Don't be fooled: Marianne Moore is a modernist poet.
We often think of modernist poetry as really strange and really difficult. It can even be alienating. Sometimes, we're not even sure if we're looking at a real poem: shouldn't a poem rhyme, or have line breaks, or try to communicate to us a particular feeling or experience? A lot of modernist poetry shouts, "No!" and runs off laughing maniacally, but Moore's poems are different. They often use conversational language; they discuss everyday topics such as funny animal behavior or baseball; and sometimes they even have a regular form (i.e., having a set number of syllables per line).
But again, don't be fooled. Moore was friends with all those guys, such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, who wanted so much to "Make It New" (Pound's famous phrase about what modern poetry should do). Unlike Eliot's The Waste Land, Moore's poetry doesn't look so obviously different from the poetry that came before her, but she also struggled with how to surpass or challenge her literary forefathers. In "Silence," which was published in one of her earliest poetry collections, Observations (1924), these forefathers are writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Edmund Burke.
Of course, the struggle in "Silence" is played out between the speaker and her actual father, rather than a poetic forefather. The father is talkative and sometimes very eloquent, but the poem's big question is how the speaker responds to him. Does she: a) admire him and follow his advice; b) highlight the irony of what he says; or c) take over his words and use them to make her own point? Hmm. How about "all of the above"? With Moore, that would be a good definition of how her version of modernism works.
Too Much Information. We truly live in an age of over-sharing – from Lindsay Lohan's tragic tweets, to remorseful press conferences by politicians detailing their sexual affairs, to the countless reality TV shows documenting everything from Heidi Montag getting breast implants to some woman giving birth to octuplets. Sometimes peeking into other people's lives can be really fun, and many of us don't mind getting attention now and then, so we give into the pressure to publicize even the smallest details of our everyday lives on YouTube or Twitter.
But don't you also find yourself missing a time when the concept of "privacy" still seemed to exist (and didn't involve "settings" on your Facebook page)? Aren't some things still so sacred that putting them online or on TV seems a bit cheap? Shouldn't there be some kind of line between what's appropriate for public consumption and what's not?
"Silence" reminds us that the "deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;/ not in silence, but restraint." It looks like Moore's poem paints a pretty positive picture of silence, making us ready to embrace it again – at least occasionally. Wouldn't it be a relief to feel like we don't have to make a clever comment on everything, and that we can either really enjoy something or feel a bit sad without having to explain it to everyone else? Then we might be able to focus more of our attention on those things that really are worth reading (Bye, Lindsay! Hello, Marianne!) and those things that really do need to be said.
What the Critics Say
Excerpts from various literary critics' interpretations of "Silence."
A brief biography of Moore and some links to her poetry.
The Glass Flowers at Harvard
The Harvard Natural History Museum's website on their 19th-century glass flowers collection.
Mount Auburn Cemetery
The cemetery in Cambridge, MA where Longfellow is buried.
Lecture on Moore's Poetry
Yale University professor Landgon Hammer discusses various poems by Moore, including the relationship between "Silence" and 19th-century American poetry.
Sound of "Silence"
A band turned "Silence" into a rock song. And made a helpful YouTube video illustrating the lyrics.
Marianne Moore: Voices and Visions
A PBS documentary on the poet, which gives helpful biographical and historical background for her work.
Glass Flowers at Harvard
Learn about the making of the glass flowers referenced in Moore's poem.
Mount Auburn Cemetery
Be a "superior person" and check out Mount Auburn Cemetery, where Longfellow's grave is, on your own, though this YouTube video.
The 19th-century poet's tombstone located in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA.
Check out her dramatic getup – a cape and tricorn hat.
Moore after 9/11
University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis' article on why it's important to keep reading Moore after 9/11.
Seeking Self-Reliant Kitten
Abigail Deutsch describes Moore's peculiar affection for cats and her attempt to get a kitten through a Village Voice contest.