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Marianne Moore probably would have hated my guts, considering my rather sloppy, and sprawling ways, and she would have been right to do so. She scares me the way Cordelia scares me–by dint of her absolute integrity. She makes me love her the way I once loved an impossibly precise and severe girl in the fourth grade, who in addition to precision and severity, took an absolute delight in whatever she found worthy, surpassing any delight I had previously witnessed. It was calm, yet intense, and of a constancy once formed that made me wish I was a better person. I realized her delight was far greater, and of far more depth than my unbridled enthusiasms. Until then, I had thought myself substantial. Without ever insulting me, or explicitly disapproving of my shallowness, this girl dismantled my high self-notions. I loved and feared her, and wanted more than anything to be someone she would admire. It didn’t happen. I caved into the whims of my classmates, and played the fool, and she knew better.

But all this is fairly common knowledge concerning Marianne Moore. What no one seems to speak of is that this sort of integrity (Katherine Hepburn minus beauty or Hollywood) counts on a quality of character we might not think a virtue, but is, in a sense, an aspect of divinity: arbitrary favor.

Arbitrary favor differs from whim in so far as it rides on precision and integrity, and, yet, we might call it the most laudatory form of caprice. No one could predict what Marianne Moore would love, only that, if she admired it, looked upon it with favor, she would appreciate the thing, or animal, or person with the utmost decorum and skill. Her enthusiasm for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and for her Protestant faith do not seem consistent (the Dodgers of that time were anything but waspish), yet constancy is not the same as consistency, and, for this reason, constancy is always fresh, never stale. It carries within its scope a sense of “oh Brave new World,” and yet makes ordinary and even habitual the mechanisms of wonder.

So when I first read Marianne Moore in 7th grade, I experienced a rather Proustian recall of the girl in 4th, and found myself entering the poems with a kind of gingerly tread I reserve for people I don’t wish to look stupid around. The first poem I was exposed to was “To A Snail.” It was sister Irene’s favorite, and, though she knew better, she made a valiant attempt to export her admiration to the class. “Moore is both sensible and ecstatic,” sister said, “and to read her well, to appreciate her genius, you, too, must be both sensible and ecstatic.” (lots of dumbfounded stares, not a few yawns.) Here’s the poem:

If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
In the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

In my fifty-second year, I am beginning to understand what Sister Irene meant. At the time, she asked the class what Moore was trying to say. “Snails are interesting,” Barbara submitted. “Yes,” Sister replied, “no doubt, but could we go a bit further?” I slowly raised my hand. I was known for making the best fart noises by putting my hand in my arm pit and flapping my arm. I could also make myself sneeze at will. I was not known for being a literary analyst. “She is saying that the best thing about details, the best thing about anything said, or about the snail’s horn is that it shows the underlying principle underneath everything, and that’s what makes it good style. And she is saying it isn’t just that the snail’s horn is interesting, but that it is… (I groped for a word, a mighty word, a word that would drag me into the most glorious light)… exemplary?” “Yes!” sister exclaimed, and touched her lips three times with the chalk, “yes! That’s certainly more to the point! It is as Aquinas said, ‘all in nature that I see, shows me the creator I have not seen.’” Barbara rolled her eyes. Tommy Mc Gowan whispered, “show off.” Sister said: “Mr. Weil, every so often, you throw off your dunce cap and astound me! Here…” and she threw a book at me (she loved to throw things) It was 101 American poems. It was the first time anyone had given me a book of poetry. “Read it, Mr. Weil. Do not be tempted to regress to your natural state.”

In the years since I have often regressed, but I did read the book, and I re-read it. It was worth showing off in a manner different than my usual attempts to be ingratiating. It was worth my classmate’s contempt. On the way home from school, I could not stop thinking about the girl in fourth grade, her tremendous love of insects, her refusal to giggle at any other child, her forthrightness. And, as I walked home, I thought, if she had not moved away, if only she had been there,she may have been as delighted as sister Irene, and, for the briefest moment, I would have been more than a fool.

Assignment: Write a poem in which you take note of an animal, or object, but also use description to get at some underlying principle beyond the mere details.

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Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghamton and has several collections of poetry out there, A Portable Winter (with an introduction by Harvey Pekar), The Pursuit of Happiness, What Remains, Painting the Christmas Trees, and, most recently, The Plumber's Apprentice, published by New York Quarterly Press. He makes his home in Vestal, New York.

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  • london plumber February 9, 2011, 7:59 pm

    I was just now searching for about this when I discovered your post. I’m just stopping by to say that I really enjoyed reading this post, it’s very well written. Are you planning to write more on this? It seems like there is more depth here for more posts.

  • Anonymous February 9, 2011, 8:53 pm

    @london plumber: alas, there’s always more to say, isn’t there? :-)

    while i don’t know if joe’s planning on doing any follow ups to this particular piece, i wanted to say that if you read joe’s other pieces, you will notice many consistent themes throughout them. you can click on his picture in the author box to read other things he’s written.

    incidentally, perhaps you’d enjoy joe’s most recent book of poetry “the plumber’s apprentice”?

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