#55: “The Steeple-Jack” (Marianne Moore)

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?


5 responses to “#55: “The Steeple-Jack” (Marianne Moore)

  1. So no one liked the Steeple-Jack? I liked the Steeple-Jack… I suppose we did cover a lot of the main points in class though. It seems to me that everyone is preoccupied with “We Wear the Mask” for some reason. To begin I would like to address the some of the points made in class about this poem. This is a poem of a little hamlet that is quite possibly located somewhere in the New England area because of the reference made to 25 pound lobsters and fish nets. I felt that this poem gave great imagery to the reader and provided a excellent thought provoking tale. It seems like one is trapped in this town while reading it, almost a “Hotel California” if you will. I agree with the professor that the poem is definitely a beautiful and intricate work. It almost seems like clockwork when you read the perfect custom-made 11, 10, 14, 8, 8 and 3 syllables of the poems lines. The philosophical questions posed at the end of the poem have been nagging at me for about 4 days now. I have come to the conclusion that in a perfect small town one cannot be completely safe from anything. A small town does have its advantages in the fact that everyone knows everybody else’s business. However, this also puts some people above reproach. For example: I used to go to school in a city that had a well known speed-trap in it. Whenever the police pulled someone over if they were a member of the town council or worked in the mayor’s office they would be ticketed, but their ticket would “get lost.” This type of corrupt behavior is unavoidable in the world, even in a small hamlet such as the one in the poem. This points us back to the idea that mankind is inherently evil to begin with. We can teach a child to share, but we have to teach them. We do not have to teach them to lie, or be selfish. In the end we all have our own idea of the perfect town we intend to settle down in. It seems that is just a pipe dream too…

  2. I did not really like the town in this poem and for the same reason, everything seems perfect, almost too perfect, too good to be true. At first the thought of this little town by the sea sounds amazing. The wind is just right, the townspeople are very relaxed, and I can imagine just how wonderful the seafood tastes, but there is such a thing as having “too much of a good thing”. I feel like this town is a perfect example of that. It is one of those places people from the city visit for a week and decide they want to move there. Then, after they’ve been around for a few months, the excitement starts to wear off and they find the town to be boring. I guess I find myself to be one of those people. It would be, as one person said in class, like living in a painting. I picture it being much like Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”, but without the pointillism and fewer people. The poem does mention, briefly, of one sign on the island that reads “danger” and we all know that no matter where you go you cannot fully escape danger. This town seems to keep dangerous incidents to a minimum but I think if you can’t escape danger and crime, why not spend your days somewhere a bit more interesting?

  3. In Marianne Moore’s poem, The Steeple Jack, I found the deceptive simplicity intriguing yet vaguely familiar. A long time ago I discovered that looks can be deceiving. People are not the only ones who wear masks. Places can also wear masks. As a child growing up in Arkansas, I recall riding through quaint, charming towns in the backseat of my parents’ old Chevy. The streets in those towns were immaculate, the yards were perfectly manicured and lined with whitewashed picket fences, Main Street was a row of interesting antique shops, and of course there was the Diary Queen. Right in the center of the town was a church with a beautiful white steeple and a huge oak tree. I use to beg and plea with my parents to stop at the Diary Queen. My parents remained silent and kept driving. I never could figure out why we couldn’t stop. I wondered how anything could harm us in a town that was so inviting. I thought to myself,”Surely, the people are friendly because the church is the biggest building in the town.” Well later in life, I discovered that those towns were notorious for lynching and hanging blacks. Sometimes, you could even find pictures of the last hanging displayed for the public to see. I grew up knowing not to speed through those types of towns and definitely not to drive through them after dark. Marianne Moore’s poem caused me to have flashbacks of places in my childhood that seemed so beautiful like a landscape painting, but they were filled with dead men’s bones. When Marianne Moore said, “It could not be dangerous to be living in a town like this, of simple people, who have a steeple-jack placing danger signs by the church while he is gilding the solid-pointed star, which on a steeple stands for hope,” my hear began to palpitate with past fears. I felt that same eeriness coming from her poem that I used to feel riding through those small, picturesque towns in Arkansas. Sometimes, too much order can be a cloak of deception.

  4. In the poem “The Steeple Jack” everything seems perfect. In life nothing is perfect. There is no perfect person or town. This town sounds like it is too good to be true. In a town like this the trouble may be hiding. I think the danger signs are a sign of something bad about the town. When i read this poem i imagine a painting of all the things described in the poem. There is a lot going on and i think the Marianne Moore did a nice job with giving us a description of what was going on in the poem.

  5. The comments above are very interesting. Given the poem’s sly and edgy flirtation with the underlying Danger of the town, I find I can agree with almost every comment, even as they disagree with one another. Yes, I would love to live in such an orderly place, and No, I could not endure it. Whatever lies on the surface or lurks beneath, Moore wants to leave as as a Possibility. Her language is highly nuanced, a way of having one’s cake every which way.
    For those not patient with symbolism, her catalog of flowers, present and absent, seems a personal indulgence.
    Much is made of her metrical pattern, and I admit to a certain admiration for such exactitude. The precision is beguiling – once one becomes aware of it. But as an old actor, I come from an oral tradition, and the only compelling reason for a rhythmic pattern is its underlying drum beat. Here the number of syllables is all that matters, regardless of their weight or propulsion. 10, 11, 14 etc. may display a monumental feat of arithmetic, but it fails to capture the reader’s heartbeat – except when the final three-beat line punctuates a constructed idea, as in the final “…stands for hope.”

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