Marianne Moore: Poetry

September 27, 2014

“Bowls” and Precision

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The red lacquer throne from the court of the Chinese emperor Ch’ien-lung, who reigned from 1735 to 1796, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum



“. . . this survival of ancient punctilio

in the manner of Chinese lacquer carving,

layer after layer exposed by certainty of touch and unhurried incision

so that only so much color shall be revealed as is necessary to the picture,

I learn that we are precisionists. . . .”

“Bowls,” first published in Secession, No. 5 (July 1923), 12. This version is from Comlete Poems, p. 59.


“The throne here illustrated was made for the emperor Kien-Lung, in whose sixty-year reign Chinese art was at its height. It is one of the only two such thrones in existence, and probably is the largest single piece of eighteenth-century carved red lacquer in the world. . . . It is 4 ft. high and 4 ft. wide. The seat is still covered with the original pad of silk and gold brocade. It forms the pièce de résistance of a wonderful collection of old Chinese red lacquer . . . on view at the galleries of Messrs. Spink and Son, in King Street, St. James.”

From “An Emperor of China’s Throne: 18th-century Red Lacquer.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 8 July 1922: 59.


“Lacquer, as used in China and Japan,  is a purely vegetable substance, the product of a tree indigenous to China, the Rhus vernicifera. The sap is extracted from this tree . . . by means of incisions in the bark, purified by straining through a hempen cloth, and, in the form of a viscid, evenly flowing liquid, is then ready for the lacquerer’s use. On exposure t the air, it rapidly takes on an extreme hardness and is capable of receiving a brilliant, translucent polish which at its best, surpasses that of any other known substance with which it can be compared.  It can be coloured, without losing its quality, by the addition of the necessary substances; and, when once set, will resist both heat and moisture. Its chief enemy is light, which, if too strong, destroys its brilliancy and gives it a dried-up, faded appearance. The basis of carved, and indeed, of almost all Chinese and Japanese is wood, worked to extreme smoothness of surface, very carefully fitted, and the joints luted with lacquer composition, hardened and polished. . . . [The] next process was the over-laying of the wood with linen or hempen cloth, then the application of a coat of lacquer composition,  on which come various successive layers of true lacquer, forming the material at the disposal of the carver. To build up a thickness of lacquer sufficient for the work of the latter, a considerable number of these layers was necessary–not less than ten in any piece of importance, and probably many more in the examples described here. As each of these layers needed three or four weeks to harden, and then had to be polished before any addition could be made, it will be realized that the preliminary processes only–before the carver could get to work–involved a period of months or even years.

“. . . The fine red was obtained by grinding native cinnabar (chu sha) with raw lac . . . . The carver, working with sharp knives and gravers, then cut inwards from the surface, working with absolute precision [emphasis added], so as to expose precisely the layer of colour–and no more–that was needed for his design. It will at once be seen how necessary was the building up of the lacquer. Were it applied more hurriedly and without each layer being given time to dry and harden, the inside textures would be uneven and the perfection of workmanship seen in all the best examples could never have been reached.  , , , It is especially to the Emperor Ch’ien Lung [Kien Lung] (A.D. 1736-1796) that we owe the final perfection of technique. . . .

“With the exception of the seat and the inner portion of the base, the whole of the surface, back and front, is richly carved. The lacquer is mainly red, of an unusually fine quality, cut through into layers of light or dark olive green, brown and yellow.”

–Lieut. Colonel E. F. Strange, “Chinese Carved Red Lacquer.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 8 July 1922: 72-73.

The article further describes the carvings on the throne, from an elephant bearing jewels, five bats for the Five Blessings, a pair of fish, the Musical Stone, a frieze of dragons pursuing the Sacred Jewel, and, on the elephant-shaped legs, a Taoist symbol of the mountain in the Isles of the Blessed. Despite this description’s allusions to elephants and bats, favorites of Moore, it is likely the process of creating the piece and its demand for precision that appealed most to the poet.

