Honestly, I’ve had my share of difficulties understanding how Modernism works, who the most modern Modernist is, what makes Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, TS Eliot, Marianne Moore, and HD all of a piece and what they are all a piece of, because Pound often seems like a cartoonish cheerleading mimic to me, and TS Eliot, like Pound, seems to relish in their high-brow translations restatements, and sarcastic renditions of classical western poetry (and classical Chinese) and erudition in a way that WCW almost never does, while Stevens (racism aside) is a musical genius of long rhapsodic stretches of intellectual supposition, and WCW for all we call him an “imagist” has plenty of late Victorian argumentation in his poems, while Crane is a bit of an impressionist, but now I’m reading Moore, and with Moore, I’m reading a biography of Moore by Linda Leavell called “Holding On Upside Down; The Life and Work of Marianne Moore” and along with those two, a collection of critical essays edited by Charles Tomlinson that includes, among other gems, an amazing Donald Hall interview of Moore from 1959, when, at the age of 72, she was at the pinnacle of her popularity, a popularity that celebrated her later, more accessible work, and not the stuff that stunned Eliot, got Pound’s heart pounding, and made both of them boosters for her career. And just to give you some perspective on that career, her first acceptances for publication were from Poetry magazine (by Harriet Monroe herself) on July 6, 1914, and it wasn’t till 10.5 years later, on December 27, 1924, that the first book she could call her own, Observations, was published. (A couple of her boosters, goaded by Pound, published a book of her work (called “Poems”) in 1921 without her permission). And even with her 1924 debut solidifying her reputation as one of the great Modernists, it wasn’t “until Ashbery pronounced ‘An Octopus’ the greatest of Moore’s poems in 1967 [that] it received … critical attention.” (Leavell, p. 219). But all that said, with Leavell’s help, I’m beginning to understand what makes Moore modern, important for writers today, and pleasurable. Like WCW, her poems were full of direct quotations from other media, newspapers, books, other poems, and her poems were always in conversation with ideas, other poets, historians, whole eras. In fact, “An Octopus”, her longest poem, which is about the glaciers on Mount Rainier in Washington State, is her undeclared response to Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” a poem of similar length, whose impact as a long modern poem can’t be overstated. But the difference is that her poem is about a living American place, a mountain and its 7 glaciers, and the things that lived on that mountain and among those glaciers, and the power they represent, and how different a mountain, with all its particularities, is from the “smoothness” the Greeks liked; Moore had a pragmatic view of a “real toad” in an “imaginary garden” (she called poetry an imaginary garden filled with real toads), a view includes direct quotes from travel catalogs about Mt Ranier, and the rules of the national park, which she fits into her ode; and this omnivorous view of how poems work was “an alternative to what she considered the ‘macabre’ failure of imagination in Eliot’s poem.” (Leavell, p216). But there’s more to Moore than collage. In the same poem she includes an aphoristic statement of her true love, which is accuracy: “Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus/ with its capacity for fact.” And for her, accuracy, goes well beyond lucidity. In that 1959 interview I mentioned, Donald Hall asked her “Do you have in your own work any favorites or unfavorites?” And Moore replied, “Indeed I do. I think the most difficult thing for me is to be satisfactorily lucid, yet have enough implication in it to suit myself. That’s a problem. And I don’t approve of my “enigmatics” or as somebody said, “the not ungreen grass.” I said to my mother one time, “How did you ever permit me to let this be printed?” And she said, “You didn’t ask my advice.”
Getting back to that ingredient of a good poem, “enough implication . . . to suit myself,” that ingredient is the hard-won openness, the attitude, the humor, the critique of what she has a distaste for, presented not with silence, but restraint. She wrote about her passions, and her passions were nature and intelligence, but you’ll never find her writing about or celebrating romantic love, or selling off pieces of her biography for emotional validation. Moore’s the more modern Modernist because she dares to stand before you without the scaffolding of the classics around her, because she dares to write with lucidity as well as implication. Let me get done with this bit of the Field Notes by quoting a line or two from her poem “Snakes, Mongooses, Snake Charmers, and the Like” in which she gets both accuracy and a stunning metaphor into her description of a snake rising out of a basket:
Thick, not heavy, it stands up from its traveling-basket,
The essentially Greek, the plastic animal all of a piece from nose to tail;
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.
