by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Dragon – a mythical creature appearing in many cultures, used to symbolize many things: power, wisdom, menace, good fortune, destruction, greed, the bones of the earth, illusion, the longing of human beings to fly, etc.
November 15 is the anniversary of the birth of
American poet Marianne Moore (1887–1972).
She is still a figure of mystery and controversy over 40 years after her death.
Researching Marianne Moore can be hazardous to your health. There is a voluminous amount of scholarly criticism, most of it falling more or less into two camps: the “masculine view” and the “feminine view.”
The “masculine view” does terrible things to my blood pressure. Ironically, the gender of these critics really doesn’t matter – it’s the mind-set that the sex of a woman writer is the most important factor in evaluating her work – so she must be measured against the male writer yardstick (the “dickstick” for short – sorry the puns are endless), usually to her detriment.
For example, one “psychological analysis” of Moore’s poem O to Be a Dragon asserts that it means she secretly wanted to be a clergyman because she was so thwarted by her place as a woman in society, and goes on about dragons being powerful and able to fly and so forth. It apparently never occurs to the author a dragon could be female. This author also misses the significance that the dragon attributes which Moore wishes for in the poem are the ability to change size or be invisible at will.
O to Be a Dragon
If I, like Solomon,…
could have my wish–
my wish… O to be a dragon,
a symbol of the power of Heaven–of silkworm
size or immense; at times invisible.
Solomon’s wish was entirely different: Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people? (King James Bible – Kings 3:9)
Masculine critics from Moore’s early years “praise” her writing as being “not too feminine” or conversely, they’re always aware the writer was a woman, but decide that was “a virtue” in her case. When I hit the ever-popular “she-has-an-almost-masculine-mind,” I moved on.
Mostly in hindsight, the “feminine view” finds Moore not feminist enough. I admit, viewing from the 21st century her poem What Are Years, her use of “he” is jarring, but the poem was written in 1940, when the convention of using “he” to mean “a person” was still deeply ingrained.
I am much more distracted by Moore’s spelling choices, her confusing punctuation, and where she breaks her lines. Moore’s work often takes me several readings over time to absorb the poems, but they are well worth every bit of extra effort.
What Are Years
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 its 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.
Even Roses Only, the poem considered her “most feminist,” has been poked at by some “feminine view” critics. It’s a dense poem, with more than one possible interpretation.
You do not seem to realize that beauty is a liability rather
an asset – that in view of the fact that spirit creates form
we are justified in supposing
that you must have brains. For you, a symbol of the
unit, stiff and sharp,
conscious of surpassing by dint of native superiority and
liking for everything
self-dependent, anything an
ambitious civilization might produce: for you, unaided, to
attempt through sheer
reserve, to confuse presumptions resulting from
observation, is idle. You cannot make us
think you a delightful happen-so. But rose, if you are
is not because your petals are the without-which-nothing
of pre-eminence. Would you not, minus
thorns, be a what-is-this, a mere
perculiarity? They are not proof against a worm, the
elements, or mildew;
but what about the predatory hand? What is brilliance
without co-ordination? Guarding the
infinitesimal pieces of your mind, compelling audience to
the remark that it is better to be forgotten than to be re-
membered too violently,
your thorns are the best part of you.
But the density of the poem is nothing compared to the density of the criticism. This is where my eyes begin to feel the strain:
“French feminists have in fact theorized what Moore had been doing about half a century before; the subverting of the forms, structures and meanings as used by the existing representational powers. As a result, her meanings are rarely conclusive and her notoriously difficult poetry is best read as an inconclusive encounter with the predominant literary tradition and larger system of representation which modifies and disrupts these orders.”
— Elien Arckens, Marianne Moore: American Modernist read from a French Feminist Perspective
And Arckens is actually one of the more readable and insightful scholars.
I won’t drag you into the really incomprehensible stuff, but here’s a very brief sample of the semi-incomprehensible:
“Sandra Gilbert who points out Moore’s “parodically spinsterish asexuality”, Susanne Juhasz who similarly asserts that seeking critical recognition the poet “had to play by the boys rules” and “opted for nonsexuality”, or Jeanne Heuving who argues against treating Moore as neuter and sexless, and who claims at the same time that she “did not make gender an important part of her public identity as a writer … engender[ing] difference primarily through the subtleness of the poetic medium itself”.
— adroitly summed up by Paulina Ambroży-Lis, in “Your Thorns Are the Best Part of You”: The Female Poet and the Question of Non-Conformity in the Poetry of Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein
Sheepishly, I am reminded of Mark Twain’s opening statement for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
The very thing I am attempting to do, while at the same time, decrying the attempts of others. Criticism is a tricky business.
Marianne Moore will remain a literary figure of mystery and controversy no matter what I say. I can only hope that my words make you want to go to the source — the poems themselves — and decide what they mean to you.
Thank you for reading this week’s Word Cloud.
Sources and Further Reading:
Biographical Information on Marianne Moore – https://poetanthology.wikispaces.com/Marianne+Moore http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/marianne-moore
O to Be a Dragon – https://poetanthology.wikispaces.com/Marianne+Moore
What Are Years – http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/what-are-years/
Roses Only – http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/marianne-moore/roses-only/
Elien Arckens, Marianne Moore: American Modernist read from a French Feminist Perspective –
Click to access RUG01-002162586_2014_0001_AC.pdf
Paulina Ambroży-Lis: “Your Thorns Are the Best Part of You”: The Female Poet and the Question of Non-Conformity in the Poetry of Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein – http://wa.amu.edu.pl/sap/files/44/28_L_Ambrozy.pdf
The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (Macmillan, 1967)
Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics (Viking Press, 1966)
The Arctic ox (Faber and Faber, 1964)
O to Be a Dragon (Viking Press, 1959)
Like a Bulwark (Viking Press, 1956)
Collected Poems (Macmillan, 1951)
Nevertheless (Macmillan, 1944)
What Are Years? (Macmillan, 1941)
The Pangolin and Other Verse (Brendin Publishing Co., 1936)
Selected Poems (Macmillan, 1935)
Observations (The Dial Press, 1924)
Poems (The Egoist Press, 1921)
Dragon mosaic – Reggio Calabria Museo Nationale in Italy
Photograph of Marianne Moore with branches
Dragon on the flag of Bhutan
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud