Recently it came to our attention that Mr.Garrison Keillor, the popular radio personality and comic writer, made the following statement in an anthology he assembled of other people's poetry, entitled Good Poems:

Marianne Moore was a dotty old aunt whose poems are quite replicable for anyone with a thesaurus. A nice lady, but definitely a plodder, and it would be cruel punishment to have to write a book about her.

After pondering this pronouncement in the Lounge, the consensus is that we will not write a book about Marianne Moore, though we would show the greatest respect to anyone who has or did. We will, however, devote this month's column to an investigation of a poem by Marianne Moore as a sort of refutation of the foregoing. We take particular issue with Mr. Keillor on three points: first of all, one oughtn't to speak poorly of the dead, who are never in a position to defend themselves. Secondly, we hold that Ms. Moore was neither dotty nor a plodder, and anyway, who is Mr. Keillor, a purveyor of popular entertainment, a sort of latter-day vaudevillian, to label her so? Finally, it is particularly inappropriate to impugn the talent of a poet or writer by suggesting that "anyone with a thesaurus" could do what they do. Why is it that the phrase "anyone with a thesaurus" is nearly always a put-down? We beg to differ, and will illustrate that, far from detracting from good poetry and its composition, a thesaurus can play a considerable role in enhancing the enjoyment and the composition of it. Of Ms. Moore's many worthy poems we will look at only one: "The Paper Nautilus."

Let's begin with the title. If you look at paper nautilus in the VT, you see that it has a synonym, which is in fact the more common name for this creature: argonaut. Why didn't she call her poem "The Argonaut"?

When the poem was written, in 1961, the prevailing association with the word nautilus was probably the first US nuclear-powered submarine, launched a few years before; you'll see it's one of the meanings that the word still enjoys today. Paper, on the other hand, when used as an adjective or attributive, has as its synonyms insubstantial and unreal. So there, even before we get into the body of the poem, there is a title that invites investigation by its dissonance: what could possess both the insubstantial quality of paper and the threatening power of nautilus?1 If you don't already know what a paper nautilus is, you're certainly intrigued to find out.

The first stanza of the poem is as follows:

For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
Writers entrapped by
teatime fame and by
commuters' comforts?
Not for these
the paper nautilus
constructs her thin glass shell.

The immediate effect of these sentences is to utterly distance the paper nautilus from two things: first, from the "concerns of the world," as they are called (somehow suggesting that "the world" consists of nothing other than the vanity of human political affairs!), and secondly, from the concerns of the poet. But look at the participles she uses! Turn of the nouns for a minute in the VT and look at the associations of the two verbs that give us shaped and entrapped, namely, shape and entrap. Are these not the very work of the paper nautilus? She shapes (molds, forms, forges) a shell to entrap (trammel, ensnare) her offspring.

The poem goes on:

Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
white outside and smooth-
edged inner surface
glossy as the sea, the watchful
maker of it guards it
day and night; she scarcely

This stanza has some real trademark Mooreisms that are already suggested by her title. Marianne Moore is a master at juxtaposing opposites for effect. Turn the nouns back on in the VT and look at perishable (destructible, decayable, biodegradable) and souvenir (keepsake, memento, token). These two ideas seem irreconcilable, but there they are together. Following close on their heels, we've got dull and glossy, outside and inner, day and night.

The poem continues:

eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram'shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten

Several images here are immediately startling: first devilfish. What is it? A glance at its synonyms suggests that the poet means "octopus" - a word she could have used, since it's metrically equivalent - but one that seems somehow scientific or gastronomic rather than poetic, and that would have thrown us a bit off the track of contemplating this creature in terms of imagery. The other thing that really grabs you is "glass ram's horn-cradled freight." Wow! You've got the fragility of glass, the virility and sturdiness suggested by ram's horn, and then the associations of cradle (rear, raise, nurture, hold), followed by those of freight (cargo, shipment, payload). We say, if she used a thesaurus to do this, more power to her.

You sort of wonder, which ram's horn does she mean? There's the literal one, which the paper nautilus's shell somewhat resembles; there's the ramshorn snail (see link below), and then the one in the VT, a common plant that coincidentally (or is it?) also goes by the name of "devil's claw."

We firmly believe in the Lounge that good poetry speaks for itself, so we won't continue to filter "The Paper Nautilus" through our didactic prism, but we encourage you to finish it, and use the VT to penetrate its outer layers. You can find the text of the whole poem at: can also lead you to several other poems by Moore. William Carlos Williams said this of Marianne Moore's poetry: "in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events." We feel this swirl too when we read "The Paper Nautilus," and hope that you will. Here are a few links that may further enrich the experience:

A page about these peculiar creatures, the argonauts (a.k.a. paper nautiluses).

A description of Hercules' second labor, which is alluded to in the poem:

Images of Ram's Horn (the plant):

and Ramshorn (the snail):

Finally, not to be too harsh on Mr. Keillor, we should note that we do allow snippets of "A Prairie Home Companion" to waft into the Lounge occasionally, and we are particularly fond of his short daily program Writer's Almanac, which is also allowed airtime in the Lounge when we are not too busy contemplating the Verities.

