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  • "Writing Was Resilience. Resilience Was an Adventure"Marianne Moore, Bernard Shaw, and the Art of Writing
  • Tara Stubbs (bio)

In his literary biography of the American modernist poet Marianne Moore (1887–1972), Charles Molesworth describes the balance of "praise and blame" that is apparent in Moore’s 1915 poems addressed to other writers and cultural figures.1 By establishing a form of address in these poems, Moore foregrounds the "anxiety of influence" that preoccupies her at this early stage in her literary career: for, as Harold Bloom would put it some fifty years later, "the language of influence" is what "governs relations between poets as poets."2 This "language" appears to be anticipated in the conversational form of Moore's early poems, which delineates her personal anxieties concerning literary and cultural influences. Robin Schulze describes in Becoming Marianne Moore how Moore spent much of 1915, the "first year of her life as an internationally published poet," composing poems addressed to various literary and historical figures. These included Gordon Craig, Yeats, Disraeli, Browning, Blake, George Moore, "Merlin, King Arthur's fabled magician," and Bernard Shaw.3

Molesworth traces Moore's interest in Shaw to 1906, when in her freshman year at Bryn Mawr College, she wrote "with aplomb about such people as George Bernard Shaw, then a figure of great controversy and ideas."4 Much later in her career—and in her life—Moore was still displaying an interest in Shaw. In a response to a questionnaire published in The Christian Century in 1963, Moore includes Shaw's Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant and "The music criticism of George Bernard Shaw" in a list of books that "Did Most to Shape" her "Vocational Attitude" and "Philosophy of Life."5 Yet Moore's early poem addressed to Shaw, originally entitled "To Bernard Shaw: A Prize Bird," published in the Egoist in August [End Page 66] 1915, begins on a less positive note—the poet appearing initially uncertain whether Shaw's pride in his abilities makes him a poetic "Samson" or a strutting barnyard cock.

Although "To a Prize Bird" is the only one of Moore's poems addressed directly to Shaw, an earlier, unpublished poem had already mentioned him. "To a Cantankerous Poet Ignoring his Compeers—Thomas Hardy, Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Henry James" has received little critical attention, perhaps because its specific allusions, and its wider object, are not immediately clear. A reader might ask whether the "Cantankerous Poet" represents one, or all, of the writers listed here, or whether Moore has an absent poetic figure in mind. Yet if we consider the title alongside the titles of other poems written during the same period, where in each case the intended subject is made clear—for example, in "To William Butler Yeats on Tagore," "Ezra Pound," or "Blake"6—it would be logical to assume that each of the writers mentioned represents a "Cantankerous Poet."7 Thus in the poem Moore characterizes the four "Cantankerous" writers in turn, giving Hardy, Shaw, Conrad, and James a line each to emphasize their obstinacy and independence. At the same time, however, the turn of the verse is reliant on the harmonious coexistence of these apparently dissonant poetic minds.8

If Moore's addressees represent each of the writers mentioned in the title, then "You must account for these" (line 6) becomes a plea for their individual acceptance of other writers who, in advertising "the ease / in which we sit" (lines 7–8), promote the intellectual climate on which they all rely. The second, concluding, stanza, which Moore replicates in her later poem "Diogenes" (1916), continues the theme of intellectual tolerance through what Margaret Holley terms "a series of rhetorical questions" by which Moore "affirms the positive doubleness of 'contrarieties."'9 Such "contrarieties" see "Persian cloth" compared with "Persian sloth" (lines 9–10) and "gold dust" reimagined as "bran" (line 11). Holley describes how in the second stanza of "Diogenes," "Diogenes the ascetic defends his own Puritan legitimacy in contrast with the more colorful Ashtaroth (Astarte), the ancient Syrian goddess of sexual love and fertility." The poem, Holley contends, "argues that such contrarieties are to be recognized, rather than resolved in favor of one side." If...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1480
Print ISSN
0741-5842
Pages
pp. 66-78
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-13
Open Access
No
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