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Modernism and Unreadability

Isabelle Alfandary
Axel Nesme

American Unreadability: Collage 1923

“This new yet unapproachable America”

Bonnie Costello


This essay explores how Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore set the terms of an American Modernist poetics of the unreadable. Unreadability is indissociable from a perception of the heterogeneity of American space and of its resistance to a dominant perspective. Collage provides a useful template for writing strategies which, by foregrounding the metonymic juxtaposition of discrete elements, no longer attempt to include them within a unitary paradigm, thereby weaving a network of correspondences between America’s centrifugal diversity and the discontinuities of poetic discourse.

Texte intégral

This new yet unapproachable America
Ralph Waldo E
merson, “Experience”

  • 1 Moore Marianne. The Complete Poems. New York: Viking, 1967, 266.
  • 2 Eliot T.S. “The Metaphysical Poets” [1921], Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace (...)
  • 3 Eliot T.S. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” [1923], Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Br (...)

1Many American modernists protested the tendency of poetry to become obscure: “we do not like what we cannot understand,” declared Marianne Moore in “Poetry.”1 “Complexity. . . that has been committed to darkness” is a “pestilence” and showy obscurity is a kind of vanity in which the writer is “the buyer who sells and holds on to the money.” (Moore, 41; 60) Yet many of Moore’s poems and those of her American contemporaries present insurmountable problems of reading. One can find as many defenses of difficulty as protests against it, and the defenses tend to derive from the claim that modernity itself is illegible. Moore would no doubt agree with T.S. Eliot: “poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”2 The passage conveys Eliot’s strong intentionality toward the world, his desire to subjugate this complex, variable world to his “meaning.” Eliot’s “refined sensibility” experienced much of this complexity as “anarchy,” as an assault on the nerves. The ruptures and dislocations of language in his work express a mood of crisis and catastrophe, referred to a mythic level or symbolic labyrinth beyond history and discourse. In his admiration for Joyce Eliot admits no element of the latter’s unruliness, exuberant heterogeneity, or ludic inventiveness. Joyce, he argues, found a way of “of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”3 Joyce, according to Eliot, is not navigating experience but rather “making the modern world possible for art” [Eliot, (1923), 178].

2This is certainly not how most of the poets writing in America in the Twenties (those who stayed at home) thought about their project, especially since the boundary of what is art and what is not art was for them quite fluid. America was a very different place from Europe in 1922, a place less of brokenness and aching repression than of exuberance and confidence about its own modernity, somehow reconcilable with the spirit of the wilderness. America was in the Jazz Age. My purpose is to localize modernist resistance to reading and identify its tenor in three American poems written about a year after Eliot first published The Waste Land. All three poems create a radical sense of space untamed by perspective, yet highly particular and resistant to symbolic mapping.

  • 4 Eliot T.S. After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. London: Faber & Faber 1934, 19.

3The chief difficulty of these modern American texts is their heterogeneity, including even hybridity, which foregrounds and thematizes the world’s dynamism, unpredictability and recalcitrant variety (natural and cultural). Hybridity, for Eliot, was grotesque (he saw bats with baby faces) and even heterogeneity was something to be avoided. It is not surprising that Eliot, just a decade later, during a visit to Virginia, spoke out against heterogeneity. “The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both become adulterate.”4 But while Stevens, Williams, and Moore continue Poe’s quest for pure poetry, emphasizing form over semantics, they are also heirs of Whitman, omnivorous poet of enumerations. Not coincidentally, all three poets evoke images of the sea, that body separating America from older cultures. They explore orders forming and unforming in proximity to an inchoate flux. Theirs is an art of brinksmanship and immersion, not of death by water.

  • 5 Emerson Ralph Waldo. “Experience,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays. Ed. Larzer Ziff. New Yo (...)

4American poetry has long been at home in heterogeneity, or rather, has associated heterogeneity with home (“home” as aspiration rather than nostalgia). Emerson in “Experience” wrote of his westward movement toward “this new yet unapproachable America,” of consciousness as well as of the land.5 The essay is Emerson’s answer to the fretful mind, uneasy in contradictions, partial answers and faltering creeds. He responds to the paralysis of grief by putting his faith in an aggregate too great to be legible. Rather than struggling to recover a unitary aesthetic tradition that can master the mass of detail, these late-Emersonian American poets seek, with John Dewey (Emerson’s heir), the universal in the local. They emphasize, for reader and writer both, the “work” of imagination in its encounter with the actual; the exhilarating, unfinished labor of art that relinquishes frames in order to proceed. They create poems that function as homage to and image for an unnamed whole. The unreadable text is less a heap of broken images than a texture of resistance and adjustment, that forestalls closure and honors a fecund, uncontainable reality. Unreadability is thus not just a side effect or a suffered condition; it is a practice.