[1] We might also credit Ms. Moore for being somewhat prescient: the cheesy adventure flick "Jason and the Argonauts," which came out two years after her poem was published, pretty much spoiled any enjoyable or poetic connotations of the word argonaut for at least a decade.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 1st 2006, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Jerry B.
What fun this article is! Thx!!!
Thursday June 1st 2006, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Forrest H.
It's still plodding.
Thursday June 1st 2006, 12:12 PM
Comment by: adaletheactor (louisville, KY)
thanks so much . . . garrison is too full of himself, sometimes. i recently saw him "on tour" and the price of ticket was high for such an offhand [and short!] performance. the red sneakers were very good, though.

can't tell you how much i love VT . . . i've turned a number people on to it, but i fear they were too low of funds to pop for it. i'm writing a memoir [i hear you say: OH, GOD, NOT ANOTHER ONE!!!] and VT is invaluable . . .

cheers to one and all at VT . . . adale o'brien . . .
Thursday June 1st 2006, 1:17 PM
Comment by: Donna B.
Thanks for Marianne Moore's poem. I hadn't read it--my loss--now my gain.
Thursday June 1st 2006, 2:07 PM
Comment by: gerald allen G.
Thanks for this. Garrison Keillor's "Priarie Home Companion" show epitomizes the small-town America I knew too well, growing up in Lake City, Iowa. (I left town one day after graduating from high school, and I never went back.) I always turn off my radio when his show is about to commence. He does partially redeem himself in my view by the early-morning Writer's Almanac NPR show to which you refer. On that he reads poetry well and often chooses out-of-the-way poems that are excellent, despite their obscurity. It isn't unusual that he denigrates Marianne Moore; he is outspoken and judgmental about a lot of things. But, like you, I think he's wrong. Given the quality of most of his writing I've read, I believe it's a good thing that he says "it would be cruel punishment to have to write a book about [Maranne Moore}."
Thursday June 1st 2006, 2:28 PM
Comment by: Frank Y.

V. Thesaurus

Mercy!! I confess! I have shamelessly had the Webster- Unabridged locked on screen. I do not blush when, Best Blog at hand, I purloin a rhyme. Even to make the it spell the most common words.

I also confess to having a low regard for anyone who sports a first name like Garrison, or worse, 'stoops to conquer.'

Yours Truly,

Condemned before the Trial.

Thursday June 1st 2006, 3:10 PM
Comment by: Michael T.
Mr. Garrison who? I have never heard of him and I doubt if I ever will. Who ever he is, it seems to me that he is pandering to the prejudices of the crowd for the sake of his own glorification. Unfortunately, this is a side effect of mass communications that we will have to accept. However, will any one remember Mr. Garry Comedian when he has passed away?
If he is interested in poetry perhaps, he should read Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes."

"Unnumbered suppliants crowd Preferment's gate,
Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;
Delusive Fortune hears th? incessant call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall."

Samuel Johnson compiled the first English Dictionary in 1755. Ok so it is not a thesaurus but in the preface to the abridgement, he describes the full Dictionary as "for use of such as aspire to exactness of criticism of elegance of style."
Thursday June 1st 2006, 3:35 PM
Comment by: William G.
It would appear that Mr. Keillor, whose brilliance as a writer and comic is unchallenged, has given Marianne Moore high accolade; it would be beneath the dignity of a master to belittle the work of a journeyman.
Thursday June 1st 2006, 3:49 PM
Comment by: Charles B.
Thursday June 1st 2006, 8:19 PM
Comment by: Josefina B.
Yes, another topic which i would like to read about in this newsletter is on using the thesaurus for translation. I will be writing an article on my site about that, but how do you think the visual thesaurus can help translators? jophen
Thursday June 1st 2006, 8:29 PM
Comment by: Rahla L.
Well, my dears, I have always enjoyed Garrison Keillor, but I am beginning to think that he is reading his own press clippings too much. Hey, he might even learn something from the Moore poetry.

Rahla Lindsey
Thursday June 1st 2006, 9:59 PM
Comment by: Gene C.
As one who enjoys "accessible" poetry, I was delighted to see your article making Marianne Moore more accessible to readers. I think this is a great idea. Perhaps you can devote future stories to selected poems. Two suggestion of extremely accessible poets are Ted Koosier, or our current Poet Laureate and Billy Collins, a former Poet Lureate of the US. Both write short, butmoving and profound poems using ordinary words in amazingly poetic ways.

You ask about favorite books. Two of my many "favorite books" are Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety and Philip Roth's, The Human Stain. Both are books you never forget.

Gene Calvert
Friday June 2nd 2006, 1:45 AM
Comment by: tracy B.
wow, good call.
Friday June 2nd 2006, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Kenneth H.
And so we come to examine the somewhat cynical point of view for which Mr. Keillor is famous. After all, the humor of Lake Wobegon flows around a satirical and cynical view of the Norwegian Batchelor Minnesota Farmer archetype, does it not?

