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mariannemooresplash-1Ellen’s friend and colleague Heather Cass White has come out with a new edition of poetry by Marianne Moore, the quirky inventor of “turtle top” for a car design, among other, more significant literary adventures.

I once had the pleasure of hearing Marianne Moore read at Bryn Mawr College. She looked so much like my grandmother. My parents encouraged me to read her books, providing O, To Be a Dragon! for example. Random lines stuck with me, like this statement on poetry: “I, too, dislike it.”

On the website “FSGWork in Progress,” White writes thoughtfully about the challenges presented by her subject.

“In trying to sum up the experience of having spent the last ten years editing the poetry of Marianne Moore, most recently in the New Collected Poems, I think of a recent classroom interaction I had. Toward the end of a course on twentieth-century poetry, one of my students, clearly at the end of her patience with me, demanded to know why I kept asking them, ‘But what is a poem?’ It’s probably a measure of how deeply I feel that question that I hadn’t noticed I’d asked it even once before she pointed it out.

“I do know why I am stuck on it, however. Editing Moore’s work will deprive anyone of their certainty about what a poem actually is. All poetry editing raises a fundamental issue: Is a poem a specific ordering of words on a page? And if so, which page? The one the poet originally wrote, whether by hand or type; or the one that was first published; or the one that was last published?

“If all of those arrangements of words are identical, one may duck the question, but they rarely are. Typesetters and proofreaders make mistakes, and they also make corrections which poets find agreeable. Poets change their minds. Conventions of spelling and punctuation vary from house to house, and change over time. There are competing theories about how to handle such issues, and consensus views to guide practitioners, but the questions must always be confronted.

“At the risk of seeming to brag, I will claim that confronting these questions in Moore’s work is unusually torturous. Someone had to, though, because the final record Moore left of her own work — and the standard Moore edition for several decades — has been her mendaciously titled Complete Poems (1967). …

“Creating one, however, is tricky. Her lifelong practices of revising, reordering, and redacting her poems make a special kind of hash out of any attempt to be definitive. Certainly her revisions are the most spectacular problem. Moore didn’t just write poems, she rewrote them, often completely, often more than once. …

“Moore deserves careful editorial attention because she is, by any measure, a major poet. She was and is revered by her poet peers for her inventiveness, her fierce intelligence, her wit, and her moral vision. Her work is original, with an original’s perennial newness. In editing the New Complete Poems, I have done what editors do: devised a working set of procedures to present the poet I know and value. I have not, because I cannot, settled any questions about what her poetry is or may become. Original things always exceed definitive presentation and containment. Long may her poems confound us.” More here.

In one of the ESL classes where I volunteer, we have been reading Emily Dickinson. Time to suggest Moore to the teacher, I think. Women poets don’t get nearly the respect they deserve: it pains me to recall that as much as my father wanted me to know the work of these women, he told me there were no great female poets.

Update 8/5/17: Moore editor Heather Cass White made an appearance at the Island Bound Bookstore tonight. Her talk was super. The book sounded very accessible as well as more authoritative than previous editions. Reader, I bought it.

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