5Wallace Stevens’s “Comedian as the Letter C,” a 19 page allegorical narrative in a mock heroic style, William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All,” a book-length manifesto mixing cubist/dadaist prose and poetry, and Marianne Moore’s “An Octopus,” a 7 page continuous descriptive poem made up largely of quotation from diverse non-literary sources, all involve imaginative encounter with America. Yet in all three the usual anchors of readability—narrative, classification, argument, and description—become submerged in a dense, heterogeneous word and image pool. All three are thus “writerly” texts, involving the reader in a struggle for order and meaning within the motion and collision of words. They take as a premise that their subject, the built as well as the natural environment, is a moving target that cannot be subordinated to a unitary concept or form; in fact their unreadability derives in large part from the dissonances among their parts. The aggregate escapes the textual captivity of the symbolist grid, but finds a textual analogy or apposition in a poem as exhilaratingly resistant to reading as the world they evoke.

  • 6 Williams William Carlos. “Marianne Moore” [1931], in Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 196 (...)
  • 7 Moore Marianne. The Complete Poems. New York: The Viking Press, 1967, 267.

6The powerful influence of modernist visual art accounts for some of the illegibility of these texts, which are things made more than things said. By modeling their work on visual art practice these poets undermine the rules of linguistic semiosis. And while all three poems are in some sense encounters with landscape, they also disrupt illusionistic representation. Williams wrote of Moore’s poetry as if it were at once an industrial dynamo and a cubist painting: “there is a quickening, a burrowing through, a blasting aside, a dynamism, a flight over. . . Good modern work, far from being the fragmentary, neurotic thing its disunderstanders think it, is nothing more than work compelled by these conditions. It is a multiplication of impulses that by their several flights, crossings, at all eccentric angles, might enlighten.”6 Williams draws on the vocabulary used by apologists for cubism when he admires Moore’s way of organizing the image “from all angles lines converging and crossing over to establish points.” [Williams, 123] But a better analogue for understanding these poems is the art of collage, entering into American aesthetics by way of Dada. Collage is visual art’s metonymic, anti-hierarchical, heterogeneous form, assembling without a prominent abstract plane of connectives. All of these poems employ a vocabulary of cutting, tearing, pulverizing, blotching or breaking apart, as well as the language of assembling, knitting, lacing, sewing and patching, in describing their encounter with environment. In this art centripetal essence and generalizing proposition are no match for the incongruity, centrifugal diversity and mystery of the decontextualized, enumerated and convergent images. Collage undermines optical hegemony; we cannot order the picture plane visually. Similarly, these poems resist assimilation into a unitary discourse, conceptual scheme or fixed figure/ground relation. Eliot and Pound, paleo-modernists, give us shards of revered ancient texts, and their poems provide an index to a monumental tradition. Moore and Williams, and to some extent Stevens, give us democratic stuff rescued from the flux and appropriated to new provisional uses in a perpetual rhythm of decreation and creation that reflects the economies of modernity, its dynamic surface and continuum. They offer, then, a very different sense of the useable past from what Pound or Eliot imagined. As element is set beside element, the many qualities and auras of isolated fragments are compounded, fused or contradicted to form nodes and connections that do not disclose a symbolic labyrinth, but generate local meaning. High/low distinctions are referred to a horizontal plane of relations—things simply coexist in the mongrel phenomenon of America; indeed, all binaries remain on a syntagmatic plane where their incongruity must be tolerated. Collage, with its bidirectional pull and insistent materiality, offered a model of abstraction, an anti-mimesis that could be reconciled with a desire for the texture of the real, or, as Moore put it, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”7

7My aim is mostly descriptive in this paper. I want to look at particular techniques and effects of obstructed reading, and to suggest their connection to a poetics of encounter with America. Unreadability is relative. We are not dealing with Beckett’s qua qua qua. In these poems, the effort to read pays off even when ultimate legibility eludes us. The techniques of unreadability are familiar ones: sonic overload; serial, digressive and open form; relentless elaboration and enumeration; violent enjambment; fracturing and multiplying of the voice (including mimicry and quotation); heteroglossia; syntactic ambiguity or dislocation; optimal punning; tensions between rhetoric and grammar; the maximizing of rhetorical, lexical and imagistic variety; the antipoetic brought up against the poetic, the real and the unreal fused and reversed; metaphors and similes with a strong lateral pull; extreme imagistic hybridity; self-canceling chiasms; metaleptic and autotelic gestures; shifts of scale and perspective that make coherent mental picturing almost impossible, yet keep us tied to a referential base. These techniques do not reach the extremes of Dadaist poetics: resisting all efforts to discover coherence in disparate elements. These are open texts that engage the reader in a constant process of “unreading” conventional knowledge structures and reductive or synoptic views. But they are also assemblages affirming the capacious reach of the imagination.

  • 8 Moore Marianne. Observations. New York: The Dial Press, 1924, 65.

