poem index

The Marianne Moore of First Intentions

Written by

Heather Cass White

Contributor Page


June 01, 2018


from American Poets
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Barbara Pym’s 1961 novel No Fond Return of Love (Jonathan Cape) begins with its protagonists attending an academic conference at a girls’ boarding school. Their surroundings are grim, and their preoccupations laughably arcane. Pym neatly drives home the killing tedium of the gathering with the title of its keynote address: “Some Problems of an Editor.” What could be drearier? Even the man giving the talk is depressed in advance by his subject. No one admires Pym’s skewering of academic myopia more than I do, but my experience contradicts her satire on one key issue. Editors' problems are fascinating. When, as in the case of my work on the poet Marianne Moore, they involve an editor working at odds with her chosen subject, they are downright juicy.

If they don’t seem that way from the outside, it is only because most of us never get to do editorial work and so never actually know what such problems might be, or how they could possibly matter to a nonspecialist reader. In fact, the better editors do their job, the more invisible their work becomes, so that, paradoxically, the most skillful editing contributes most effectively to our general ignorance about it. I might happily have lived the rest of my life in such ignorance if I hadn’t taken an interest in the work of Moore and come to believe, after many years of working with them, that the existing editions of her work were actually harming her posthumous reputation. I was not the first person to feel this way. Moore edited her own work in radical ways, revising, reordering, and sometimes deleting her poems decades after writing them. Many of Moore’s readers, including some of her most ardent fans, have regretted those decisions ever since. For years Moore scholars in particular have wanted an edition of her complete work to complement the one she created, The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (Macmillan/Viking), published in 1967. Through a mixture of good timing and dogged persistence, I was able to do something about it. In June 2017 my New Collected Poems by Marianne Moore was published by Faber & Faber in the United Kingdom and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States. Creating it was a deep education in the power of an editor’s choices to shape the reader’s experience of an artist’s work. Moore did not make it easy on me.

Many of Moore’s poems are about creatures that survive by evading capture. She consistently takes umbrage at human stratagems for catching what ought to be free, applauding, for example, a butterfly that ignores a pursuer “disguised in butterfly- / bush Wedgwood-blue” and siding indignantly with a hunted ostrich: “How / could he... / ... / ...respect men hiding / actorlike in ostrich-skins... / ... / / ...that ostriches / might be decoyed and killed!” Particularly in the latter half of her life, Moore was herself a master of disguise and evasion. By the 1950s, when she was in her sixties, she was famous, writing liner notes for Muhammad Ali’s spoken-word poetry, throwing out the first pitch of the 1968 season at Yankee Stadium, writing poems for public occasions, and being photographed everywhere in her signature tricorn hat and woolen cape. That fame and those photographs, however, celebrate a concealment. Moore the public figure gave her admirers something fixed and appealing to look at— Moore the poet is not so easily caught.

Few poets, in fact, have done as much to elude the interest of even their devoted readers. The most spectacular example of the sort of smoke screen she favored is the title “Complete Poems” itself. The book to which it refers, the standard classroom text since its publication, is not complete. It is not even close. It contains just over half the poems she actually published, and many of the poems it does contain are extensively revised versions of the originals. The best-known example of Moore’s ruthless self-editing is what she did to her poem “Poetry.” When she first published it in 1919, “Poetry” was a thirty-line poem divided into five delicately rhymed, neatly syllabic stanzas. In 1925 she published it as thirteen lines of free verse. In 1932, she published it as three stanzas of rhymed syllabics. Finally, in 1967’s Complete Poems, it appears, in its entirety, as three lines. Three lines!

Many other poems followed similar trajectories. Some became much shorter, losing half or more of their length. Others had their formal patterns altered or distorted by cuts and changes to their language. A number of the poems simply disappeared from her canon. What makes all of these alterations especially troubling is that Moore left no record of her editorial work; no one reading Complete Poems would know how many poems it does not include, or how many of those that it does include are significantly different from what they were when they first appeared. Calling the book Complete Poems was thus a typically precise but slippery linguistic move on Moore’s part. It is “complete” not in the way readers mean it, as in “comprehensive,” but rather in the way workers mean it when they say they have “completed” a task: the book represents Moore’s finished idea of her own legacy. If that legacy is too heavily pruned for many readers’ tastes, she made no apologies, noting tartly in the book’s epigraph that “omissions are not accidents.”

