On February 29, 1988, John Ashbery gave a poetry reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The room was packed. Coincidentally, the Folger had mounted “Marianne Moore: Vision Into Verse,” an exhibition including an array of clippings and photographs that Moore includes in her poems—most prominently in “An Octopus,” the longest poem in her 1924 volume Observations. Speaking from the podium, Ashbery called “An Octopus” the most important poem of the 20th century; and while the remark provoked a few titters, he was reiterating a conviction that was neither novel nor idiosyncratic. “Despite the obvious grandeur of her chief competitors,” he’d written two decades earlier, in a 1967 review of Moore’s Complete Poems, “I am tempted simply to call her our greatest modern poet.”

By “chief competitors,” Ashbery meant the usual suspects—Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams—all of whom maintain a permanent claim on our attentions; with the notion that Moore belongs among this company, no 21st-century reader could plausibly disagree. Not only the freewheeling Ashbery but also the fastidious Richard Wilbur reveres her poems, and depending on how one approaches them, the poems themselves seem both freewheeling and fastidious. “She gives us,” said Ashbery, “the feeling that life is softly exploding around us, within easy reach.”

In a sense, this is true of any great poem, which will seem seductively unpredictable, a thrilling journey from first line to last, to the degree to which it is exquisitely constructed. No poet is more formally precise than Walt Whitman at his most expansive, no poet more wildly extravagant than Emily Dickinson at her most curtailed; freedom is not sloppiness, structure is not constriction. But perhaps more clearly than any poet of the 20th century, Moore allows us to see why this is the case. Hence her extraordinary usefulness for other poets, hence her lasting influence even on poets who do not sound like her, much less transform her discoveries into mannerisms.

Moore was born near St. Louis, Missouri, in 1887. Her parents separated before her birth, and subsequently her father, already institutionalized, severed his hand, taking literally the injunction of Matthew 5:30 (“If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off”). To her mother and her brother Warner, who became a Presbyterian minister, Moore remained fiercely, sometimes pathologically close. Though she attended Bryn Mawr College, became a suffragette, moved to a tiny Greenwich Village apartment in 1918, and edited the legendary magazine The Dial from 1925 until its demise in 1929 (an achievement that would ensure our interest in Moore even if she had written no poems), she lived with her mother until her mother’s death in 1947. It’s hard to imagine Marianne Moore sharing a bed with her mother while also composing her fiercely syntax-driven poems—poems in which domestic relations often seem pointedly nightmarish: “the spiked hand / that has affection for one / and proves it to the bone, / impatient to assure you / that impatience is the mark of independence / not of bondage.”

Moore began publishing these poems around 1915, and immediately they were noticed by the poets who became her peers—Pound, Eliot, Stevens, H.D., Williams—poets who would each write admiring essays about her work. Yet Moore remained mysterious. “Does your stuff ‘appear’ in America?” asked Pound after first encountering her poems in England. “Dear Mr. Pound,” replied Moore, “I do not appear.” In 1921, H.D. helped to arrange the appearance of a small collection, called Poems, but Moore was neither involved with the publication nor pleased with the results. She held out as long as she could, finally publishing her first book, Observations, with the Dial Press in 1924; a slightly revised second edition appeared the following year. Though Moore would continue to write superb poems throughout her long life (she died in 1972), she would never surpass the achievement of Observations, which is not merely a collection of discrete poems but a poetic omniverse of Whitmanian proportions.

Moore was a passionate reviser. Prior to being collected in Observations, her poems appeared in little magazines in sometimes drastically different versions, and she continued to revise them for decades to come. Reading a poem from the 1920s in her 1967 Complete Poems, often one is in fact reading a poem from 1935 or 1951; this conundrum was wildly exacerbated by the recent Poems, which reprints (in the words of the volume’s editor, Moore’s friend Grace Schulman) “versions [of the poems] that I liked.” In addition, because Moore’s various selected and collected editions rearrange and omit some of the poems of Observations, the design of this volume has largely been obscured. A facsimile edition appeared in 2002 (Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907–1924, meticulously edited by Robin Schulze), but it is only now that Moore’s Observations has finally been reprinted as a book that devoted readers might hold in their hands.