8The motive, tenor and emphasis of these techniques will vary from poet to poet. Unreadability in Stevens’s poem reflects the liminal condition of its comic hero, Crispin, a European emigrant in search of an American style. Williams’s poem spatializes an intense pace of industrial change in the landscape itself, too rapid to be readable. Moore presents a natural plenitude that eludes representation, a reality that disarms us with its “capacity for fact.” (Moore [1967], 76) At the same time her poem displays a dense and various fabric of discourse that becomes part of the abundance. All three poets create an uncharted wilderness of words in tribute to an ultimately untamable phenomenal world. As Moore wrote in an early version of another nearly unreadable poem, “New York,” “one must stand outside and laugh / since to go in is to be lost.”8 And of course we do both.

  • 9 Stevens Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1997, 23.

9Any reader familiar with the Stevens of Harmonium (1923) might account for its unreadable moments as a pure poet’s heightening of matter over manner. Certainly “The Comedian as the Letter C” opens on a decadent “verboseness.”9

The World without Imagination
Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil,
The sovereign ghost. As such, the Socrates
Of snails, musician of pears, principium
And lex. Sed quaeritur: is this same wig
Of things, this nincompated pedagogue,
Preceptor to the sea? Crispin at sea
Created in his day, a touch of doubt.
An eye most apt in gelatines and jupes,
Berries of villages, a barber’s eye,
An eye of land, of simple salad-beds,
Of honest quilts, the eye of Crispin, hung
On porpoises, instead of apricots,
And on silentious porpoises, whose snouts
Dibbled in waves that were mustachios,
Inscrutable hair in an inscrutable world.
One eats one paté, even of salt, quotha.
It was not so much the lost terrestrial,
The snug hibernal from that sea and salt,
That century of wind in a single puff.
What counted was mythology of self,
Blotched out beyond unblotching. Crispin,
The lutanist of fleas, the knave, the thane,
The ribboned stick, the bellowing breeches, cloak
Of China, cap of Spain, imperative haw
Of hum, inquisitorial botanist,
And general lexicographer of mute
And maidenly greenhorns, now beheld himself,
A skinny sailor peering in the sea-glass.
What word split up in clickering syllables
And storming under multitudinous tones
Was name for this short-shanks in all that brunt?
Crispin was washed away by magnitude.
The whole of life that still remained in him
Dwindled to one sound strumming in his ear,
Ubiquitous concussion, slap and sigh,
Polyphony beyond the baton’s thrust. (Stevens, 22–23)

10New World realities here create more than “a touch of doubt” about the principle underlying Old World forms, the principle that “man is the intelligence of his soil,” that culture bestows meaning on an otherwise meaningless environment. Crispin follows an allegorical quest for an organic American aesthetic and mythology of self that would invert the old priority of man over nature to a new organicism: “his soil is man’s intelligence.” (Stevens, 29) But the poem operates liminally within the chiasm of these presiding philosophies and refuses any such reduction to fixed terms of priority.

11Any readability offered up by the structure of narrative or the logic of allegory is quickly overwhelmed by sensory overload and lexical incongruity that submerges both scenic and conceptual coherence. The passage is all surface. There is something almost absurd about the incongruity between the subtitle, “The World without Imagination” and the eccentricity of the language that follows. Formal connections are being made as contextual ones are broken down; alliteration brings the poem to the brink of nonsense. We are aware of nothing so much as words clashing, textures and sounds cut loose from context and recombining in baffling ways. Targeted satiric incongruity breaks loose from its target and quickly becomes eccentricity, and eventually unruly heterogeneity, in this poem. By heightening sound over sense in the heavily alliterative phrasing, Stevens forces together unlike things. For Crispin, gelatines (jellies made from boiled down animal products) and jupes (skirts) may both belong to aristocratic culture and thus can be assimilated into an inventory of old world losses. But these disparate objects strain the coherence of the list, sending us in search of an alternate combinative logic in Stevens’s mind. For instance, both words suggest containment or molding of an otherwise fluent body. While “gelatines” and “jupes” are of French origin, “jupes” is also Scottish when it refers to the stays on a woman’s bodice. These jostling signifiers are marked throughout the long poem by the mixture of multi-syllabic, Latinate, and monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words. In this case, having just heard the French intonation in “gelatines,” we are inclined to seek linguistic coherence so we may hear the French word jou in “jupes.” The word JOU (torn from a Journal) was appearing, as Stevens knew, in the art of collage throughout the previous decade. Collage JOU undermines the didactic sobriety of the Latin “Nota” “Sed Queritur” and “principium and lex.” that opens the poem. Stevens has mined the vitality of linguistic heterogeneity while the hero of his poem seeks a cleansing reduction. As much as we may find our attention seduced by this associative sound, this jou or game of words, the syntax pulls us on, overriding lexical incongruity. One can easily perceive the parody in “Socrates of snails,” but a “musician of pears” adds synaesthesia to incongruity. Compounded, the mock heroic antitheses (“lutanist of flees” etc.) give way to a hybridity in which rival lexicons, pried loose from significations, wash together in a heteroglossia that has its own interest, untamed even by satire. And what mongrel bit of verbiage is “nimcompated,” which unites nincompoop, perhaps, with incompatible? The incongruous displacement of apricots by porpoises, as objects for Crispin’s eye to hang on, preserves well enough the comic narrative shift from dainty European gentry to wild Atlantic anima. But “silentious porpoises” (do we hear “licentious?”), with “snouts” that “dibbled,” produces a surreal effect (the porpoises have become like boars, rooting in water, not land). Crispin can hang on to these diving bodies, just barely, in the enjambed line “hung/on.” Like the rhythm of the ocean, the blank verse rolls over verbal flotsam and jetsam so that the reader has little opportunity to dry and sort it. As the poem proceeds, one runs to the dictionary for “palankeens,” “mulctings,” “glozing,” “ructive,” “carked,”—or one simply relishes the cacophony. Either way, the reader, with Crispin, is indeed “at sea.”