In the mid-1990s I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on Moore’s work, which meant learning about her poetry’s long life before Complete Poems. The more I learned the more dissatisfied I became. Not only were there many additional Moore poems than I had ever heard of before, but they were terrific. Long, sharp, funny, full of Moore’s characteristic ear for found language and eye for physical detail, they offered no argument for their own banishment. It became clear to me that Moore had, in many cases, discarded poems not because they were insignificant but despite their clear significance to the body of her work. She seems to have been particularly unsparing of any poem that might hint at self-portraiture. Why else had we been deprived of a poem as good as “Radical”? That poem about a carrot, a “wedge-shaped engine” the “color / of the set- // ting sun,” “with ambition, imagination, / outgrowth, // nutriment, / with everything crammed belligerent- / ly inside itself,” surely describes the young, redheaded Moore, struggling to write and publish her strange, densely worked poems, steeling herself with the hope that “which it is impossible to force, it is impossible / to hinder.” And so with other excluded, equally brilliant poems, cutting equally close to the bone: “Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight” celebrates eccentric, laborious-looking aesthetic procedures (like Moore’s own syllabic verse?) that have proved themselves “prosaic necessities—not curios.” The gentle elephant-narrator of “Black Earth” notes, as Moore herself had frequent occasion to do in her early years of rejection by New York City–based literary magazines, “I do these / things which I do, which please / no one but myself.”

Even worse, somehow, was learning that poems I knew well, and in many cases loved, used to be different—fuller of Moore’s characteristically detailed descriptions and analogies, often more nuanced and playful in their thinking than they later became. The final lines of “Virginia Britannia” are a case in point. “Virginia Britannia” was first published in 1935; in 1936 Moore placed it as the lead poem in a series called “The Old Dominion,” which she published (along with “The Pangolin”) as a separate book. It is one of her best poems: a long meditation on America’s colonial history, focusing on the sins and glories of its hybrid past. It is also the poem in which she makes her only explicit allusion to another poem, William Wordsworth’s “Intimations” ode. That poem, Wordsworth’s paean to the innocent “Child of Joy” each of us once was, ends with his vision of “clouds that gather round the setting sun / … / That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.” “Virginia Britannia” holds out the hope that our violent nation may rediscover Wordsworthian humility and faith by concluding likewise with a vision of a child under clouds.

The version I knew is the one Moore created in 1941, six years after its first publication, and subsequently enshrined in 1967’s Complete Poems. It ends this way:

     …clouds, expanding above
     the town’s assertiveness, dwarf
     it, dwarf arrogance
          that can misunderstand
          importance; and
     are to the child an intimation of what glory is.

I liked that conclusion well enough until I learned that in 1936 the poem concluded this way:

     …the redundantly wind-
     widened clouds expanding to
     earth size above the
          town’s bothered with wages
          childish sages,
     are to the child an intimation of what glory is.

Compared with the pleasingly twisty sound play of “bothered with wages / childish sages,” and the nicely specific and subtle distinction between the childishness of their preoccupation and the open receptivity of an actual child, the 1941 ending suddenly seemed leaden. Instead of a town full of people, it offers bald abstractions (“assertiveness,” “arrogance,” and “importance”). Even the clouds get clunky. Once dynamic forces in their own right, “redundantly wind- / widened” and “expanding to / earth size,” they become in revision just “clouds.” Seeing the two stanzas next to each other suggests to me that the 1936 poet trusted her audience to enjoy the words’ music while still catching her moral drift. The poet of 1941, by contrast, seems willing to sacrifice music to her worry that we will miss what she has to say.

I think I am up to the challenge of the 1936 version. I know Moore’s poet peers were. No contemporary review that I am aware of thought Moore’s revisions were improvements. In one way or another nearly all of them echoed T. S. Eliot’s lament about his role in editing her Selected Poems (Macmillan, 1935): “Miss Moore exercised her own rights of proscription first, so drastically, that I have been concerned to preserve rather than abate.” When Moore was not removing entire poems from her published work, she was removing stanzas; when she was not removing stanzas she was rewriting them, most often to remove the very details and complexity of statement that draw people to her work in the first place. Even if one does prefer the revisions, however, what is at stake in them is not just aesthetic preference but literary history, too. Complete Poems makes it nearly impossible to trace Moore’s development as a poet over the first half of her career, when she was writing her best work. It also makes it difficult to know which Moore anyone is talking about at any given time; the Moore that Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop knew is not the one we know today.

Of course, Moore’s editorial work is itself an indispensable part of literary history. Irrespective of what one thinks about them, Moore’s revisions, reorderings, and deletions are an essential part of her art. Everything Moore did is of interest to her readers and needs careful preservation. How, then, to have it all in one book? Such a thing might not be possible. The briefest way to describe my solution is that I inverted Moore’s procedure, printing her poems in their original versions as primary texts and presenting the history of their revisions in a section of notes. I documented every decision I made as carefully as I could and included an essay specifically on the subject of my editorial principles and procedures. I hope the book will serve readers well for a long time. No edition, however, will be permanent. It has been noted that while classic literature doesn’t age, translations do; the same may be said for editions. When a generation of Moore’s readers arises, as it surely will, with its own set of needs and expectations of her work, it will create the edition it needs. What matters is that her work be tended, as conscientiously as we are able to do it, from generation to generation. Her work is original, with an original’s perennial newness. In editing the New Collected Poems I have done what editors do: devised a working set of procedures to present the poet I know and value. I have not settled, because I cannot settle, any questions about what her poetry is or may become. Original things exceed by their nature categorical presentation and containment. Long may her poems confound us.

This essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2018 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poetsbecome a member.