Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry


Monday, June 21st, 2010 by

Mooring the Gaps: Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry

Fear you not my part of the Dialogue.
Much Ado About Nothing III. i.31

The critical considerations of the poetry reflect the poet’s participation in the diverse modes of presentation such as layout, sound, and allusion.  This deep process of  textual, poetic creation is particularly apparent in Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr poems–early works of  a poet whose hand often lingered in the space between allusion and textual representation. Scholarship on Moore has not yet successfully integrated these Bryn Mawr poems into her larger corpus, because it has not  sufficiently engaged with the dynamic, unfixed nature of her corpus.  This essay explores three early poems, illuminating the different ways they open allusive conversations with other writers, other readers, and other forms as well as  resist fixity. Seeking a critical mode and a presentation medium that foregrounds the multiple voices in Moore’s poetry, this essay explores the uses of a website as a platform for interpretation. My reading of Marianne Moore’s work incorporates three different analytic structures (one for each poem), testing the possibilities of new media in  Moore’s vision of poetry as an art of multimodal dialogue, allowing elements of the text as well as perspectives of the reader to converse on the page.

The Text as an Environment for Dialogue
“Shhh! I’m reading.” ? If you have spent a good amount of time in a library then you have likely been asked or yourself have asked a fellow reader to keep the noise down. The idea that reading should happen in and through silence permeates our culture. Beginning in junior high, even high school, many students encounter “SSR” Sustained Silent Reading. As students, we are trained to believe that SSR is the proper way to read, and we begin to equate reading with silence and solitude.

Yet reading is also profoundly dialogic and always has been. The OED gloss gives some sense of the scope of conversation with self and others this practice comprises:  “to advise, to suggest, to convince, to devise, to guess, to think, to plot” (“Read”). It is a transitive verb, one that requires us to define a subject and an object. Whether it is while reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, exchanging brushes with Milton on the way to helping Lyra save Yorek, or while eating your peach and exploring T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” only to be thrust into Dante’s Inferno, we experience texts reaching out to other texts, stretching their sentences in all directions , making allusions, critiques,  and multiple labyrinths to explore. With the recognition of intertextuality comes the responsibility to commit to the labor of reading; we must “think, guess, and devise” our own routes through the text.  The margins of the page welcome comments, allowing our thoughts to run alongside the text, expanding and extending books beyond the original boundaries set by bindings and cover.  The text becomes an environment for dialogue. Though if one further interrogates  the codex form, it is not as limited as the bound form suggests. Extroversive elements which move outwards from the text such as the margins and footnotes demonstrate a move towards dialogism. These textual additions are radical modes of interchange which can subvert or emphasize the text itself.  As Anthony Grafton corrects the preconceptions  in The Footnote: A Curious History: “To the inexpert,  footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed; to the connoisseur , however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity” (Grafton 9). Grafton’s study of the footnote as an organic textual element proves that stasis within a text is constantly being challenged.  As the editor or author uses the footnote, we  as readers employ the margins.  We annotate, we deconstruct the physical text by underlining, circling, even writing over the printed words. We create layers of reading and on a re-reading, we continue to add, archiving our experience of the text. When we re-read the text, though it may seem like a repetition of action,  the time that has passed between readings changes our experiences of the text. We return to the text to find that we may no longer agree with our former selves, or that we have extended our thoughts, percolating new ones as we glance over own notes. The act of re-reading then, especially in conjunction with the reading of our marginalia, allows us to constantly be revising the text and our relation to it.

This notion of reading-as-revision was theorized famously by the reader-response critic Wolfgang Iser.  Iser moves beyond the idea that the intent of the author is the primary purpose for analysis. He rejects the notion of a hierarchy in which the reader was positioned as ancillary to the text.  Iser challenges any approach to reading in which a singularly correct meaning could be ascribed to a text.  By granting each reader and reading experience validity, we are allowed—even encouraged– to linger in potential readings. His theories helped to develop the framing ideas of reader-reception theory:

Focusing primarily on two points of intersection—between text and context and between text and reader—reception theory, as I have tried to formulate it, conceives of  literature as a form of interaction.  This conception goes against the aura of surrounding autonomous art, as well as against the notion of literature as a representation of life; instead, by intervening in contextual realities, literature refracts life’s multifariousness. (“Do I Write for an Audience?” 312)

Iser delivers the text from isolation. By insisting that readers focus on “contextual realities,” Iser suggests that the text is a site for metamorphosis in which  the governing ideas of the text are forth by the author are revised by the reader and the physical text itself. Iser theorizes that even in the most seeming tightly constructed prose, the work’s success depends on gaps for the reader to diverge from the confines of the text. Iser’s theories were radical when they were  first introduced in the early 1960s, because he forced gaps into theory where it was intentionally sewn shut.

