the Egoist and the Dial, which Moore came to prefer, and which she herself edited with conscience and discernment for several years in the Twenties. And they might, in time, sample the bohemian life of Greenwich Village. Yet their voices remained distinct and their inventiveness very personal, so that Modernism had from the beginning this dispersity: it was to be defined partly in terms of its not being English, but more largely in terms of individuals rather than of a concerted movement – of individuals who nevertheless saw the point of other individuals, and supported them. The chorus of praise for Moore’s strange poetry, led by Eliot but sustained by Williams, Stevens and others, is virtually without a discordant voice. She herself understood her worth; when she came across a dissentient view she carefully recorded it in her correspondence, but with no suggestion that such dissent was very wounding. She had decided early and irrevocably to have success as her own kind of writer.
She left a considerable volume of prose writings as well as all these letters, and they also testify to her modest but firm confidence in her powers. Above all there are the poems, so accurately written, and with such disciplined pleasure, yet so inexplicably and repeatedly revised. Anything could get into them, including all the chosen pleasures of her life, the ballgames and prize fights, the paintings and the exotic animals. To an extraordinary degree she did, though with great labour, exactly as she liked.
Moore began life in a highly literate family, who communicated with one another in a ‘special language’ – her brother understood her poems to be instruments for making this language intelligible to ‘aliens’. She went to Bryn Mawr in 1905, which was two years after the poet Yeats paid that college a memorable visit. He was very pleased with the education on offer at ‘the chief woman’s college of America’, where, as he remarked, the rich sent their daughters. He was delighted to hear from one of the professors that ‘we prepare the girls to live their lives but in England they are making them all teachers,’ for this fitted in well with Yeats’s idea that girls should be taught to think less with their heads than with their bodies. For Bryn Mawr graduates, he said, ‘were as charming, as well-educated in all necessary things, as if they had spent their youth in the impulsive laborious ignorance of the studio’. In so far as this remark suggests a cult of high-minded feminine unknowing it is false, for Bryn Mawr students are famous for being workers. Moore, who enjoyed her time at the college, years later gave a less extravagant version of the matter: ‘My experience there gave me security in my determination to have what I want . . . At Bryn Mawr the students are allowed to develop with as little interference as is compatible with any kind of academic order and the more I see of other women’s colleges the more I feel that Bryn Mawr was peculiarly adapted to my special requirements.’
This makes more sense than the grand Yeatsian perception that Bryn Mawr had hit on a method of endowing girls with the means to achieve something like Unity of Being; Moore, accurate and quietly self-assertive as usual, merely says it enabled her to have what she wanted. The vague shape of what she wanted was already present in her mind and habits, and the college years allowed it to become more definite. She was already writing poetry, but it is in her letters rather than in the juvenile poems that one sees how early her interests were formed. A trip to New York elicits a minute and critical description of the goods at Tiffany’s, meals and clothes are described with the usual accurate elegance, and so are people: ‘Mr Z. is an easy, tall man, with flat long shoes, very clever fair sized hands and smooth, straight gray hair, very quiet hair, rather old fashioned.’
Meanwhile her programme of reading, though partly prescribed by the college, bore the marks of individuality as well as an interest in fashion: Pater, Sappho, Stevenson, Thackeray, Whistler, ‘a book on Wagner’s operas’. Later she celebrated Trollope at a time when nobody read him. Against the current of opinion she admired George Saintsbury, and when she became editor of the Dial commissioned work from this writer, already over eighty and hardly to be thought of as belonging to any avant-garde. Indeed her notion of what was worth having, whether avant-garde or not, was based on confidence in her own independent judgment.
She was capable of severity in comment, speaking, for instance, of Yeats’s ‘cheap fakirism’. She found the later work of Joyce inferior to Dubliners, which she described as ‘pretty nearly a manual . . . of the fundamentals of composition’, admiring ‘the unaccountable effect of finality despite tentativeness, in the closing sentences of every one of the stories’. (Even at the expense of annoying Eliot, she declined to join the protest against the piracy of Ulysses.) As editor of the Dial she was politely sure of her judgments, turning down poems by Hart Crane, suggesting cuts in Conrad Aiken, and boldly improving other people’s poems, not always to their satisfaction. But when she was taken by a poem she was full of praise, not least for the early work of Elizabeth Bishop.
Bishop went to Vassar, the next best thing, Moore might have thought, to Bryn Mawr. She was a generation younger, but both women seem to have recognised an unusual affinity, and almost at once they went to the circus together, an important threshold-crossing. Bishop is the poet closest to Moore in temperament, her rival as a letter-writer, and also as a devotee of the accurate. She took harpsichord lessons from Ralph Kirkpatrick, and, like Moore, admired the intricate little boxes of Joseph Cornell. Early in their acquaintance Bishop, 23 at the time, published an essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins which Moore admired so much that she quoted it in a letter to Pound. It spoke of ‘the way in which the rhythm of a poem keeps up with itself like an acrobat catching his partner’s ankles while affording, in safety, an extra turn and flourish within the fall’. Probably she liked this because it struck her as applying to her own poems, as indeed it does.
