The finest poems by Marianne Moore
Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was one of the most distinctive and accomplished modernist poets of the twentieth century. Along with William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, she stands as the greatest American modernist – of those poets who remained in America (others, such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and H. D., left the States for Britain). Indeed, Eliot himself called her work ‘part of the body of durable poetry written in our time’ and praises her ‘original sensibility’, ‘alert intelligence’, and ‘deep feeling’. Below, we introduce ten of Marianne Moore’s best poems.
‘Poetry’. Let’s begin this list of great Moore poems with one called, and about, ‘Poetry’ itself. Beginning with the provocative line ‘I, too, dislike it’, the poem looks set to offer an anti-poetic stance until Moore asserts that poetry creates ‘a place for the genuine’. The poem is a sort of manifesto for Moore’s own approach to poetry.
‘No Swan So Fine’. Many of Marianne Moore’s finest poems are about animals, or at least feature animals somewhere in them: she has a particularly fine eye for the idiosyncrasies of certain animals. But here, the focus is on an ornamental swan in the Palace of Versailles, rather than an actual bird. We especially like Moore’s description of the swan’s ‘gondoliering legs’. The quotation with which the poem opens was actually from the New York Times; Moore liked the phrase and wrote a poem off the back of it.
‘Marriage’. Published in 1923, a year after Eliot’s The Waste Land, ‘Marriage’ is a long(ish) poem by one of American modernism’s greatest poets. And like The Waste Land, Moore’s poem is allusive, taking in Shakespeare and the Bible as the poet explores the obligations and meaning of marriage (Moore herself never married). The poem is radical in both its form (modernist, free verse) and politics (we can label Moore’s treatment of marriage ‘feminist’).
‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’. In this poem, which recalls perhaps Moore’s greatest precursor and influence, Emily Dickinson, Moore celebrates the mind for all of its manifold gifts: that our memory allows us to hear without ‘having to hear’, and it has ‘conscientious inconsistency’. But even here, Moore’s greatest source of imagery, the animal world, is not far behind: witness her masterly use of the dove’s neck as a symbol for the mind’s elegant qualities.
‘A Jelly-Fish’. Another fish poem! Okay, so jellyfish aren’t actually fish, but then according to Stephen Jay Gould, there’s no such thing as ‘a fish’. Moore (1887-1972) was one of the American modernist poets who stayed in America, unlike Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot who moved to Europe. This poem might be said to be somewhere between H. D.’s ‘The Pool’ and Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poems about animals. In a few lines, Moore captures the quivering movement of the jellyfish.
‘To a Steam Roller’. For Moore, anything could be the subject of a poem, and here, she chooses a steam roller as her subject. However, although the poem does start out as a description of a literal steam roller, it becomes clear that Moore is criticising people who try to ‘flatten’ the world into broad and overly simplistic abstractions, ‘steamrollering’ all over nuance. The poem is also a fine example of Moore’s use of syllabics in her work – the technical feature which helps to make her work so rhythmically distinctive.
‘To a Chameleon’. One of the joyous things about Marianne Moore’s poems is how they look on the page: like many modernists, she uses spacing and line-endings in innovative ways, as we can see in ‘To a Chameleon’, another of her animal poems. The way the chameleon merges with the ‘august’ foliage around it is deftly captured in this short poem.
‘The Fish’. Another poem about sea-creatures, with many of Moore’s trademark idiosyncratic details. Here, the title of the poem wades straight into the poem, doubling up as its first line and plunging us into the alien, oceanic world of the fish moving through the ‘black jade’ of the sea (another thing Moore writes about arrestingly is colour).
‘The Animals Sick of the Plague’. Poets had written about plague before, but it took Marianne Moore to consider the impact it had on animals. This was one of Moore’s wonderful late poems, included in her loose verse translations of the Fables of La Fontaine (1954). The animals gather together to discuss how they can make themselves immune from the plague. This poem isn’t available online, but the link above provides access to an online version of Moore’s fables.
‘Critics and Connoisseurs’. Let’s conclude this pick of Marianne Moore poems where we began: with a poem about poetry. Beginning with the assertation that there is ‘a great amount of poetry in unconscious / fastidiousness’, Moore goes on to consider – what else? – animals, specifically the lowly ant carrying its burden with ‘fastidious’ duty. Is Moore likening the poet to the ant? Perhaps…
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.
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‘To a Chameleon’ is my favorite!