Marianne Moore: Poetry

January 23, 2011

“To Yvor Winters”

American Badger

Sequoia Magazine, put out by Stanford University students, planned a special issue on honor of Yvor Winters for Vol VI, Winter, 1961, and asked Moore for a contribution.  The two poets had a long history, beginning in the 1920s when Moore sent Winters library books while he recuperated from TB in New Mexico and he, in 1924, produced a remarkably astute and positive review of Observations for Poetry. “To Yvor Winters” appears on page vi in calligraphy, not typeset.

The poem addresses well-known characteristics of Winters‘ literary criticism: his insistence the poetry emanate from reason rather than emotion and his preference for formalism.  Moore calls Winters a “badger-Diogenes.”  The American badger, Taxidea taxus, known for its ability to root out smaller animals in their dens and its willingness to take on much larger animals such as bears and wolves, suggests the fierceness of some of Winters’ criticisms.

Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 BC), known as The Cynic (from Κύων—dog  or kynikos

"Diogenes" by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1860

—cynical, doggish), held that man should live by reason, close to nature, and eschew feelings and worldly pleasures. He is symbolized as a man carrying a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man.  He is also pictured as living in a tub in an Athenian square. In choosing Diogenes as an epithet for Winters, Moore evokes, again, Winters the critic. For example, Winters on several occasions lambasted T. S. Eliot for his “Inconsistencies;” Eliot, he said, calls upon two, opposing processes in his work: reason to determine his critical standards, emotion to create poetry. Winters thought only the former was necessary for both criticism and poetry.  (See The Anatomy of Nonsense , 1943.)

Winters the formalist might have had thoughts about the structure of Moore’s apparently “free verse” tribute.  One wonders whether he might have seen the strict syllabic meter hovering beneath the surface of the poem. If one copies out the poem on the following grid, using the title as the first line (a practice Moore followed with some regularity), one finds two stanzas of counted syllables rhymed at the ends of the lines in colors:

5 11  13  18  4 4 11 ; 5  11  13  18  4 4 11

Or, expressed as rhyme alone:  a b b b b c d; a b b b b c d

We’ll never know.

This poem has never been collected in books of Moore’s poems. It is available in Sequoia and in Sequoia: Twentieth Anniversary Issue, Poetry 1956-1976, ed. Michael J. Smith (Stanford: Associated Students of Stanford University, 1976) p. 63.

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