The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore
Bonnie Costello, General Editor
Alfred A. Knopf, $35
by Kay Ryan
"The handkerchiefs almost frighten us by their perfection." Who but Marianne Moore could possibly have written this? Her Selected Letters offers up a ridiculous sublimity of letter-writing in which nothing, not the least gift of handkerchiefs, escapes meticulous apostrophe. We are not just talking precision of expression here; we are talking the very torments of rapture and the characteristic strain they put on the fabric of Moore's sentences: "Even a bungler must see that maintained rectangles in drawn-work so tenuous and complicated, required genius and many years' apprenticeship; and the fineness of the material is to begin with a constant wonder." Everything all the way around the unassailable fact of Marianne Moore's genius strikes one as slightly, well, slightly comical. We bounce off a truly original mind like rubber balls. Even Elizabeth Bishop, in "Efforts of Affection," the beautiful memoir of her mentor, is deflected from the central mystery of such a person. Bishop can only gesture toward "the rarity of true originality and the sort of alienation it might involve" and then turn back to the pleasures of anecdote. It is hard not to limn Moore as an endearing character, a precious curio.
But of course this is the paradox of Marianne Moore. In a sense her poems, also, are precious curios-which seems like the wrong thing to say about achievements so great and enduring. Marianne Moore compels us to a special discomfort: she represents a sort of sustained impossibility; we are bounced between awe and amusement.
Moore's letters reveal how literal her poems are, how of a piece with her life. Everywhere is evidence of her darting, delicate, exacting, pan-interested mind. Detail is poetry to her. Throughout her life she receives exotic bric-a-brac from traveling friends. Her exquisite appreciations stimulate further gifts, and the cycle continues, object to object, pleasure irresistibly inviting pleasure, leapfrogging like her poems. She writes to Elizabeth Bishop, "It may be a mistake to pore over minutiae as I do but it makes such work as the carved capitals on the cards of the Madeleine, an active poem." Nothing which is New York is alien to her-she loves the zoo, naturally, and the Natural History Museum, and all the other museums, but she also loves the ill-attended lecture by an authority on pears, and the rodeo at Madison Square Garden where "One contestant wore carmine goat's fur chaps with tufts of black goat's fur inserted at regular intervals, on the principle of kings' ermine."
It takes a deep security to endure a life of such endless lightness, tangled delicacy, nearly mad fealty to serial perfections, almost comic probity. Less secure people have to be denser and more flat-footed. The letters help us see what made her so strong. Above all there was her family, which was nearly one creature. It was a small family, her awesome mother with whom she lived until Mrs. Moore died when Marianne was 59, and her navy chaplain brother, Warner. Moore's many family letters reveal the sort of furry burrow-dwellers' tumbling intimacy that the three enjoyed. They had endless animal names for one another-Badger, Bear, Mole, Fangs, Ratty-and these names shifted loosely among them. Marianne was always referred to as "he", both in her mother's letters to Warner and in her own. She sometimes signed herself "your brother." Moore never seemed to pine for other company; she reports up to "7 suitors" at one time in youth, but they seem to have done little more than make her "fidget and gnash." She enjoys an obvious satisfaction in the great lifelong "we" of herself and her mother in the small Brooklyn apartment they shared, the two of them maintaining the highest standards of grammar, wit, and moral character; attending poetry readings and animal movies; remaking not only the dresses and coats that Marianne's rich friends were always passing along, but also Moore's poems which had to pass "under the maternal clippers,"-and, all the while having the full roster of modernist poetry over for simple lunches and complex conversation. "I am cautious . . . about encouraging visitors who . . . might bore my mother. She is over the heads of most of them," confesses Moore to old friend Ezra Pound.
In addition to the security her family provided her, Moore simply seemed to be born emotionally unhandicapped and at ease with her own nature. When the poet Bryher wants to give Moore money in the 1920s to release her from her part-time library job, Moore responds that, "The work I am doing and the annoyances to which I am subjected, are to some extent the goose that lays the golden egg and are I am sure, responsible just now, for any gain that I make toward writing. I have no swiftness, . . . but I have I think, an intuition as to how I am to succeed if I do succeed." She can do without fame as well, although in the end she didn't have to: "I have no sympathy with people who find unpopularity embittering." And best of all she can respect her own virtues. She says in the famous "water-closet" letter to Elizabeth Bishop that she herself would not use the word in a poem because "I cannot care about all things equally, I have a major effect to produce, and the heroisms of abstinence are as great as the heroisms of courage, and so are the rewards." Such strenuous amalgams of rigor and rhetoric abound in the letters, exalting restraint and insisting upon the highest and hardest road: "Patient or impatient repudiating of life, just repudiates itself. What can be exciting to others is one's struggle with what is too hard," she exhorts the young (and apparently life-repudiating) Allen Ginsberg in 1952.
