Friday, July 03, 2015

`Contractility Is a Virtue'

From a distance they resemble wood-colored buttons incongruously tacked to the garage door. They number among summer’s sadder emblems: Snails, marooned, dried-out, glued to an inhabitable surface. In the night, they climb, seeking – what? Morning adheres them in place. They are not swimmers but their medium is moisture. Snails are toothless, indiscriminate feeders. “Gastropod” means stomach foot. They move with the aid of a mucus-like secretion and leave glistening trails. Their lives are allegories, rich in inference, as Marianne Moore recognizes in “To a Snail” (Observations, 1924): 

“If `compression is the first grace of style,’
you have it.  Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, `a method of conclusions’;
`a knowledge of principles,’
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.” 

Moore preferred her animals armored, prickly and well-defended, exotic yet familiar, like her verse. The quoted matter in the first line she attributes to Democritus, though it sounds more like Moore. In fact, it’s probably Demetrius of Phalerum (c. 350-c. 280 B.C.) The latter quotes are Duns Scotus’. Moore’s interest is aesthetics, not natural science. Her “absence of feet” refers, I’m certain, to prosody.  See “Diamonds” by Kay Ryan, a poetic descendent of Moore’s.

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