In Praise of the Difficult: On Marianne Moore, Defiant Poet of Complexity

Gabrielle Bellot: "I’m accustomed to difficulty."

By  Gabrielle Bellot

In “Feeling and Precision,” a contemplative essay by the Modernist poet Marianne Moore from 1944, she argued—in a sense—against the claims that her famously difficult and opaque poems were lacking in emotion. Emotion itself, she suggested, was something simple, clear language could not always capture. For Moore, “feeling” itself, “at its deepest… tends to be inarticulate.” In “Silence,” a poem Moore had composed two decades earlier, she had expressed a similar sentiment. “[T]he deepest feeling,” she wrote, “always shows itself in silence.”

When asked, as she relays in “Feeling and Precision,” by “[o]ne of New York’s more painstaking magazines” to “analyze” the structure of her sentences, she responded with a set of defiant principles, one of which claimed that “expanded explanation tends to spoil the lion’s leap.” For her, seeing a lion leap—that is, seeing a thing simply be or occur—was enough, just as it was enough to visualize William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, from the famed—and infamous—poem of the same name.

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens

Williams’ poem reads in full, at once a brief masterpiece of evoking visual clarity and, when it comes to what the poem may mean, a vast brambly labyrinth in which a minotaur, following us through the twists and turns, trollishly grins at our stumblings. Let the poem be, without trying to solve the maze, Moore appears to advise her critics; read Williams’ words enough, like her own, and the words that may have seemed opaque and visual alone seem to buzz with emotion, with a quiet, not wholly definable energy.

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In other words, Moore believed that poetry that was too on-the-nose failed to dip into that special, untranslatable realm in which our most complex feelings reside, that space in which our emotions live in the thrumming electric hum of atoms, or the world around stars. Difficulty, she believed, defined reality, at least in some moments. And I think it especially important, as 2019 begins, to remember the importance of complicated art.

An editor told me quite the opposite. In the Trump era, they informed me, writers of personal essays required extreme precision and bluntness. One should avoid having too many details, lyric language, and even seemingly tepid political references—the latter a bulwark against having conservative readers label their mainstream publication “fake news” or “biased” or a “libtard rag.” Be careful with your opinions and your stories; let them be simple and direct, but not too sharp that they might cut against the bad beliefs someone may hold, or force them to think too much.

Moore believed that poetry that was too on-the-nose failed to dip into that special, untranslatable realm in which our most complex feelings reside.

Complexity and difficulty of many kinds—even political difficulty, by virtue of calling out the present administration for their lies—were dangerous, it seemed, since readers, according to this logic, were neither patient nor smart enough to process certain types of writing in the wake of the election—an insult both to writers and readers, regardless of one’s political affiliation. This editorial advice was brief, but it was also frightening, for it was an attempt to make difficult writing more palatable—even when it needs its unpleasant edges.

After the 2016 election, I wrote a response to it. Like many people, it hit me hard. The piece was published, then unceremoniously taken down the same day it was put up. It needed additional editing, apparently—which primarily meant that I had to pare down some of the more emotional parts, where I revealed that I had cried after learning the results (which I had). People needed to be cautious, the editor told me; everyone was on edge after the election. It went back up later that day. It was only in retrospect that I realized how weird this situation was. How the terror of being perceived as “fake news” had caused an editor to decide that my piece needed to have some of its sharper edges softened, so they would not upset conservative readers. How even the editor himself—and all the other editors involved—seemed genuinely upset that they had had to do this.

I’m accustomed to difficulty.

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Walk through the world a certain way, and you become difficult, dangerous. Difficult women must be dealt with, brought down to size, softened, lest we take up too much obvious space. Speak too loudly, as a person from a marginalized community, and you suddenly will be—if you have not already been—branded as one of the bad ones, one of the difficult people who are too loud, too different, who ask too much when we demand basic rights and respect. I’m accustomed to the many shades of difficulty people project onto you, imagine constellating you, when you are a brown-skinned woman, and all the more when they realize you are trans and queer. We are meant to walk slowly, or sleepwalk; to walk and talk with the force of conviction, to draw attention to the blood-dark soil that a country’s supremacies bloom from, terrifies the people who use “difficult” as a code for shut up, know your place.

Difficulty is vital.

Moore’s poems were difficult in their own ways, and so, too, was Moore herself, who flummoxed and angered readers and reviewers who thought she was not the right kind of poet, not the right kind of woman. She was a poet of her era—the younger, more subversive Moore, for sure—but I think she has lessons to teach us today, even if they are written in a tongue I, too, am still trying to decode.