An Essay in the form of a Website
Yet even as reader-response theory has become more widely accepted, and readers are seen as collaborators of the text, we are only given so much room in codex form. Though margins allow for reader involvement, they also embody intellectual constraints on the reader by placing a spatial limit on the amount of newly generated ideas. The margins  guard the text, allotting a fixed amount of dialogue. We can only decrease the size of our writing so much until we have filled the space to fullest with our own thoughts, and it seems as if the page is about to burst with words. Similarly, readers are textually limited; we cannot see the two passages on the same surface. We can only physically reconnect the passages by flipping from page to page each time. This viusal limtation of  codex  text suggests a more automatic movement through the text,  rather than encouraging readers to  thoughfully make their own way through the text and notice new connections between ideas.

Virtual interfaces attempt to fulfill the criterion of empowering the capacities of the reader. Though Iser could not have predicted the dynamic new tools of textual interaction such as hyperlinks and virtual comments,  he identified the need for a revision of the ways in which we interact with text. The virtual interfaces allow for analysis of both the context and the reader’s reaction in a more physical ways,  creating for us the possibility to trace these interactions or immerse ourselves in new conversation. Context becomes redefined not to be masterfully illusive, but apparent and malleable. As readers remark on the text, each comment becomes incorporated into the whole of the text as it appears on the site, allowing for internal regeneration and inexhaustiblity. We acknowledge that if we are to become true readers we must not be silent, but explore loudly. Clamoring, we make our voices visibly “heard” through the boxes designated for comments. We are still bound, or to be more specific, “boxed” –literally. The seemingly restrictive lines of the boxes enclose us and name us. This self-expandable space reminds us that as readers, we are only given as much space to contribute our own writing as we take.

By creating a thread in which comments become visible as a constant presence in the text, the comments create a pastiche of “refract[ions].” The comments create a dialogue happening in a more open environment. This new access to multiple readers pushes Iser’s theory of context beyond the author and beyond the text to apply to the reader. Dialogue, born in the interior of the mind,  is given a physical space by the virtual interface of the page—there, it becomes part of the content with which later readers interact. Through participating in this collaborative act of reading, the commenters have created a new context—that of the annotation within the responses to the text. We are allowed to access the paths of fellow readers. Virtual texts invite us to partake in a communal pilgrimage.

Iser’s theories are applicable to the web in so far as they foreground the reader’s more active role, however the virtual interface adds the dimension of the protean virtual layout. If the principles of the text are no longer physically restricted to a uniform layout, what will govern our orientation to the visual layout of the text?  Martha Nell Smith, a prominent digital theorist, provides a guide to digital text while maintaining an emphasis on the sanctity of  the reader’s individual perspective.

In “Electronic Scholarly Editing,” Smith writes,

Understanding the poetics and principles of electronic scholarly editing means understanding that the primary goal of this activity is not to dictate what can be seen but rather to open up new ways of seeing. (315)

Smith was not talking literally, per se, but the literal visual element does allow us to perceive the journey of both our own reading experience and that of our companions. We can visualize the multiplicity of voices as well as how the voices of readers differ in their approach to the text; Smith points to the virtual interface’s ability to physically manifest the diversity that Iser theorized. Integrating the multiple sources of writing with digital replications serves to remind us as readers that we should not forget to consult the source text. Context surrounding the text create free-standing rooms built around the original so that often times, we manage to linger so long in a single room that wholeness of the text is dispersed into fragments. This shift allows for a transformation of how we read and view ourselves as readers. No longer at the forefront of the reader’s mind is the pressure to ascertain new discoveries in the text, but the reader allowed to be drawn to the elements which have magnetized his or her attention. In creating an electronic archive, the aim is to allow multiple paths. However, Smith does not ask the curator of a website to put aside all acts of critical, scholarly intervention in this process of reaction and commentary.

