Undoing a Long Erasure
Feb 8, 2018
9 Min read time
A new collected works of Marianne Moore restores many poems to better versions lost in subsequent editions.
New Collected Poems
Marianne Moore, edited by Heather Cass White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (cloth)
“‘Selected’ is the only adjective that accurately describes any book of Moore’s work thus far produced, or any that can be produced,” writes Heather Cass White in the introduction to the latest Marianne Moore volume nevertheless titled with the adjective collected. While one might agree with White that this latest edition could accurately be called Another Selected Moore, this judgment would be a disservice to the thoughtful and necessary work of editorial preservation that is White’s accomplishment. She restores many of Moore’s achievements from the poet’s own acts of erasure.
Marianne Moore, during a long career that spanned many of contemporary U.S. poetry’s formative movements, saw her poems through a near constant process of vision and revision, resurrection and extinction. Poems she wrote at the very beginning of her career were included in her final books; long, syllabic, essayistic poems were shortened and made more conventionally free verse; and many poems were intentionally excised to create the text on which her legacy has been built, Complete Poems (1967, revised 1981), the edition emblazoned with the famous epigraph “Omissions are not accidents.” Complete Poems is—by Moore’s own design—far from complete; White’s New Collected Poems is much more so. Yet throughout her editorial commentary and insertions, White implies that to truly collect all of Moore’s work, original and revised and omitted alike, would involve a variorum much heftier than the comparatively modest reading edition here considered. As she writes in the second of the two essays that bookend the poems, “For Moore a poem was always in the process of becoming, and any one printed incarnation of it was not its essence, but only the visible souvenir of a living process of composition.”
Moore’s mind in these poems is a strange and wonderful beast to follow.
To point out White’s interest in Moore’s “living process of composition” is not to say that White admires Moore’s revisions, the process by which the poet made her earlier modernist works conform to the post–World War II moralist she became later in life. White is very clear about her preference for prewar Moore, the poet of “An Octopus,” “The Jerboa,” “The Pangolin,” and the full five-stanza incarnation of “Poetry,” the version that includes the oft-quoted line about poetry embodying “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” In fact, White has built this new edition by consistently subordinating any incarnations other than Moore’s first. “My aim is simple,” White writes. “I have here presented Moore’s poems as they were when she first wrote and published them, not as she later revised them. In her own collections Moore treated her early work as ephemeral forms of what it later became. I have reversed her procedure, treating later revisions as footnotes to the original poems.”
The clarity and consistency of White’s principle of editorial control are vital to this edition’s success. An edition of Moore’s work published in 2003 and edited by Grace Schulman, The Poems of Marianne Moore, neglects to offer such a coherent editorial vision, and Schulman seems simply to have included the poems’ versions that she preferred. For example, she bewilderingly prints the 1951 eight-stanza version of the iconic and critically celebrated “The Steeple-Jack,” a thirteen-stanza poem first published in 1932, a poem which Moore herself restored to its original length for Complete Poems (making it, as White notes, “the only example of a poem returned to its original length as a result of Moore’s revisions”). And while Schulman includes all the poems Moore excised from Complete Poems, such as “Half Deity” and “The Student,” she also prints many pre-war poems in their Complete Poems revisions, mixing Moore’s final and first intentions and thereby crafting a hybrid, inconsistent poet on the page.
By contrast, White’s representation of Moore makes sense. The poems are not organized chronologically by composition, as Schulman does in a specious attempt to illustrate the poet’s development—earlier poems presented in their later incarnations reveal not the earlier poet but the later one. White chooses instead to arrange them chronologically by individual book. She begins New Collected Poems with Observations (1924), effectively restoring this collection “to its rightful place as the beginning of Moore’s career as a major American modernist.” The reader is then able to track Moore’s development from this milestone to her masterpiece long poems and sequences of the 1930s, such as restored versions of “Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play” (the original group title for “The Steeple-Jack,” “The Student,” and “The Hero”), as well as “Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain,” and “The Old Dominion” (including “Virginia Britannia” and “Half Deity”). The collection What Are Years (1941) seems to be the last book of Moore’s height as a modernist, the last book to include long poems of excitingly varied yet symmetrical syllabic stanzas, across which the associative hypotactic turnings of her exacting mind were woven. These poems in which “form dramatizes thought” are “gifts addressed to memory,” to borrow phrases from “Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarks.” They are Moore’s best. One reads them like essays, textually and texturally elaborate meditations and observations that illustrate what Cynthia Ozick describes, in “She: A Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body” (1998), as “the movement of a free mind at play.” Moore’s mind in these poems is a strange and wonderful beast to follow.
