'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.”

Isn’t this, too, then, part of the “Marianne Moore myth”?—this sense that she is irritated? Isn’t this bound up in her gendering, in the way that her very poetics have always been taken for a gender transgression, whether by way of reproach or of celebration? Isn’t irritation, too, part of how we know that Helga Crane is “repressed” (as Ngai points out), sexually somehow unhealthy, and isn’t that also a part of the Marianne Moore myth?

Word processing and a perverse female celibacy go hand in hand, as we learn from famous celibate Henry James’s “In the Cage.” Even if there’s no there there, as Benjamin Kahan suggests in his sensitive reading of Moore’s celibacy, that absence has a plenitude. Perhaps it has a residue. Perhaps that residue irritates.

But whom?


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

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand  and Passing. Edited by Deborah McDowell. American Women Writers Series. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale. Penguin English Library. New York: Penguin, 1972.

Moore, Marianne. Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924. Edited by Robin G. Schulze. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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