Thursday, March 09, 2006
Marianne Moore’s Advice to Critics
No, not the “fastidious ants” that inhabit the famous “Critics and Connoisseurs." Today I’m thinking of a different poem, called “Picking and Choosing,” which appeared in the April 1920 issue of The Dial. Here are the first two-and-a-half stanzas (out of six) of the original poem:
Literature is a phase of life: if
one is afraid of it, the situation is irremediable; if
one approaches it familiarly,
what one says of it is worthless. Words are constructive
when they are true; the opaque allusion—the simulated flight
upward—accomplishes nothing. Why cloud the fact
that Shaw is self-conscious in the field of sentiment but is otherwise re-
warding? that James is all that has been
said of him but is not profound? It is not Hardy
the distinguished novelist and Hardy the poet, but one man
“interpreting life through the medium of the
emotions.” If he must give an opinion, it is permissible that the
critic should know what he likes.
As she revised the poem, Moore backed off her dismissal of Henry James here (she kept in the comment about Shaw, of course). In a later version of the poem, the line about James is nonsensical: “that James is all that has been / said of him if feeling is profound?” Moore then revised this poem again for the Collected Poems (1967), cutting drastically and ending the line with “that James is all that has been said of him,” suggesting that, at the end, she decided she liked The Maestro after all. Here is the shortest/final version, if you’d like to compare.
But of course, the important comment is the bit about critics… isn’t it?
and let’s not forget Alexander Pope (those that will give him the time of day, anyway). Some words that the bastions of Literary Criticism should remember (just a portion):
Some foreign Writers, some our own despise;
The Ancients only, or the Moderns prize:
(Thus Wit, like Faith by each Man is apply’d
To one small Sect, and All are damn’d beside.)
Meanly they seek the Blessing to confine,
And force that Sun but on a Part to Shine;
Which not alone the Southern Wit sublimes,
But ripens Spirits in cold Northern Climes;
Which from the first has shone on Ages past,
Enlights the present, and shall warm the last:
(Tho’ each may feel Increases and Decays,
And see now clearer and now darker Days)
Regard not then if Wit be Old or New,
But blame the False, and value still the True.
Some ne’er advance a Judgment of their own,
But catch the spreading Notion of the Town;
They reason and conclude by Precedent,
And own stale Nonsense which they ne’er invent.
Some judge of Authors’ Names, not Works, and then
Nor praise nor blame the Writings, but the Men.
Of all this Servile Herd the worst is He
That in proud Dulness joins with Quality,
A constant Critick at the Great-man’s Board,
To fetch and carry Nonsense for my Lord.
What woful stuff this Madrigal wou’d be,
To some starv’d Hackny Sonneteer, or me?
But let a Lord once own the happy Lines,
How the Wit brightens! How the Style refines!
Before his sacred Name flies ev’ry Fault,
And each exalted Stanza teems with Thought!
Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one’s enjoyment.
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honored -
that which is great because something else is small.
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be “Lit with piercing glances into the life of things”;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.
Per closing of When I Buy Pictures. Is ‘Lit’ in next-to-last line noun (abbreved) then? (I’m kinda backing in to Moore via Elizabeth Bishop, something of a landscape poet, though the ground beneath shifted from its traditional placement as such, and shifted towards Form later for EB; both Garrard’s and McLemee’s takes on landscape as participatory [retakes] are relevant.)
[resubmitted (cf fishy Housekeeping)]
Reading the section on the front page of your post, I found myself faced w/my usual question w/Moore: why is this poetry? why couldn’t it have been written as poem? & I don’t ask that question dismissively. Nor does an explanation of syllabics answer it. She often works in realms of least possible difference.
Then I clicked through to the full version, which makes inferential/associative jumps that would be hard to support in a single prose paragraph. The theatricality of verse allows wild gestures.
Nnyhav, Thanks for the interesting question about abbreviation—for which I’m all the more grateful because I can actually answer it.
In both of the published version of the poem I have, the word “lit” is not capitalized, which suggests she means it as a verb. The original 1921 version has some extra lines in there at the end, which don’t add very much. Moore’s revised version is identical to the one at this ‘Heart’s Ease’ website, excepting the errantly capitalized L.
Incidentally, I found the source for the quoted phrase in Marianne Moore’s own notes to the Collected Poems. It’s A.R. Gordon, The Poets of the Old Testament (Hodder and Stoughton, 1912).
Incidentally, while we’re checking references, he phrase in quotation marks in “Picking and Choosing” appears not to come from anywhere, though earlier in the poem, when she references “feeling” regarding James, Moore is informally citing T.S. Eliot from Little Review (August 1918):
“James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his bafling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it . . . In England ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought.”
Figures that we’d find T.S. Eliot at the back of this somewhere.
As for landscape, I’ll check out those essays by Gerrard and Scott McLemee a bit later. Moore didn’t do too many landscape poems in this period, but check out “England" and “New York," (scroll down) both from around 1920-21.
Thanks, Amardeep. Led to this citing: More on Moore quotation, had you not seen it.
I’m liking this last article you linked to. Nice use of Derrida; citationality is a good concept when the poems explicitly thematize them with the cryptic and minimal “notes.” She wants us to know they’re quotes, but not why she’s quoting. And none of the people who are directly quoted are “names.”
A standout paragraph might be this one from Diepeveen:
The quotation’s original function remains unknown because it is unimportant (although the fact that it is unknown is important); quotations do not have an authority of origin in her poetry. Moore does not quote to place herself in a prestigious literary tradition, to gain admittance to a select club. The quotation is crucial, but readers know only its texture and isolated conceptual content, and not any other of the claims that it theoretically could load upon the poem. As a result, the quotations in her poetry become cyphers of mysterious import, clearly asserting only their own alienness. The texture of Moore’s quotations have a primarily negative function: at the center of these quotations, at least, one does not find the poet’s voice. Quotations allow Moore to hide the identity and the texture of the new poem’s voice. (19-20)