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Marriage (by Marianne Moore), I

One of my latest discoveries is the poetry of Marianne Moore. A difficult poet, but one you can learn from many things about writing poetry. In this and the following posts, I will concentrate on her longest poem called ‘Marriage’. A string of words that doesn’t look nor sound like a poem at a first encounter, but that I gradually came to appreciate and love.

My way into ‘Marriage’ is via another magnificent poem of hers about Mount Rainier, called ‘An Octopus’. Though both poems have fairly unrelated topics (one is about a mountain in state Washington; the other about ‘the institution called marriage’), they share the same genesis (being originally meant as one poem) and have quite some things in common.

By the way, you’ll find many versions of both long poems on the internet. A great source of information – with many articles about Marriage and An Octopus – is the blog http://moore123.com.

Let’s start with An Octopus. A basic divide here is that between prelapsarian paradise and the world after the fall, the ‘philosophical’ insight being that, when we put things into a broader context they might get less romantic, but at least approach the truth. Desire for the truth is a distinctive human characteristic.

It’s clear what she’s talking about in the case of Mount Rainier. The mountain can be paradisaically beautiful, full of flora and fauna. But it can be terribly destructive too, when the volcano bursts out and swipes away heaps of flowers and animals.

But this leads to a general truth about us human beings. We have the tendency to lock ourselves into a small, comfortable zone, and forget about broader reality. This might not be a laudable tendency, but it’s human nonetheless: the manifestation of our ego according to Zen Buddhism, demanding unremitting efforts to countervail. However, striving to reach the truth is another – maybe less pervasive – human tendency; a difficult process, requiring relentless effort and an exacting mind. Humanity at its best.

Moore’s unease with marriage stems basically from the incessant danger confronting human beings to encapsulate themselves into a small, comfortable, ‘romantic’ world and deny anything else.

I should point out some other relations with ‘An Octopus’.

Moore must have been mesmerised by the strong and independent nature of the mountain. In a sense, the mountain serves her as a model for the fundamental independence of a human being, resisting marriage in order to uphold its fibre. However, not only human independence has its roots in nature. Going even deeper than that; our dispassionate pursuit of the truth is prefigured by nature’s indifference.

A crucial distinction between any piece of nature and humanity is of course that we care about things, while nature remains strictly indifferent to anything. Humans might be able – with considerable effort – to look dispassionately to the world, but they are passionate beings in the first place.

A mixture of ‘passionate’ and ‘dispassionate’ is present in many things human. Take, for instance, our ability to be filled with awe when confronted with the – sometimes cruelly indifferent – splendour of the natural world, in other words, to experience nature as ‘sublime’.

Or take our complex stance towards ‘the institution called marriage’. On the one hand, humans desire to share their life with another person. On the other hand, upholding their independence is important to us. The complexities that arise from this dual stance are one of the main themes in ‘Marriage’.

A final remark. The attempt to grasp the nature of reality in a dispassionate way lead to a deeper kind of beauty than the immediate beauty of simply pleasing prose. This is more than a profound insight of Marianne Moore. It’s something that she pursues in her poems, and – to my mind – oftentimes delivers.

More about ‘Marriage’ in subsequent posts.

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