Marianne Moore’s Sinuous Truths

Moore writing at her desk.

Paul Celan translated several of Marianne Moore’s poems into German for a 1952 German edition of Perspectives USA, a short-lived magazine started by New Directions founder, James Laughlin. In his Celan biography, John Felstiner writes, “[Celan] responded to her verbal acumen with his own, and without mind-bending exertion. The first two poems went into German cleanly, though without her intricate rhyming and syllabifying. And What Are Years? had a clear call on him . . . Moore’s sinuous truths fit Celan’s own ever-aggravating struggle.”

It is the first poem that kindled my appreciation of Moore’s poetry, though it isn’t necessarily characteristic of her writing. Felstiner presents a truncated version of the poem in the Celan biography, which includes the question mark after the title, surely as Celan would’ve also come to know the poem. Moore did not like the question mark

“Miss Moore told me that she did not want the question mark after the title. “In my ‘What Are Years’ the printers universally have insisted on putting a question mark after the title: ‘What Are Years?’ It’s not that at all! It’s a meditation: ‘What Are Years. What Are Years.’ You’re thinking about it, not asking anyone to come and answer you. But they won’t have it that way.”

It has been too long since I reread Moore, who may be underappreciated today, so I take this opportunity to quote her compelling poem, without the question mark.

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,
encourage others
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.