12Crispin is at SEE as well in his struggle to read the “inscrutable” visible world and find himself in a sea glass. He attempts to shed ornament and personification, but instead he sees a world where self is “blotched out beyond unblotching.” A blotch is a skin eruption or blemish, defacing identity; it is also more generally a marking with large, irregular spot or blot that can make an image or text unreadable. As an émigré from one organizing precept to another, the text of him records his liminal condition, a tableau full of “memorial gesturings” of outdated myths, and at the same time a “sea glass” he would see through to find a new transparent self. Crispin’s aspiration is to be like the Emerson of “Nature,” reading the spiritual meaning of things. Yet the poem is Emersonian in quite another way, closer to the Emerson of “Experience,” in relinquishing the past and embracing chance and flux with all its discordance.

13If Crispin, as the poem progresses, is “at see” in a world at once “dibbled” (full of holes) and overwhelming, he is also “at C.” The letter C is polysemic and polysonic; it contains both the ideal of a unifying norm and a plurality of effects. We hear this polyphonous letter in the “clickering syllables” of the line later in the poem, “exchequering in piebald fiscs unkeyed” which plays a scale of differences along the key of C. (Stevens, 34) The imagination is tuning itself to the “multitudinous tones,” hard and soft, of the letter C, “ubiquitous concussion, slap and sigh, / Polyphony beyond his baton’s thrust.” reducing his verbose self to “one sound strumming in his ear.” But that sound is an indeterminate center or norm by which to tune the poem’s heterogeneity. C is the cipher that signifies nothing and everything; it is not O, not a void, not a fixed but a moving center, found only in eccentricities.

14Of course this is a comedy—its hero is a commedia dell’arte figure in pantaloons, in “bellowing breeches.” This is a narrative describing a search for organic, local style written in a language made opaque by its discontinuity, arcane artifice, strangeness, and obfuscating puns. (The bellowing breeches are buttocks making wind—or making holes, thus breaching reality). Crispin remains, to the end, the barber who was seeking to give shape to the “inscrutable hair” of the world. This “wig of things,” this maker of false hairpieces in Europe, this scold or censure, finds himself cut down to size. (Stevens was a lover of etymologies and would know all the meanings of “wig.” In exploiting etymology he tends to destabilize the meaning of words.) The poem is a collage of his efforts to locate an American style. This stuttering barber embraces barbarism, “an aesthetic tough, diverse, untamed/ Incredible to prudes, the mint of dirt/ Green barbarism turning paradigm.” (Stevens, 25) Later, a catalogue of ripe abundance replaces the relentless antithesis as a mode of excess. In the narrative Crispin heads North, withdrawing to a less lush, more manageable climate of the Carolinas, where he founds a colony, with decidedly local and limited patriarchy. Crispin himself is no advocate of heterogeneity. His is a poetics of regionalist identity. But if we take the poem as a whole, the myth of American authenticity is supplanted by American variety. The comedy ends in a marriage and family; European Crispin in consummation with American land produces not one but four fertile daughters, each distinct, each an eccentric part of a heterogeneous whole.

  • 10 Williams William Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. A. Walton Litz and Chr (...)

