At first she was just the mysterious invitee in Elizabeth Bishop’s well-known poem, object of Bishop’s affection and admiration, and shadowy figure looming witch-like over Bishop’s own more accessible body of work. After all, I was an undergraduate caught up in Rilke’s death drive and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” I had relegated Marianne Moore to a celestial twilight for poetic antecedents where in my mind she lounged among her weird animals wearing her even weirder hats—just another female poet oddity whose unconventional personal life lent her a Dickinson-esque mystique and, like Dickinson, an aura of impenetrability.
But as I got older and chilled out a little bit, I started to read Moore in a way I hadn’t before. Her formal and intellectual patterns began to reveal themselves to me, and I saw that by shoring up her own fragments (though for Marianne Moore they aren’t extravagantly ruinous, but rather the ordinary, fractious aspects of daily life), she created an ethos that made sense to me. I was becoming a woman less interested in the poetics of anger and self-destruction, and more interested in intellectual inquiry and self-expression through learning; Marianne Moore was suddenly my heroine.
I began to see that poetry could be made of daily observations in conversation with various kinds of discourse. I saw in Marianne Moore a poet operating under a kind of collaborative logic, pasting together her own domestic bric-a-brac with natural images and different kinds of texts in order to expand her own rhetorical arsenal. Just take a look at the first stanza of “The Steeple-Jack”:
Dürer would have seen a reason for living
in a town like this, with eight stranded whales
to look at; with the sweet sea air coming into your house
on a fine day, from water etched
with waves as formal as the scales
on a fish.
Immediately the scene is framed in the contexts of art, science, and domesticity. And, of course, there’s the voice—oddly detached, oddly observant, the mitigating force that brings the poem’s disparate elements together.
Under Marianne Moore’s advisement, I try to read and observe every day; I’m looking for the kinds of associative leaps and connections that would enrich my writing and my humanity. I’m engaged and desperate to know. No, I’m not vain enough to think I think like Marianne Moore, but I’ve found in her poetry a kind of validation– life’s multitudes, beautiful and various, ordered by the imagination and the imagination fueled by those multitudes.