(Poem #1043) The Steeple-Jack
Dürer would have seen a reason for living in a town like this, with eight stranded whales to look at; with the sweet sea air coming into your house on a fine day, from water etched with waves as formal as the scales on a fish. One by one in two's and three's, the seagulls keep flying back and forth over the town clock, or sailing around the lighthouse without moving their wings -- rising steadily with a slight quiver of the body -- or flock mewing where a sea the purple of the peacock's neck is paled to greenish azure as Dürer changed the pine green of the Tyrol to peacock blue and guinea gray. You can see a twenty-five- pound lobster; and fish nets arranged to dry. The whirlwind fife-and-drum of the storm bends the salt marsh grass, disturbs stars in the sky and the star on the steeple; it is a privilege to see so much confusion. Disguised by what might seem the opposite, the sea- side flowers and trees are favored by the fog so that you have the tropics first hand: the trumpet-vine, fox-glove, giant snap-dragon, a salpiglossis that has spots and stripes; morning-glories, gourds, or moon-vines trained on fishing-twine at the back door; cat-tails, flags, blueberries and spiderwort, striped grass, lichens, sunflowers, asters, daisies -- yellow and crab-claw ragged sailors with green bracts -- toad-plant, petunias, ferns; pink lilies, blue ones, tigers; poppies; black sweet-peas. The climate is not right for the banyan, frangipani, or jack-fruit trees; or for exotic serpent life. Ring lizard and snake-skin for the foot, if you see fit; but here they've cats, not cobras, to keep down the rats. The diffident little newt with white pin-dots on black horizontal spaced- out bands lives here; yet there is nothing that ambition can buy or take away. The college student named Ambrose sits on the hillside with his not-native books and hat and sees boats at sea progress white and rigid as if in a groove. Liking an elegance of which the sourch is not bravado, he knows by heart the antique sugar-bowl shaped summer-house of interlacing slats, and the pitch of the church spire, not true, from which a man in scarlet lets down a rope as a spider spins a thread; he might be part of a novel, but on the sidewalk a sign says C. J. Poole, Steeple Jack, in black and white; and one in red and white says Danger. The church portico has four fluted columns, each a single piece of stone, made modester by white-wash. Theis would be a fit haven for waifs, children, animals, prisoners, and presidents who have repaid sin-driven senators by not thinking about them. The place has a school-house, a post-office in a store, fish-houses, hen-houses, a three-masted schooner on the stocks. The hero, the student, the steeple-jack, each in his way, is at home. It could not be dangerous to be living in a town like this, of simple people, who have a steeple-jack placing danger signs by the church while he is gilding the solid- pointed star, which on a steeple stands for hope.
Archibald MacLeish famously wrote: "A poem should not mean But be." I can think of no poet who so consistently fulfils MacLeish's dictum as Marianne Moore. Randall Jarrell talks of "her lack -- her wonderful lack -- of arbitrary intensity or violence, of sweep and overwhelmingness and size, of cant, of sociological significance". Her poems simply exist; they "cannot be suborned to any end but their own" . They are elegant and precise; carefully constructed and meticulously detailed; and always, always, wonderfully rewarding. thomas.  Michael Schmidt, in his magisterial study "Lives of the Poets". Schmidt goes on to say this about Moore's verse: "Her syllabics are straightforward. Instead of the verse being 'free' or governed by metre or regular stress patterns, she chooses to build a stanza in which the lines have a predetermined number of syllables. Indentation underlines the parallels. The shape of the stanza indicates the syllabic disposition. With the addition of rhyme, this is one of the most restrictive measures a poet can deploy." [Biography] Born near St. Louis, Missouri, on November 15, 1887, Marianne Moore was raised in the home of her grandfather, a Presbyterian pastor. After her grandfather's death, in 1894, Moore and her family stayed with other relatives, and in 1896 they moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She attended Bryn Mawr College and received her B.A. in 1909. Following graduation, Moore studied typing at Carlisle Commercial College, and from 1911 to 1915 she was employed as a school teacher at the Carlisle Indian School. In 1918, Moore and her mother moved to New York City, and in 1921, she became an assistant at the New York Public Library. She began to meet other poets, such as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, and to contribute to the Dial, a prestigious literary magazine. She served as acting editor of the Dial from 1925 to 1929. Along with the work of such other members of the Imagist movement as Ezra Pound, Williams, and H. D., Moore's poems were published in the Egoist, an English magazine, beginning in 1915. In 1921, H.D. published Moore's first book, Poems, without her knowledge. Moore was widely recognized for her work; among her many honors were the Bollingen prize, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. She wrote with the freedom characteristic of the other modernist poets, often incorporating quotes from other sources into the text, yet her use of language was always extraordinarily condensed and precise, capable of suggesting a variety of ideas and associations within a single, compact image. In his 1925 essay "Marianne Moore," William Carlos Williams wrote about Moore's signature mode, the vastness of the particular: "So that in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events." She was particularly fond of animals, and much of her imagery is drawn from the natural world. She was also a great fan of professional baseball and an admirer of Muhammed Ali, for whom she wrote the liner notes to his record, I Am the Greatest! Deeply attached to her mother, she lived with her until Mrs. Moore's death in 1947. Marianne Moore died in New York City in 1972. -- www.poets.org [Moreover] Here's an extract from a review (by Frank Kermode) of Moore's "Selected Letters", in which he talks about her poetic method: "Moore once remarked that 'prose is a step beyond poetry ... and then there is another poetry that is a step beyond that': you had to go through prose to come out the other side purged of that disposable prior poetry, with its irrelevant inversions and its subjection to conventional rhythms. The posterior poetry would have built into it the virtues of good prose. In the syllabic poems, where 'each stanza' is 'a duplicate of every other stanza' (much as Donne set himself argumentative problems by exactly replicating an arbitrarily complicated opening stanza), the sentences could, indeed must, be capable of being written straight out as prose; what is lost in the process of doing that is precisely the machine-like precision of the repetitions of line length and covert rhyme. If the effect seems mechanical, so be it. In 1932, on the brink of celebrity, she remarked that 'a thing so mechanically perfect as a battleship is always a pleasure to me.' One can see something of what this means by looking at 'The Steeple-Jack', the poem which, though not an early work, having been published in 1932, stands first in both the Collected Poems of 1981 and the Selected Poems of 1941. It was much admired by both Eliot, who arranged the order of the poems for Moore, putting this one at the head, and by Wallace Stevens, who analysed it at some length, commending, among other things, the poet's attachment to truth. The opening six-line stanza sets the arbitrary pattern of line length and rhyme, and has a full close: Dürer would have seen a reason for living in a town like this, with eight stranded whales to look at, with the sweet sea air coming into your house on a fine day, from water etched with waves as formal as the scales on a fish (Dürer because he travelled far and fruitlessly to inspect a beached whale, but also because of the etched scales; and, more generally, because he is deeply in the thought of the poem.) The second and third stanzas repeat the stanza pattern but form a continuous sentence which flows over the scheme without disturbing it, stopping at the last line of the third stanza. The fourth stanza strictly observes the pattern and the rhymes, one of which, 'the' and 'sea-', is virtually not there." -- [broken link] http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20n08/kerm2008.htm