Thursday, October 28, 2010

`Learn to Be Silent, to Listen'

In November 1958, the month she turned seventy-one, Marianne Moore published in World Week an article titled “If I Were Sixteen Today.” That one of America’s great poets should offer advice to the nation’s teenagers -- and that an editor commissioned such a piece – suggests we’ve undergone a cultural retrogression in half a century. By the nineteen-fifties (perhaps the summit of American culture) Moore was publishing reviews, essays and miscellanea in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, House and Garden, Seventeen, and Women’s Wear Daily. One detects no sense of slumming when reading her Complete Prose (1988). In writers, as in plumbers and police officers, I most admire professionalism – competence mingled with what Moore calls “gusto,” a shot of enthusiasm and esprit de corps. Ponder the opening paragraph of her “Sixteen” piece:

“When I was sixteen—in fact thirteen—I felt as old as I have ever felt since; and what I wish I could have been when sixteen is exactly what I am trying to do now, to know that to be hindered is to succeed. If one cannot strike when the iron is hot, one can strike till the iron is hot (Lyman Abbott).”

The tone is old-fashioned American, the fondness for paradox and uncommon common sense as we savor in Thoreau and Lincoln. Moore is airily pragmatic with her pedagogy:

“Instead of hating an over-heavy curriculum and applying jest about the army -- `the incompetent teaching the indifferent the irrelevant,’ I would give thought to the why rather than merely the what of my subjects. Progressive forms in mathematics have unity-structure. You may not like arithmetic ; my aplomb suffers a trifle when a bank teller says, `Yes; it’s all right; I just changed a 6 to a 7.’ Arithmetic demands of memory a very exact kind of co-ordination; and in school, I found geometry a relief; Smith’s advanced algebra, easier than arithmetic; it exerted a certain fascination. Caesar’s Commentaries are—it is true—unostentatiously skillful, not traps for a drudge. Xenophon on dogs and in his treatise on horsemanship, is an expert.”

In the America of Elvis Presley, Moore lauds algebra, Caesar and Xenophon – educational reforms we’re still awaiting. I reread Moore’s essay in the staff lunch room over a turkey sandwich and contemplated reading it over the school intercom with all exits locked, but whimsy is transitory in those approaching their seventh decade. Moore offered five bits of overt advice, and the fifth seems cooler-headed than the intercom idea:

“5. One should above all, learn to be silent, to listen; to make possible promptings from on high. Suppose you `don’t believe in God.’ Talk to someone very wise, who believed in God, did not, and then found that he did. The cure for loneliness is solitude. Think about this say by Martin Buber: `The free man believes in destiny and that it has need of him.’ Destiny, not fate.”


WAS said...

I detect more than a little here of that quality her friend Elizabeth Bishop identified (in that wonderful archive of Paris Review interviews you pointed out yesterday):

"[Marianne called me to] say she needed a rhyme. She said that she admired rhymes and meters very much. It was hard to tell whether she was pulling your leg or not sometimes. She was Celtic enough to be somewhat mysterious about these things."

zmkc said...

No, you should have 'struck while the iron was hot' and gone down the locked door-intercom road. Marianne Moore's advice was right for her time; your idea was right for ours - although I suppose losing your job might have been the outcome, which would have been a minor drawback to the plan.

H. Gillham said...

I really enjoy your blog as well as the links you have listed.

I'm gonna steal your quote (5) from Marianne Moore and use it.

Anonymous said...

Where can one read her essay in it's entirety?