February 1, 2011

“Bowls” and Lawn Bowling

Filed under: Marianne Moore,Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 2:08 pm
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“on the green

with lignum vitae balls and ivory markers”

Secession 5 (July 1923) 12, ll 1-2.

Bowling at Stanley Park, Vancouver

When Moore went to the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 1922, she stopped in Vancouver where she saw a game of lawn bowling. [There is a letter to this effect, not in Selected Letters; reference welcome.] She finished her poem “Bowls” by October of that year. In lawn bowls, there are no “pins planted in wild duck formation, / and quickly dispersed” (ll. 3-2); possibly Moore extended her image to nine-pins played indoors.  Here follows a description of lawn bowling:

“Bowls” is a corruption of the word “balls,” which in its way is an evidence of the ancient origin of the game. Before the Revolution, it was the favourite sport of New Yorkers, when the Battery was the centre of the city’s fashion—and the end of its main thoroughfare still retains the name of the “Bowling Green.”

The game is played with balls about four or five inches in diameter, so that they are held easily in the hand, and made of lignum vitas, enamelled in colours, so as to be gaily effective on the grass. They are slightly flattened at the poles, and are sometimes made oval for scientific play, in order to give them a bias direction at will. A small, round white ball, called the “Jack,” is first thrown to one end of the lawn.

The bowlers, each using two balls, which are numbered to distinguish them, take up their positions at a certain distance from the “Jack,” and each in turn bowls toward it. He whose ball comes nearest counts one. The game is usually fixed at twenty. When there are more than two players, sides are formed, the balls being played alternately, and the ball that comes nearest to the “Jack” counts one point for the side that threw it.

When there are but two players they stand side by side to deliver their balls, but when there are several on a side the usual plan is to bowl from opposite sides of the “green,” the Jack having been placed in the middle. The art in bowling consists in knocking away the opponents’ balls from their positions near the Jack, or in carrying off the Jack itself from among the opponents’ balls, and in bowling nearer than any other without disturbing one’s own balls or the Jack. If, when sides are taken, and both sides have delivered their balls, two balls of one side are nearer than any balls of their opponents’, they count a point for. every ball.

A “green” is about seventy feet square, level, and with the grass closely cut. A bank as a boundary is desirable—where spectators may sit to watch the game. . . .

Balls and Bowling Mat

Balls and Bowling Mat

Each contestant plays two balls alternately, and the privilege of playing first is tossed for. The starting-point in a game is that portion of the green on which the “Footer” is laid—a cloth about a yard square, of carpet or canvas. The player places his foot upon this when about to roll the ball. In a match-game the “Skip” has entire charge of his side in the contest.

Points Of Play

The main point is first to roll the ball as near to the Jack as possible. The next point is to “guard” or “block” it—that is, to roll the next ball so that it may form an obstruction to the attempt to drive the counting ball from its position near the Jack. The “riding” of a ball is rolling it with great force, and is only employed in emergencies. “Raking” the ball is rolling it with force enough to strike the opponent’s ball out of position and put your own ball in its place. “Chucking” is striking a counting ball out of range, and thereby adding to your own counting balls, or striking one of the balls of your own side into a counting place.  An “in-wick” is a ball that curves in to the Jack; an “out-wick,” one curving from the opposite direction— points made by oval balls. An “end” is the completion of an inning on each side, and the playing of so many “ends”—mutually agreed upon—constitutes the completion of a game.

–from Florence Kingsland. In and Out Door Games. New York: Sully and Kleinteich, 1904. Pp. 192-194.


Early 20th Century

At the time, 1922, Moore lived in Greenwich Village, not far from New York’s Bowling Green,

Bowling Green Park Today

located at the foot of Broadway.  Its history as an actual bowling green receives various treatments in contemporary accounts, some insisting that players bowled there in the 17th Century.  By the time of Moore’s New York years, it was a pocket park and looked much as it does today.




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