flints, not flowers

Posted by on November 17, 2010

Flints, Not Flowers

by Marianne Moore

I sense your glory.
For things that I desire and have not got:
For things that I have that I wish I had not,
You compensate me,
Stones. The moth shan’t eat you up, rust shall not waste
You. How far more cunningly than Keats has placed
His toy, that poor hack
Flung you up as he walked round. Praise god, stones.
Initially God made that horse, his bones
And lasting glory.

* * *
Marianne Moore’s poetry is as dense as poetry can possibly be. I find her strangeness an occasional antidote to all that is scripted and nicety nice in the world. Sometimes I want scripted and even nice, but then I need a dose of meaningful strangeness. And Marianne Moore is so lady-like and prophetic in her prickly intellectual strangeness, and I approve of her very much.

Last night I got lost in her poetry. While doing so I also enjoyed reading the many humorous titles out loud, as I encountered them, to the husband in the room watching college football. I’ll give one example: “To Be Liked By You Would Be a Calamity.”

Is that not a great title?

So, the above poem is a puzzle that I cannot solve entirely, at least not today, because it is a poem written by Marianne Moore, and I am at home with children, and not at a library, and maybe just not intellectual enough, or maybe not even curious enough. And yes, I tried the internet, and it did not yield anything conclusive. And I only know so much about John Keats off the top of my head. Would she, could she, be calling him a hack poet? What toy is she referring to? Why the horse? I’ll keep the results of my highly unofficial google searches for combinations such as “Keats + horse” to myself and let others draw their own conclusions, hoping that if anyone out there has any conclusions, they will kindly share them in the comments section.

I think I have some ideas about the stones though. The way she is using the image seems to me an allusion to the Gospel passage about the stones crying out on the one hand, and maybe even (I’d like to think) the passage about God being able to raise children of Abraham out of stones on the other hand. (See, I am even too lazy to look these passages up so as to provide a chapter and verse reference.)

But I like the way she is using the stones. I like that she talks to them and has decided to favor them over flowers and everything else that we tend to desire even though we might lose it or must lose it or might decide five years later that it wasn’t really as great as we thought it was. And it seems that this would be an austere theme, but really it is comforting, because it involves accepting life on its own terms and deciding to be aware of the fact that there is a higher reality at work in the world that doesn’t always give us flowers but maybe wants to give us something better, if we can lift our vision ever so slightly above the envisioned flowers. And it probably does not go around making children of Abraham out of stones either. But it could, if it wanted to.

Poetry Wednesday

  1. Kris Livovich
    November 17, 2010

    Sometimes I struggle to comment on your posts. Not because there isn't anything good or anything to comment on. But because my mind kind of explodes and I don't know what to say, but "I like it" and "thank you" and "good" and I think that gets old after awhile.

    But your writing on Wednesdays – even the writing you are too "lazy" to look up chapter and verse for – are good and I really look forward to them.

    Maybe in the future when I have nothing to say, I'll just put a check mark so you know I read it and enjoyed it.

  2. Kate
    November 22, 2010

    Hi Julia,

    These are delicious questions, so much so that I felt compelled to try to figure out some answers, even if Moore makes my brain ache (not in a bad way, just in a way that shows it's in need of exercise). I should also out myself as a reader of your blog, though having no web presence myself, I never really comment.

    I'm willing to bet that the stones in question are the Elgin Marbles that so gobsmacked Keats (cf. "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles…") and that, wrested from their rightful context on the Parthenon, are condemned to gesture towards a mysterious whole from which they're eternally divorced. At least, there's a spooky and apparently famous head of a "horse of Selene" – Selene herself being in Athens – in the British Museum's collection of the Marbles. Moore also writes about them, and the horse, in "The Paper Nautilus," which I feel equally incapable of interpreting.

    My knowledge of Gospel allusions is scant at best, so I can't really comment on them. But I think Moore's criticism of Keats stems from a suspicion that he's doing it wrong, trying to claim some of the glory of the stones, or, further, God's creation, for himself through an ecphrastic poem. Moore seems to assert that her response to the marbles is somehow better, or cleaner, or less rooted in self than Keats'. Her reaction to them isn't a revelation about her death, like Keats' (who in fairness was probably constantly reminded of his impending end). Instead, her own mortality is assuaged by, or compensated for, the glory that is greater than herself.

    All this, and I'm still confounded by at least 50% of this poem.


  3. Julia
    November 22, 2010

    Hi Kate,

    (Canadian-wife-of-Andrew-Kate, right?) I was hoping that someone would breeze by and shed some light on this poem in a grand sweeping comment, but usually my wishes don't come so dazzlingly true! I never would have made these connections–especially to the British Museum. So, thank you.

    After reading your comment several times, then reading the Keats poem several times, then reading your comment a few more times, my brain is now, as you say, aching pretty badly, but I think that I am closer to understanding the real heart of this poem. I am really impressed with your interpretation, and yet, you're right that there are still some puzzles, like: why does she use "god" in one line and then "God" in another. I do enjoy reading Marianne Moore for her use of language alone, even while knowing that my total comprehension is hovering somewhere around the 5-10% range, and that I am not likely to follow through with all the digging that it would take to arrive at 100% comprehension– if that is even possible. And some of her poems are several pages long, and just as dense. This is one of her shorter, more immediately (at least seemingly) accessible poems.

    Don't be surprised if for my next post I select some lines from a Hallmark greeting card.

    Thanks again for commenting…


  4. Kate
    November 24, 2010

    Yup, that Kate. And I'm definitely feeling the need to add some pretty little Shiki haikus to my readerly diet after this!