However, starting with Nevertheless (1944), it is less so. In White’s new edition it is easy to see this collection as the beginning of Moore’s later phase, the period in which, as White puts it, “Moore increasingly prioritized saying what she thought her readers ought to hear in the simplest terms she could manage.” The poems are thematically moralizing, formally shorter and more conventional, and less engaging on the whole. Yet the poet herself came to prefer this postwar style: the revisions, what White calls Moore’s “long erasure,” frequently turned poems from the 1920s and 30s into those she would have written later. Poems written after 1944 were largely left untouched. Nearly 60 percent of Moore’s Complete Poems were written after 1940; the percentage in New Collected Poems is closer to 45.
New Collected Poems should certainly supplant Schulman’s offering as the definitive edition of Marianne Moore’s oeuvre. But what about Moore’s own Complete Poems? White convincingly compares it to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a single lifework that the poet made and remade until the end. The ordering and omissions of Complete Poems should therefore be considered alongside White’s work of preservation, opening the door for essential close readings and comparisons that will only deepen the importance of this poet who is often downplayed in the American modernist canon.
“The Student” and “Half Deity,” for example, are both parts of unified sequences that Moore later, like a surgeon, extracted from her living body of work, leaving other parts of the same sequences intact. Why? “The Student” is a strange essay, a highly associative meditation on the role of knowledge and bookishness in American society that includes allusions to the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, Harvard and Yale, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” John James Audubon, and football huddles. The speaker makes didactic and definitive statements, such as “Education augments our natural forces and / prompts us to extend the machinery of advantage / to those who are without it.” The poem also includes statements that sound definitive but playfully and effectively resist clarity, such as “When Audubon adopted us he taught / us how to dance.” The poem ends with this characterization of American knowledge:
[I]n this country we’ve no cause to boast; we are
as a nation perhaps, undergraduates not students.
The difference between “undergraduates” and “students” is a subtle sliver, and quintessentially Moore. The poem has praised “students” for Emersonian heroism and peaceful reclusiveness, so “undergraduates” would be students lacking these qualities, those motivated only by recognition, by the earning of a degree. Why would Moore remove this poem from the sequence that includes “The Steeple-Jack” and “The Hero”? Compared with these poems, “The Student” is much more abstract. It lacks a visual or narrative texture; there are no actual students in it, no actors in a scene, only ideas and opinions. Moore might have later judged these opinions to be too obvious, too close to the surface of the poem, or her tone too didactic. Maybe she also came to disagree with these opinions, as W. H. Auden did of his own disavowed poem, “September 1, 1939.”
The poem “Half Deity” also marks a departure from Moore’s more well-established poetics. An extended observation and narrative dramatization of the flight of a swallowtail butterfly, it was also, in its first version published in The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936), an account of the moment in the myth of Psyche and Eros when Psyche, whose name is the Greek word for butterfly, is transported by Zephyr, the West Wind, a beautiful young man often represented with butterfly wings. The poem was reprinted only once, in What Are Years, with the mythic allusion revised out. In the original poem, Moore pays the butterfly the same sort of detailed literal and figurative attention she pays to the pangolin, jerboa, and pelican, but in “Half Deity” she allows herself the additional mythic layer, perhaps judged later to be too on-the-nose:
all-seeing butterfly, fearing the slight
finger, wanders, as though it were ignorant,
across the path and lights on Zephyr’s palm
planting forefeet soberly; then pawing
like a horse, turns round—apostrophe-
tipped brown antennae: porcupining out as
it arranges nervous
wings. . . .
This sentence is an excellent and representative example of Moore’s genius for elastic syntax and precise detail, with the “apostrophe- / tipped” antennae and the verbification of “porcupine.” The butterfly is Psyche alighting on Zephyr’s palm, and it is a horse, and a porcupine. It is both “blind” and “all-seeing,” both timid and confident, both trivial and strong. At the end of the poem, Zephyr returns to claim the ambivalent one:
[T]his quiet young man with piano replies . . .
eyes staring skyward and chest arching
bravely out—historic metamorphoser
and saintly animal
in India, in Egypt, anywhere.
His talk was as strange as my grandmother’s muff.
Despite her extensive use of allusion and quotation from a seemingly limitless wealth of outside sources, it is difficult to find Moore employing another Greek myth in her poems. Perhaps this larger preference (or resistance to myth) is what prompted Moore to remove this poem—a piece “as strange as a grandmother’s muff” or as a comparison to a grandmother’s muff—from Complete Poems, to remove it from inclusion in her lifework. Thanks to White, readers can better consider why it was removed. We have this “historic metamorphoser” and “saintly animal”—Moore herself—right in front of us, clearer and more complete than ever before.
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February 08, 2018
9 Min read time