Marianne Moore

Habemus PM; or, irritation after the EU referendum

Naomi Schor:

Viewed as congenitally (rather than culturally) particularistic, the woman artist is doubly condemned to produce inferior works of art: because of her close association with nature, she cannot but replicate it. (11)

Wouldn't her time be better spent replicating human life? is the suggestion implicit in the ideology Schor is describing here.1

This familiarity with wrong meanings puzzles one

"Weather Warning" by Tom Lee. CC NC-BY. Brighton seafront as shot from the pier.
"Weather Warning" by Tom Lee. CC NC-BY. Brighton seafront as shot from the pier.

I hadn’t planned for this commentary to coincide with the Sussex Poetry Festival, the chief criterion in my dashed-off email to Jessica nearly a year ago being that I put it off until later. But here we are talking about irritation, and anyone who’s been involved in planning a poetry festival knows about that.

At Sussex our union is in a labor dispute with management over eroding real pay against increased workloads, the wage gap for women, and casualization (again: gendered). Basically, although no one has said this, it is a dispute over the “feminization of labor,” the fact that it is now considered not only okay but natural to treat all workers the way it was always considered natural to treat female workers (underpaid, precarious, competition-based, smile required).

We are working to rule (a bad strategy in the summer; we should do it during term-time when our research time is destroyed anyway) and there was some question as to whether we should hold the festival at all.

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

“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.

Perfect contempt

“I, too, dislike it.” It’s the title of Mia You’s new book from 1913 Press; it’s also the opening gambit in Ben Lerner’s recent book The Hatred of Poetry, a book that takes Moore’s gesture of self-distrust as emblematic of poetry itself, an art “defined for millenia...[by] a rhythm of denunciation and defense” (10).

'a few 'strong wrinkles' puckering the / skin between the ears'

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 your hearing words are mute, which to my senses / Are a shout.'

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 baseball fan redux

Baseball is a language, and, for the fanatic, it is language. It is the baseball fan who continues to make language baseball’s lingua franca.Baseball is a language, and, for the fanatic, it is language. It is the baseball fan who continues to make language baseball’s lingua franca. No more attentive fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers than the poet Marianne Moore ever attended games at Ebbetts Field or read accounts of their ultimate failures in the New York Times the next morning, and the evidence of that strange attention is of course in the poems. Her Dodgers finally won a World Series in 1955, and she combed through New York Times sports-page coverage, pulling phrases that specified her exultation, and made “Hometown Piece for Mssrs. Alston and Reese” something of a collage. From its rhymed title on, the poem seems to poeticize the unpoetical and thus create high-low ironies, but when one lays the poem beside clippings from Times coverage of the Dodgers, and carefully compares them, one realizes the extent to which this writing about baseball—this writing through baseball writing—doesn’t so much restate as rewrite the already published journalism. In doing so it discloses the latter’s myriad normative phrasings, utterly inconsequential and fascinating only when considered out of context. How could contextless phrases such as “get a Night” and “stylist stout” sufficiently convey Dodger mania? Yet they do. Moore is typical of the baseball fanatic in internalizing sportswriting diction only in the particular, and into her own writing—a fan’s writing—assimilated this quality beyond the need of quotation marks; she was beyond creating scare-quote ironies: irked by one misplay, a specialist versed in an extension reach, Podres on the mound. These, though borrowed verbatim from the New York Times, are simply presented in the language of the poem. Are they her words now? She implies no claim of authorship, nor of methodological uniqueness, for the poem itself implies, of its readership, that almost anyone who listens to or reads about baseball over the course of a sufficient numbers of days, or seasons, will be capable of reproducing phrases like "a specialist versed in an extension reach," despite its odd abstraction, its slightly unidiomatic quality, its seemingly contrived “poetic” assonance and consonance. Marianne Moore’s point is that such phrases are not poetic. They are in the ambience. The fan dating back to the 1930s, for instance, makes the mere substitution of “skein” for “string” and in doing so sufficiently conjures a whole ethos. “On August 3rd [1933],” Roger Angell remembered, “Lefty Grove shut out the Yankees, terminating a string (sorry: a skein) of three hundred and eight consecutive games . . . in which the Bombers had never once been held scoreless.” This is not merely adept verbal imitation. It is the word as entrypoint for whole contact. Possibly our most self-conscious writer of baseball writing, Angell has frequently claimed to despise the baseball-is-life/life-is-baseball conceit. Yet an essay in Once More around the Park and Game Time finds its way—-characteristically moves toward its unanticipated main point—not narratively and certainly not thematically, but along an associational sequence of words and phrases conjured from someone else’s account of a game. Finding himself at one point rewriting the play-by-play account of a Fourth of July weekend game between the Giants and the Cardinals, his writing of the old words merges into those of reporter John Debinger, and here are some: “dazzled a crowd,” “bewildered the Cardinals,” “master lefthander of Bill Terry’s amazing hurling corps,” “broadshouldered Roy Parmelee strode to the mound.” He comes to the point of remembering his father’s love of the game, and then his own love of his father, by way of remembering his own love of the language used by others, in his father’s era, to describe the game. He bears out his hatred of baseball is like life but affirms baseball is like language.

Angell in “Early Innings” discovered as he wrote that recalling the language of that baseball era with more rather than less accuracy, at the level of tone and diction, meant a more rather than less complete psycho-emotional presentation of his childhood. The essay would finally about his father, or more specifically the extent of the father’s connections to the present writer, and the turning point is Angell’s admission that the topic was latent, unconscious, and that the necessary method was that of unintended disclosure—the revelation of the writing’s very topic. “When I began writing this brief memoir,” he self-referentially confesses, “I was surprised to find how often its trail circled back to my father. If I continue now with his baseball story, instead of my own, it’s because the two are so different yet feel intertwined and continuous.” And only then, three pages from the end of the piece, does the fan begin to narrate the early innings: “He was born in 1889 . . . ,” etc. The game itself, as always, begins at the beginning, but the fan’s work of writing through the game ends there. Prior to that is (for so many, so often, so continuously) the discernment through writing of the reason for this inversion. A half page above Angell’s “I was surprised to find” confession—prior to the birth of the father—the son keeps his first mitt “in top shape with neat’s-foot oil,” and only after instating the practice learns the etymology. “What’s a neat?” he remembers asking. Then they pitch and catch. Then the young emergent fan, now the older eminent writer, rediscovers the precisely appropriate diction, chooses to reproduce it and addresses us: “Yes, reader: we threw the old pill around.”

A valentine from Marianne

Marianne Moore's 9/11

'Finding the Words'

About eight weeks after the September 11 attacks, the Writers House and Rosenbach Library collaborated on an event held at the Writers House featuring, of all things, the modern American poet Marianne Moore. Moore's 9/11, if you can imagine that. Well, it turned out well, I think.

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