Morals, Manners, and "Marriage": Marianne Moore's Art of Conversation

By White, Heather Cass | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Morals, Manners, and "Marriage": Marianne Moore's Art of Conversation


White, Heather Cass, Twentieth Century Literature


Contemporary accounts indicate that in addition to her other skills, Marianne Moore was a formidable talker. It also seems that she could be encouraged, or dared, to display this talent. Two anecdotes suggest her ability and her friends' reactions to it. Elizabeth Bishop relates the first:

A friend has told me of attending a party for writers and artists at which she introduced a painter to Marianne by saying, "Miss Moore has the most interesting vocabulary of anyone I know." Marianne showed signs of pleasure at this, and within a minute offhandedly but accurately used in a sentence a word I no longer remember that means an addiction, in animals, to licking the luminous numbers off the dials of clocks and watches. (153)

Miss Moore's "interesting" acquaintance with a surprising range of information is the subject of the second anecdote, told by Alfred Kreymborg:

Never having found [Moore] at a loss on any subject whatsoever, I wanted to give myself the pleasure of at least once hearing her stumped about something [so] I invited her to a ball game at the Polo Grounds.... The "L" was jammed... Marianne was totally oblivious to the discomfiture anyone else would have felt and, in answer to a question of mine, paraded whole battalions of perfectly marshaled ideas into long columns of balanced periods which no lurching... or pushing... disturbed....

Well, I got her safely to her seat and sat down beside her.... I... touched her arm and, indicating a man in the pitcher's box winding up with the movement Matty's so famous for... I quickly turned to her with: "Do you happen to know the gentleman who threw that strike?"

"I've never seen him before," she admitted, "but I take it it must be Mr. Mathewson."

I could only gasp, "Why?"

"I've read his instructive book on the art of pitching ... and it's a pleasure . . . to note how unerringly his execution supports his theories." (qtd. in Molesworth 164)

These anecdotes show the double edge of Moore's conversational brilliance. If at Bishop's "party for writers and artists" it nets Moore the flattering recognition of her peers, in Kreymborg's story it functions more aggressively: her "battalions" of ideas and "columns" of periods sound like the talk of someone who is out of her element but in no mood to surrender to unfamiliarity. The nature of what is at stake in Moore's facility with verbal thrust and parry is the subject of "To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity:"

"Attack is more piquant than concord," but when

You tell me frankly that you would like to feel

My flesh beneath your feet,

I'm all abroad; I can but put my weapon up, and

Bow you out.

Gesticulation--it is half the language.

Let unsheathed gesticulation be the steel

Your courtesy must meet,

Since in your hearing words are mute, which to my senses

Are a shout. (Observations 52)

Here Moore puts her conversational weapon up after realizing that her boorish antagonist is fighting with much cruder tools. Encountering his naked belligerence in the form of a wish to feel her "flesh beneath [his] feet," [1] she resorts to mute gesture as the only dignified response. Her triumph in this encounter is twofold. On the one hand, she has shown her opponent the door and kept her self-possession. On the other, she has emphasized the keenness of her verbal sword by declining to use it against an unworthy foe. In this way she excludes her attacker not only from her own company but also, implicitly, from the company of all people skillful, tactful, and alert enough to engage in real conversation. [2] Thus the poem articulates what the anecdotes suggest: for Moore conversation is as much a mixture of elan, defiance, and aggression as it is a socially cohesive practice. This side of Moore's interest in conversation tends to get lost when critics focus on the contemporary resonances of the term and thereby obscure the tensions that it reveals when Moore uses it in regard to poetr y.

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