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Marianne Moore's Precision
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Marianne Moore's Precision

Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopuswith its capacity for fact.Marianne Moore, "An Octopus"


That Marianne Moore is a "precise" poet has long been a commonplace of Moore criticism. "We are now used to calling Marianne Moore an observer of unique precision," Evelyn Feldman and Michael Barsanti write (7), while Bonnie Costello indicates that "precision is [Moore's] passion" (Marianne Moore 38). Robin G. Schulze, meanwhile, indicts Grace Schulman's edition of Moore's poems (2003) because, as she puts it, "the saddest argument that this entire edition makes is that Moore was not very precise" ("How Not to Edit" 132). Schulze's comment, suggesting that any half-awake reader of Moore should know better than to suggest that Moore was not precise, reveals how central the idea of precision—or as Schulman herself puts it, "exactitude"—has come to be for Moore studies (xxvi).

Precision is perhaps the most widely agreed-upon feature of Moore's poetics, and as a mode of securing knowledge, it has served to ratify Moore's position as a central figure of American modernism. Modernist writers sought to create a literature that constituted real knowledge, knowledge in a strong sense, of which scientific knowledge was, at the turn of the twentieth century, the gold standard. As Thorstein Veblen put it in 1906, "modern common-sense holds that the scientist's answer is the only ultimately true one" (4). Thus Ezra Pound could write approvingly that "if Marconi says something about ultra-short waves it MEANS something. Its meaning can only be properly estimated by someone who KNOWS" (A B C 25). Marconi, the physicist-inventor, and not the poet or the literature professor, was the exemplar of the [End Page 83] meaningful speaker. Scientific knowledge was held up as paradigmatic of knowledge itself, and experimental science, as a set of protocols and conventions for obtaining it, was therefore looked to as a model for what Charles Altieri has termed the "new realism" (12). Precision is a scientific desideratum, an "epistemic virtue," as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison would call it (39), and thus Moore's "precise" poetics has generally been taken as evidence of a modernist seriousness about reality.

While the scientistic new realism was a widespread feature of modernism, and one particularly attributed to its more vocal male practitioners (Altieri, following Daniel Albright and Ian F. A. Bell, takes Pound and William Carlos Williams as his case studies), it is Moore who seems to be most widely and unanimously called a "precise" writer—so frequently, in fact, that the suggestion of "fussy" emerges. We are much more likely to discuss other modernist poets in terms of "sincerity," as Ezra Pound would call it, or "objectification," in Louis Zukofsky's formulation, while Moore is always "precise."1 If modernist poetics involved a heroic, even scientific commitment to a realism more realist than realism, there nonetheless seems to be a critical suspicion that Moore may have even taken it a bit too far—that, like that of the glacier she describes in "An Octopus," Moore's relentless accuracy and capacity for fact have a threatening quality to them. Thus among Moore's contemporaries as well as in subsequent criticism, Moore's precision has been read doubly, to confirm her as both a serious, scientific-minded modernist and an easily dismissed fussy spinster or a "hysterical virgi[n]," as Hart Crane put it in a 1927 letter (522).

That the same attribute—precision—should both ratify Moore's poetics as capable of knowledge and disqualify it as hysterically incapable of knowledge discloses its complexity. In this essay I wish to put pressure on this notion that Moore is "precise," not to overturn the label but to examine its implications for the way that Moore's poetry is constituted as a site of knowledge. The ambivalence of precision rests on its applicability to two different but linked domains. Insofar as precision is the mark of a laudable accountability to reality, it is understood as a neutral scientific practice, independent of material or social contingencies. Yet insofar as it is read...