“The fatal problem with poetry: poems,” says Ben Lerner (32). What he means by this is that each actually existing poem stands a monument to the unrealizability of the utopian hope that we call “poetry.”
Lerner has some interesting things to say about poetry and its relationship to work, the desire and the worry that writing poetry not be work. Poetry is utopian insofar as it seems to offer an alternative to “getting and spending,” an order of work that is also seamlessly a way of leaning and loafing at one’s ease; hence the defenses. That very utopian possibility also seems a monstrous indifference to the brutalities of being constrained to sell one’s labor in order to live; hence the denunciations.
I suggested in my previous post that poetic irritation, or maybe irritability (who, after all, is being irritated here?) has something to do with a tediously citational female word-labor, antithetical to poetry in the case of Nella Larsen’s constantly irritated fictional character Helga Crane, and the very “raw material of poetry in all its rawness” in the case of Marianne Moore. “[W]e discern Miss Moore being a librarian, an editor, a teacher of typewriting: locating fragments already printed; picking and choosing; making, letter by letter, neat pages” (Kenner 98).
In her chapter on “Irritation” in Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai focuses first of all on Helga Crane, the ever-ambivalent and often-irritated protagonist of Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand. Helga is, at one point, a processor of scraps of others’ texts, and this tedious word-labor is a prime source of “irritation.” Ngai compares her to Melville’s Sub-Sub Librarian, but unlike that of our full-eyed poor devil of a Sub-Sub, Helga’s is not a labor of love. It is, in a very literal sense, a job, imposed by the wealthier woman who employs her.
One of the great appeals, for me, of Marianne Moore’s poetry is that sense of irritation that the poems so often give off—a minor affect, a pervasive mood. “To Be Liked By You Would Be a Calamity,” she titles one poem, in a most uncalamitous tone, in the conditional: an antipathy speculated upon and held off. Is it an accident that she, too, is a weaver of textual scraps, whose use of “business documents and//school-books” in poems is infamous?
This finicky female word-labor, not quite authorship, then, is irritating to Helga, but she swallows her annoyance. Moore, instead, undertakes it deliberately, then thematizes it. “I, too, dislike it.”
The first thing you might notice about The Malady of Death is the visual components to this book. It is slim, only sixty pages of text, like many volumes of poems. On each page the font size is larger than most large-print editions of books. I measure the opening capitol “Y” beginning “You” at one-half of a centimeter. The page that appears the fullest contains one-hundred and sixteen words. A page appearing one of the sparest contains sixty words. Section breaks appear as multiple paragraph breaks, a multitude of white space, and an occasional asterisk.