More than 30 years after her death, Marianne Moore continues to be one of America's best-loved poets, and is now regarded as one of the most significant and influential voices of the 20th century. However, her inaccurately titled "Complete Poems" (Faber and Faber, 1968), from which the poet decided to omit nearly half of her published poetry - "omissions are not accidents" - gave readers only a partial view of her work. "The Poems of Marianne Moore", scrupulously edited by the poet Grace Schulman, for the first time includes all of Moore's poems, among them more than 100 previously uncollected and unpublished versions. Organized chronologically, to allow readers to follow Moore's development as a poet, the volume includes an introduction and all of Moore's original notes to the poems, together with Schulman's editorial notes, attributions and the most significant variants. This volume will reveal the true scope of Marianne Moore's poetry, particularly her increasingly admired early verse, and introduces her work to a new generation of readers.
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Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was awarded the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Poems. Grace Schulman is the recipient of the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern Poetry and author, most recently, of Days of Wonder: New and Selected Poems (2002). She is Distinguished Professor of English at City University of New York, poetry editor of The Nation, and former director of the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center.From The Washington Post:
"Her eyes are different from ours, instead of a flashing whole, her mind sees first and they obey its orders in microscopic detail." So wrote Winifred Bryher about her friend Marianne Moore in the 1920s. Anyone reading Grace Schulman's new edition of Moore's poems would do well to keep this comment handy. For the poetry is so full of "eye" that it almost seems to be a visual art.
Moore's originality has been examined at length quite cunningly by poet-critics ranging from T.S. Eliot to Robert Pinsky. Still, her poems tend to elude those critics whose eyes and minds cannot keep up with the multiple exposures of Moore's oncoming visual details. To reread her now, 31 years after her death at 85, is to wonder how much further an eye could possibly go. Not much, I'd say. So for now, let our eye look at hers.
Looking backward, then, align your mindful eye with the image Moore conjures in "The Sycamore": "Against a gun-metal sky/ I saw an albino giraffe." Consider, in "Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns," one of those fabled creatures "etched like an equine monster of an old celestial map." Squint at "An Octopus," "its claw cut by the avalanche." Study her pangolin, with his "sting-proof scales; and nest/ of rocks closed with earth from inside, which he can thus darken." Or watch her herd of elephants: "a/ religious procession without any priests,/ the centuries-old carefullest unrehearsed/ play." And do not neglect the snake of which Moore writes, in her poem "Snakes, Mongooses, Snake-Charmers, and the Like": "one is compelled to look at it as at the shadows of the Alps/ imprisoning in their folds like flies in amber the rhythms of the skating-rink." Here one metaphor foments another with an excitingly exact series of persuasive mixed metaphors.
Not for nothing did Moore choose to adorn a work with the wistful title "I May, I Might, I Must." For a slow and scrupled writer such as she was, any poem represented a continent of choices. Her fellow poet William Carlos Williams explained the nature of the challenge, and her response: "With Miss Moore a word is a word most when it is separated out by silence, treated with acid to remove the smudges, washed, dried and placed right side up on a clean surface. Now one may say that this is a word. Now it may be used, and how?"
Moore was known to confess that she had first hoped to be a visual artist. As a Bryn Mawr College senior, she seriously considered attending the Lyme School of Art in Connecticut following her graduation. Many years later, composing some of her best poems in Brooklyn, she wrote and revised, revised and wrote, while sunning herself on the roof of her apartment building. Light, sight, insight, writing: for her all were essentially conjoined. "Yes, light is speech," wrote Moore in a poem. "Free frank/ impartial sunlight, moonlight,/ starlight, lighthouse light,/ are language." She preferred to perceive and penetrate a surface, yet not relinquish it. Tension then ensued between depth and surface, yielding the insight. (Or as Moore, also a revelatory essayist, succinctly pronounced it: "Form is synonymous with content.")
Holding a fine balance between description and analysis, Moore's poems enchant the reader while reflecting her own enchantment with language. As Morton Dauwen Zabel, her editor at Poetry magazine, noticed, her "sincere and ruthless insight" made her able and willing to "combine the functions of critic and poet in one performance." Schulman's edition of Moore's poetry is needed for a fair appreciation of that performance, for the poet's own fastidiousness led to an unusual publication history: She chose to exclude some of her poems from various collections, imposed drastically revised versions of certain poems on certain volumes, and accepted or mandated orderings of poems within their books that at times made it difficult even for seasoned readers to assess her chronological development. Schulman's edition readjusts Moore's body of work respectfully and generously by restoring lost or overlooked poems in logical sequence, and by lifting the veil on their sundry revised versions.
How many of Moore's poems do we now have? Her Collected Poems (1981) consists of 130. The Poems of Marianne Moore offers 263, so Schulman introduces readers to more than a hundred poems previously unpublished or uncollected in book form. Moore wrote the bulk of them between the ages of 20 and 26, before she moved to New York City and swiftly became known to an inner circle of poets, editors and poetry critics. Three-fifths of these restored poems have not been previously published anywhere, making this collection a work of excavation and rescue.
One fruit of the excavation: A reader is able to realize the remarkable feat of Moore's emergence from authoring epigrammatic verse to, you might say, inventing a poetry of epic wants and tendencies. An epigram compresses adroitly a mass of knowledge, thanks to the writer's unquenchable wit; Moore later wrote on a much larger scale without abandoning the epigrammatic yen for unmatched precision, for what she called "exact perception." In this she reigned peerless, even after achieving ultimately in poetry her more complex goal of building a "chain of interactingly/ linked harmony." Time after time, the early poems gathered by Schulman show a writer pausing before making that leap. (Compare "Things Are What They Seem" with "Piningly," an early rehearsal of her flight to come, or with "Old Tiger," where she fulfills her promise. Also, in the early poems one can find precociously pure statements of poetic or moral belief, as in her lines "One associates the love of beauty/ with a wish to see it exemplified." Although she wrote the sentence well before she had obeyed fully its implied guidance, Moore was ever a writer of exempla, as Schulman demonstrates: Although in her poems Moore sought to think, she did it with and through details that carry a moral significance. To read her very early four-line poem "A Fish" alongside her subsequent 40-line poem "The Fish" is to see this plainly and magnificently. The poems flicker, steadfastly visual, throughout these pages. They are, as she demanded of art in "When I Buy Pictures," "lit with piercing glances into the life of things."
Even now, a novel and a memoir by Moore both remain unpublished, and her 10-year labor of translation, the complete Fables of La Fontaine, seems to have gone out of print -- all sad omissions of publishers, or maybe just bad luck.
Still, at last we have all of her poems, at least.
Reviewed by Molly McQuade
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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