Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore

9780374107291_p0_v2_s260x420Linda Leavell, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 480 pages. $30.

By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, September 2013

Call it the Curious Case of Marianne Moore. She was an American Athena, spawned by no particular school but championed by every major poet of her generation. Her poems are Wonderlands populated by spiny creatures and pools of sudden malice, where language is precisely used and used precisely. She was also a beloved pop icon, instantly recognizable in her tricorne hat. She threw the first pitch for the Yankees in 1968, palled around with Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali, and was invited by Ford to name a new car. The New York Times noted her death in 1972 on page one. She continues to anticipate us with her enthusiasm for data and sampling texts, her horror of sentimentality.

Biographies, wrote Auden, are “always superfluous and usually in bad taste.” I’m inclined to believe he’d make an exception in the case of Holding On Upside Down, a new book about his great friend Moore. It’s deliberate and sensitive—“creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,” in Moore’s words—capable of containing her many contradictions, most notably her desires for recognition and privacy.

Moore left behind thirty-five thousand letters but few clues to her personality. She strove, as Frost wrote, “to keep the overcurious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters,” and she largely succeeded. Her biographer Linda Leavell admits, “Eight years and six hundred draft pages into the project, I realized that while I had come to know [Moore’s mother and brother] Mary and Warner rather well, I still knew little about Marianne.” Eventually, Leavell determines that the poems are “the best record of her inner life,” and turns to them as a primary source of information— with mixed results.

She reads the poems as gnomic journal entries. Thus “The Fish,” an inky philosophical whorl, becomes a coded reference to a rift in the family, an interpretation based on a single image: water driving “a / wedge / of iron through the iron edge / of the cliff.” The book falters when Leavell goes this far, and she frequently goes this far. She comes to conclusions like (and I shudder to type this): “The most significant legacy of Marianne’s kindergarten experience is her almost instant affinity, when she encountered it in the early twentieth century, for the work of other moderns.”

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My Poets

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By Maureen McLane

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, May 2012

Readers are not created equal. Frances Ferguson observed, rather dolorously, that the “reader can only read the texts that say what he already knows,” but let’s be frank: There are gifted—or maybe just thirstier—readers among us who, by dint of stamina or plain need, won’t be stymied by boredom, offense, incomprehension. There are varsity readers, and then there is Maureen N. McLane, a poet, professor, and prizewinning critic. To read McLane is to be reminded that the brain may be an organ, but the mind is a muscle. Hers is a roving, amphibious intelligence; she’s at home in the essay and the fragment, the polemic and the elegy. She can be confessional and clinical and ludic—sometimes all in the same sentence. What I’m trying to say is that McLane has moves. In her new book, My Poets, she invites us to read over her shoulder as she combs through “her” poets, including Chaucer, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück. It’s a work of personal and poetic archaeology—“I am marking here what most marked me,” she writes. The prose is thick with quotation and self-interrogation; voices serried and overlapping, combining in chorus, splintering into argument. Forensically close readings dovetail with spirited defenses of the poets posterity has misunderstood, fresh readings of the familiar, and formal experiments (an abecedary of her favorite translators, a cento of beloved lines). She positions Emily Dickinson as a 9/11 poet. She recasts cerebral Marianne Moore as the “the stealth weapon of American poetry” and mistress of “a languid, lethal, acrid sexuality.”

It’s a visceral kind of criticism, sexy, strange, and suspenseful. Nabokov said to read for the tingle at the tip of the spine. Dickinson spoke of poems that took off the top of her head. Language enters McLane’s body like a current. Her whole body bucks and shudders. Her responses are forcefully somatic—“Some of her poems bypassed my brain and registered directly on the nerve endings”—and matched by the syntactical sophistication of her thought, her attraction to contradiction. Witness her response to the conclusion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” (“everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go”): “Some days this seems coercively tidy and moral and obligatorily epiphanic and another instance of romantic ideology and sickening other days it seems a parable for living or rather attending.” Criticism is a temporal art, she reminds us. Our judgments are subject to mood; they are various and fickle. McLane destabilizes the authority of the critic—and the poem. “Poems aren’t for teaching; they insinuate,” she writes.

Poems insinuate and lodge themselves within McLane. The lives of the poets become blueprints. (“Elizabeth Bishop was gay and a traveler and a gay and sad traveler,” she writes. “I did not know this and I came to know this. I became this.”) She handles her poets with reverence, but also treats them as rich sources of gossip, heaping her exegeses with delicious gobbets on internecine squabbles, bloated reputations, what Alice and Gertrude got up to in bed, the “bovine worship” Bishop elicits in some circles. A splendid mimic, McLane sometimes riffs on poets in their own styles. Here she is in fine Gertrude Stein mode: “Robert Lowell is so Lowelly you must unLowell him to lower him into you. This I found. He was not sound.” On the topic of herself, she is wickedly deadpan and self-deprecating—she tots up her youthful academic success to “a talent for aligning with authority.”

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