At the very core of creating an archive  is the idea that by selecting the material, the curator acknowledges what is included is worth preserving. Smith’s breaking open of paths does not translate into a breaking down of analytic strategies, rather a more comprehensive consideration in which the primary goal of the text is to highlight possibility.

In response to Iser and Smith, I have chosen a digital platform for my thesis that allows for editorial construction of the layout and readerly annotation. I posit via digital platform that  the reader can reread the ways in which Moore interconnects quotations, the relationship between public and private space, tradition, and institutilization, by using space (windows, hyperlinks, comments, tags) to materialize time, publication, and allusion. Digital media highlight that Moore investigated the issue of context, context, and that it resonated at the core. Her poems connect to one another using questions of time, space, and authority as threads, weaving together the elements of poetry. We are asked as readers to assume the position of Arachne, to deconstruct and revise. Each poem provides a pattern refashioning perspective. By  using hyperlinks and tags, we as readers can visually fashion a web of words connecting from one to another or connecting extrinsic material to the text itself. We take the authority to “pull apart” the threads of comments to investigate the web, defining the path and adding our comments in revision. Iser creates new ways to understand our relationship to the text, and Moore actively demonstrates the reader’s part of the dialogue through her own writing.

Moore’s Multimodal Dialogue
Marianne Moore entered Bryn Mawr in 1904 with the intention of becoming an English major. The future Modernist poet was told by her Bryn Mawr professors that in her English essays, 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 were acknowledging facets of her work that would be defining characteristics throughout her career: her use of quotation and her opacity. These quotations and her lack of transition between them often make her poems seem like a “compilation of anthologies,” as she herself describes, rather than a purposefully constructed poem (“A Burning Desire to Be Explicit” 5-6).  Through this structure, Moore invites the reader to dive into her poems and commit to a self-directed dialogue. Her response demonstrates that she was actively thinking about style, presentation and representation while attending Bryn Mawr.

In 1994, the second edition of the Complete Poems of Marianne Moore was published. Moore’s first publications of poetry began at Bryn Mawr in 1907, leaving the 1994 revision of “complete” to be off by 28 years and 18 poems. Yet until Robin Schulze published the facsimile edition of Moore’s poems in 2002, were the Bryn Mawr poems included in a publication of her work as the beginning of Moore’s poetic career. Grace Schulman included the Bryn Mawr poems a year later in the latest edition of Moore’s poetry The Poems of Marianne Moore. Worse yet, as this short of summary of publication demonstrates the Bryn Mawr poems are virtually ignored even where they are taken into account.  While Scholar Jeanne Heuving in Omissions are Not Accidents cites some of Moore’s Bryn Mawr poems as early as 1992, but her analysis uses them to find glints of what will manifest in Moore’s later poems rather than recognizing them as a free-standing accomplishments.

Schulze claims in her introduction to Becoming Marianne Moore that she “[has] tried, in particular, to give readers and scholars a better look at the changing of texts of Moore’s early career to fill the gap between the beginning of her life as a published poet in 1907 and the publication of her first American volume of verse, Observations, in 1924″ (11). Though Schulze accomplishes the task of making Moore’s early work available, this is only the first step in being able to “fill the gap” in early Moore scholarship. Moore’ s early work as discussed above has been printed in Grace Shulman’s edition, but criticism on Moore has not focused on these newly introduced poems. The next step for expanding Moore’s oeuvre to truly include these early years, is to demonstrate their room for readerly dialogue. Rather than just reproduce the works, the works must be shown to have dimensionality to draw in readers. Moore’s Bryn Mawr poems, now that they are attainable, must be accessible. Such accessibility, an important goal of this essay, will help transform the perception of Moore’s  Bryn Mawr poetry from juvenilia to being worthy of attention and research.

Because Moore’s early poems from Bryn Mawr were not included in any of the editions of her poetry until long after her death, the poems lend themselves more freely to interpetation.  The fact that the poems have been neglected  demonstrates the dismissal of Bryn Mawr and its institutional connection with Moore. The oversight delegitimizes Moore’s first foray into poetry and creates a disparity in the way we view her work. As shown by her multiple conflicts with publication as a means to an authoritative  edition, Moore’s refusal of a final product extends through her entire career. The rejection of Moore’s early work and experiences is a misreading of Moore’s corpus. The magnetic force in Moore’s poetry is the trajectory of revisions. Her ability to create new poems and alternative meaning through emending her poems pulls the reader in. Her Bryn Mawr poems mark the beginning and the inattention to them equates to the negligence of not considering an original draft.