Moore once remarked that ‘prose is a step beyond poetry . . . and then there is another poetry that is a step beyond that’: you had to go through prose to come out the other side purged of that disposable prior poetry, with its irrelevant inversions and its subjection to conventional rhythms. The posterior poetry would have built into it the virtues of good prose. In the syllabic poems, where ‘each stanza’ is ‘a duplicate of every other stanza’ (much as Donne set himself argumentative problems by exactly replicating an arbitrarily complicated opening stanza), the sentences could, indeed must, be capable of being written straight out as prose; what is lost in the process of doing that is precisely the machine-like precision of the repetitions of line length and covert rhyme. If the effect seems mechanical, so be it. In 1932, on the brink of celebrity, she remarked that ‘a thing so mechanically perfect as a battleship is always a pleasure to me.’
One can see something of what this means by looking at ‘The Steeple-Jack’, the poem which, though not an early work, having been published in 1932, stands first in both the Collected Poems of 1981 and the Selected Poems of 1941. It was much admired by both Eliot, who arranged the order of the poems for Moore, putting this one at the head, and by Wallace Stevens, who analysed it at some length, commending, among other things, the poet’s attachment to truth. The opening six-line stanza sets the arbitrary pattern of line length and rhyme, and has a full close:
Dürer would have seen a reason for living
in a town like this, with eight stranded whales
to look at, with the sweet sea air coming into your house
on a fine day, from water etched
with waves as formal as the scales
on a fish
(Dürer because he travelled far and fruitlessly to inspect a beached whale, but also because of the etched scales; and, more generally, because he is deeply in the thought of the poem.) The second and third stanzas repeat the stanza pattern but form a continuous sentence which flows over the scheme without disturbing it, stopping at the last line of the third stanza. The fourth stanza strictly observes the pattern and the rhymes, one of which, ‘the’ and ‘sea-’, is virtually not there. At that point the two texts diverge, the Collected offering the original 13 perfectly regular stanzas, the Selected only eight, with the fourth torn and deformed. ‘Omissions are not accidents,’ says the epigraph of the Collected Poems, and it is hard to think of any of Moore’s strangenesses as accidental, whether she is describing a seaside town or an exotic bird, playing her sense across the machine-like stanza, or simply abandoning that game and many fine things along with it. She cuts her own poems as ruthlessly as when editing the Dial she cut Archibald MacLeish’s. Either version enables one to see why Auden admired her so much that he later took up the syllabic cause. Moore herself, having abandoned it in favour of free verse, returned to it about the time of ‘The Steeple-Jack’. She did as she pleased, though she was ruthlessly hard to please.
Moore became a cult figure, the old lady in the tricorne hat who threw the first pitch of the baseball season, went to prize fights with George Plimpton, dined with Cassius Clay, as he then was, and was hired, unavailingly, to give a name to a new Ford car. On the whole people think rather little of the poems she wrote after about 1936, although she published many more before her death in 1972.
What the letters tell about her is that however one divides her long life into periods there is from the outset the sense of a presiding personality, and a pretty self-assured one. With the family, especially the mother with whom she lived until she was over sixty, and her brother, a parson who rose high in the Navy, she was always easy and private, sure of their intelligently sharing her avocations. They all had what she called ‘unconscious fastidiousness’, though it wasn’t always unconscious. Reading her poems about animals – ‘The Jerboa’, ‘The Plumet Basilisk’, ‘The Fish’ – one is struck by the fact that her bestiary is given jewelled settings, so that the vicinity of animals is made as strange and gorgeous as they are. The letters contain dozens of minute descriptions of exotic insects and lizards, the fruit of many visits to the Natural History Museum and of inquiries to experts; all are reported at length to her brother.
Poetry, the arts and the natural world in its more brilliant and detailed manifestations were what mattered most. Politics do not figure largely in these letters, though when young she was a suffragette, later a Republican and a Hoover supporter. Whether seriously or for fun, she remarked during the Presidential campaign of 1932 that ‘America is pestered at present by a man named Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Germany has been with Hitler.’ She was echt American, but saw herself as having begun life under a form of civilisation now superseded by a new one that was turning out badly; hence one’s illusion that in a charmingly old-fashioned way she was, in that new world, an isolated figure. Yet she clearly had the power to assemble around her, if only in correspondence, a group of friends and fellow practitioners who certainly constituted a civilised élite. To be finely tuned to poems, while remaining obstinately herself, was her purpose in life. It is agreeable to think of her as a young woman impressed by the civilisation of Bryn Mawr, impressed even by the dreadful Deanery, now happily pulled down to make room for a library extension, in which visiting lecturers sweltered amid masses of Indian furniture before making their offerings to the brilliant, self-motivating students who followed in her footsteps. It seems to have been a place that played its part in that old superseded culture which provided so fertile a soil for American Modernism.