'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).

Being irritated, or seeming irritated—not angry, but just annoyed—seems to bind the body of the female processor of word-scraps to the roughness of her materials. It’s a slight reddening of the membrane, the wrong kind; oh, she’s not aroused at all; it’s the opposite; oh dear.

Irritation is a disturbance of the surface that only draws more attention to the surface, then. Unlike other blushes, it does not give access to the interior; it draws attention to the fact that we are not being given access to the interior. An irritated style woven from scraps of found text refuses an impression of authorial interiority; it refuses to invite us in; it keeps us on the surface, or if you like, on the outside of a closet that may or may not be empty (Kahan). In Sianne Ngai’s reading of irritation in Quicksand, it also raises the problem of race’s location in “skin” (207).

There’s something spinsterly about this affect, then, this irritatedness, something forbiddingly celibate—a refusal to wink or to smile at what is irritating.

A woman’s refusal to smile, like Moore’s “irritated” style, is often experienced as the returning of abrasion; not as irritating, but rather as a coolly violent cutting or slicing, potentially an assault, and certainly “bristling with internal geometry” (Kenner 102).

Or as Sara Ahmed puts it: “Someone says something that you consider problematic. You respond, carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly; or you might be getting ‘wound up’ .... The violence of what was said or the violence of provocation goes unnoticed. However she speaks, the feminist is usually the one who is viewed as ‘causing the argument’” (Ahmed 65).

That refusal of access to the interior indicated by a bristling surface then reads, sometimes, as a positive violence. No wonder the early Moore especially is so often read as a poet of sharp edges, sometimes even doing her word-labor by literally cutting. Even a defense of enjoyment appears as an admonishment: “Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that/ detracts from one’s enjoyment.”

“One’s”: no, we aren’t being let in.

I find this refreshing, of course; to me irritatedness is an exciting poetic mode. And I think the impression it gives of a reciprocal violence is instructive.

Instructive, too, that although it is sometimes frustrating, being so successful in foiling the sallies of irritator and reader alike, the irritated poem is generally not an irritating poem.



Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Brinkman, Bartholomew. “Scrapping Modernism: Marianne Moore and the Making of the Modern Collage Poem.” Modernism/modernity 18, no. 1 (2011): 43–66.

ahan, Benjamin. Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Poems quoted: “Picking and Choosing,” “Poetry” (1924), “When I Buy Pictures”