• On Marianne Moore’s “Silence”

    The mishmash of the poet (author) with the speaker of the poem (fiction), in verse or prose, is a misprision often attacked by the greats, whether William Gaddis, via one of his characters (“They think if something happened to them that it’s interesting because it happened to them”), or Geoffrey Hill, writing on the late 20th century dependence on “the quotidian and how it has been, with significant exceptions, overvalued as the authenticating factor in works of the imagination. The poem itself, assessed in this way, becomes the author’s promise to pay on demand, to provide real and substantial evidence of a suffering life for which the poem itself is merely a kind of tictac or flyer.” The collocation has become so radioactive in our culture, one searches for a foothold along the slippery rocks near pop parlance’s viscous lagoon.

    Luckily, Marianne Moore detailed her “borrowings” in the notes sections of her various books. The first one held the caveat, “acknowledgements seem only honest,” adding the proviso that more fanciful readers might “take probity on faith … and disregard the notes.” In “Silence,” a poem published almost 100 years ago in The Dial (October 1924), Moore paints a picture that can easily be consigned to the confessional poet realm that came to dominate English-language poetry from the 1950s onward.

    My father used to say,
    “Superior people never make long visits,
    have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
    nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
    Self reliant like the cat—
    that takes its prey to privacy,
    the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
    they sometimes enjoy solitude,
    and can be robbed of speech
    by speech which has delighted them.
    The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
    not in silence, but restraint.”
    Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
    Inns are not residences.

    All but two and a half lines are in quotations marks, Moore’s quotation marks. I can hear the murmurs of interpretation — e.g. “To have had such a bilious paterfamilias as he … someone who would talk in tedious epigrams” — but something happens within the long block of the speaker’s father’s speech: his thought patterns don’t match anything said from “Self reliant like the cat—” to “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence.” It is a more lyrical voice, concomitant with the detours and witticisms of the speaker’s voice in many Moore poems. It is maybe how the speaker’s father would like to describe himself, if he had imagination, but he can’t — and wouldn’t — because if he understood the tenure of those lines, he would object, except for the last one, “not in silence, but restraint,” which seems a retort to the speaker’s (not the father’s), “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;” with the semi-colon being the net between the two sparring family members. It is unimaginable the father could believe such a sentiment. He is caught up in pontificating to the “silent” people, like his spawn, whether male or female, who is “self reliant” and certainly has a higher propensity to be “robbed of speech / by speech which has delighted them,” as most poet types, whether poetasters or the real thing, do.

    Even if the poem can be read this way — more about the reaction of the progeny and less about the buffoonish father — it becomes even more confessional. And if one takes associative pleasure in it, such as thinking, My father or mother was a hard-ass, too, so much the better. Poetry can comfort and assuage, it just doesn’t comfort and assuage everyone — at least that’s what those people claim.

    Although, the father of Marianne Moore never said the things set out in the poem. He wasn’t a success like the figure here. Moore never met him; he suffered a psychotic episode before she was born and her parents separated. In fact, according to Moore’s notes, Miss A.M. Homans, Professor Emeritus of Hygiene at Wellesley said, “My father used to say, ‘superior people never make long visits, then people are not so glad when you’ve gone.’” “Self reliant like the cat” and beyond, up until “Nor was he insincere in saying,” is all Moore, until philosopher Edmund Burke makes an appearance with the line, “’Make my house your inn,’” from A Life of Burke by James Prior, before the coup de grace “Inns are not residences,” which is, again, Moore, infusing more pomposity into the situation: the joke’s on the father, even if he thinks he’s a good citizen.

    So the poem is a construct, like much of Moore’s work. As Guy Davenport writes, “Her subjects are those of a mind intent on seeing things not only for what they are precisely, but how they act in and with the imagination.” Her methodology demonstrates a good exercise in creativity: listen to people, read some old books, think, and presto, poetry. Is there a sense of being robbed out there? I can imagine a few of the people who were outraged by the James Frey scandal might feel a little swindled here, especially if they repeatedly stoke their cognitive experience on identifying with the author’s pain.

    Perhaps the penultimate line is most telling: “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence,” which is the truest of all the epigrams and is probably a version of something Moore read, forgot, but engrafted into her thought — that synthesizing in artistry called “Putting wisdom in your own words.” The expected emotional discharge — on the order of “I hate my father” — is never stated, but forwarded obliquely to give the poem’s tragedy more potency: the speaker won’t talk directly to the father. Silence is very far from restraint, it is a glorious weapon and often the only one available.

    Sometimes masques or personas are very close to the source (the writer), and the closer they seem, the more latitude one has with the audience, more trust; and the audience is happy to comply, even to be played. In the spirit of Moore’s infamous line describing poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” here her artistry says, “Make my poem your inn.” To those invested in pari-mutuel pain, the poem magically adds, Take what you need, there’s enough to go around. And perhaps it’s fitting to end with Wallace Stevens’s shrewd take-away on the many-faceted Moore from a review, further imbricating the relationship of the poet and the speaker of the poem, with a third entity, the person:

    Miss Moore’s form is not the quirk of a self-conscious writer. She is not a writer. She is a woman who has profound needs. In any project for poetry … the first effort should be devoted to establishing that poets are men and women, not writers.