- Marianne Moore’s “Blue Bug”: A Dialogic Ode on Celebrity, Race, Gender, and Age
“Blue Bug,” Marianne Moore’s poem addressed to a polo pony, galloped into public view in The New Yorker in May 1962, the tenth of her poems to appear there since 1958, and part of the starburst of her late-life celebrity. Though it has been little read since, I will argue that this brilliant ars poetica can transform understanding of Moore’s later career. A celebratory ode to an unusual set of artists and athletes, “Blue Bug” explores and critiques the entwined mechanisms of celebrity and spectacle, drawing on resources as disparate as Pindar and Don Ameche, while modeling the subversive role audiences may play through active dialogue with received ideas and identity scripts.
In 1962, the elderly Moore was a well-known poet and a full-time performance artist. Calmly extraordinary, she often dressed like George Washington in tricorne and cape, with a silver-dollar clasp, raising questions about her and her audience’s “identities”—as Americans, as gendered and racialized people, as spenders of dollars, as people of a particular age—just by entering a room.1
Moore’s poetry had also morphed to support her performance and to address an expanded audience. While her early work experimented with unusual forms and oblique references and appeared in obscure journals, her later work spoke more accessibly, in middlebrow venues—often about performance. Anticipating twenty-first-century analyses of modernist celebrity dynamics, in her post-1951 work Moore inquires into the operation of celebrity and fandom. Her poems offer on-the-spot readings of the parallel mechanisms through which authors, artists, athletes, musicians, [End Page 759] and movie stars come to public notice, and of the effects and uses of such notice.2 The poems are catalyzed by their interaction with Moore’s unusual celebrity persona: she is a prizewinning, highbrow poet, but she is also fond of middlebrow entertainments and an elderly woman, two categories generally excluded from authority and renown.
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Moore’s poems on athletic champions—like race-horse Tom Fool, who won all ten starts in his 1953 four-year-old season, including the three New York handicap races—rhyme with her own champion status. Like Tom Fool, Moore had become famous as a “triple-crown winner” when her Collected Poems (1951) won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize.3 And like him, she presented as a jester: double meanings abound in Moore’s oeuvre, and playful puns can open serious questions. (Moore notes the resonance of the horse’s name with his season’s start date at Jamaica Park: “out on April first, a day of some significance / in the ambiguous sense”; P, 283.) Her many presentations to enthusiastic crowds combined humor with an appealing self-abnegation. The humorous frame made admissible the implied critique of standard celebrity and invited the audience’s collaboration in critique.4 The esoteric poet’s appearances in popular contexts also affirmed her humility, further spotlighting the operations of rank.
From early days, Moore’s work had questioned distinctions between high and low culture—see her “England” (1920) and “Poetry” (1919)—although the formal difficulty [End Page 760] of her early work ensured it would be available only to highbrow readers willing to labor to find meaning and to conclude without resolution. Moore’s 1950s gestalt continued her embedded challenge to the high/low divide by opening her work to middlebrow readers. For Moore, this was a moral as well as a philosophical move. As early as 1909, in letters written home while visiting a college friend in New York City, Moore referred to her stay there as a Jonah-esque “sojourn in the whale”—a trying exercise in humility but also a blessing, which she embraced permanently in 1918 when she and her mother moved to the city.5 “Tom Fool at Jamaica” (1953) begins like a sermon, also with a lesson on Jonah:
Look at Jonah embarking from Joppa...