Modernism In Two Poems By Marianne Moore
Marianne Moore was one of the eminent poetesses of the Modern times. An integral contributor to the modern American literature, Moore’s poetry is considered as a linkage between nature and the human world. She alludes to scientific and historical knowledge and tries to evade literary allusions to prevent her from being casted as a stereo-type.
Her poems are full of keen observations and generally hold up the images of birds, butterflies, animals, landscapes of England and New York. She is a “literalist of the imagination” who can “present for inspection…imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
In A Grave, Moore begins with a meditation on the impossibility of seeing the sea, when a “Man looking into the sea” takes “the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself.” Moore calls attention to two difficulties here: the problem of seeing “through” a man, including a man’s viewpoint, and the related problem of establishing herself as a centered speaker when she cannot stand “in the middle of this.” Moore’s depiction of the sea correspondingly emphasizes its opacity over its translucency and its surface activities over its symbolic meanings.
While Moore may well have written this poem out of a personal crisis that involved thoughts of suicide, the speaker reminds herself that to seek relief in the sea is not to be mirrored in any improved way or to be freed of her. The speaker works her way out of her crisis by establishing and confronting the actuality or literality of the sea and of death, and her difference from them. The sea interestingly, in Moore’s poem is not a reflective object but a grave. Also, it is man’s careful acts, that is, his surface activities that save him and not his self- projections. Men “lowering nets” unconsciously “desecrate this grave,” “as if there were no such thing as death,” the speaker of this poem, conscious of the ultimate meaning of penetrating the depths of the sea, trains her vision to the surface:
“The wrinkles progress among themselves in a phalanx—
beautiful under networks of foam the tortoise-shell scourges about the feet of the cliffs, in
motion beneath them;”
The end of the poem marks its intensity. Unlike the exposition, the last lines of the lyric compel us to view the surroundings and not just concentrate on the opacity of the sea surface. A forced consciousness of the meditation on the outer scene is emphasized by the poetess. The sound of birds and bell-buoys make “noises” which break the ambience of a visual representation of the situation. The poem resolves with its initial perspective of assuming something as what it is not and an intrigue picture of the ocean’s opacity in the concluding lines:
“and the ocean, under the pulsation of lighthouse and noise of bell buoys, advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in which dropped things are bound to sink— in which if they turn and twist, it is neither with volition nor consciousness.”
For Moore, in A Grave, meditation on the sea becomes meditation on the limits of human power and human language, and immersion, literal or figurative, threatens dissolution. “Death” is the central theme of the poem with an under cutting allusion to Moore’s own brother’s death. Many critics have tried to see the poem in the light of Moore’s feminist voice. In the poem, as many critics believe, Moore defines the male dominium and tries to break it with her strong and persuasive words. A grave is a place where dead things are put to rest, but Moore’s A Grave is a locus of vital and challenging re-vision.
The poems of Marianne Moore have arguments, often difficult to follow but always worth the effort. Distrustful of overt emotion, her poems rely on understatement and reserve to create it, as in the simple What are Years? or the penetrating A Grave. What Are Years? is a stellar lyric which ends by paradoxically equating a bird’s joyful song with both mortality and eternity? Both the poems have a dominating “sea imagery”. The tone of morality in both the poems is unsurpassable. The genesis of these poems can be owed to the World War II. These two poems are typical of Moore’s. These are not meant for the pleasure of reflection.
They refuse to be simpler than the world is and make more sense when read again and again until one understands the perspective for which they are written. Moore exploits imagery and visuals from the nature and embeds them in her poems. The linking of morality with a bird in What are Years? is quite similar to the theme of death and survival in A Grave. The poems deal with the strong imagery of the sea-how in one poem it is “continuing” and in the other, “the sea is a collector, quick to return a rapacious look.” The imagery of bird or flying is also present in both the poems.
This imagery is evident to prove the aspiration of the speaker to be free and boundless. In both the poems, Moore indicates the sea’s power to erode and destroy; strongly alluded in A Grave and subtly done in What are Years. A deep penetration of this concept might find it’s parallel to the society and humanity- the dominium of man over everything and his struggle to free himself. This idea or concept might be traced to the World War aftermath. The vulnerability of the society and the deterioration was enough to evoke the modernist flame inside Moore to conceptualize the social, political and economical conditions into a poetic expression.
Many American poets see Moore as one of the monuments of modernism, up there with Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. Vision and viewpoint, an integral quality of modernist poets is present in the poems of Moore as well. She once wrote that poems were “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Her poems are conversational, yet elaborate and subtle in their syllabic versification, drawing upon extremely precise description and historical and scientific fact. A “poet’s poet,” she influenced such later poets as her young friend Elizabeth Bishop. A Grave “offered Bishop, as it offers us, an example of how a woman well-versed in the literary tradition, rather than capitulating to the convention of female silence, can wield that tradition and write her own eloquent verses.”
To conclude, in the words of eminent literary critic, Jeredith Merrin, “Her ocean/grave represents death, humanity’s common enemy, and yet her sea as re-former of inherited poetic patterns acts too as Nature’s and Woman’s ally. The heavy sibilance throughout Moore’s poem (in all versions) reminds us of Satan, of the serpentine and treacherous ladies of Romantic poetry, of the actual foaming ocean that advances and retreats over the shingle of land, and of mortality which menaces and circumscribes our lives.
But with her insistent sound-play–e.g., “you cannot stand in the middle of this”; “repression. . . is not the most obvious characteristic of the sea”; “their bones have not lasted”–Moore also hisses back at Man, and at the arrogant male poet in particular, who arrogates to himself dominion, who is always trying “to stand in the middle of a thing.” By choosing to conclude her poem with the word “consciousness,” Moore reserves that climactic position for the quality of attentiveness to self and to “other” which is her highest aesthetic and moral value, while giving her sea (as retributive force) the last word, the last hiss.”
On Marianne Moore’s Life and Career
Marianne (Craig) Moore (1887-1972)
THE POEMS OF MARIANNE MOORE http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE2DE1F3FF937A35752C0A9629C8B63
The Collected Essays and Criticism
-By Clement Greenberg, John