And, of course, satire and cynicism invite critical examination, don't they. Thank you for just such a response.
Friday June 2nd 2006, 10:02 AM
Comment by: GARY P.
The lounge was quite informative. Your analysis of Ms. Moore's poem
was not only important to its understanding but also a learning experience which is always appreciated.
Friday June 2nd 2006, 10:29 AM
Comment by: H. J. S.
Wonderful! Wonder filled.


Joan Sarafian
Friday June 2nd 2006, 1:13 PM
Comment by: Levan M.
Not being a fan of Keilor's carpeted tone, I sniggered like a Cheshire at this very pointed commentary. Your knowledge serves you well as armor. While taking him to task, you offred me one of Moore's poems and the Hardy poem. You refined my knowledge of several words, not to mention the information located in the various links. I never expected to be looking at the hydra on pottery as one example. And as good sportsmen, you opened me to the Writer's Almanac despite your hammering slam of this "latter-day vaudevillian." Good job!
Friday June 2nd 2006, 3:18 PM
Comment by: Sharon P.
How wonderful! Makes me wish to be with you in the Language Lounge to enjoy some stimulating conversation. Excellent explication of the poem, making it clear that Mr. Keillor knows only how to scratch the surface of this complicated literary form. I only wish the VT had been available when I was majoring in English Literature. It would have enriched my study of poetry and probably helped to improve my grades as well (I could certainly have gotten my homework done faster). Outstanding column, and your wry humor and dry wit were the best of all. I always look forward to the first of the month and the column from the Language Lounge. Thank you. Sharon Plumeri
Friday June 2nd 2006, 8:14 PM
Comment by: Antonieta G.
Bravo! For standing by Mrs. Moore. Poems are not and have not always written by very knowledgeable (meaning information or academic background) people. God knows what those poets would have written have they had more academic knowledge or a Thesaurus at hand. Or maybe their spontaneity would have been lost in the search of the "right word"??

Thanks for the Language Lounge.

Saturday June 3rd 2006, 10:07 PM
Comment by: Mary F.
Tch, tch.....damning the commercially successful shell of Mr. Garrison Keiler's from his total life activities (from jealously? of which you have no reason to evoke) does your image (my image of you) an injustice.

I'd hate to think how you would describe me if I should ever 'deserve' notice! My church is deserving of my opprobrium because they have been ignoring me for the two years I've been a member; to whit, I have no MONEY to share with them? Isn't that a cheap shot to my capabilities as a volunteer?

Mary M. Fuller, EdD, PhD
Saturday June 3rd 2006, 11:54 PM
Comment by: DEBORAH N.
This is fascinating -- both the poetic exegisis and the zoological information about an animal heretofore unknown to me.
Thank you!
Monday June 5th 2006, 1:35 PM
Comment by: carol G.
Mr. Kiellor writes with the knowledge that freedom of speech is still a priviledge we enjoy in America. I am willing to wager that he enjoys at least five times the following that you at Language Lounge do.

You are also free to comment on anything you wish, of course, but to devote your column this month to refuting a few lines of thought that do not fall in with your own ideas is truly a waste.

Perhaps you are a wanna be critic? Go for it! But remember that a critic must also be frugal with words to achieve the clarity and sharpness that any such writing requires. It is obvious in this article that there are quite a number of phrases and sentences that you are very much in love with and could not possibly strike from your article because they are so precious to you. It is such a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how well you write and demonstrate the quickness and sharpness of your sarcasm; all about you.

The problem with all Language Lounge pieces is that they are more about the writer than the reader, and as such are quite boring. I leave off reading them until I am waiting for the computer to do something before scrolling back to find one. I cannot even remember the subject matter of any one of them at the moment. True, you can write but there is no feeling, no heart, no chord struck for common experience. All the words are in the proper place, the spelling and punctuation are perfect but there is no soul, nothing that moves me to want to read more of your stuff.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest,

Carol Graham

Wednesday June 7th 2006, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Xenon
I love to read about other poets, dare I call myself one!
I always write with several "tools" spread out around me.
My husband & I are addicted to Visual Thesaurus.
Saturday June 10th 2006, 4:37 PM
Comment by: Skye H.
I loved this article.
More, please.
Sunday June 11th 2006, 4:47 AM
Comment by: Sue C.
Exciting stuff! I shallcertainly seek out Marianne Moore's poetry. Bit disappointed no-one took issue with GK calling her a lady poet. At least he did not use the derogatory poetess, which to me always suggests poetaster!
Sunday March 30th 2008, 5:25 PM
Comment by: joan R.
Kudos to LL for responding to Garrison Keillor's inability to recognize perceptions and interpretations beyond his limited juvenile scope. He remains a vaudevillian incapable of growing beyond that fixed range of sarcasm and dismissal.He may in rare readings proffer his approval upon a poet of merit. Generally the choices I have heard are of the most mediocre and forgettable. Why he was chosen for the Writer's Almanac remains a mystery to those of us who treasure air-time devoted to the well spoken word...a great irritation when 2 minutes with Ted Kooser, Dana Gioia, Robert Pinsky, Edward Hass would represent a significant experience of voice and material. Anyone listening at NPR etc.? Subscriber.

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