75 at 75: Forrest Gander on Marianne Moore
A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Forrest Gander writes about a reading by Marianne Moore. It was recorded live at 92Y on October 30, 1954.
Posted on Mar 27, 2014
28 days before this reading, the New York Giants swept the Cleveland Indians in the 51st World Series and
23 days before this reading, Hassan el Hodelby, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested in Egypt and
20 days before this reading, French troops withdrew as Ho Chi Minh took Hanoi and
16 days before this reading, Israel massacred 69 villagers in Qibiya, Jordan, two-thirds of them women and children and
12 days before this reading, Hurricane Hazel, the most severe hurricane recorded, hit the U.S. and Canada and
8 days before this reading, President Eisenhower pledged support to South Vietnam and
6 days before this reading, Walt Disney’s first television program, “Disneyland,” premiered on ABC and
2 days before this reading, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Ernest Hemingway.
It is October 30, 1954, three years after the publication of Marianne Moore’s Collected Poems, which won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Bollingen Prize. Can you feel the autumn chill trailing into the room with the audience? A bit of fluster in Marianne Moore’s voice? Has she rushed into the building after an early dinner? Has she just taken off her coat? She is 66 years old, still living on Cumberland Street in Brooklyn. Her mother, who lived with her all her life, is dead. Marianne Moore will live another 18 years. She’ll have enough time to throw the pitch that opens the Yankees’ 1968 season. Enough time to revise many of her published poems, sometimes, methinks, for the worse.
With a strong electrical hum behind her (which could be eliminated from the recording with a few enthusiastic donations to the 92nd Street Y!), Marianne Moore steps to the mike and promises to read her own work, her translations of La Fontaine, and something else if we have time.
Modest after the introduction, she says she hopes no one was “dragooned into coming” and that if anyone wearies, she won’t be offended if they leave. Such modesty will characterize the entire reading.
She opens with “The Steeple-Jack,” reading straight through the line breaks but pausing decisively at the commas, dashes and periods.
In the third stanza, she interrupts herself to remark that she’s thinking of a watercolor by Dürer that she saw at the Ashmolean. Here, just before she reads—it’s an early version of the poem, not the one we know now—that it is “a privilege to see so/ much confusion,” she gets confused and skips several lines.
She reads “Bowls,” a poem she wrote after witnessing a game of lawn-bowling in Vancouver. When she comes to the line “I learn that we are precisianists,” she stops to advise the audience that if they have an edition of her poems in which it says “I learn that we are presicians,” which is indeed how the word appears in her book Observations, that it is a mistake. After finishing the poem, she notes, hilariously, that she does not, in fact, “like winter better than I like summer,” as the poem claims. She must have been quoting someone else, she muses.
Next, she announces that she will read excerpts from “The Jerboa,” having determined, in preparation for this reading, that some parts of her work sound better aloud than others. She starts and soon interrupts herself to point out another misprint. She mentions that it was hard for her to leave the mongoose out of this poem in order to focus on another desert rat. And then she jumps to the ending. The high pitch of her voice and the abrupt changes in pacing give us a sense of her unrehearsed presence—even though she may have rehearsed. Her voice drifts up, catching, swooping through a phrase, covering a surprising tonal range even in a single stanza.
Before launching into “The Icosasphere,” she mentions her interest in mechanical things and improvises a list of such particulars that leaves the audience laughing. After the closure, she notes that the poem is rhymed, although it didn’t sound that way.
She reads “Nevertheless” and the audience breaks out in applause after the last line: “to make the cherry red.”
As the applause dies, Moore notes that she was asked by Abbott Laboratories to write “something about medicine” for their magazine. (She was asked by so many companies and people to write poems and came to work with Muhammad Ali, the Ford Motor Company, Abbott and many others.) She slides into a long digression about Abbot’s sponge and its use in medical research, and she decides that the wording in her poem is, in large part, not her own. At last she reads “The Staff of Aesculapius.”
Then she dives right into “A Face.”
What comes across as we listen to Marianne Moore is her complete lack of pretension. This is less of a performance than a conversation. She is talking to us, trying to make contact. Sometimes spelling words out. She is discursive before and after reading the poems. She quotes other people and repeats herself to make sure the audience is keeping up. She mentions the origin of a poem, one of its references. She starts over when she doesn’t get a line right. She recalls a compliment she received from a reader who claimed that only after reading her poems could she begin to imagine liking a rat. She fumbles through her books—she brought many in order to try to “be complete” at this reading. She cracks jokes about translation. She describes the lineation in the La Fontaine fables that she reads later in the evening. She talks about a number of linguists and academics in connection with rhyme, harmony, tone, accent and metrics in La Fontaine’s French. She admits that “over-modesty is a mistake.”
For the next fifteen minutes, she delivers translations of La Fontaine that are attentive to the prosody and rhythms of the originals. After “The Monkey and the Leopard,” Moore notices that La Fontaine is conventional in some ways and also “spectacularly unconventional.” Everyone in the audience must have thought then that her own work might be described the same way. In the middle of reading “Mousie, the Cat, and the Cockerel,” she alerts the audience that she is certainly NOT rhyming “cat” and “hypocrite.” “Hypocrite,” she asserts, rhymes with “it.”
She finishes her reading by promoting half a dozen younger writers, reading their poems and even mentioning their publishers.
Marianne Moore’s poems are more wonderful on the page than they are at this reading. But the reading gives us what feels like a very real experience of her person, of the motion of her mind, of her animated voice and of the vast range of her associations. To me, it is precious. It’s as close as I will come to meeting her.
Forrest Gander’s most recent collection of poems is Eiko & Koma.