Marianne Moore was a passionate reviser…



From The Nation:

Moore was born near St. Louis, Missouri, in 1887. Her parents separated before her birth, and subsequently her father, already institutionalized, severed his hand, taking literally the injunction of Matthew 5:30 (“If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off”). To her mother and her brother Warner, who became a Presbyterian minister, Moore remained fiercely, sometimes pathologically close. Though she attended Bryn Mawr College, became a suffragette, moved to a tiny Greenwich Village apartment in 1918, and edited the legendary magazine The Dial from 1925 until its demise in 1929 (an achievement that would ensure our interest in Moore even if she had written no poems), she lived with her mother until her mother’s death in 1947. It’s hard to imagine Marianne Moore sharing a bed with her mother while also composing her fiercely syntax-driven poems—poems in which domestic relations often seem pointedly nightmarish: “the spiked hand / that has affection for one / and proves it to the bone, / impatient to assure you / that impatience is the mark of independence / not of bondage.”

Moore began publishing these poems around 1915, and immediately they were noticed by the poets who became her peers—Pound, Eliot, Stevens, H.D., Williams—poets who would each write admiring essays about her work. Yet Moore remained mysterious. “Does your stuff ‘appear’ in America?” asked Pound after first encountering her poems in England. “Dear Mr. Pound,” replied Moore, “I do not appear.” In 1921, H.D. helped to arrange the appearance of a small collection, called Poems, but Moore was neither involved with the publication nor pleased with the results. She held out as long as she could, finally publishing her first book, Observations, with the Dial Press in 1924; a slightly revised second edition appeared the following year. Though Moore would continue to write superb poems throughout her long life (she died in 1972), she would never surpass the achievement of Observations, which is not merely a collection of discrete poems but a poetic omniverse of Whitmanian proportions.

Moore was a passionate reviser. Prior to being collected in Observations, her poems appeared in little magazines in sometimes drastically different versions, and she continued to revise them for decades to come. Reading a poem from the 1920s in her 1967 Complete Poems, often one is in fact reading a poem from 1935 or 1951; this conundrum was wildly exacerbated by the recent Poems, which reprints (in the words of the volume’s editor, Moore’s friend Grace Schulman) “versions [of the poems] that I liked.” In addition, because Moore’s various selected and collected editions rearrange and omit some of the poems of Observations, the design of this volume has largely been obscured. A facsimile edition appeared in 2002 (Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907–1924, meticulously edited by Robin Schulze), but it is only now that Moore’s Observations has finally been reprinted as a book that devoted readers might hold in their hands.

“Less is Moore”, James Longenbach, The Nation