Big Loves: Randall Mann on Marianne Moore

Randall Mann, author of Breakfast with Thom Gunn, gives us the first entry on this week’s shared big love, Marianne Moore.

Moore, Moore, Moore

“She is not a writer. She is a woman who has profound needs.”-

–Wallace Stevens, “A Poet That Matters”

It took me a while to warm to Marianne Moore.

I was scared, I think, of her moral seriousness and rhetorical daring, her fearlessness.

She was the hot mod nerdy lady in the corner of my Norton Anthology; I didn’t have the balls to approach her, not for years.  My loss.

Take “The Steeple-Jack.”  The poem is written in syllabics, which derange the poem itself, and the town described in the poem, with her arrangements (the poem even uses the word “arranged,” the fish nets “arranged to dry,” the waves “formal as scales,” everything in its place, “a privilege to see so / much confusion”); with her chilly negation of things, which adds a dash of irony and danger:  the presidents who repay corrupt senators by “not thinking about them,” the insistence in the last stanza that “It could not be dangerous to be living / in a town like this.”  All of this leads to the final word, “hope,” a dry hopeless hope.

Take “What Are Years?”  Which is a perfect poem; which is filled with abstractions (the first stanza includes the following:  innocence, guilt, safe, courage, doubt, misfortune, death, defeat) that feel like particulars; which is an aesthetic manifesto close to my formalist heart:  “So he who strongly feels, / behaves.”

I love this quote in her 1960 Paris Review interview with Donald Hall, when asked how a poem starts for her:  “A felicitous phrase springs to mind–a word or two, say–simultaneous usually with some thought or object of equal attraction….”

I love that, when asked by the Ford Motor Company to help name one of their cars, she offered suggestions such as the Mongoose Civique, Varsity Stroke, Pastelogram, and Utopian Turtletop.  Ford declined and settled on the Edsel.  Big mistake.

And when that 1960 Paris Review interview was over, I love that she took Hall to an “admirable lunch” and “decided not to wear her Nixon button because it clashed with her hat and coat.”  Big love.

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