What are years?
by Marianne Moore
What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, –
dumbly calling, deafly listening-that
in misfortune, even death,
and in it’s defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.
Patrick Kurp’s reference to Marianne Moore here
sent me off to find what I could about her. Born in 1887 in Kirkwood, Missouri, Moore began publishing poetry in 1905. During a time of popularity she was asked by Ford Motor Company officials to suggest names for a new series of cars. She offered at least nineteen, the worst being ‘Magigravue,’ ‘Pastelogram,’ and ‘Turcotingo,’ and the best perhaps including ‘Chaparral,’ ‘Mongoose Civique,’ and ‘Silver Sword.’ Declining all of her suggestions, Ford chose the name ‘Edsel.’ (University of Illinois, Department of English, “Marianne Moore’s Life and Career” found here
According to Oswald and Gale, authors of “Marianne Moore’s Life and Career,” Miss Moore’s body of work defied easy description:
Moore has proved to be an engaging puzzle, not only to critics of her time but to later ones as well. It is seen that her themes broadened to a degree as she matured. In early works she emphasized a need for discipline and heroic behavior. Later she stressed the need for spiritual grace and love. To survive, she hinted, one must be alert, disciplined, and careful. Gradually she moved from scrutinizing one object to comparing several objects. She delighted in whimsically describing characteristics of animals and athletes, seeing both organisms as subjects and exemplars of art. Never dogmatic in propounding her morality, she often distanced herself and remained furtive by attributing declarative dicta to others and by commenting on quotations and even photographs expressing the point of view of others. For these reasons, critics have not yet reached a consensus–is she modern or anachronistic, imagistic or objectivistic? Regardless, Moore tremendously relished her quietly intense, largely bookish, often convivial life, made memorable to a host of friends by her rapid-fire talk. She was superb at her chosen craft. Her expression is notable for deftness and sharpness of detail, linguistic experimentation, and integration of fresh observation and obscure reading. She teases the reader into looking at reality with keener vision, as though, like her, seemingly for the very first time; challenges the reader to accept the relationship of big and little, animate and inanimate, ideal and object; and invites the reader to note, and practice, the power of words. To those who complained that her poetry often seemed obscure, she once replied that something that was work to write ought to be work to read. Her life displayed and her writings expressed the virtues of courage, loyalty, patience, modesty, spontaneity, and steadfastness.
I like her poems and think they must have been a source of joy for her too. For instance,
My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self reliant like the cat —
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth —
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “`Make my house your inn’.”
Inns are not residences.
And one more:
The Past is the Present
If external action is effete
and rhyme is outmoded,
I shall revert to you,
Habakkuk, as when in a Bible class
the teacher was speaking of unrhymed verse.
He said – and I think I repeat his exact words –
“Hebrew poetry is prose
with a sort of heightened consciousness.” Ecstasy affords
the occasion and expediency determines the form.