15Williams would seem the most likely inheritor of Crispin’s search for the “fecund minimum.” His “No ideas but in things” sounds a lot like Crispin’s new creed: “the soil is man’s intelligence.” But while Stevens’s Crispin was making his way across the sea and up from the fecund wilds of south America to colonize in the Carolinas, Williams was discovering America as a modern industrialized continent, outpacing any intelligence that would distinguish man and soil. Spring and All, the 1923 sequence of untitled, unpunctuated poems mixed with mock-manifesto prose, is a landmark in American avant-garde writing and belongs on any list describing modernist “unreadability,” despite its inclusion of the overread and misread “The Red Wheelbarrow.” While Spring and All begins in a relatively scenic mode (“on the road to the contagious hospital”), it quickly moves to a language of disjunction, forestalled meaning, radical enjambment and broken and ambiguous syntax where words are liberated from their grammatical functions and discursive meanings.10 And while traces of the Persephone myth may arise in the volume (JP Morgan appears as Pluto), Williams never draws from what Philip Larkin calls the “myth kitty” to unify the work. The aim, declared in the prose (which is itself rendered unreadable with non-sequential numbering, upside down chapter titles, variable typography, unfinished sentences and other disruptions of discursive flow), is to break with “illusion” and the “plagiarism” of nature to reject symbolism as well and to give full agency “to the imagination,” in its encounter with environment. (Williams, 204, 182, 178) Williams’s text obstructs reading in his overwhelming commitment to the contemporaneous, to “the exact moment” of being, achieved by recognizing that “destruction and creation are simultaneous.” The poem beginning “crustaceous wedge of sweaty kitchens” shares Dada’s miscellany (yoking of artistic and commercial culture, intersecting of the natural and the mechanical) and its improvisatory spirit (Williams, 211).

of sweaty kitchens
on rock
thrusts of the sea
Waves of steel
from swarming backstreets shell
of coral
El Greco
in renaissance
with triphammers
which pulverize
of old pastures
to dodge
with arms and legs—
The aggregate
is untamed
of agonized spires
where bridge stanchions rest
left ventricles
with long
sunburnt fingers
(Williams, 211–212)

16The poem’s style certainly reflects the brinksmanship of radical modernism. The futurist F.T. Marinetti’s rules apply: destroy syntax, abolish punctuation, violate categories of images, shape nets of images and analogies, destroy the “I,” and maximize disorder. But its violence is matched by its impulse to find points of connection. Marinetti’s imperatives included the command to shape nets of images and analogies, and Williams has done so, but with more interest in the points of intersection than in the overall web. The poem opens on a sexual image, the sea thrusting itself against a built coastal ledge. But this violent encounter does more to establish a series of collisions than to provide a scenic or symbolic context. We wrestle with the words themselves: in the friction between “crustaceous” and “sweaty” we must first imagine a cluster of crustaceous shells, perhaps oysters or clams, and then their amorphous, fleshy interior animals; a shift in scale then provides an image of restaurants or industrial warehouses lodged along a harbor, teeming inside with amorphous human labor. Later in the poem we have an image of “encapsulating irritants” that suggests some “pearl” might form inside this expanding, violent “wedge” of the built environment. But the logic of metaphor, built up out of contingent, local relations, is metaleptic and submerged in a series of rapid, competing images as unpunctuated lines and incomplete sentences pull us forward. With some effort we may determine what this poem is about: the violent force of rapid urban industrialization and the provisional peace formed by art’s suturing hand. Williams has spatialized American progress in order to show how violent and chaotic it can be. But the wounds of the text remain open even as the “bridge stanchions” keep the work from hemorrhaging. The bridge can stand as a figure, in fact, for the work the poem does as it moves from one “local” image fragment to another, making connections without a comprehensive plan. This is art in the emergency room. Connections exist in contingent, local relations crossing at eccentric angles of nature/culture; art/commerce; water/land; body/world; high/low; European/American; horizontal/vertical. As in Stevens’s poem, metonymies are tied impromptu into metaphors with the ambiguous word “of.” The natural border where the built shore meets the ocean’s force becomes, through metaphor, a space of resemblance— modernity is not just a force against the flux of the sea but is itself an oceanic force. Hence “waves of steel” may turn the “thrusts of the sea” into a metaphor for modernity itself, but “shell of coral” takes us away from metaphor and back to metonymy. While the poem’s layered images are never securely descriptive or narrative, they evoke both rhetorical modes in tension, seeming to bear witness to a reality changing and expanding across America without clear agency. The telescoping of change from an agrarian to an industrial culture underscores the spatial simultaneity. Is “shell of coral” “inventing electricity”? There seems to be a catalogue here, and yet at times nouns and adjectives can be mistaken for verbs (wedge, thrusts, lights, waves, dodge) which cause us to want to connect these images in a causal relationship. This verb/noun ambiguity (is Dodge an action we do or an automobile brand we buy?) extends to a plurality of participial forms that de-emphasize causality while sustaining movement.

17Throughout, the poet’s voice is stilled and the initiative apparently given to words in collision. Toward the end of the poem Williams steps back to comment on this emergent reality: “The aggregate is untamed.” Yet the aggregate reality (New York, America, modernity) for which the poem is an analogue is granted agency from within. The passive verb form/predicate adjective (“untamed”) gives way to a participle (“encapsulating”) and finally an active verb (“knits”). The text dramatizes modernity’s unreadable momentum, emerging from the flux yet containing within it some dynamic, self-healing algorithm.

