Marianne Moore: Poetry

November 9, 2011

George Bernard Shaw, “Prize Bird,” J. B. Kerfoot

Moors submitted her poem “To Bernard Shaw: A Prize Bird” to The Egoist on 8 June 1915 where it was published the following 2 August. The following December, during a trip to New York, she met J. B. Kerfoot, a literary critic who had recently published in Life a paragraph lauding Others Magazine and its “revolutionary” poetry (see Selected Letters, 108-09). During this meeting, she told Kerfoot how she liked “his review of Shaw  (ptomaine and caviar)”, a reference to Kerfoot’s August 29, 1914 piece in the magazine. While Kerfoot’s review may or may not be a source for the “prize bird,” it does mention chicken and egg, and it clearly is the source of “ptomaine and caviar.” The article in full:


JUST as there are tricks in all trades, so there are prides that go with all predicaments. This is one of Nature’s compensations. We could not get along otherwise. And the peculiar and persistent pride that belongs to people who find themselves in the predicament of having children to bring up, is that they arrogantly believe themselves to be better posted on the proper methods of parental procedure than are the only people who have the least chance of knowing anything about the matter—namely, the childless.

Of course to all unbiased observers the fallacy of their position is obvious. Those who marry young and have large families are so busy learning the practical lesson of how children treat parents, that they have neither leisure nor strength left for considering the more abstract question of their own ideal attitude as the supposed controllers of the situation. Whereas any observant celibate with a decently widespread and reasonably intimate acquaintance among the married must have a singularly non-deductive mental make-up if he docs not end by becoming something of an expert on hypothetical parenthood.

Some day, no doubt, matters will be so arranged that all children will be eugenically born of intellectually celibate couples and will be properly trained by married bachelors and old-maid mothers who are conscious of no relation to them. But for the present we are unfortunately faced by a complete deadlock wherein parents continue to furnish terrible examples to leisured lookers-on, but are estopped by that very pride which saves them from despair from profiting by the wisdom they induce in the unwed. And this being the case, one can not conscientiously recommend George Bernard Shaw’s latest volume—Misalliance, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, and Fanny’s First Play; with a Treatise on Parents and Children” (Brentano’s, $1.-25)—except to such readers as have ceased to be children without becoming fathers or mothers, and to those others who have ceased to be, engrossedly, fathers and mothers without as yet becoming children for the second time.

The present volume contains a typical variety of prefaces and plays. And, as with the chicken and the egg, so, as between the Shaw play and the Shaw preface, the matter of critical precedence has never been satisfactorily settled. Is the preface an exegesis of the play? Or is the play an exemplification of the preface? We can not tell. But—again as with the chicken and the egg—it doesn’t matter, since both, just as they are, lend themselves to so many uses. Beginners generally scramble Shaw’s prefaces. Many professionals poach them. And Americans are only gradually learning that they are delicious just eaten from the shell with a little salt. As for the plays, they are usually roasted. But smothering makes them succulent, and they are sometimes served “supreme”. In the new volume, “Misalliance” deals with “the family” and rings the changes in the familiar Shavian comedy manner upon the unmasking of the hypocrisies and apparent mutual ignorances so carefully maintained between the generations. It was written in 1910 and has never been produced. In other words, it is in process of being “smothered” and will doubtless come out tender and spring-chicken-like some time during the next decade. “Fanny’s First Play” we all know. The treatise on “Parents and Children” is a commentary that runs amusingly amuck through the themes dealt with in both of these. As for “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets”, it is a skit written for and produced at a National Theatre project benefit in 1910, and beyond the pleasing conceit of showing us Shakespeare in the act of gleaning some of his most celebrated phrases from the unconscious lips of those around him, is here little more than a hook from which is hung a delightful Shakespearean essay.

Certain disqualifications for enjoying this book have already been hinted at, but a further word of warning is possibly needed. Shaw is ptomaine to the literal-minded. To the intellectual eclectic his writings are caviar—incidentally a food, but primarily an appetizer. One heralds the publication of a new book of his, therefore, not so much with general urgings to partake as by way of a special notification that he is in season.

J. B. Kerfoot.  Life, Vol. 64, No. 1660, August 29, 1914, p. 308.

John Barrett Kerfoot, 1865-1920, was born in Chicago, attended Columbia University, and became Life’s literary editor in 1900. He was close to his contemporary, Alfred Stieglitz, and spent his career in NewYork. At left is a caricature of Kerfoot by Marius de Zayas made in 1910 from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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