In one of her most famous poems, “Poetry, “Moore writes, “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in/ it after all, a place for the genuine” (lines 2-3).  “Poetry” presents a meta-reading in which “reading” equates to “discovery.” The transformation of the text occurs as the reader has actively engaged and found a truth beyond the preconceptions she brings to it or that  by engaging with tradition and taking on the genre of poetry, the text brings upon itself. In Moore’s description of reading poetry, the act of reading begins before the reader engages with any of the text. By deciding to read a poem, the reader enters into a set of pre-established expectations and embarks on the poem “with perfect contempt.” However, it is when the poem touches us in a way that feels more real or honest than a contrivance of art, we are surprised and excited, and reading turns into a “discovery” where the line between artifice and experience blurs.

Moore’s reading of “Poetry” conjures the need for desire on the part of the reader. >The subject enters the poem in order to embark on the journey of reading—and, ultimately, to uncover a truth, despite the limiting initial perspective of “perfect contempt.” The desire to unearth from the poetry a truth or “genuine[ness]” prompts the reader to continue reading with a keen eye. Perhaps the space in which this discovery can be realized is in the gap, which provides an opportunity for reflection on oneself, the text and the context. Moore models for us the type of reading one does in exploring the text. By titling a poem “Poetry,” she establishes a context and then maneuvers her way through it. Moore denies that her poems present her “philosophy”; instead she affixes her maze-like web of citations.

Moore displaces herself as author(ity),denying that the text must take the form of a proclamation of authorial intent. By doing so, she gives her blessing for the reader to do so as well. She asks that we do not pin her poem down by inferring authorial intent, not because she is attempting to be elusive but because she re-imagines the role of reader as a non-submissive one. In the Introduction to Becoming Marianne Moore, Schulze makes a case for “broaden[ing] the notion of authorial intention to suit the revisionary habits of poets like Moore who seem to conceive of their texts as processes rather than finished products” (11). Schulze points to something key in Moore’s writing : each time Moore creates a “re -vision,” she grants herself the possibility to return to the poem first as reader, then as poet. She brings to the role of reading as much seriousness as she brings to the role of the composer. If Moore as reader could not find new paths, new visions in her work, if she ceased to re-envision the possibilities within her work then she would be  failing as reader and writer. It is through Moore’s approach to art that we as readers can understand how to proceed in taking on her work –loudly and with much dialogue.

Three Dialogic Readings
A poet with a deep commitment to intertextuality and a creative investment in continual revision, rather than fixed product, Moore is an especially demanding subject for a conventional codex edition and scholarship. In a number of respects the form of a website better suits the critical presentation of her work than a codex text. The virtual interface of the website provides a textual manifestation of Moore’s allusive tendencies. By allowing for more in-depth consideration of phrases and words, hyperlinking creates context which both intertwines the poems thematically as well as sends the reader outward beyond the text. The various capacities of layout allowing for facsimiles, hyperlinks, and even sound, visually recreate the many approaches the reader could take throughout Moore’s poems. The interface also allows for a layering of communal and personal reading in so much that comments can be continually added to,  and respond to one another. However, these comments cannot be revised or edited. The reader must create a new comment to add to an existing one. Though this  is a limitation of the functionality of the comments to the reader, it provides an accurate representation (on a much smaller scale) of Moore’s own struggles with publication. Like us returning to amend a comment, Moore had to publish a new version of each poem to amend it; a challenge to which she regularly adhered. Thus the process of own comments mirrors Moore’s revision as a reader.

On this site, I have endeavored to analyze three of the Bryn Mawr poems: “To My Cup-Bearer,” “Councell to A Bachelor” and “To Come After a Sonnet.” These poems are just a sampling of Moore’s early work. With each poem, I have used capabilities of CommentPress to render three different conceptual readings.