18As a collage, the poem asks us to discover or create local combinative moments even if the “aggregate is untamed.” Often these nodes are formed through prepositions that resist complete semantic recovery. But non-semantic patterns of association emerge as well at the larger compositional if not the discursive level. The problem is, these matrixes overlap so that individual images must be read along multiple, even conflicting planes of association. Conceptual clusters such as nature (crustaceous, waves, shells, lakes, blood) or human industry (sweaty kitchens, swarming backstreets, arms and legs, pulverizing triphammers, steel, cars, electricity, nitrogen, spires) cross with other configurations: old world (coral, El Greco, old pastures, twilight, spires) and new (inventing, renaissance, skyscrapers) in a dynamic intersection of meanings. The body becomes linked to technology (fingers of bridge stanchions, ventricles of roads). Energy (light and heat) in particular seems to “bridge” the oppositions of human and natural orders. And the tense principle of composition (destruction and creation are simultaneous) is captured in the imagery with its oxymoronic “renaissance twilight” and bridge stanchions that “rest piercing.” Nodes of potential meaning are further “knit” by a powerful non-semantic fabric of internal rhymes and assonance. We hear “speckle/El Greco,” “wedge/of sweaty,” “rock/overtopping,” “twilight/with triphammers,” “old/dodge,” “pulverize nitrogen.” This overall texture of chewy syllables, assonantal links and enjambed rhymes inserts the body into the poem, making its unity palpable across the many semantic gaps and contradictions. Productive agitation is everywhere, the violence is sexual and fertile, plowing the nitrogen into old fields, creating pearls within crustaceous wedges.

19There is certainly something synoptic about the poem; human labor is reduced to amalgamated sweat and swarm, a jostle of arms and legs across the spanning highways. But the massive body of America encapsulates its irritants rather than expelling them. And when bridge stanchions become the surgeon’s fingers the synoptic overview inhabits a panicky body. The poem becomes a sign for some modern aggregate, self-wounding and self-healing, its contingency, improvisation and local modalities of order, especially in the larger context of this volume, keep this sign from becoming a map.

20Marianne Moore displays even greater resistance to the synoptic view. Can we tell what we are looking at?

of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies “in grandeur and in mass”
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined pseudo-podia
made of glass that will bend—a much needed invention—
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred feet thick,
of unimagined delicacy.
“Picking periwinkles from the cracks”
or killing prey with the eccentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward “spider fashion
on its arms” misleadingly like lace;
its “ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.”
The fir-trees, in “the magnitude of their root systems,”
rise aloof from these maneuvers “creepy to behold,”
austere specimens of our American royal families,
“each like the shadow of the one beside it.
The rock seems frail compared with their dark energy of life,”
its vermilion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness
left at the mercy of the weather;
“stained transversely by iron where the water drips down,”
recognized by its plants and its animals.
Completing a circle,
you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed,
under the polite needles of the larches
“hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight”—
met by tightly wattled spruce-twigs
“conformed to an edge like clipped cypress
as if no branch could penetrate the cold beyond its company;”
and dumps of gold and silver ore enclosing The Goat’s Mirror—
that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human foot,
which prejudices you in favor of itself
before you have had time to see the others;
its indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise,
from a hundred to two hundred feet deep,
“merging in irregular patches in the middle lake
where, like gusts of a storm
obliterating the shadows of the fir-trees, the wind makes lanes of ripples.”
(Moore, 71–72)

21Moore wrote this poem after a trip to Mt. Rainier in 1922, and published it in The Dial in 1924. The subject matter undergoes constant displacement. We are drawn immediately into the “concentric crushing rigor” of this poem. As in many of Moore’s poems, the title is also the first line, denying us any preview or orientation, and resisting the hierarchy of details. In this case, in fact, the title misleads. The representational subject remains unnamed so that the initial comparison, “an octopus/ of ice,” obstructs rather than enhances the illusion of the scene. The poem continues to haul us through its weltering depths and surfaces, and though we discover where we are. (The scene is the glacial Mt. Rainier, high point of the American continent, which Moore, in another dislocation, calls Mt. Tacoma, its Indian name, and mostly refers to as “it” while it morphs from octopus to python to Plexiglas, to Jamesian mind.) No explicit narrative or thematic orientation helps us resist the flux of image, context, scale and perspective. Stevens imagines an ocean voyage to arrive on the East coast, and Williams moves inland, exploring the oceanic force of an industrializing environment. But Moore fully superimposes land and sea, comparing this highest point of the continent to a world below sea level. The opening lines of this seven-page poem establish a juxtaposition that develops in multiple directions, enfolding further metonymic fields, the poem itself like a glacier or an octopus, its “arms seeming to approach from all directions.” The basis of the initial metaphor is an aerial view drawn on the cover of the National Parks Rules and Regulations manual. But Moore never allows this to become an authorized map with which to master the maze. She plunges us into the infinite detail of the local, or rather several localities, for this octopus-python is at once picking periwinkles from the cracks in tide pools and reflecting the light through “tightly wattled spruce twigs” on the mountainside. While the poem resists optical hegemony it insists on visual detail. The mass of details breaks loose from context—is “anemone” a flower on the mountain or a sea animal? The terms of the metaphor insist on their independent identity, yet never pull apart for long. Materials and their auras are transmuted into a new amalgam greater than its parts.

