Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Difficult Ground: Poetic Renunciation in Marianne Moore's "Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarks"

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Difficult Ground: Poetic Renunciation in Marianne Moore's "Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarks"

Article excerpt

Even the most intrepid reader of Marianne Moore might be forgiven for declining to engage her poem "Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarks ."The last poem Moore published in the 1930s, it did not fare well in her own editing of her work. She published it first in Poetry in November 1936 and then revised it for What Are Years? in 1941. Thereafter she never published it again, so it is missing from both her Collected Poems (1951) and her Complete Poems (1967) and has been mostly invisible to Moore scholarship, to say nothing of a general readership. (1) As her extensive draft material and correspondence demonstrate, Moore put a great deal of work into the poem and was never satisfied with it. Criticism has agreed: cited as an example of "the tendency of Moore's verse to puzzle her readers" (Hadas 72), being "perhaps too cluttered and digressive in its associations to be finally successful" (Costello 105), and exemplifying the tripartite metonymies that (in another context) Moore's mother deemed "bizarre," the poem is, even for Moore, difficult. (2) It is also beautiful, however, in its spiky and strangely jointed way, and the intensity of its tangle of aesthetic pleasures and frustrations is more than incidentally interesting in the history of Moore's poetics: it is a sign of the poem's status as the boundary marking the end of one phase of Moore's writing life and the beginning of another.

As we shall argue, some of the poem's difficulties resolve nicely when the reader knows about the objects and exchanges to which they refer. That resolution, however, introduces its own kind of difficulty; "Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarks" may only make sense to one who knows about all the experiences, including the exchanges of material objects, that went into making it, and the poem knows this and is troubled by it. By the end of the 1930s Moore still believed in a level of poetic meaning, traditionally called the visionary, that transcends the material particularity of texts; however, she had also come to see the assertion of a poets visionary power as directly inimical to the web of material, social, and ethical relations that that power exists, ideally, to illuminate. Read in light of this tension, we argue, the published poems of the 1930s that were eventually abandoned, especially "Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarks," become signs of a decisive act of renunciation in Moore's career. The complexity and subtlety of Moore's work up through the 1930s has often been contrasted favorably with the relative straightforwardness and didacticism of the work that followed, particularly in those poems that she revised for her 1951 (Collected Poems. (3) Various persuasive explanations, including Moore's despair at the rise of fascism and her own mother's decade of ill health and 1947 death, have been offered to account for the change. However, the reading of "Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarks" we offer here proposes that that act of renunciation is best understood not solely in psychological, moral, or biographical terms; it suggests instead that there was a reasoned philosophical motivation for the transformation in and of her work. Our hypothesis is that at the end of the 1930s Moore decided that the conversion of experience into thought (as Emerson has it) is achieved at too great a cost to the fabric of social relations and material circumstance in which the poet lives. Simultaneously, she decided that the transformation of genius into practical power (as Emerson also has it) would no longer be her poetry's purpose.

Emerson calls the intellect's conversion of experience into thought "a strange process," comparing it to "a mulberry leaf [being] converted into satin" (60). In the celebrated conclusion to "Experience," "the transformation of genius into practical power" is called "the true romance which the world exists to realize" (492). (4) Moore's guiding hope in "Walking-Sticks" is that the poem can participate in both transformations at once, aligning tonus of artisanal production (including papermaking, glass working, and the molding of wax into seals) with a visionary world of "true romance" in which the beautiful is a reliable sign of the good. …

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