Marianne Moore was a poet who made intricate, elaborate, precise structures of words. As such, she has sometimes been classified as a finicky fusser over details, a kind of flower arranger of poetry, or, in the sexist language that prevailed in her day, a maiden aunt. (Moore was, literally, a maiden aunt, but that didn’t stop her from being a strong, sympathetic voice in modern American poetry.)
In “The Steeple-Jack”, one of her best and most widely-reprinted poems, Moore does a lot of flower-arranging. Several stanzas of the poem are simple lists of flowers in this small town. One stanza is even a list of what flowers are not there. The poem also itemizes sea creatures, land creatures, people, and buildings. It’s like a Charles Wysocki jigsaw puzzle or other folk art depiction of a simple, well-ordered community, full of distinctive elements of Americana.
But is this a deceptive simplicity? Everything is in its place; “It could not be dangerous to be living / in a town like this.” When you have to say that it could not be dangerous, are you really all that sure?
The form of the poem mirrors its content. (This is only sometimes true of poetry, and isn’t necessarily a great thing; when it clicks, though, it’s fascinating to watch.) The stanzas of the poem all consist of lines that have, respectively, 11, 10, 14, 8, 8, and 3 syllables. This is not like any other poem. It’s a form that Moore custom-made for “The Steeple-Jack.”
And it’s a lot harder than it looks. If you just took any stretch of prose you wrote and chopped it into lines of those lengths, it would be hard enough: you’d find you had a lot of words chopped in half, and you’d have to rearrange to keep sentences coherent while stretching them across the stanza framework. But then you’d be left with something that looked really random. Moore’s poem doesn’t look random. It’s full of turns and surprises, of cadenced sentences that gallop over the hurdles of line endings at 11, 10, 14, 8, 8, and 3, sometimes fetching up to start a new stanza with a word like “Danger.”
How safe is a perfect small town? Can it be dangerous? What reassures us that it isn’t? Is all human-imposed order (architecture, gardening, civilization) just a kind of superficial shoring-up of our lives against collapse?