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Many people think of Moore as the author of intricately descriptive accounts of animal life, but the impression is largely due to the order that her friend T.S. Eliot (acting in his capacity as an editor at Faber and Faber) devised for Moore’s 1935 Selected Poems, an order to which she adhered in every subsequent selection. Consequently, most readers’ experience of Moore begins with a group of long, descriptive poems written in the early 1930s (“The Steeple-Jack,” “The Jerboa,” “The Plumet Basilisk,” “The Frigate Pelican”), followed by “The Fish,” an arresting but finally atypical poem from Observations.

A fresh reading of Observations suggests that, while Moore’s descriptive powers are formidable, she is primarily a poet of argument, which is to say that she is most primarily a poet of syntax—the convolutions of her long, charismatic sentences seduce us into agreement long before we’ve had time to consider the substance of the argument at stake. Consider the final sentence, typed out as if it were prose, of “My Apish Cousins”; the sentence is a tirade against critics who make works of art seem intimidatingly obtuse:

They have imposed on us with their pale half fledged protestations, trembling about in inarticulate frenzy, saying it is not for us to understand art; finding it all so difficult, examining the thing as if it were inconceivably arcanic, as symmetrically frigid as if it had been carved out of chrysoprase or marble—strict with tension, malignant in its power over us and deeper than the sea when it proffers flattery in exchange for hemp, rye, flax, horses, platinum, timber, and fur.

Hanging from the initial independent clause (“They have imposed on us”) are four parallel phrases modifying the critical act of imposition (trembling about, saying it is not, finding it all, examining the thing), followed by five more phrases describing how the work of art—“the thing”—is consequently made to appear (inconceivably arcanic, symmetrically frigid, strict with tension, malignant in its power, deeper than the sea). But even before we’ve tracked this syntax, the sentence has thrown us into its concluding list of mostly blunt, concrete nouns (hemp, rye, flax, horses, platinum, timber, fur), which seem to rise magically from the elaborately Latinate diction preceding them. The sentence says that directness is to be preferred to obfuscation, but the sentence shows that obfuscation is not to be confused with complexity: We wouldn’t feel the wonder of a simple list of plain things (hemp, rye, flax) if it were not extruded from the poem’s extravagantly patterned sentence.

What happens when this sentence is cast in lines? Moore was an accomplished maker of prose sentences; the more than 700 pages of her Complete Prose, edited by Patricia Willis (who also curated the Folger exhibit), can be as exciting to read as her poems. But as a maker of poems, Moore often arranged her sentences in intricately designed stanzas, not so much to control as to heighten the extravagance of her syntactical flights. In this she resembles the 17th-century poet John Donne, another poet of irresistible argument, except that Donne, like most English-language poets, organizes his lines by their number of metrical feet. (What we call a pentameter line, for instance, contains five feet, each foot containing a stressed syllable: “For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love.”) In contrast, Moore often organizes her lines by their number of syllables, allowing the stresses to fall in a variety of patterns. For instance, the stanza of “My Apish Cousins” consists of six lines containing 15, 16, 10, 10, 15, and 11 syllables respectively, the first line rhyming with the second and the fourth line rhyming with the sixth. One line ends in the middle of a word: “as symmet- / rically frigid.”

Is this stanza contrived? Is a sonnet contrived? Like any kind of aesthetic pattern, a poem’s lines may threaten to seem arbitrary—that’s paradoxically part of their power; but Moore’s syllabic lines have provoked in certain readers the need for either defense or dismissal. In her recent biography of the poet, Holding On Upside Down, Linda Leavell argues that Moore’s prosody was shaped by her experience of the then-new curriculum of the American kindergarten, which encouraged children to develop their imagination through the manipulation of geometrical forms. This argument is about as plausible as the notion that Whitman avoided the pentameter because he never learned to count to five, and in her new introduction to Observations, Leavell maintains, equally implausibly, that the “natural cadence of [Moore’s] sentences, not the line and stanza breaks, determine how the poem should sound.” The cadence of Moore’s sentences is powerful, as “My Apish Cousins” demonstrates, but if line and stanza were not by their nature in productive relationship with a poem’s syntax, determining its sound, then all poets—Moore, Donne, Pound, whomever—would simply write prose. All poetic lines introduce some kind of additional pattern to the already highly patterned syntax of a poem’s sentences, and if Moore’s syllabic lines seem more contrived than Donne’s metrical lines or Pound’s free-verse lines, that’s simply because we’re less accustomed to them; there’s no poetic form more weirdly arbitrary than the sonnet.

