American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Marianne Moore


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In 1933, in a review of Emily Dickinson’s letters, Marianne Moore wrote:

As Mr. Trueblood has noted, “What she said seems always said with the choicest originality.” Whittier, Bryant, and Thoreau were choice; and to some extent Emerson. Hawthorne was a bear but great. All of these except Whittier seem less choice than their neighbor “Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty” she called herself, not realizing the pinnacle of favor to which her words of dejection were to be raised.

OK, wait a second. Moore preferred Whittier? To all of the others? Choice indeed.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 23, 2016 at 6:12 am

Paying Major Heed to Minor Poets

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Or not minor, no, definitely not, just underappreciated. Or better: insufficiently understood …

A few days ago Ron Silliman linked to a recent post of mine, Paying Little Mind to Major Poets. Today he has a response (link here). It’s a thoughtful note, and I’m thankful to Ron for working through my remarks so carefully, even if he does focus on the effect (my insistence on the importance of Marianne Moore — and dislike of others — and the rewriting of history that proposes), ignoring what I said about the cause (reading’s affective resistances and attractions, themselves historicizable, and the potentially distorting effects they have on understanding). The short answer, though, is that Ron is right: I am, at bottom, hallucinating a world — a future world from which the past looks very different than it does today.

The issue for me is when such hallucinations, which is to say errors, become legitimate revisions of understanding. Is the dividing line purely subjective? Or is it a matter of polemical interpretation? Or something susceptible of verification? If the last, what else could this verification be, if not the work done as a result? For instance, if Language Poetry is a reading of the New York School in which Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer are, counter-intuitively, more central than Berrigan, Berkson, and Padgett, what might the test of that reading be, if not Language Poetry itself? (And if you think, as I do, that the first three names are as significant as the last three, then Language Poetry has gone far toward passing the test, even if you don’t think you like it.) [1]

But beyond the issue of error vs. understanding, there is a subsidiary issue of how. How is it that the line gets crossed? How does it happen that an eccentric personal preference becomes the eccentric preference for a whole subculture, and then, under certain circumstances, the central preference for culture at large? The most famous example of this unlikely trajectory is Eliot’s reevaluation of the metaphysical poets, which became a modernist preference, and then, by way of New Criticism, part of a new hegemonic theory of poetry. Was that hegemony a distortion, or a legitimate revision of understanding? Or can we have it both ways?

Those last questions are deeply interesting to me. They go to the very heart of my present interest in nineteenth-century American poetry. How could they not when I speak of that century as “The Age of Whitman and Dickinson,” even as I try to map a lost landscape in which Whitman was marginal and Dickinson invisible?

Can one accept the present’s view of the past and still inquire into the past’s own view of itself? Or to put this another way: Can one eat the fruits of distortion, and then — fortified — go out and chop down the tree? And still have fruit the next season? Probably not …

Or maybe so! If we throw away the core, letting the seeds take root …

Anyway, go read Ron’s response, if you haven’t already. (I love his analogy to birdwatching.)


Regarding Moore herself: I’ve written before about her importance; the essay in which I did so (which incorporates, btw, a brief statement by Ron!) was published in Critics and Poets on Marianne Moore: “A Right Good Salvo of Barks,” edited by Linda Leavell, Cristanne Miller, and Robin G. Schulze. Much of the essay is available through Google Books (but not, alas, the pages with Ron’s statement; link here).

As an addendum to Ron’s note, though, let me add that the modernism I see with Moore at the center has nothing to do with her social relationships. I see her as the first American poet to make “the linguistic turn” (as it came to be known), and one who did so without ever reducing language to words and grammar. Rhetoric, she understood, is as intrinsic to language as any of the more material elements (such as letters and sounds); and though she did on occasion succumb to rhetoric — conceiving of readers in the old-fashioned way, as an audience to be swayed — her best work, composed with found language, demands a new kind of reader. In this sense, the difficulty of her work supports an entirely different pedagogical mission than that of Eliot or Pound.


1 [Back to text] I am thinking here of Ron Silliman’s anthology In the American Tree (1986), which includes Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer but not Berrigan, Berkson, or Padgett. That reading of the New York School was specific to a certain historical moment, though perhaps it would still hold true for Silliman and others who might have shared it. In any case, it is this notion of centrality (and others like it from my early education as a poet: Duncan’s insistence on H.D., Creeley’s insistence on Zukofsky, the Language Poets’ insistence on Stein) that I had in mind when I made my claim for Moore.

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 28, 2009 at 7:30 am

The Center of Modernism (Not)

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gotham-book-martI’m getting far afield of the nineteenth century here, but I couldn’t resist posting the picture to the left as a followup to my last post, which referred to Marianne Moore as the center of modernism (my modernism, I would add, if that qualification means anything).

The picture, taken at the Gotham Book Mart in 1948, is a famous one, though it’s not exactly a gathering of the gods. How could it be, with Stevens and Williams both missing in action? (Both lived within driving distance.) The occasion was a party for Osbert and Edith Sitwell, who were visiting the United States on a lecture tour, and a picture of the occasion appeared soon after in Life. The full text of that issue is available through Google Books (link here). The article, which is on the Sitwells, begins on page 164; there’s a photo on page 169 taken just before or after the one I’ve reproduced.

Anyway, I thought of this picture because I faintly remembered that Moore sits in the center. Which turns out to be false: the woman in the center is Edith Sitwell. Moore is a little to her right, just under Auden, who is staring over everyone else from a ladder.

Now Sitwell is in many respects a more interesting figure than Moore for the purposes of this blog, as she’s a poet who commanded a great deal of respect in her own lifetime (witness the coverage in Life), but who has since fallen out of general currency. She still has admirers; Lisa Robertson is one. And I am too, after a fashion. I love her Poet’s Notebook, which I first read at Robert Duncan’s behest — he mentions it, I think, in one of his essays — and I hold Façade in high regard. Also, I once edited a magazine with Andrew Schelling called Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root; though the title comes from Joyce, I found it in a commonplace book by Sitwell. So yes, I think of her as a figure well worth rescuing from oblivion, if that’s in fact where she’s headed. The kind of poet I would write about here, if only she had flourished a century before (and been American). Not the center of my attention, but part of a circle well worth turning in my head. Read the rest of this entry »