*

If Moore’s richest poems resist simple classroom elucidation, Moore, too, mystified her critics. At the height of her fame, she was known as much for her output as for her outfit, floating about in the black tricorn hat of a revolutionary soldier and an elegant dark cape, as though she were the ghost of some grand graceful spinster from an earlier century. She had purchased her first tricorn while at Bryn Mawr College; the adornment would become her trademark garment, even more than the sweeping cape. “I like the shape—it conceals the defects of my head,” she said of the hat. In its sartorial nod to the American Revolution, the tricorn perhaps functioned as something more than a self-deprecating cover-up; it symbolized the same rejection of tyranny that her poetry did, by going against poetic traditions, and was an eschewing, too, of the images of the then-modern, fashionable American woman. But her critics were baffled. Some thought it was an inexplicable affectation; others imagined it a strange George-Washington-themed joke without a clear punchline. They couldn’t let her be.

Moore, too, mystified her critics. At the height of her fame, she was known as much for her output as for her outfit, floating about in the black tricorn hat of a revolutionary soldier and an elegant dark cape.

In the minds of certain (and largely male) critics, her sexuality also defied comprehension. Because she did not ever marry and rarely wrote poems expressing obvious romantic desire, reviewers often imagined her a kind of piously virginal figure from a purer age, a romanticization that ignores the wide, varicolored spectrum of how people may desire. “No poet has been so chaste,” declared the critic R.P. Blackmur in 1935, expressing a view of Moore that would dominate for decades to come.

In a 1987 New York Times review of a centennial exhibit of Moore’s “poetic vision,” Herbert Mitgang went so far as to refer to her “Mary Poppins innocence,” a comparison evoking a prim, proper, rigid woman living more in the land of children than that of adults. Such oversimplified labels ignored the fact that Moore, who had been raised in part by two women—her mother, Mary Moore, and her female lover, Mary Norcross—was queer. As with the lesbian poet Amy Lowell, who wrote far more nakedly about desire, biographers seemed to miss her queerness altogether, instead assuming she was simply a frigid heterosexual woman who would have been happier had she just found the right guy.

Particularly in her youth, Moore had crushes, a number of which were on other girls. However, she never overtly seemed to fall in love, which confounded and even infuriated readers who expected women to write conventional lyrics of love. Moore, who may have been asexual—that is, she had little to no sexual desire, though she may have been romantic, meaning that she was able to desire non-sexual loving relationships with others—seemed a Victorian curiosity in the age of Allen Ginsberg’s sexually in-your-face 1956 poem, Howl.

To a subset of second-wave feminists in the 1970s who called for sexual liberation and the freedom for women to show their rage, her sexless poems were old-fashioned, lacking the revolutionary spirit her hat suggested; despite being queer and having had a woman-loving mother, Moore seemed patrician compared to writers like Adrienne Rich, whose feminist manifesto, “When We Dead Awaken,” called for women to wake up and fight against oppression. It was no longer Moore’s time; it was also not yet her time, perhaps.

Sadly, even today, asexuality—itself a spectrum—rarely seems to be taken seriously or understood, despite the fact that many well-known writers, from Edward Gorey to Keri Hulme, have explicitly or implicitly self-defined as asexual. There is no requirement to write about sexuality, or anything else; Moore should have been free to avoid the subject if she wished to, just as any woman should be free to write explicitly about sexual desire, pleasure, and pain.

Even now, people still often look at you strange if you don’t experience desire in a way they can understand, as if something is wrong with you, broken inside you, stoppered, like a ship in a bottle that simply needs to be let out—when, instead, there are many ways to express desire, and we do more harm than help to assume that sexual desire is unambiguously universal. Asexuality, like sexuality, is a spectrum; human experience is multifaceted, not unlike Moore’s poems. Even if Moore sometimes came across as proper, she was not repressed; she was simply herself, a ship in a bottle that, if one stopped long enough to look, seemed almost to float off on waves of its own.

*

The then-radical poetry being published in Poetry and journals like Others—the kind of poetry Moore was drawn to from early on—was frequently ridiculed in the press, but some critics, like J.B. Kerfoot of Life magazine, recognized its subversive power. Kerfoot, who was an associate of the paradigm-challenging 291 gallery run by the Modernist photographer and curator Alfred Stieglitz, described the early 20th century’s avant-garde poetry as “the expression of a democracy of feeling against an aristocracy of form.” It was an appropriately anti-monarchical phrase: the poetry Moore, who enjoyed her visits to Stieglitz’s gallery, would become known for was a toppling of old systems of literary rule. But her writing was not difficult for the sake of it. She was attempting to get at something deeper beneath the diaphanous fabric of life. She was trying to create feelings in her readers, even if those feelings defied language.

Even now, people still often look at you strange if you don’t experience desire in a way they can understand, as if something is wrong with you.