“To My Cup-bearer” exemplifies the connection of Moore and Bryn Mawr by interrogating the inheritance of women as scholars.  “To My Cup-bearer” in its essence is rich with questions of public and private space, recreation, and context. In this poem, Moore archives a secret Bryn Mawr ceremony which symbolized a handing down of knowledge from the senior class to the junior class. Moore’s publishing of this poem both illuminates the ceremony and publication itself in thought-provoking ways. In the post “To My Cup-Bearer”  I use the hyperlinks to create a layering of  windows to demonstrating that Moore layers tradition and meaning within the poem. The affect of this structure is intended to allow the reader to experience the interruptions and connections temporally and visually in the reading process.

“To Come After a Sonnet”  is  one of the two earliest published poems of Moore’s. I chose to include this poem for the scope it provides. Including one of Moore’s earliest poems demonstrates that even from onset of her poetic career, she was producing complex work. “To Come After a Sonnet”  fashions opposed readings  to illustrate  how multiple criticisms can be in conversation by drawing out the text in different directions. Like “To My Cup-bearer,” “To Come After a Sonnet” critiques tradition and questions the roles within academia. A richness comes from reading the two poems in the same grouping, because they present Moore’s diversity of form, voice, and presentation while achieving a consistent, developing theme. In the post  “To Come After a Sonnet,” the comments are headed with one of two subtitles “READING A” or “READING B.” The readings are juxtaposed interpretations of close readings of the poems. The two contrasting readings emphasize the multi-vocal perspectives Moore sets up between/within her own poem and the poetic tradition. These perspectives create a nexus in which they are often opposed, sometimes overlapping, and most importantly engaged in conversation with one another.

“Councell to A Bachelor” illustrates one of Moore’s most intrepid but subtle early forays into textual revision. Her play with space questions authorship, originality, and most interestingly, publication as tool. Moore does little revision the the poem, though publishes it twice–once in the The Lantern and then in Poetry Magazine. These publications are keys to understanding how broadly Moore considered context and her willingness to include a poem’s context as an opportunity for revising and re-infusing it with new meaning. In the post “Councell to A Bachelor,” I have included two separate windows to distinguish to spatially distinguish the publications :  “The Lantern Publication” and “Poetry Publication.” i Each hyperlink opens a new window so that the specific analysis for each publication can be read in a different space, which allows for the physical separation of context which I argue is Moore’s main interest and source of revision for the poem. The separate windows provide a mode to recognize the separateness of each text, while still illustrating how they interplay with one another.

As mentioned in the Abstract on the splash page, the research and development of this site was  limited to the timeframe of the Bryn Mawr senior thesis. Within the necessarily narrowed scope of this essay, I was able to discuss only three of Moore’s eighteen early poems. The three poems (as described above in “Three Dialogic Readings”) not only lend themselves to inwardly abundant readings, but also when examined as a cluster provide avenues for a cross-analysis of Moore’s early work. These three poems only skim the surface of the potential of Moore’s Bryn Mawr poetry.

Moore’s poems revolve around a re-organization of quotes, images, and data, out of which emerges a new perspective or conclusion. I began to consider the links between and across the years, but the scope of this project was not big enough to incorporate this research. Eventually, I would like this table to be revised to include hyper-linked access to facsimiles as graphical representation of Moore’s poem, in order tacilitate easier access to all 18 of the Bryn Mawr poems. Currently, only “To Come After a Sonnet,” “To My Cup-bearer,” and “Councell to a Bachelor” are presented on this site.  However, facsimiles of all of the poems can be found in Robin Schulze’s Becoming Marianne Moore.

Table A (below) illustrates the poems Moore published in Bryn Mawr’s two literary magazines, The Tipyn ‘O Bob and The Lantern. The table is organized by year/season and indicates the publication. My interest in organizing Moore’s Bryn Mawr publishing information graphically is to illustrate how much of Moore’s work has been ignored, and viewing information by year and season, allows for contemplation about the evolution of Moore as poet through her poetry.

 Marianne Moore's Work Published in The Tipyn O' Bob and The Lantern Marianne Moore's Work Published in The Tipyn O' Bob and The Lantern

(For a larger view, click here)

It is my hope that I as I continue my research with Moore, I will be able to fill more gaps in her early history. My ideal site (with more technical skills and resources) would analyze each of the poems as well as create different organizational clusters between and across the poems.

I look forward to  your comments, interpretations and critiques as you read through the site.

Return to the Table of Contents