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.

Like steps of passing ghosts

Tastes in critics and book reviewers, like cities and vegetables, are idiosyncratic. It probably has as much to do with voice as with the acuity of their exegesis, or exquisite taste. As much as we resist, fashion and peer pressure might play a part. Some, like Gabriel Josipovici, earn our trust and admiration for the rigour of his prose, even when our literary tastes differ markedly.

I’ve travelled a lot lately, but am in Hampshire for the autumn, with the low, dense English skies that always bring me home. Looking up some notes on Borges, I came across a poem I recorded in a notebook a few years back, by an American poet called Adelaide Crapsey:

‘Listen.
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.’

The other night I had a strange, striking dream. I rarely remember dreams and I remember little of the narrative context, but I was accompanied throughout the dream by Eileen Battersby, a book reviewer, American by birth, but who lived in Ireland, and died last year. I barely know her work, perhaps read one or two reviews when someone linked to them on Twitter. I still know little but watched on YouTube an interview with Battersby, John Banville and Enrique Vila-Matas. I can see little from her reviews to suggest we would share literary inclinations, but I liked her physical voice and passion for literature.

That Feeling of Collusion With Eternity

I couldn’t resist posting the opening of Christian Wiman’s latest memoir. I’ve been unable to sleep and stuck on this first page. Old oatmeal is near perfect. By coincidence, but unsurprisingly, Wiman is devoted and frustrated in equal parts by the work of Simone Weil.

“I stayed up late last night reading the letters of A. R. Ammons, who for years sowed and savored his loneliness in lonely Ithaca. “Keep Ithaka always in your mind,” wrote Constantin Cavafy, ‘Arriving there is what you’re destined for.” And he did, Ammons, keep that mythical Ithaka in his mind, which is to say in his poems, decade after decade of diaristic ramblings that are as flavorless as old oatmeal this morning, as null and undifferentiated as deep space—then lit up suddenly by a meteoric masterpiece that must have surprised the workaday writer as much as it does the fatigued reader. It is heroic and it is pathetic, like the life of any real writer, I suppose, all the waste space one fills as one can, some with silence, which is often excruciating for the writer, some with noise, which passes that agony along to the reader. And all for what? Those moments of mysterious intrusion, that feeling of collusion with eternity, of life and language riled to the one wild charge:

THE CITY LIMITS

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, thenk
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.”

Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light

The Real Question

This passage from Gabriel Josipovici’s introduction to his The Mirror of Criticism seems to me to pin down the most real but least well understood question and challenge of literature, any writing that aspires to be literary:

“. . . confirms Kafka in his feelings that the well-written work [Gerhard Hauptmann’s Anna], however well it is written, holds no interest for him. It makes him realise once more (the remark comes in a letter written towards the end of his life) that for him the real question has never been: How can I write as well as this? but: Why should I write this kind of thing at all? And, if not this, then what? The encounter with [Hans] Arp’s work reveals to [Wallace] Stevens, through what it lacks, that the greatest art is an affront as well as a pleasure; that there is an art which is good, intelligent, aesthetically pleasing, but which we will never feel to be really important because it never quite dares to be more than that, to recognise its dangerous power.”

— Gabriel Jospovici, The Mirror of Criticism

The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Wallace Stevens, The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

I find this poem exceptionally moving and keep returning to it when I cannot sleep. As one of the commenters writes here, where I came across this poem, the immense volume of Wallace Steven’s poetry has served as an obstacle and I’ve never known quite where to begin exploring his work. I’ve got a Collected Poetry and Prose around that I think Steve wrote about years ago. This might be something to explore next year.