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The Steeple-Jack -- Marianne Moore

(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

 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.
-- Marianne Moore
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" [1]. They are elegant and precise; carefully
constructed and meticulously detailed; and always, always, wonderfully


[1] 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."


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.



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]

22 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

RChamp7927 said...

I love Moore's lists because I know that I'm always going to find there words
I have never seen before, words that delight by their sound and shape, and
that have found an oddly appropriate place in her poetry. And unlike that
other creator of lists, Whitman, she doesn't go on forever but has a sense of
limit and proportion.

Her poetry rests in its own sayings. She doesn't yowl about her inner pain,
as so many poets of the modern era do (often to the point of being tiresome),
and she doesn't obscure by verbiage things that are relatively simple. You
get the feeling that writing poetry was a good deal of fun for her and that
she wrote hoping that other people would have fun as well.

Moore is basically a sane poet, and her sanity is luminous.

Bob Champ

Pierre Malraison said...

is showing up as

[ssiyer: fixed]


Thank You. I am a Steeplejack. Who yesterday standing on the face of a spire in a simple town with the sun on my skin, too has a life which has been a story of hope itself...
Ron , SilverLining Painting Co.

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