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.”