Consider the first sentence of “Picking and Choosing” as Moore lineated it:

Literature is a phase of life: if
one is afraid of it, the situation is irremediable; if
one approaches it familiarly,
what one says of it is worthless.

The length of these lines is determined by syllable count, but Moore is not simply chopping up her syntax in order to obey the pattern; like any poet from Chaucer to Ashbery, she is shaping her syntax to take strategic advantage of what happens when the lines end. Consider a different lineation, mine, not Moore’s:

Literature is a phase of life;
if one is afraid of it,
the situation is irremediable;
if one approaches it familiarly,
what one says of it is worthless.

This sounds different from Moore’s version because the lines don’t interrupt the integrity of the sentence’s various clauses. In contrast, Moore throws immense weight on the word “if” by dangling it at the end of two lines, and, as a result, the poem asks us to hear the sentence’s intonation in one particular way and not another: “if one is afraid”—“if one approaches it familiarly.” Moore’s lineation similarly determines our experience of the thrilling conclusion of “My Apish Cousins”: After four stanzas of incessant syntactical action, the suddenly static list of concrete nouns is framed by a single line, no verbs allowed: “rye, flax, horses, platinum, timber, and fur.”

“I am in perfect terror of Marianne,” admitted her friend William Carlos Williams. Why would that be? Consider a few of the many challenging tasks cataloged in “The Labors of Hercules”:

to teach the patron-saint-to-
atheists, the Coliseum
meet-me-alone-by-moonlight maudlin troubadour
that kickups for catstrings are not life
nor yet appropriate for death—that we are sick of the earth,
sick of the pig-sty, wild geese and wild men:
to convince snake-charming controversialists
that it is one thing to change one’s mind,
another to eradicate it—that one keeps on knowing
“that the Negro is not brutal,
that the Jew is not greedy,
that the Oriental is not immoral,
that the German is not a Hun.”

The author of these lines has zero patience for what Moore elsewhere calls “the storm of / conventional opinion,” whether sentimental (maudlin poets spouting romantic clichés) or political (controversialists reveling in racial and national prejudice). Moore’s sensibility mellowed with age, but like Dickinson, the poet of Observations is one of the most ferocious in the language, a poet whose passionate convictions are nailed to the page. “Your thorns,” says Moore of a rose, “are the best part of you.”

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The lines I’ve quoted from “The Labors of Hercules” are written not in syllabic but in free verse, which Moore began to write around 1920. Why, after mastering her syllabic forms, did Moore shift her procedures, going so far as to reorganize a few of her earlier poems into free-verse lines? Leavell suggests that Moore gave up syllabics because “she realized that readers grown accustomed to free verse found her line breaks distracting,” but it’s impossible to imagine Moore succumbing to such craven motivations, and in any case she would return to syllabics in the 1930s with gusto. The very design of Observations tells a more convincing story about Moore’s formal choices.

The book is organized chronologically, but not simply by default. Observations begins with its simplest poems, poems that educate us in Moore’s procedures, moving next to longer poems cast in more elaborate syllabic stanzas. Within this group, the structures of the poems begin to change. Increasingly the poems take the form of catalogs or lists: Information is marshaled in the service of an overarching category or theme—except that the category or theme may not become clear until the end of the poem. The unexpectedly capricious “England,” for instance, is a catalog of national qualities that begins with England, then moves swiftly to Italy, Greece, France, and finally to America, which turns out to be the poem’s undeclared focus. “It has never been confined to one locality,” says Moore of the capacious New World sensibility she seeks not only to describe but to embody.

