|Alice Quinn pays tribute to Marianne Moore|
at the New York Writers Hall of Fame gala
Ryan Brenizer Photography
It is an almost fantastic honor to be offering a few remarks upon the induction of Marianne Moore into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, especially in the presence of so many contemporary writers whose work I love who are present tonight to be inducted, too.A generous selection of Marianne Moore’s poetry can be found in volume #115 of the Library of America series, American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume One.
I can close my eyes and see Marianne Moore’s picture in nooks and crannies and on the walls of the Gotham Book Mart, where I felt inducted into the literary life of the city in the early 1970s, guided by the writers who frequented that place and whose books the founder, Frances Steloff, would keep in stock at any cost.
In a new, wonderful book of essays entitled My Poets about her relationships to the poets she loves best, the young poet and critic Maureen McLane calls Marianne Moore “the stealth weapon of American poetry, with a ferocity and a lacerating intelligence few poets have matched.” And further on, “Her pointed social satires remind one of Jane Austen, her baroque syntactical devastations reminiscent of Henry James.”
All of her great contemporaries admired her—W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and I am certain Gwendolyn Brooks.
Moore, the great Modernist poet—who gave so much of herself from age 30–34, from 1925–29, as an editor of the manifestly supreme literary journal, The Dial, bringing along such writers as Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce—was a poet of such originality that her peers were always striving to characterize her achievements in the highest terms. Randall Jarrell noted, “She is, sometimes, as tersely conclusive as Grimm” . . . “Or as wise as Goethe” . . . “Or as beguiling, as full of propriety, as Beatrix Potter” . . . “Or as elevated as the Old Testament” . . . “Or as morally and rhetorically magnificent as St. Paul” . . . .
When Elizabeth Bishop first met her, in the spring of 1934, the year she graduated from Vassar, she wrote to a friend,
“A couple of weeks ago I met Marianne Moore . . . Frani, she is simply amazing. She is poor, sick, and her work is practically unread, I guess, but she seems completely undisturbed by it and goes right on producing perhaps one poem a year and a couple of reviews that are perfect in their way. I have never seen anyone who takes such ‘pains.’ . . . She is really worth a great deal of study.”
And in this way Moore definitely became a model to Bishop, who fourteen years later wrote of this poet she appreciated from such an early age,
“The precocious child is often embarrassed by his own understanding and is capable of going to great lengths to act his part as a child properly; one feels that Miss Moore sometimes has to make things difficult for herself as a sort of noblesse oblige, or self-imposed taxation to keep everything ‘fair’ in the world of poetry.”
Moore—a resident for many years of Brooklyn, which she described as “this city of freckled / integrity” and a passionate Dodgers fan and co-author with (then) Cassius Clay of some pretty charming verse, would have been delighted with this honor. In her poem, “New York,” she identifies what it is she feels is best about the place,
it is not the dime-novel exterior,I think we New Yorkers would all agree lo these many years later that this is so. Randall Jarrell, in summing up his appreciation for her beautiful poem, “Armour’s Undermining Modesty,” expressed what I feel about so many of the poems I love most:
Niagara Falls, the calico horses and the war-canoe;
it is not that ‘if the fur is not finer than such as one sees others wear,
one would rather be without it’—
that estimated in raw meat and berries, we could feed the universe;
it is not the atmosphere of ingenuity,
the otter, the beaver, the puma skins
without shooting-irons or dogs;
it is not the plunder,
but ‘accessibility to experience.’
“I don’t entirely understand it, but what I understand I love, and what I don’t understand I love better.”
Thank you for the opportunity to praise this unique and absolutely admirable American poet.
At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.
Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane