MARIANNE MOORE’S ROMANCE WITH THE DAO PART 2

IN A CALIFORNIA SPEECH titled, “Tedium and Integrity,” Moore discusses Sze’s two books, The Tao of Painting and The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting.

One of her major points is that “painting is not a profession, but an extension of the art of living” (qtd. in Qian 226). For Moore, who viewed her poetry as her canvas, the word “painting” and “poetry” are interchangeable. Moore reverently extols Mai-Mai Sze, the artist/translator of the two ancient texts, as being “an angel to me and friend of the dragon-symbol” (Qian 181). For Moore, “the manual is to me a world of romance – the romance of words” (qtd. in Stamy 157).

Moore embarked on a lifelong love affair with words that “cluster like chromosomes” (Stamy 44). The Dao infused Chinese art was a catalyst for Moore’s inquisitive imagination, and in investigating the nature of this art she found, “A Chinese ‘understands/ the spirit of the wilderness’/and the nectarine-loving kylin” (CP 30). Being an inquisitive person with the formal training of a biologist, her investigation into why this art seemed to “breathe” life led her straight to it’s source, the philosophy of the Dao, the spiritual resource that fuels much of Chinese and Japanese art, especially that which portrays Nature-related themes.

Chan Buddhist or Zen painting technique is relentless in detail. “Each detail has its reason” (Sze 536). In Dao teaching, the student-artist is taught not only that “birds with long tails should be drawn with short beaks,” but also equally important is for the artist to know, “they sing beautifully and fly high” (ibid). Only if the details are drawn in this way (a communion with Nature from direct observation) will the results be lasting.

Modernist leaning writers like Moore, who searched for meaning, not only to survive, but to live a life of inspired imagination, found passion and joy in this thinking. Knowledge of the material sort is the direct result of a science that utilizes close observation, but Western science does not even try to answer that forever question; why are we here? Dao gave artists then and now a path to experience peace and explore that question in a useful, productive way, a way that creates breathable art, a pictorial representation of this invisible relationship between consciousness and flesh.

Moore found the Chinese recognition of how the individual should function in perfect harmony with landscape and animals defensible and “illuminating” (Qian 174). Moore treated Nature with respect in her poems about the jerboa, the basilisk, the jelly-fish, the elephant, and so forth. She does not embrace the Judeo-Christian idea of “man’s dominion over Nature” found canonized in the book of Genesis. As anyone knows who has lived in an urban environment, the city has toxic affects on the human body. Moore lived most of her life in urban New York. This parallel reality she lived in through her study of Chinese Nature artifacts, and in her poetry by analyzing it, kept Nature near and alive in her thoughts. Her relative good health and longevity is a testament to the healing power of this approach.

Moore, like everyone, needed help in dealing with her own struggles, and she found acceptance in society from her wit of words at an early age. “So I smile, (as if I had found a penny) when people tell me how they like them (poems) and talk about writing poetry and so on as if it were gymnastics or piano practice” (SL 63). Her invisible Father’s shadow and her station in life was ever present. Moore worked hard lest anyone doubt she was a woman of integrity. She would never lose her balance, such as her Father had.

In fact, she had dismissed her Father’s chromosome that made her female, and consistently referred to herself as male, and gave herself (and was given) a male pronoun in correspondence with her brother and mother (SL 4). Moore maintained her internal consistency. At a discussion at a Bryn Mawr Friends Meeting, Friend being the other name for Quaker, the discussion turned to “Progress and Women.” Moore made a point of saying, and then writing it down to her mother and brother, “we (women) are provoked with people for calling us unprogressive when often we fall short ourselves and fail in realizing our individual (her italics) ideals and just stop – comfortable – inventing all manner of excuses for our faint-heartedness and laziness” (SL 30).

Moore would later find solace in Sze’s canon regarding Chinese art to allay any “faint-heartedness,” a canon replete with tangible artifacts created by artists who displayed what Moore called “integrity,” a display of internal consistency, or a quality of being honest and using strong moral principals. In this Way of Daoism, she found a corroboration for dismissing the ego. In her “Tedium and Integrity” speech, Moore feels “very strongly what Juan Ramon Jiménez said in referring to something else – to what is not poetry – ‘there is a profounder profundity’ than obsession with the self” (qtd. in Qian 226). To give up egotism, which Moore renamed, “tedium,” what the “Buddhists call ignorance” (Qian 173), was not a problem for Moore, especially if it kept her from coming near the “ragged brink” (SL 63). She had consistently removed her self, her narrative, from her poems, a hallmark of Modernism. Skipping past her immediate heritage, Moore aligned herself with a sturdier, more reliable anchor, the “tao of the ancients” (Qian 177).

Born several generations before the confessional poetry of Plath, Hughes, Lowell, and others came into vogue, (Pictured Moore & Plath 1955) Moore didn’t indulge her readers with any details of her sexual relationships, nor did any potential partner of hers come forward (I doubt she had any, unless her niece, the executor of her estate, has information she’s not sharing). Linda Leavell has put forward a theory of an early crush on Peggy James (William James’ daughter), but without proof of a consummated relationship, it is mere speculation. Human nature being what it is, rumors swirl, and theories abound. Was she molested? Did she have an encounter that horrified her to celibacy? Moore’s mother wrote of her daughter’s “grim ‘sternness” and “Monk-like severity” (SL 118) Was she a lesbian? Moore supported the Woman’s Suffrage movement, but deferred to her brother’s wishes not to march in public and avoid “such public display” (SL 77). However much Moore wished to step out of her skin, the social and emotional restraints remained boundaries.

Not being Chinese, she didn’t carry the emotional baggage of Eastern misogyny. Was it only a coincidence that an intellectual like Mai-mai Sze, the Chinese artist who Moore described as an “angel,” had chosen her own alternative lifestyle, by choosing a lesbian relationship? Many of Moore’s intimates were homosexuals, such as Bryher and fellow imagist, H.D.; two of her biggest champions and editors of her first book, Poems.

(Bryher in Picture circa 1938)

There is some evidence that her mother, who never remarried after her separation from her husband before Moore was born, had an affair with the family friend, Mary Norcross. Yet, Moore gave no clues regarding her love life, and resisted the entire “homo/heterosexual binary itself” (Leavell). Moore seems to have found romance in the act of writing her poetry, a poetry infused with romance: romance with the Dao.

Next Week: Marianne Moore’s Romance with the Dao Part 3

See Part 1 for Works Cited Page.

Winnifred Bryher in Picture circa 1938

About Conrad Reeder

B.A., M.F.A. Creative Writing: Playwriting. Lecturer at the University of Hawaii. Adjunct Faculty at Palm Beach State College. Currently working on a Ph. D. in Mythological Studies with Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. https://www.facebook.com/Graffititheplay :: Graffiti, a new play about Goldie and Alice, neighbors who live in a trailer park in Holiday, Florida, and fight about Junior, the grandson Goldie raised. Junior is now a man, and Alice has noticed.
This entry was posted in art, Dao, Dragon, Mai Mai Sze, Marianne Moore, Modernism, Plath, poetry, Qilin, Winnifred Bryher and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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