Dr. Heather White Discusses Marianne Moore

When was your first experience with Moore’s poetry?

I first read Moore as an undergraduate. I found her baffling. I read her again as a graduate student and was hooked by her descriptive precision, her baroque syntax, her ear for found language, and her wit.

Have you been able to visit and explore the places where she lived, walked, or worked?

I believe I’ve visited all three! Moore spent her adult life in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Brooklyn apartment where she lived for many decades, right by Fort Greene Park, is now marked by a handsome and informative brass plaque. I stumbled there tipsily one night after dinner with a Moore-loving friend. Another friend now lives one floor above the Manhattan apartment where Moore lived until her death in 1972, so I have at least been very near it. Anyone who wants to see what that apartment was like can visit the perfect replica of it maintained at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where her archives are located. Every time I visit, it shocks me to remember that it’s not magical surroundings that make a poet, but the poet’s mind that makes magic out of her surroundings. Moore’s curios are just curios, her books just books. I could live my whole life among them and never make of them what she made.

Do you teach Moore differently to undergraduate and graduate students? Is there a “best practice” for teaching her poetry?

No, no difference. The only best practices I know for Moore or any other poet are: 1) keeping the OED by your side and using it liberally. 2) Reading, and then rereading, year after year after year.

How does one weight historical value against aesthetic value when selecting her poems for publication?

Well, that’s such a tricky question I devoted an essay to it in my edition and even then barely scratched the surface. The short answer: in Moore’s case, I think the interests of history and aesthetics are both best served by reprinting the early versions of her poems as primary text, and presenting her later, revised versions as footnotes.

Anthony Lane of The New Yorker once wrote about the difference between reading the Bible in bed and reading the Bible in church. Is it challenging to enjoy Moore’s poetry without wearing a “scholar’s cap”?

I hope very much, now that the edition is finished, to make Moore bedtime reading again. One of the hazards of being a literary professional is that you are always in danger of making your pleasure your work. Fortunately, literature is patient. Long after you’ve forgotten everything you knew about it, it goes right on being great.

What are the three Moore poems that everyone should read and why?

That is a question to make a mother’s heart weep! But ok.

  1. “Poetry.” This is Moore’s most famous, most reprinted, and most revised poem. She first published it in 1919, and was still playing with it by 1967. It contains a few of her best images, including her now-canonical description of poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” But people should read it because it is as charismatic, prescient, and clear-eyed a manifesto for modern American poetry as the twentieth century produced.
  2. “An Octopus.” John Ashbery called this “the greatest Moore poem,” then wondered why he didn’t simply say “the greatest modern poem.” It is not about an octopus, but about a glacier; and not really about a glacier either, but about the persistence of the sublime into the modern age. It is also the most astonishing example of Moore’s gift for finding extraordinary bits of language everywhere she looked; much of the poem is made of quotations from National Parks Service brochures, guide books, advertisements, overheard remarks, and anything else that caught her ear.
  3. “Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarks.” I hesitate to recommend this poem, because even devoted Moore fans are sometimes defeated by it. Moore herself printed it only twice, and did not include it in either her Collected or Complete Poems. Its “subject” is about as elusive as its title would suggest; it considers values like workmanship and faithfulness while describing objects like Waterford crystal, handmade paper, and post-office cancellation stamps. I basically never get tired of it, finding new mysteries to admire every time I read it.

Dr. Heather White’s latest book,   New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore, is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.