As part of a personal project of mine to re-read the great modernist poets, I came across a poem by Marianne Moore that I found particularly fascinating.
Moore, of course, is known for her meticulously detailed poems about animals, scored to intricate, self-invented syllable-based forms, often examining her chosen object from a dizzying number of angles.
The poem I have in mind, though, instead of studying a single creature, offers a quick panorama of many animals; it's a memory of a zoo. What's odd is that the animals are ranked and assessed, as if they were art objects:
winked too much and were afraid of snakes. The zebas, supreme in
their abnormality; the elephants with their fog-colored skin
and strictly practical appendages
were there, the small cats; and the parakeet --
trivial and humdrum on examination, destroying
bark and portions of the food it could not eat.
This catalogue/commentary proceeds, until the poet settles on the real hero of the poem -- an animal identified as "that cat", a "Gilgamesh among/the hairy carnivores." It could be a lion, tiger or even panther, but the specific breed isn't what's remarkable about it. What is is that it can talk.
Even stranger, this cat offers a speech about the arts, "astringently remarking," that:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . "They have imposed upon 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 were inconceivably arcanic, as symmet-
rically 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."
This outburst reminds me of some classic fable or allegory, translated here into modernist language and form. But, if so, who do its figures stand for?
For starters, the "They" who insist, through their "inarticulate frenzy" that art is too difficult, might be read simply as the close-minded, who feel modernist poetry is impossible to understand. Or alternately, "They" might also be interpreted as critics, teachers or artists who, perhaps, see creative work as too precious, as if it were an esoteric religion, forbidding to all but initiates. Such a reading is in keeping with Moore's democratic (if challenging) aesthetic.
In any case, the passage almost parodies the hard, "frigid", and most of all, difficult, quality of modernist discourse itself.
And the sense of exclusion registered by the cat may have something to do with the masculinist rhetoric of early modernism. Langdon Hammer who lectures about Moore for the Yale Open Courses, notes that "James Joyce said The Waste Land ended the idea of poetry for ladies.'" He argues that Moore's poems gain their "pugnacious" edge by responding with an aesthetic defiance to such notions.
Then there's the exaggerated warning about art's destructive qualities ("malignant" in its power to devour those not ready for it, like the sea swallows whole cargoes) that makes me think of an even larger context -- and another audience not "fit" for art.
Jacques Ranciere, in his historical study of artisans of the 19th century, tells us about craftsmen, who, dissatisfied with the day-jobs, wrote, philosophized or made visual art on the side. Interestingly, they were warned against this use of their time by the official voices of society. They were committing the sin of, as Ranciere puts it, being "secretly in love with useless things."
In fact, this art paranoia was so pronounced, that even those who wanted to become commercial artists were warned away.
Here is part of a sermon by a "people's priest", parodying the ambitions of an imagined "shoemaker who has resolved to give up his own trade for that of a [signboard/building] painter":
"I will make you woods that aren't there, letters that you would not know how to read, pictures for which the models have never existed. Always in the air like the birds, intoxicated with the sun, chattering, singing to all the echoes of empty rooms, passing from luxurious mansion to attic garret, from countryside to city, not knowing today where one will be working tomorrow."
In short, as has been covered before on this blog, there's a tradition that holds that "art is dangerous to your health", because it leads to mental and professional rootlessness. It's as if using your imagination were some sort of crime.
It's easy to guess what Moore would have thought of such attitudes. After all, as Randy Malamud points out, many of the animals in her poems were inspired not by "life", but by pictures or literature; they are literally imaginations of imaginations.
So perhaps the cat in the poem is speaking on behalf of anyone who feels "barred" from the arts because of the forbidding rhetoric that surrounds them. Thoughts?
Note: More on Moore's "The Monkeys." For a useful summary of interpretations of this poem (that informed this post) see Randy Malamud's essay here.