November 9, 2009–As presented to the Bryn Mawr English Department
Mooring the Gaps: Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry
“Always, in whatever I wrote-prose or verse—I have had a burning desire to be explicit; beset always, however carefully I had written, by the charge of obscurity.”
–Marianne Moore, Tell Me, Tell Me
In a review of the latest collection of Marianne Moore’s work for The New Criterion, William Logan criticizes Moore’s poetry from Bryn Mawr (which was recognized as part of her corpus for the first time in this edition), “After a while, however, you realize there’s nothing behind the fairy-tale innocence—these poems are of a life queerly sheltered, and the armor it forged couldn’t be penetrated even by an education at Bryn Mawr” (2). Logan is at least partly correct. Moore’s style remained uninfluenced by formal education at Bryn Mawr (which is not to discount its impressions on her). Marianne Moore entered Bryn Mawr in 1904 with the intention of becoming an English major. The future Modernist poet was told that she over-used quotations and neglected to propose a central idea.In response, Moore did not change her style; instead, she changed her major. Moore’s professors acknowledged facets of her work that would be defining characteristics throughout her career: her use of quotation and her opacity. These traits are both what would render Moore’s work unique but also relegate her to obscurity. I believe that Moore’s early poems offer more than has been realized.
By recovering Moore’s early poems, I intend to trace Moore’s development as an artist. Perhaps it is not “penetrating her armor” that is the goal in understanding Moore’s poetry, as Logan suggests in his review; I intend to decipher why that armor was put up in the first place and how it serves to direct readers in her later work. In doing so, I hope fill a gap in Moore scholarship as well as produce a more informed reading that will serve to preface and enlighten her later works. Until 2000 with the facsimile compilation of Moore’s earliest poems in Becoming Marianne Moore by Robin Schulze, Moore’s poems from Bryn Mawr have been virtually ignored. Even as Schultz reproduces the poems, she does not engage with the same depth or insight that she does with Moore’s later work.
Using the framework of Wolfgang Iser’s theory of reader-response with attention to his notion of gaps, I aim to establish and identify these gaps in the text of Moore’s poems, the publication history of Moore’s poems in the Tipyn ‘O Bob and The Lantern, and the neglect of scholarship of Moore’s time at Bryn Mawr. Iser defines gaps by explaining that they occur, “… whenever the flow is interrupted and we are led off in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to bring us into play our own faculty for establishing connection—for filling in the gaps left by the text itself “(299). Moore’s work specifically lends itself to this sort of reading. Often she includes multiple quotations from various sources that disorient rather than enlighten the reader. These quotations and her lack of transition between them often seem in Moore’s poems like a “compilation of anthologies” as she herself describes rather than a purposefully constructed poem. Moore denies that her poems present her “philosophy”; instead she affixes her maze-like web of citations. Through this structure, I believe Moore invites the reader to dive into her poems, use imagination, and commit to a self-directed dialogue.
After substantiating these gaps, I intend to create both a personal and communal dialogue with Moore’s poetry through close analysis. By using the web-format approved last semester, I will use hyperlinks as well as virtual comments that can be positioned in a similar fashion to annotation to illustrate these gaps as well as provide a forum through which others can analyze the gaps through their own reading. This layout will serve to demonstrate the multiplicity of the readings that is enhanced through Iser. By doing so, I can present Moore’s poems and the commentary in a synthesized fashion that answers some of the problems which Schulze footnotes in her introduction. She views the codex form as limited medium, especially for Moore. I am hoping that through virtual media, I can provide a presentation of Moore’s work that coalesces aesthetically and practically with how I intend to interpret it.
My interpretation of these gaps is a necessary element in the process of acknowledging them. Iser posits “…the object is not to complicate the ‘spectrum’ of connections, so much as to make aware of the nature of our own capacity for providing links” (299). Through this statement, Iser positions the functions of the gaps not to render the text more literary or involved, but instead, he reframes the act of analysis from focusing on the meaning itself to what the reader gains and loses by the act of reading. Applying this to Moore’s work as reader, especially her early work, I hope to provide a reading that will not only focus on the poems themselves but will serve to inform the context of her work. This concern also allows me the opportunity to provide a theoretical reading of the gaps themselves.
Gaps in structure are seen as feminine, because they are analogous to passivity. In her book H.D. and Sapphic Modernism, Diana Collecott theorizes this lack of cohesiveness in the poems of women Modernists is a way to mediate gender with the poetic tradition. Collecott cites Moore’s comment in H.D.’s obituary that H.D. “magnetize[s] the reader by what is not said” (148). Moore’s sanctioning of H.D.’s use of lacunae in her own work suggests that there is the underlying of female community inherent in the structure.
In my close reading of the gaps, I hope to offer a feminist lens that illuminates both the positive as well as negative effects on Moore’s poetry and its reception. I intend to engage in the feminist dialogue on poetic language with Julia Kristeva and the culture surrounding it with Sandra Gilbert. Both would have placed Moore in the position to inherit “feminine” qualities of poetry. To further understand the issues of inheritance and female community, I will analyze Moore’s comments on her students as Bryn Mawr as well as her readings on contemporary female poets of her time. By reading Moore reading, I can use the framework of Iser to incorporate the questions of gender and sexuality. Her comments as a professor at Bryn Mawr, which are located in the Laurence Stapleton Collection, demonstrate that Moore encourages both the necessity of the reader as well as a tone of restraint. For instance, she advises a student that her poem “needs something more mysterious and withheld.” Here Moore both provides a way that we may understand her obscurity as intentional and full of artistic purpose as well as raises complications with how this can be passed down by female inheritance, especially as she counsels future poets from her alma mater.
By analyzing Moore both as an early author and seasoned reader, I aim to investigate this provocative cross-section as a way of diminishing the apprehension between Moore’s poetry and her reader.
Logan, William. “The Mystery of Marianne Moore.” Rev. of The Poems of Marianne Moore and Becoming Marianne Moore, by Grace Schulman and Robin Schulze. The New Criterion Feb. 2004. The New Criterion. Feb. 2004. 2. Aug. 2009.<http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-mystery-of-Marianne-Moore-1594>.
Moore was invited by President Katherine McBride and Professor Laurence Stapleton to guest teach a poetry seminar in 1958. She lectured on contemporary poets as well as commented on the students’ poetry.