Forgotten places

“Nothing will cure the sick lion but to eat an ape.”

The line comes from Marianne Moore, I think; a Presbyterian from Missouri. It drifted into mind, while I was trying to think of something else. My memory is often sound, and if it is now, I used to rather adore this poet. On the one hand, she was crystalline: sharp and precise. On the other, she could be whimsical — a masculine quality — and at the same time both brutal and light. The line I quoted above exhibits this. She was probably against sacrificing apes to sick lions, but could be ambiguous. She could be very stiff and formal, while utterly sabotaging stiffness and formality. Too, she wore a tricorn hat, when making public appearances.

Miss Moore lived two lives, sequentially; first as a modernist poet, then as a college campus celebrity. That is the usual order. Today, one may become a college celebrity without ever having been poetic, but only for fifteen minutes. A Republican and enthusiast for Herbert Hoover, she was never in danger of becoming a cult. Her much-applauded passing interest in the suffragist movement was a feature of juvenile life at Bryn Mawr (circa 1900). Looking for later hints of feminism is one of those games that academics play, in order to distract themselves from the verse, and its contagious beauty.

In which, to my mind, she was on the “Tower Bridge” between Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens: up high, but lower than either peak. For I continue to believe that Pound and Stevens were our two magisterial poets in English, in the twentieth century. I say “bridge” because Miss Moore could almost combine virtues from both towering poets; though being closer to the Stevens side. Her attitude towards Pound, when he was incarcerated in the St Elizabeth asylum as an alternative to hanging him for his wartime pro-Mussolini broadcasts, was just right. She stiffly disapproved of his anti-Semitism and Fascism. But she visited him regularly.

Someone should put together an anthology of female Presbyterian mystics. I think of our Canadian contributor, the late sublime Margaret Avison. While there was little theological presence in any of Miss Moore’s earlier poems, and less through her unfortunate rewrites near the end, it seemed to me that religion, and in the form of a recessive Holy Spirit, sparkled deep within her drollness.

And look, I have found her (1951) Collected Poems, still extant among my books. And I have just looked it up. The quote with which I started did come from Marianne Moore. Thank God because, if it hadn’t, I would have had to write a whole new Idleblog.