Recently it came to our attention that Mr.Garrison Keillor, the popular radio personality and comic writer, made the following statement in an anthology he assembled of other people's poetry, entitled Good Poems:
Marianne Moore was a dotty old aunt whose poems are quite replicable for anyone with a thesaurus. A nice lady, but definitely a plodder, and it would be cruel punishment to have to write a book about her.
After pondering this pronouncement in the Lounge, the consensus is that we will not write a book about Marianne Moore, though we would show the greatest respect to anyone who has or did. We will, however, devote this month's column to an investigation of a poem by Marianne Moore as a sort of refutation of the foregoing. We take particular issue with Mr. Keillor on three points: first of all, one oughtn't to speak poorly of the dead, who are never in a position to defend themselves. Secondly, we hold that Ms. Moore was neither dotty nor a plodder, and anyway, who is Mr. Keillor, a purveyor of popular entertainment, a sort of latter-day vaudevillian, to label her so? Finally, it is particularly inappropriate to impugn the talent of a poet or writer by suggesting that "anyone with a thesaurus" could do what they do. Why is it that the phrase "anyone with a thesaurus" is nearly always a put-down? We beg to differ, and will illustrate that, far from detracting from good poetry and its composition, a thesaurus can play a considerable role in enhancing the enjoyment and the composition of it. Of Ms. Moore's many worthy poems we will look at only one: "The Paper Nautilus."
Let's begin with the title. If you look at paper nautilus in the VT, you see that it has a synonym, which is in fact the more common name for this creature: argonaut. Why didn't she call her poem "The Argonaut"?
When the poem was written, in 1961, the prevailing association with the word nautilus was probably the first US nuclear-powered submarine, launched a few years before; you'll see it's one of the meanings that the word still enjoys today. Paper, on the other hand, when used as an adjective or attributive, has as its synonyms insubstantial and unreal. So there, even before we get into the body of the poem, there is a title that invites investigation by its dissonance: what could possess both the insubstantial quality of paper and the threatening power of nautilus?1 If you don't already know what a paper nautilus is, you're certainly intrigued to find out.
The first stanza of the poem is as follows:
For authorities whose hopes are shaped by mercenaries? Writers entrapped by teatime fame and by commuters' comforts? Not for these the paper nautilus constructs her thin glass shell.
The immediate effect of these sentences is to utterly distance the paper nautilus from two things: first, from the "concerns of the world," as they are called (somehow suggesting that "the world" consists of nothing other than the vanity of human political affairs!), and secondly, from the concerns of the poet. But look at the participles she uses! Turn of the nouns for a minute in the VT and look at the associations of the two verbs that give us shaped and entrapped, namely, shape and entrap. Are these not the very work of the paper nautilus? She shapes (molds, forms, forges) a shell to entrap (trammel, ensnare) her offspring.
The poem goes on:
Giving her perishable souvenir of hope, a dull white outside and smooth- edged inner surface glossy as the sea, the watchful maker of it guards it day and night; she scarcely
This stanza has some real trademark Mooreisms that are already suggested by her title. Marianne Moore is a master at juxtaposing opposites for effect. Turn the nouns back on in the VT and look at perishable (destructible, decayable, biodegradable) and souvenir (keepsake, memento, token). These two ideas seem irreconcilable, but there they are together. Following close on their heels, we've got dull and glossy, outside and inner, day and night.
The poem continues:
eats until the eggs are hatched. Buried eight-fold in her eight arms, for she is in a sense a devil- fish, her glass ram'shorn-cradled freight is hid but is not crushed; as Hercules, bitten
Several images here are immediately startling: first devilfish. What is it? A glance at its synonyms suggests that the poet means "octopus" - a word she could have used, since it's metrically equivalent - but one that seems somehow scientific or gastronomic rather than poetic, and that would have thrown us a bit off the track of contemplating this creature in terms of imagery. The other thing that really grabs you is "glass ram's horn-cradled freight." Wow! You've got the fragility of glass, the virility and sturdiness suggested by ram's horn, and then the associations of cradle (rear, raise, nurture, hold), followed by those of freight (cargo, shipment, payload). We say, if she used a thesaurus to do this, more power to her.
You sort of wonder, which ram's horn does she mean? There's the literal one, which the paper nautilus's shell somewhat resembles; there's the ramshorn snail (see link below), and then the one in the VT, a common plant that coincidentally (or is it?) also goes by the name of "devil's claw."
We firmly believe in the Lounge that good poetry speaks for itself, so we won't continue to filter "The Paper Nautilus" through our didactic prism, but we encourage you to finish it, and use the VT to penetrate its outer layers. You can find the text of the whole poem at:
Poets.org can also lead you to several other poems by Moore. William Carlos Williams said this of Marianne Moore's poetry: "in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events." We feel this swirl too when we read "The Paper Nautilus," and hope that you will. Here are a few links that may further enrich the experience:
A page about these peculiar creatures, the argonauts (a.k.a. paper nautiluses).
A description of Hercules' second labor, which is alluded to in the poem:
Images of Ram's Horn (the plant):
and Ramshorn (the snail):
Finally, not to be too harsh on Mr. Keillor, we should note that we do allow snippets of "A Prairie Home Companion" to waft into the Lounge occasionally, and we are particularly fond of his short daily program Writer's Almanac, which is also allowed airtime in the Lounge when we are not too busy contemplating the Verities.
 We might also credit Ms. Moore for being somewhat prescient: the cheesy adventure flick "Jason and the Argonauts," which came out two years after her poem was published, pretty much spoiled any enjoyable or poetic connotations of the word argonaut for at least a decade.
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves
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