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  • “The Plucked String”: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore and the Poetics of Select Defects
  • Cynthia Hogue (bio)

[M]any who are “helped” by a brave note, do not admire the plucked string; by some the note of rapture is not caught; and by the self-sufficient, Emily Dickinson has been accused of vanity. A certain buoyancy that creates an effect of inconsequent bravado—a sense of drama with which we may not be quite at home — was for her a part of that expansion of breath necessary to existence, and unless it is conceited for the hummingbird or the osprey to not behave like a chicken, one does not find her conceited.

Marianne Moore

In connection with personality, it is a curiosity of literature how often what one says of another seems descriptive of one’s self.

Marianne Moore

In her important study of American women poets’ relations with masculine and feminine literary traditions, The Wicked Sisters, Betsy Erkkila draws the conclusion that Marianne Moore “had no desire to place herself in the literary tradition of Emily Dickinson,” based on the fact that, as Erkkila’s note states, she never mentioned Dickinson to Elizabeth Bishop (102, 239n.1). Moore, Erkkila observes, “found her precursors among men rather than women” (102). 1 Erkkila’s conclusion is literally correct (there is indeed a paucity of references to Dickinson by Moore), but in being quite precisely partial (that is, in taking Moore — or rather, Bishop — at her word), Erkkila may, in fact, be too hasty. [End Page 89]

As Jean Garrigue poetically observed some time ago, one notes the several stylistic and characteristic affinities between the two poets. He writes, “Both have the laconic abruptness of decisive daring. And the dignity of being curt about great things they know. An asceticism in each”:

Rectitudes of being they both infallibly stand for. Implications, as well, of the infinites.

Both have at their backs a firmament of reading—the black Bible, I mean,” he continues. Both conscious legatees to those ages of insight “proved on the pulse”, [sic] moral beauties acquired next, by virtue who knows, of being faithful to what they were and are (as Peter the cat was).


There is in both, he concludes, “a trenchant authority with language,” for neither a “conventional smoothness, sweetness, sleekness”: “Both are startlingly original” (53). As Garrigue’s sketchy comparison indicates, the affinities between the two poets call for a reconsideration of Moore’s relation to Dickinson.

In examining Moore’s critical reception of Dickinson in the unpublished as well as published record, I shall argue in the pages to follow that Moore developed a remarkable appreciation of Dickinson. In that light, I want to assert Moore’s relation to a formal tradition of female American poetic innovation that Dickinson helped to inspire and Moore herself to extend. I have termed this tradition elsewhere a poetics of “select defects,” 2 following Moore’s own characterization of the aspect of Dickinson’s poetic project that she publically appreciated, as detailed in her 1933 review of Dickinson’s Letters.

Moore published only one piece on Dickinson, a mid-career (1933) review of Mabel Loomis Todd’s Letters of Emily Dickinson (1931), but a number of feminist critics, Erkkila among them, have been reconstructing the cultural context in which Moore and other women writers cultivated a network of literary and professional relationships. 3 This network represents “a specific historical response to the marginality of women writers in the landscape of literary modernism”; thus whom Moore reviewed — H.D., Bryher, Stein, for example —was selective and, as Erkkila observes, “privileged the specifically feminine ethics and poetics that Moore admired” (104). Moore’s formative involvement with Dickinson’s work may have been over by the time she and Bishop became friends, but given her selective reviewing, it is not insignificant (as Moore might say) that she chose to review Dickinson. 4 One reason, I want to suggest, may have been the “specifically feminine ethics and poetics” at work in the [End Page 90] poetry of a female precursor whose genius was generally acknowledged, if unevenly appreciated, by Moore’s time.

During Moore’s formative years, Dickinson’s status was changing. Respectfully received...

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