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Poets' Corner

August 31, 2003|Carol Muske-Dukes

The Poems of

Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore

Edited with notes and

commentary by Grace Schulman

Viking: 480 pp., $40

The distinguished poet Grace Schulman has given poets and readers of poetry a very substantial gift: She has edited a definitive and inclusive volume of more than 100 previously uncollected and unpublished poems of the extraordinary but elusive poet Marianne Moore. Schulman notes in her superb, revealing introduction to this volume that "it is an oddity of American letters that no major poet is cherished more and known less than Marianne Moore."

A good deal of this lack of knowledge was Moore's own doing, as Schulman makes abundantly clear; the poet was so exacting a critic of her own work that she incessantly revised (famously reducing, for example, her universally anthologized poem "Poetry" from numerous stanzas to just three lines) and often excluded wonderful poems from later editions of her work, judging them to be inferior.

Schulman, who knew Moore from an early age (her parents were Moore's friends) and who wrote her dissertation on Moore, provides a lively and often hilarious account of the poet's personality and a fascinating view of her politics. Moore did not expect the poems she had summarily dismissed from her oeuvre to resurface; and Schulman confides, "I was torn between wanting to follow my friend's last editorial wishes and the driving need to represent her work." Fortunately, the "driving need" won out.

Moore poems are difficult to excerpt, though here are a few lines spinning their enigmatic visionary spell:

you

see more than I see but even I

see too much

"To read a poem by Marianne Moore is to be aware of exactitude," notes Schulman. Her chronological recasting of these extraordinary poems (which are accompanied by notes, attributions and other commentary) in this collection amply and dramatically demonstrates her own passion for exactitude and her deep and lasting regard for an unforgettable and indisputably major American poet.

*

Picture Window

Poems

John Hollander

Alfred A. Knopf: 96 pp., $24

Implicit in John Hollander's presence on the page is his devotion to the primacy of the pure aesthetic, a stance that generates a style rather casually monumental, one that brings to mind his own description of Victor Hugo's oeuvre as a "vast shadowed mountain" -- in this case a mountain seen through a picture window, that suburban "frame" of the 1950s.

Hollander's stance as poet-philosopher remains uncompromised in "Picture Window," yet the poet's imposing meditations are often delivered in cocktail-hour vernacular. The mountain is on the move in rush-hour traffic. In his indispensable two-volume anthology, "American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century," Hollander gathered and contextualized a century's poems, presenting canonical work by Whitman and Dickinson side by side with folk songs, spirituals, Navajo and Eskimo chants, and Creole slave songs.

"Picture Window" also wishes to situate itself in the world of the "indicated" quotidian, the broadly based, yet the poems ascend inevitably to Parnassian overview. Hollander has an eclectic formal mode, craft and erudition. If the poems are not entirely free of self-consciousness, Hollander mitigates portentousness with a Jamesian, gently mocking voice:

No matter, I am full of the past, while its present

Openness to all of itself,

Even to me, looks always too, to be looking out

Toward what is so grandly Out There, the tremendous next thing.

In the title poem, he gives us a taste of that tremendous next thing (with its echo of James' famous deathbed description of life's end as "the distinguished thing") as he polishes the metaphor of the picture window. Transparence is meant to be both seen through and beheld as a representation -- just as we see ourselves in art, gazing through our own vision: "That we see through ourselves, through our very / Seeing itself."

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