Posts Tagged ‘Marianne Moore’

Poet Marianne Moore meets Muhammad Ali: “I’m a poet, too!” he said.

Saturday, June 4th, 2016

They decided to write a sonnet together…

A meeting between poet Marianne Moore and legendary Muhammad Ali, who died today. They had been introduced by George PlimptonThe historic rendezvous took place at Toots Shor’s in Manhattan. Here’s the story over at “Such Stuff“:

She made a confused, pleased gesture and then had a sip of her tea. He ordered a bowl of beef soup and a phone. He announced that if she was the greatest poetess in the country, the two of them should produce something together — “I am a poet, too,” he said — a joint effort sonnet, it was to be, with each of them doing alternate lines. Miss Moore nodded vaguely. Ali was very much the more decisive of the pair, picking not only the form but also the topic: “Mrs. Moore and I are going to write a sonnet about my upcoming fight in Houston with Ernie Terrell,” he proclaimed to the table. “Mrs. Moore and I will show the world with this great poem who is who and what is what and who is going to win.”

“We will call it ‘A Poem on the Annihilation of Ernie Terrell,’ ” Miss Moore announced. “Let us be serious but not grim.”


What rhymes with “hell”?

“She’s cute,” Ali commented.

A pen was produced. Ali was given a menu on which to write. He started off with half the first line — “After we defeat” — and asked Miss Moore to write in Ernie Terrell (which she misspelled “Ernie Tyrell” in her spidery script) just to get her “warmed up.” He wrote most of the second line — “He will catch nothing” — handing the pen over and expecting Miss Moore to fill in the obvious rhyme, and he was quite surprised when she did not. She made some scratchy squiggles on the paper to get the ink flowing properly. The fighter peered over her shoulder.

“What’s that say?” he asked.

“It doesn’t say anything. You could call them ‘preliminaries.’ Terrell should rhyme nicely with ‘bell,’ Miss Moore said tentatively. I could see her lips move as she fussed with possibilities. Finally, Ali leaned over and whispered to her, ” ‘but hell,’ Mrs. Moore.”

Read the whole thing here.

Auden on Hitler and Napoleon: “Their fatality is being what they are.”

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

"a hunger to be needed"

Some time ago I wrote about Howard Griffin‘s Conversations with Auden.  I’m not sure I ever had read the front matter before tonight.  Had I done so, I would have learned that the young poet Griffin took these notes using a kind of shorthand (W.H. Auden would never have allowed a tape recorder) in 1946 and 1947, then transcribed them painstakingly with Peter Eckermann‘s Conversations with Goethe in mind as a model. They were highly regarded by literary circles in the 1950s.  Another poet, Marianne Moore, said “these discussions … profitable to me if no one else…”

The volume begins with this question:

Howard Griffin: Would you rather have lived at an earlier time when men knew less, when there was no police force, no plumbing?

W.H. Auden: I would not. If one thinks in terms of happiness or love, human behavior certainly has not improved through the ages, but if one thinks in terms of knowledge, power and potential for good, one must say: there has been an advance.

This was in 1946-47, remember. World War II was still a living wound; the avalanche of facts and photos and eyewitness accounts about it had yet to be published.  Auden had this take on Adolf Hitler:

“Although he seemed to be always telling other people what to do, Hitler’s acts were determined by compulsion and desire for prestige. Men like Hitler, Napoleon and Richard III contrive to make their surroundings sufficiently exciting so that they are sustained in a state of passion, which dictates what they will do. People like Hitler have a hunger for complete mastery and when things begin to go wrong, then there is nothing for them to do but wish their death.  The Hitler type is able to choose for others, but incapable of self-choice and he must go on arousing enemies because their fact proves that he exists. When we read of the night of the long knives, the SS slogan ‘Heads must roll,’ the Rohm purge, etc., we see that the Nazi leaders contrived to do evil consciously for its own sake in order to demonstrate their objective reality … Once they get started, they cannot stop. Their fatality is being what they are; they are their own disease …. For the dictator, war is a good thing; then he feels wanted. He has a hunger to be needed. A war provides people with a negative sense of self – enough self to destroy. What Hitler, Napoleon and Alexander lacked was a consciousness of their finiteness, a lack that can be disastrous …”

These conversations were published in literary journals, but never found a publisher – at least not in Auden’s lifetime. Nor in Griffin’s. He died in 1975, two years after Auden’s death, also in Austria.



On Elizabeth Bishop: “The laughter is quick, sharp, deep. No way to transcribe it.”

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

“You know what we used to do with peppermint sticks? You stick it in half a lemon, and you suck it. Very good.”

Elizabeth Bishop was a sucker for candy canes. Who knew?

Ploughshares has republished its 8,000 word interview with the poet George Starbuck, first published in 1977.  The interview feels pretty much unedited, replicating the twists and byways a conversation can take, as if the editors were reluctant to let even the tiniest bit go. And some things couldn’t be described: “The laughter is quick, sharp, deep. No way to transcribe it.”

My favorite bit is about her friendship with Marianne Moore, dating back to Bishop’s collegiate days:

EB: Actually, I didn’t tell her I wrote for a long time. … I guess she must have known by the time I graduated. Even then—I suppose this was a little odd even then—we called each other Miss for about three years. But I admired her so much.

She had a review of Wallace Stevens that I don’t think she ever reprinted. I went over there, to Brooklyn. She waved me through the back door (the elevator wasn’t working). And she had two of those baskets for tomatoes, just filled with papers. Two bushel baskets. And these were the first drafts of this rather short review. You can see how she worked.

