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The Vanishing Business Men of Canada

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Marianne Moore, Observations (1925/2016)

This is a re-issue of the 1925 edition of Observations, published after Moore had made minor revisions to the original 1924 edition, but before the drastic revisions she made later (such as cutting “Poetry” (“I too dislike it”) from a couple of pages to three lines). I’m biting my tongue a bit here, on the principle that one doesn’t argue with genius — I’ll just say that I’m happy this book is now easily available in essentially the form that established Moore as one of the foremost voices of modern poetry. (And, while I’m generally pro-epigram, I just don’t like the three-line version of “Poetry” that much. There, I said it.)

Of course the best thing about this book (as you may have guessed by now) is that it mentions Canada. The reference comes in the poem “An Octopus,” which John Ashbery (for whatever you think his opinion’s worth) calls “one of the truly great poems of the twentieth century” on the back cover. The poem is much too long for me to re-type in its entirety, but here are the relevant lines:

No “deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness” is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where “when you hear the best wild music of the mountains
it is sure to be a marmot,”
the victim on some slight observatory,
of “a struggle between curiosity and caution,”
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with “glass eyes,”
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by “business men who as totemic scenery of Canada,
require for recreation,
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch trees, ferns, and lily pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paintbrushes,
bears’ ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the mossbeds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American “menagerie of styles”
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting rigid leaves
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.  (88-89)

The quoted passages are annotated in the back of the book; here is the note for the reference to Canada:

“business men”: W.D. Wilcox. “A crowd of the business men of Banff, who usually take about 365 holidays every year, stands around to offer advice.”  (108)

This is a quote from The Rockies of Canada, by W.D. Wilcox, published in 1903, and appears on page 116.

What to make of all this? In her introduction to this edition, Linda Leavell says, “‘An Octopus’ similarly celebrates the biodiversity of Mount Rainier National Park as a model for democracy,” which may offer some hints on interpreting the whole poem, but doesn’t help us much with Canada.

So what can we say? The reference to Canadian business men is obviously drawn from Wilcox, and demonstrates Moore’s technique of weaving fragments from other written works into the fabric of her poems. It’s interesting that she has changed “Banff” to “Canada”; Banff is, of course, in Canada, but maybe she thought readers were less likely to recognize the name of a specific place, and so she changed it to the whole country — which we could argue is symptomatic of a typically American lack of interest in specificity when referring to our country. (In a nutshell, “If it’s not Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, then it’s just Canada.”)

But how are these business men “totemic scenery of Canada”? And how is that status connected to the fact that they “require” 365 holidays a year? I would think a Mountie might be considered totemic scenery of Canada — Niagara Falls could maybe be called totemic scenery of Canada — perhaps even totem poles could be called totemic scenery of Canada — but business men? And yet Moore seems to feel that these Canadian business men are somehow the quintessential representatives of our country. And what does the joke about being on holiday 365 days a year mean? Are Canadian business men considered lazy? Is the idea that Canada is such an undeveloped country that while we do have business men, they have no actual business to transact, and so are on holiday all year?

Wilcox seems to mean that the Banff business men have nothing better to do than stand around and offer advice, while having no intention of actually doing anything themselves — they are, in short, the most irritating type of onlookers. But in Moore’s poem, the syntax of the whole sentence suggests that the “little horses” are “instructed … to climb the mountain by” these business men, though “none knows how.” This is a much more active role than they seem to play in Wilcox, though it’s not clear (to me) why they would be instructing horses to climb a mountain.

Wait, What Happened?

Fair warning: things only get worse from here.

While I will admit I’m a little baffled by the question of what to make of these Canadian business men, I was, nevertheless, glad to find them in “An Octopus.” Imagine my horror, then, when I consulted Moore’s Complete Poems (Penguin, 1994) and found these lines:

Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year….

(Un)Fortunately, my reaction was captured on video:

How could you, Marianne? How could you?

The reference to Canada has gone — and, what’s worse, this version of the poem is Moore’s final revised version, representing her ultimate thoughts on how the poem should appear to posterity. In the end, she decided the whole thing would be just fine — and, dare I say it, perhaps better? — without the reference to Canada. This seems, somehow, typical of the American attitude to Canada — we’re so insignificant that it doesn’t really matter whether we get mentioned or not. I doubt Moore agonized over the removal of the lines — she probably didn’t even stop to consider that she was cutting out the only reference to Canada in all of Observations. Why would she?

I hate to argue against my own interests (who doesn’t?), but it does seem, in this case at least, as though Moore’s later instincts may be correct. As my struggles (above) to untangle the plain prose sense of the lines show, things get a little oblique (not to say opaque) at the point in the poem where the reference to Canada appears; and does it matter that the business men are Canadian? Do we miss the description of them as “totemic scenery”? Is the poem somehow less (for purposes other than those of this website) for lacking the reference to Canada? It’s hard to say that it is; in fact, the lines feel a little cleaner and less cluttered as they are in the Complete Poems.

I’m still not sure how the business men instruct the horses to climb, but then the poem says no one knows, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

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