Less Is Moore

Observations is one of the great verbal works of art of the 20th century, in part because of Marianne Moore’s infectious devotion to everything small.

By James Longenbach

ObservationsOn 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.”

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