It is her inner clarity, one suspects, that allows Moore to put up with the lifelong charge that she writes obscurely, and indeed to stare down her own distaste for the great price directness must pay if she is to achieve the "implication" she requires. As far back as her Bryn Mawr days (Class of '09) she is accused of being "incoherent" and is discouraged from majoring in English. She says to Warner (addressed as "Winks" in this playful 1941 letter-she'd be in her fifties by then): "I rekkonize my trouble as being too oblique & obscure, as a result of hating Crudeness (&. . . condescension and insulting didacticism). And I shall endeavor to be CLEARER." But of course one can only be as clear, as she writes to her niece, as one's "natural reticence allows."
Her letters, which can seem the most mandarin, fussy constructions, can also at any moment go straight to the heart of the hardest subject. Her eerie assessment of Wallace Stevens in a letter to William Carlos Williams, for example, shows the privacies one oblique poet can sound in another: "Wallace Stevens is beyond fathoming, he is so strange; it is as if he had a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose and just as he tells it out in his sleep, he changes into an uncontradictable judiciary with a gown and a gavel and you are embarrassed to have heard anything." Moore adores Stevens, mind you, confessing in a 1935 letter to Bryher that she has long secretly attempted "to bring my product into some sort of compatibility with Wallace Stevens." It is when she writes of Stevens more than in any other of her judgments that one feels she is appraising herself. "His great accuracy and refracted images and averted manner indicate to me a certain interior reconcentration of being. One who has borne heat and burden as well as he has, and as long as he has, is very deeplaid."
Moore sensed her own depths early, when still at Bryn Mawr. The letters of the young are one of the special thrills that volumes of letters offer, giving us the sense of being there when the self and the self's powers are still novelties worth remarking upon, before the poet has grown accustomed to her nature. She writes to a friend, "I have 'encysted' myself as far as the general world goes. I fairly sparkle inside now and then, to think how real is the world of fancy." Later, of course, she would never mention such a thing. In Moore's college letters one sees her just beginning to realize that her literary subject matter isn't going to be the "red-hot stuff." Instead she inclines to elusive subjects such as the jellyfish, which she addresses in a manner already timelessly Mooreish: "An amber-colored amethyst / Inhabits it."
Everything makes Marianne Moore's letters worth reading. Thanks to her many reviews for the little magazines of the Twenties and especially to her editorship of The Dial between 1925 and 1929, she knew slews of modernist writers and knew them early. Later, when she was an established poet and later still a Life magazine-size personality, she came to know second, third, and fourth waves of poets enjoying correspondence of varying degrees of intimacy with Auden, famously with Elizabeth Bishop, also James Merrill and even Allen Ginsberg. One admires the Byzantine courtesies Moore could elaborate to deflect the unwanted attentions of admirers or the fulminations of difficult friends such as Ezra Pound, a poet whom she staunchly admired but from whom she took no guff. She also counted as friends William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, and the sometime couple H. D. and Bryher whom she and her mother took straight to their hearts. Mother and daughter enjoyed the literary people they knew in the old fashioned way, eager for regular news of their families, however remote the domestic combinations might be from the Moores' own Presbyterian conservatism.
Of course one of the most toothsome pleasures of reading letters, and particularly the letters of a writer of such forbidding brilliance, is getting to peep behind the scenes. One relishes passages such as this in which she retails for Warner's amusement a moment of social distress: after her mother has urged her to go up and speak with W. B. Yeats following one of his New York lectures, Moore realizes that "I had on my house-dress which has on the light blue trimming the ineradicable vestiges of a cod-liver oil spot." Our pleasure is compounded by MM's inability to phrase even the report of an oil spot on her dress in language natural to anyone else.
The Selected Letters astonish us with how deep the signature runs in Marianne Moore and humble us with how inexplicable it remains. Hers is a genius so perfectly self-tuned that we find ourselves laughing, one of the body's natural responses to shock.