“There is something attractive about a mind that moves in a straight line,” says Moore, describing her own sensibility. Following poems like “England,” which surge forward, refusing to circle back, Moore shifts from syllabics to free verse in order to sustain such structures in increasingly longer poems: Rather than cutting against her syntax, her free-verse lines tend to follow the shapes of the poem’s clauses and phrases, foregrounding their repetitions. What are the pressingly Herculean tasks before us?

To popularize the mule…
to teach the bard…
to prove to the high priests…
to teach the patron-saint-to-athiests…
to convince snake-charming controversialists….

Moore’s answer to the question posed by “The Labors of Hercules” is a sequence of parallel infinitive phrases, each beginning a new free-verse line. Her turn to free verse represents not a disavowal of formal patterning but a different kind of patterning—a collusion of line and syntax in poems whose extravagantly list-like organization needs to be managed.

This strategy culminates in the longest poem of Observations, “An Octopus,” which is no more about a cephalopod than “England” is about a small island nation on the periphery of Europe. The poem grew out of Moore’s 1922 expedition to Mount Rainier, the 14,000-foot peak towering above Seattle, and as Clifton Johnson puts it in What to See in America (one of Moore’s sources for the poem), the 28 glaciers covering Mount Rainier reach “into rich gardens of wild flowers and splendid evergreen forests like the tentacles of a huge octopus.” But just as the octopus is a figure for the mountain, the mountain is Moore’s figure for America—its vastness, its multiplicity, its tortured past and its infinitely promising future. Except for Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, there is no poem that more passionately fulfills Emerson’s conviction that “America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination.”

The poem itself must be experienced in its vastness. Brief quotations can’t reveal the power of Moore’s exquisite control of its almost unwieldy array of materials, for its argument emerges through the excessive iterations of catalog, managed by the lineation, rather than from the logical procedures of cause and effect. Grippingly meticulous accounts of Mount Rainier’s geography, fauna, and flora, much of the material quoted from a bewildering variety of sources, ultimately spill into a charged comparison between this “American ‘menagerie of styles’” and the ancient Greek preference for mere “neatness of finish.” The Greeks wore themselves out, but this New World poem, like the glaciers of Mount Rainier, keeps expanding, building a concatenation of materials that feels simultaneously inevitable and impossible—an octopus “of ice,” as the first line tells us, distinguished by a relentless “capacity for fact.” How, one wants to ask when reading Observations from start to finish, could the book have come to this?

But there’s more. Following the poems of Observations come Moore’s fascinating notes to them, ranging from Pliny to Punch, and following the notes is her 504-entry index, which references not just the titles of the poems but their extraordinary range of subject matter—an index that (if one actually reads it) feels like the explosive long poem in which Observations ultimately culminates:

Andrews, John
ant with a stick
ape, curling with an
Apish Cousins, My
art, arcanic
artist and money
artists, fools
attack and concord
average moments

These juxtapositions are thrilling, and there remain 25 letters to go. What could be more predictable, more confirming of our expectations, than the organizing pattern of the alphabet? What could be more unpredictable, more inviting and inclusive, than the alphabet? Read as a whole, as it was designed to be, Observations emerges as one of several books that in the 1920s created our lasting sense of what constitutes the modernist achievement—books that court chaos through exquisite artistry: Eliot’s The Waste Land, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Pound’s A Draft of XVI Cantos, Joyce’s Ulysses.

Moore did not covet this company; she wrote poems. The one dismaying aspect of this long-overdue republication of Observations, consequently, is an introduction persuading new readers that Moore is a defensive artist in need of defense. To praise her at the expense of Eliot or Pound is to descend to a kind of argument that Moore herself found witheringly distasteful; the conviction that something is great “because something else is small” (as Moore put it) diminshes what is great. Observations is one of the great verbal works of art of the 20th century, in part because of its infectious devotion to everything small, and like The Waste Land or Ulysses, it speaks for itself.