She asked for rhymes. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

She had a clipboard that she carried around the house to work on a poem while she was washing dishes, dusting, etc.

Now all her papers, or almost all, are in the Berg Museum in Philadelphia. … the exhibit of manuscripts was marvelous. If ever you want to see examples of hard work, it’s just perfect.

She wrote a poem about the famous racehorse, Tom Fool. The man who arranged the collection had done a beautiful job, in glass cases: dozens of little clippings from the newspapers and photographs of the horse. And then the versions of the poem. It goes on and on and on. The work she put in!

GS: I’d be fascinated to see how she did those inaudible rhymes—whether that came first or kept changing. How that figured.

EB: She was rather contradictory, you know. Very illogical. She would say, “Oh—rhyme is dowdy.” Then other times, when she was translating La Fontaine, she would ask me for a rhyme. If I suggested a rhyme, she would be very pleased. She liked that ballad of mine [“The Burglar of Babylon” –ed.] because it rhymed so well. She admired the rhyme Many Antennae. You could never tell what she was going to like or dislike.

GS: That was the other thing about “The Moose.” There’s that nice casual little six-line stanza, but you establish different interlocking ways of making at least a couple of pairs of rhymes out of the six lines.

EB: I thought it would be regular, but that turned out boring. It seemed almost like a ballad. The first stanza was what I thought of first, and then it just seemed to go. It was so funny, Octavio read it when it was published somewhere. He talks about rhyme a lot. Then he read the first stanza aloud and he said, “Oh, it rhymes! Oh it rhymes some more! Rhymes and rhymes and rhymes!” Robert Lowell is always saying, “I like rhyme.” He tries to go back to rhyme but doesn’t. Says he can’t seem to do it any more. His first poems violently rhymed. You—you’ve written sestinas. Rhymes. I’ve always thought I’d write a villanelle.

GS: But you did

EB: Finally did. Never do it again.

He loved mice. (Photo: Walter Albertin)

And this tidbit about E.E. Cummings:

GS: You seem to write more and more kinds of poems but without exhorting yourself to be suddenly different.

EB: Ha. I know I wish I had written a great deal more. Sometimes I think if I had been born a man I probably would have written more. Dared more, or spent more time at it. I’ve just wasted so much time.

GS: Would it have been extra works in other genres?

EB: No.

GS: Long poems?

EB: No. One or two long poems I’d like to write, but I doubt that I ever will. Well, not really long. Maybe ten pages. That’d be long. I read Robert Penn Warren’s Collected Poems. He wasn’t lazy. And Cummings.

Oh. I did know Cummings. When I lived in the Village, later on, I met him through a friend. He and I had the same maid for two or three years. “Leave a little dirt, Blanche,” he used to say to her. Blanche finally left them. They wouldn’t put traps down for the mice. Mrs. Cummings told her a story about how there was a little mouse that would come out and get right on the bed. They would lie in bed and watch her roll up little balls of wool from the blanket, to make her nest. Well, Blanche was appalled.

GS: Was he sparing the mice on humanitarian, vegetarian principles?

EB: Oh no. Cummings just loved mice. He had several nice poems about mice. He adored them. He used to…

Well, I haven’t said anything profound.

I have, among my books somewhere, I have the Time-Life book she was commissioned to write about Brazil, in which, according to Starbuck, she writes “such wonderful bright clear stories from the history of Brazil.” I’ll have to find it.

The rest of the Ploughshares interview here.  And my own post on Bishop, as remembered by Dana Gioia and Thom Gunn (as well as my own visit to her Brazilian home) is  here.

W.H. Auden’s prose, and why art matters

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

If you haven’t already read it, I recommend Michael Wood‘s “I Really Mean Like” in one of last summer’s issues of the London Review of Books. He discusses The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose Vol. IV, 1956-62, edited by Edward Mendelson.

From Wood’s review:

Marianne Moore says of poetry that she too dislikes it; Eliot tells us that it doesn’t matter; Auden says it makes nothing happen. In fact, none of these propositions represents anything like the whole story for any of these poets, but there’s an element of affectation here all the same, an unseemly wooing of the philistine. Neither Mallarmé nor Valéry ever expressed any interest in a muse who didn’t bother to read poetry – they knew that the world was already full of people saying that it didn’t matter, and saw no reason to join the chorus, even out of strategy.

I wonder if it’s the difference between the French and the English – it’s so easy to sound hysterical in English. In French and Italian,  it doesn’t seem to matter.  Perhaps they are hysterical all the time, so it doesn’t count.

I like this:

… when Auden wants to evoke ‘a parable of agape’, or ‘Holy Love’, he talks about Bertie Wooster’s relation to Jeeves. Bertie in his blithering is a comic model of humility, and his reward is Jeeves’s immaculate and unfailing allegiance. There is also an appealing moment when Auden, suggesting that popular art is dead and that ‘the only art today is “highbrow”,’ suddenly remembers he has to make an exception: ‘aside from a few comedians’. He says he learned long ago that ‘poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good, and that one does not have to be ashamed of moods in which one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy.’

Forget it.

Note to self:  Go back to The Dyer’s Hand, although Auden makes one weep with envy, not least of all for his aphorisms, like this one:

We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart so that we would have to forgive them.

Or these: “he says that ‘every good poem is very nearly a Utopia,’ and ‘every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins.’ And again, shifting to music but not exactly leaving the other arts behind: ‘Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.’”

Can poetry matter?  Wood answers:  “Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.”