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The Poems of Marianne Moore, edited by Grace Schulman, Faber

Born in 1887, the great American poet Marianne Moore died in 1972. She was never prolific, and in fact reworked poems again and again across the decades, but she published from at least 1907 until the 1970s: poetry was the constant in her life. Her sensibility was informed by her Presbyterian upbringing, in which self-control but self-confidence went hand-in-hand throughout her long poetic career. She was neither dull nor self-satisfied, and if she could be angry (as in her 1917 poem about the British treatment of Ireland, “Sojourn in the Whale”), her poetry has a great discriminating strength to it. One of her early poems concludes, “The barrier of the lips is the best defense”, and that has the same tone of her most famous poem, “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” The very last poems collected here, translations of La Fontaine, also have a similar moral edge: “The Bear and the Garden-Lover” ends, “Intimates should be feared who lack perspicacity; / Choose wisdom, even in an enemy.”

Modernism has lived long enough, now, for it to be seen with affection rather than fear. Read with hindsight, La Fontaine illuminates Moore’s success as one of the modernists who were well-loved ahead of academic recognition. It may be that the moral imperative in her work is what has attracted readers over the years, but this does not seem an especially attractive characteristic on its own. La Fontaine was immensely popular in substantial part, surely, because of the dry, even dead-pan, wit of his fables (leaving aside their illustration), and because they so often dealt with animals, inviting them in to the imaginative world of the human.

Moore’s catalogue of animals concentrates on the exotic, and there is almost always a sense of fun in these poems. Moore is a pleasure to read for poems about “Tippoo’s Tiger”, “The Paper Nautilus”, and, a poem which is also a commentary on the elegance of Leonardo da Vinci’s creativity, “The Pangolin” (an armadillo-like animal). One title catches her self-deprecating wryness: “I Like a Horse but I Have a Fellow Feeling for a Mule.” There is a sense of the joy of the museum in this book, and in fact, in 1911, she visited Britain where she went to galleries in London, Oxford, and Glasgow. The sea itself, though, may have been as important an influence as anything else, and in one poem, “Rats”, she concludes “to one who has been accustomed to it, shipping is the / most interesting thing in the world.”

This edition departs from the previous Complete Poems in presenting the individual poems chronologically. The early poems shine through this arrangement, and in no sense can they be seen as juvenilia. The section “Little Magazines 1915-1919” illustrates Moore’s substantial contribution to the literary experiments of the day, but there is something very sociable about her writing. Emily Dickinson and Laura Riding might be kindred voices, but Moore is neither speaking passionately alone as Dickinson can seem nor asserting so complicatedly as Riding. William Carlos Williams’s essay on her writing in 1925 recognised a fellow poet of not-to-be-belittled common speech and the poems still have a looking-you-in-the face clarity today. As she says in her poem “England”, her own poems are written “in plain American which cats and dogs can read!”

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