To me, saying that the movements of a snake “imprison … the rhythms of the skating rink” is not only an amazing original metaphor of stunning observational perspicacity; it has great assonances, and the way that “alps” and “amber” provide an intermediate or intramural assonance, is just great, and as if that wasn’t enough, the way “snake” (the subject of the poem) and “skate” frame the whole. People think of Moore as a free verse or a syllabic poet, but she had a devastating ear for rhyme. In one of first mature poems, “Critics and Connoisseurs,” written in syllabics with no previously known meter, she locates half-rhymes in the middle of sentences, and on off-beats, so that “Certain Ming/ products” rhymes with “I have seen something” and “ambition without” rhymes with “stick north, south.” “and” rhymes with “stand,” Here’s how she described her process when Donald Hall asked her if she planned out her unusually shaped stanzas:
“Never, I never “plan” a stanza. Words cluster like chromosomes, determining the procedure. I may influence an arrangement or thin it, then try to have successive stanzas identical with the first… No, I never draw lines.” I make a rhyme conspicuous to me at a glance, by underlining with red, blue or other pencil — as many colors as I have rhymes to differentiate. However, if the phrases recur in too incoherent an architecture—as print—I notice that the words as a tune do not sound right.”
Moore never betrays or orphans her intelligence to capture an emotion. The emotion must survive the gantlet of her mind, thrive in the lucidity of her imagination.
Anyway, no more time for that today.
Janet Kolstein brought a brilliant villanelle called “Home Fires Burning Cold” (not attached) that uses as its two repeated lines: “An old home can take on the feel of a battered shoe” and “Silence and scruffy floors that all cry you.” It’s a rhymed free-verse that slides outside the lines of iambic pentameter, and varies slightly the traditional structure of a villanelle, but it has a strong rhythmic feel, and as the repeating lines return, they gain heft; while they seemed comforting at first, by the time of the last recurrence, they feel emotionally retrograde.
My poem, “Be Leaving Soon, Be Always on Your Way” like Janet’s, was a formal poem, written in a basically blank verse style (with some exceptions); it was an exhortation to action, to engage impatiently with life. It used the imperative “Be” as an anaphora; the poem was ordering the reader or the speaker ordering themselves, to get on with life when facing morbidity or mortality:
Be under doctor’s orders to slow down;
Be “fuck that shit. I haven’t read the Bible yet,
Or Dostoyevsky, Dante, Heller, Kant;
Be “I haven’t seen Kanye; I haven’t seen Bron”;
Be “I cant stop now;” be “sorry, gotta go,”
Be off the clock, off balance, off the beaten path,
Be better off, be off the hook, be off
Your rocker, off the juice, be off the cuff,
Be off to work, be dizzy, “sit;” “I’m fine,
I need a minute.” “Get your feet up off the sofa!
Sit up straight, stop mumbling, you eat too fast…
The workshop liked the energy of it; but sent it back for surgery on the first and second stanzas.
Claudia Serea‘s “Seagulls in the parking lot” was a rewrite that kept it’s central situation, a daughter talking to her father on the phone, while she’s in her office at work and he is in the hospital thinking he won’t make it. In this iteration, Claudia used her ruminations on the seagulls she could see through the window in her office as she spoke to her father as an extension of her anxiety about her dad: “Outside my window, the gulls cry,/ covering your voice when you respond.” The workshop loved the setting and acknowledged how hard it would be to train the seagulls to do what you want them to do.
Brendan McEntee brought a poem whose title did a ton of work: “Donating the Last of Your Clothes” A title like that or like Frank Rubino’s last week, with a title something like “She’s Coming for Thanksgiving and That’ll be Good” did so much work. You’re home free, off to the races with a start like that. Frank doubled down on that start with a first line that went “We’ll install locks.” Brendan’s strategy was different. After his centering title, he moved almost as far away from it as possible beginning with a small mystery: “It’s a Pilot roller-ball, blue, nothing special.” A mystery that is resolved slowly as we find out that the pen came from a jacket pocket “- the suede coral pink one—/ resting in the bottom of a bin/ of what I kept of your clothes,/ folded as you would have wanted,” allowing the emotion of the loss that we learned of in the title to find a home in “you.” Brendan’s subsequent strategy works a lot like Claudia’s. In Claudia’s poem, the gulls were carrying the emotional burden of the poem—the loss—anticipated—of the father; in Brendan’s, it’s the pen that becomes the repository of the poem’s emotional charge rather than the woman who died. Bravo to both of you, all three of you, for learning emotional ventriloquism.
Look, Susanna Lee did it too! She brought a “Where I’m From” poem (yes, it’s a subgenre) that sketched out a white typical middle class upbringing in the 1960s, referring to television shows, describing a household built on discipline by shouting out the brand names of things. “I’m from St. Patrick’s Day,/ from pink lemonade./” It was a nostalgic poem in the sense that it cherished the feelings associated with the things and people of youth, but what it’s really doing in a more obvious (Antiques Road Show?) way, is the same thing that Brendan, with his pen, and Claudia, with her birds, were doing—investing things with emotion. It’s the poet’s prestidigitation.
Yana Kane (who will be reading at the Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Contest on Monday December 13 you should go, it’ll be great. You can buy a ticket at BrooklynPoets.org.) brought a poem called “Escape is Possible” a cheery poem considering the alternatives. The interesting device Yana employs is to describe the “escape” in a way that is rhetorically explicit but very impressionistic. To escape, for example, one “search[es] under the senses, / feel[s] the floor of your perception,/ the hidden trapdoor is there.” And this semi fantastical door leads to an ocean in one sinks to the bottom and then rises.