22While Moore’s poem describes a “wilderness” protected by the National Park Service, her poem declares linguistic artifice from the outset. This is not Thoreau’s unmediated Mt. Katahdin, but a world of words. This capacious self-referential text is assembled almost entirely of quotations. (Research has shown that much more is appropriated, though transformed, than indicated by the quotation marks.) Moore’s poem makes clear from the beginning that there is no liaison with environment that is not intercepted by language. This does not mean, however, that man is the intelligence of his soil. At every turn, often through enjambment, the poem subverts the aim not only to “conquer the wilderness,” but also to make the world captive in a text. This motive can be read indirectly in one of the many peculiar notes for this poem. Quoting an anecdote from The Rockies of Canada as the source of an inconsequential reference to “two pairs of trousers,” Moore creates an incidental metaphor for her method, her unraveling of the poem’s weave: “My old packer, Bill Peyto... would give one or two nervous yanks at the fringe and tear off the longer pieces, so that his outer trousers disappeared day by day from below upwards.” (Moore, 273) The poem’s heterogeneous, eccentric language sources and styles, combined with its constant gestalt shifts, its uncertainties of substance and shadow, reality and illusion, create a reading experience analogous to the encounter with the wilderness—a kind of linguistic sublime full of ironic inversions. Moore’s first line (or second if you include the title) reminds us that while from a height or a map the world may seem “reserved and flat,” thus easy to read, this is deceptive. “It lies” and indeed this idea of deception surfaces constantly in the poem. This python-octopus-glacier hovers misleadingly like lace, and has pseudo podia. Inassimilable heterogeneity pushes back fiercely against the mind’s effort to make the landscape legible through anthropomorphic projections. Shape shifting gives us the incongruity of a “Goat’s Mirror” which is “ladyfinger like” in its depression, but is nonetheless “in the shape of the left human foot” (the “left,” not the right—Moore is always precise even when describing illusions). But quickly gusts of storm obliterate all images. “Watch out” she implies—that ladyfinger is a decoy that will beckon us into snows that are “one hundred to two hundred feet deep.” Overconfidence in the reading of landscape can be dangerous.

23Moore’s poem is the most heterogeneous, the most skeptically encyclopedic, multi-vocal and paratactic of the three works I consider here. Her strategies of unreadability are at once less violent grammatically and more radical rhetorically and conceptually than Williams’s. Her poems often pull away from conventions of representation and articulation, less by abandoning the rules of grammar than by overloading and extending the sentence as it gathers in a mass of particulars and quotations from a range of discourse groups, what she calls later in the poem the “original American menagerie of styles.” (Moore, 74) Moore’s penchant for radical metaphor without narrative or logical connectives also strains readability (both vocal and silent). Having plunged into a world of tide pools (with quotations taken from a natural history article in the Illustrated London News, about tide pools and cephalopods), she hurls our attention back to the park and a vertical gaze on the fir-trees. Quoting John Muir, she treats these trees as a kind of natural American monarchy—austere and “aloof” from the forward, horizontal motion of the omnivorous glacier, and more than a bit unreal in their aloofness. Is there a political commentary here, a tension between some vital, indiscriminate aggregating force of culture and some elitist model with its dark, even shadowy energy? If so, the poem will not dwell on it; meaning organizes the poem more centrifugally than centripetally—such signifying potential hovers around almost every element of the description, but the glacial pull of the lines resists all impulses to unify the poem around a stable theme or mythos.

  • 11 Leavell Linda. Marianne Moore and the Visual Arts: Prismatic Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Un (...)

24Textural variety arises in the composition as materials refer both internally and externally, bonding in metaphor while bearing the trace of their demotic source. “The esthetic basis of all art is selection.” Moore copied this remark about Alfred Stieglitz in her notebook.11 She told Williams: “I have a dislike for connectives.” Her own voice is inaudible within the incongruous mesh of quotations. There is no “I.” Our only source of identification is an abrupt, unidentified “you” as hypothetical witness. She situates us without giving us any stable ground to stand on. (It’s a glacier, remember.) As in collage, the parts pull against the whole, an effect Moore heightens by giving footnotes to non-literary sources. While footnotes might be elsewhere an aid to legibility, here they have the opposite effect, increasing the poem’s centrifugal force, as in the long quotation about Sir William Bell’s list of inventions including “glass that will bend.” Moore must have found an unconscious poetry in this list, but it certainly makes an odd footnote to a poem:

Sir William Bell, of the British Institute of Patentees, has made a list of inventions which he says the world needs: glass that will bend; a smooth rod surface that will not be slippery in wet weather; a furnace that will conserve ninety-five per cent of its heat; a process to make flannel unshrinkable; a noiseless aeroplane; a motor engine of one pound weight per horsepower; methods to reduce friction; a process to extract phosphorus from vulcanized India-rubber, so that it can be boiled up and used again; practical ways of utilizing the tides. (Moore, 273)