Like that red wheelbarrow or Ezra Pound’s 1913 evocation of a Parisian metro station, Moore’s poems simply exist, wellsprings of images and abstractions, mesmeric in their meticulous, Byzantine marbling, thick-yet-thin pools to sink through, like swimming, somehow, through jewel or metal or magma. Sometimes, they are curious, almost alien visions of the natural world, like “The Fish” or “Paper Nautilus.” Other poems ponder color and form, like “Buffalo”; some freely stitch together quotations from a variety of texts, including academic exegesis, like her polyphonic masterpiece of pastiche, “The Octopus,” in which multiple voices speak through the stanzas, almost like the hallucinatory effect of Eliot’s Waste Land.

“The Fish,” perhaps my favorite of her poems, begins, unexpectedly, with the title itself as the first line, and evokes a gorgeous, lapidary seascape, beginning with fish that “wade through black jade,” almost as though they are images in an elaborate bejeweled design. The speaker observes like a camera. Strikingly, the poem is bereft of humans—except for when the subtle but fatal marks of humankind appear underwater, quietly thinning, then eradicating, swathes of marine life. There are “ash-heaps,” a mussel that moves like an “injured fan,” “marks of abuse” on an undersea wall with “dynamite grooves, burns, and / hatchet strokes.” The “chasm-side is / dead,” she reveals. Of course, these may not be the result of human violence; they may be natural. But Moore never reveals more than this. The poem ends as enigmatically as it begins: lovely, disquieting, unabashed in its opacity.

Certainly, Moore’s oeuvre is far from uniform in its difficulty—especially her later, seemingly less challenging poems. In 1947, after the death of her mother, she abandoned much of the earlier work her fans had come to associate with her. Her old poems now felt too trying and bizarre. In a sense, she transformed into a different poet altogether. “Please, Miss Moore, don’t do this,” readers pleaded with her in essays and reviews. But Moore seemed determined to rewrite herself for a new era of her life. “Omissions are not accidents,” she tellingly declared to readers in the preface to her 1967 Complete Poems. Her simplest poem was one she supplied little more than the title to: an improbable collaboration with Mohammed Ali in 1967 in a Manhattan restaurant, composed on the back of a menu, which consisted of rhyming braggadocio about each poet’s—for Ali considered himself a poet—skills.

A frequent reviser, some of Moore’s more substantial revisions at once simplified her work and left readers perplexed. This is perhaps nowhere truer than in her notorious reworking of “Poetry,” a poem originally published in 1924 that she tinkered with over the course of her life (though she preserved the first line in every rendition). Once nearly 40 lines, she reduced it to three in 1967, lines slightly modified from the 1924 opening that seem astonishingly bland, even sophomoric, by themselves, in comparison to the original. The 1967 revision simply, almost wryly read:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

But to criticize her revision is partly to miss the point of it. Despite her reputation for difficulty, Moore championed precision; her images, while mysterious in their meaning, are often clear, almost cinematic, as visuals. The longest and shortest editions of “Poetry” exist in a kind of conversation with each other. Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” so often considered a marvel of economy and the acme of the rich, elliptical language of Imagism, was originally much longer, before Pound cut it down to two lines, possibly while under the influence of a ukiyo-e woodcut by Suzuki Harunobu he had seen at the British Library. Moore’s revisions challenge the naïve idea that there is ever one unchangeable version of a work; instead, there are many versions, one perhaps a grander edifice than another, but all influencing each other.

Perhaps this was an intentional poetic project of sorts, composed over the decades of a life: all of her revisions, braided to each other as one long, dislikable, but genuine poem, the meaning of which becomes both clearer and murkier the shorter each revision gets.

*

Moore’s work and life challenge us. Even in 2019, some of her writing and some aspects of her queerness still seem potent and defiant, if quietly so, especially in an era where there is an ever-more-dangerous conservative backlash against queer identities of all kinds, and in an era all too often dominated by simplistic social media discourse.

I cherish simplicity, which can be beautiful and hard to achieve in of itself; I cherish difficulty, when it’s earned, as well. And when difficulty means affirming my identities in a world that does not always wish for people like me to exist, I shall be difficult.

Moore’s work asks us to slow down, amidst the hecticness of the world, and read something, again, and again, until it seems to achieve a new kind of meaning, even one we cannot always fully put into words. It is a privilege to be able to slow down and reread, especially those of us who must work endless hours to make ends meet, and there is always more and more to read. But it is worth it. “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction,” Rich wrote in “When We Dead Awaken, “is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.” Be difficult, Moore seems to say in her quietly revolutionary ways, more akin to Rich’s message than some might believe, and I take that simple but ocean-vast pledge, which defines the complexity of the world, to heart.

Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The Cut, Tin House, Guernica, The Normal School, Lambda Literary, and many other places. She is working on her first novel.





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