“Beauty – her triumph is that she has found it where few have before, and convinced us of it. Conciseness and symmetry. Liberty. Tough, even cantankerous individuality.”
The writer is Guy Davenport and the object of his celebration is Marianne Moore, born 124 years ago today in St. Louis. Like Aaron Copland, whose 111th birthday we observed on Monday, Moore is a pleasure giver among American Modernists, an artist who never settles for a monochromatic palette. Look and you’ll find silver and gold shimmering among the grays and blacks of sorrow and loss: “Beauty is everlasting / and dust is for a time” (“In Distrust of Merits,” written during World War II).
In The Art of Celebration (1992), the Nabokov scholar Alfred J. Appel Jr. assembled what he termed a “Yes Celebratory Shelf” of Modernism ranging from Louis Armstrong and Laurel and Hardy to Ulysses and Richard Wilbur. Among them he includes, with supreme appropriateness, Marianne Moore.
In “The Pleasures of Music,” an article he wrote for The Saturday Evening Post in 1959, Copland lauds Beethoven as “one of the great yea-sayers among creative artists” and Bach for the “marvelous rightness” of his work. He celebrates adroitness, energy, what Moore praises as “gusto”: “All of us … can understand and feel the joy of being carried forward by the flow of music. Our love of music is bound up with its forward motion.”
Both artists note the primacy of song, the most joyous of human expressions. In the final verse of “What Are Years,” Moore writes:
“So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.”
In his introduction to Music and Imagination (1952), the published version of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he gave at Harvard, Copland says:
“…if poets and composers take flight from a similar impulse, then perhaps I am more of a poetry professor than I had thought. The music of poetry must forever escape me, no doubt, but the poetry of music is always with me. It signifies that largest part of our emotive life—the part that sings.”
[Go here to listen to Copland’s “Quiet City,” and here, here and here for his “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson.”]