25But while we may think the quotation is utterly irrelevant, an entirely centrifugal pull, we notice that the last item in Bell’s list is “practical ways of utilizing tides” which brings us not back not to Plexiglas, the footnoted image with which she was comparing the glacier, but to the opening metaphor, the glacier as an octopus, feeding in tide pools. Quotation here does not function as it does in “The Waste Land,” where it indicates an abiding authority of poetic tradition. Rather, Moore’s poem creates a collage-like permeable membrane between text and world. Collage in Moore’s poem has a specific relevance in many ways: the idea of “found art” arises where a note tells us a line was “overheard at a circus,” or culled from advertising, a theological text, a natural history feature article, a fashion history, or a park brochures. Was there ever such a bricoleur? Here the artist selects and juxtaposes (often with startling or ironic effect from the incongruities) rather than speaking directly or indirectly in poetic discourse. The notes pull us back into this diversity as the text pastes together an imaginary (faked) space that may evoke the rhetoric of description but is anything but pictorial. Enjambment tears to open new connectives, not just in the move from the title to the first line, but throughout. Moore uses line breaks to sharpen our sense of the incongruity of language styles, and the inadequacy of summary. For instance, the sentence that begins “the rock seems frail” heightens the grandeur and abundance of the scene, but closes on a flat, generalizing phrase “recognized by its plants and its animals” an irony that undermines the awed rhetoric’s incitement to plunder. Often the lengthy and cumbersome sentences lose their syntactic hold on us as they convey the density and magnitude of the imagined reality. Colons and semicolons are suspended between groups without an easy sense of their structural relation. Appositions become subjects with their own appositions in turn. Participial phrases go on for several lines until we cease even to anticipate their subjects and simply enjoy the arrangement of words, the parts of speech, in the infinite variety language itself generates. We can always finally retrieve the structure, but not without a pleasurable strain. As with collage, all the elements remain in play and create nodes of meaning in juxtaposition rather than becoming absorbed into a larger symbolist grid.

26In Moore’s poem, as in collage, meaning and material merge. Just as Williams’s “aggregate is untamed” refers both to the text and the world it encounters, so Moore’s tour-brochure rhetoric brings us back to the elusive reality of the text: “you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed.” Moore’s wording often foregrounds its collage techniques, with its emphasis on nature’s tearing, pasting, blotching and obliterating action. These self-referential moments arise often in the description, perhaps most conspicuously in the avalanche that ends the poem and leaves the page white. “The glassy octopus symmetrically pointed, its claw cut by the avalanche/ “with a sound like the crack of a rifle, / in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall.” (Moore, 76) After many lines of linguistic and sensory overload, Moore truncates description, leaving reality illegible. In the life of the glacier, of course, this avalanche is a minor adjustment. Here in this “dark energy of life” is Moore’s alternative to Eliot’s laconic “shantih shantih shantih,” which withdraws from the futility and anarchy of the contemporary world.

  • 12 Kuspit, “Collage,” in Collage: Critical Views, ed. Katherine Hoffman. Ann Arbor, 1987, 45.

27As Donald Kuspit has said, “the collage seems unwilled, and yet it is willful.” “By its seeming indifference to the fragments that constitute it—conveyed by the seemingly random way in which those fragments are gathered together—the collage forces us to turn from the fragments to the attention that selected them, the individuality they acquire by being brought together by a particular kind of attention.”12 The challenges of reading these texts take us back to the creative minds that assembled their elements, unreading and rereading an always new, yet unapproachable America.


1 Moore Marianne. The Complete Poems. New York: Viking, 1967, 266.

2 Eliot T.S. “The Metaphysical Poets” [1921], Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1975, 65.

3 Eliot T.S. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” [1923], Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1975, 177.

4 Eliot T.S. After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. London: Faber & Faber 1934, 19.

5 Emerson Ralph Waldo. “Experience,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays. Ed. Larzer Ziff. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982, 302.

6 Williams William Carlos. “Marianne Moore” [1931], in Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1969, 123.

7 Moore Marianne. The Complete Poems. New York: The Viking Press, 1967, 267.

8 Moore Marianne. Observations. New York: The Dial Press, 1924, 65.

9 Stevens Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1997, 23.

10 Williams William Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1986, 183.

11 Leavell Linda. Marianne Moore and the Visual Arts: Prismatic Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995, 125.

12 Kuspit, “Collage,” in Collage: Critical Views, ed. Katherine Hoffman. Ann Arbor, 1987, 45.


Boston University
Bonnie Costello
is Professor of English at Boston University. She is the author of many books and articles on modern and contemporary poetry, including, most recently Shifting Ground; Reinventing Landscape in Modern American Poetry, and Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life and the Turning World. She is general Editor of The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore. She has recently been translating Italian poetry, and writing about the visual arts. Bonnie Costello is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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