Carole Stone brought “Hugs” which is about seeking solace in poetry from the anguish of a dead spouse; it started with a great lyrical evocation of desolation in stanzas shaped like tercets:
The death live on the rooftop,
Enter my bedroom, pull me form sleep.
O, won’t you hold me,
Let me run through the streets
Shouting, “Love me, love me,”…
However the poem turns away from the morbidity of death, seeks solace, which is a refuge from grief, in poetry, and more specifically, the book that holds Neruda’s poems, whose “spine [is] held together with tape.” This book, and poetry itself act like the trap door in Yana’s poem, that are held out as a possible escape.
Finally, this week, Don Zirilli brought a poem called “The German Christmas Market of New Jersey” which is an actual annual thing where he lives. It’s a poem about being deprived of singularity and thrust into an uncomfortable multiplicity, a condition here associated with being at a fair that is populated by people from another fair (“The crowd was from the state fair”) not just literally, but figuratively as well (“from every fair of every state.”). In this condition, the revival of the covid 19 pandemic, with masks, has a disorienting quality. The pandemic is “mysterious and new.” And the masks make everything double: “I put on a mask/ and now twice as many characters are played./ I’m different to everyone and everyone different.” Ultimately, for now, in Don’s poem everyone is learning a new lesson, but not everyone is getting the same lesson: “oh// was I supposed to get something? Maybe I did.”
Listen—There’s still time to register for Monday’s Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Award contest featuring two of your favorite Red Wheelbarrow poets, Yana Kane and me. It’s a zoom event and you get your tickets through Eventbrite, and the tickets are not cheap, $25.00 because it’s a fundraiser for Brooklyn Poets. The event starts at 7 pm and the 12 poem of the month winners will read their poems, at the end of which, at about 8 pm, everyone in the audience can vote for poem of the month (via text message). Let’s start a friendly interstate rivalry by going into Brooklyn and taking the Poem of the Year Award back to New Jersey for a year. Come and support Yana and me—here’s the link to the signup/registration https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/.
Further Field Notes of December 12, 2021
Continuing my reading of Marianne Moore, I found a collection of critical essays edited by Charles Tomlinson published by Prentice-Hall, Inc. in 1969, that has provided very good insight and information. I was particularly happy with Hugh Kenner’s essay “Meditation and Enactment” because I’ve loved Hugh Kenner since I read his grand piece of literary criticism called THE POUND ERA a lifetime ago. Such a strong, distilling and careful voice, it’s exciting just to be with him. But this morning I want to share a short excerpt from an essay by Henry Gifford (never heard of him before) called “Two Philologists” that dares to do the obviously necessary but fraught work of comparing Marianne Moore to Emily Dickinson. I’ll skip the intro and get right to this insight:
“And yet, given this all-important distinction between the two poets, their choice of language seems to unite them unexpectedly. Both are incontrovertibly American—or perhaps one should say American of a certain tone and temper which, like much else in the modern world, may be dissolving. They are individual, ironic, and above all fastidious. Their poetry is exact and curious like the domestic skills of the American woman in antebellum days. It has the elevation of old-fashioned erudite American talk—more careful in its vocabulary, more strenuously aiming at correctness and dignity than English talk of the same vintage. This is not to confuse the milieux of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; nor to insinuate that both poets stand at a distance from today in a charming lady-like quaintness. What distinguishes them is something very far from quaintness: a practical interest in the capacities of the English language both learned and colloquial, in its American variety.”
I’ll admit that the phrase in the excerpt that demanded repetition is “old-fashioned erudite American talk,” and the reason for me, that it demanded repetition, is that it captures something about perspective, propriety, restraint and approach that I have noticed and yet been unable to articulate so lucidly in both poets. The phrase “old-fashioned erudite American talk” reminds me of the way that my Aunt Ruth (who sent birthday cards with $15 ‘for books’ to all of her nieces and nephews) spoke, the way that my father’s friend, Frank Lowe (who owned a hammer factory in Brooklyn! and recited “The Ballad of Dangerous Dan McGrew” from memory at our dinner table) spoke, the way my father’s lawyer, Harold Robbins (who knew his Latin and used it to seem comic and erudite), spoke, the way formal letters were written, the way “to whom it may concern” was deployed at the beginning of a letter, or the way the word “one” was used to designate “a person.” And I thought, yes, there’s something that doesn’t saw the air in both Dickinson and Moore, that doesn’t need a shotgun to pop a balloon. And Gifford is correct, I think, when he notes that this sort of fastidious, correct, respectful way of observing the world and commenting on it is “dissolving” or has already dissolved.
Anyway, I thought it might be of interest to you. And read Hugh Kenner’s “The Pound Era,” and when you do, bring an extra pair of socks because they ones you’re wearing may get knocked off.