Skip to main content

Moore's poem "Silence" reveals most clearly the politics of form that may inhere in quoting, and speech-act theory provides perhaps the clearest description of its functions, for while the words Moore quotes may be identical to those previously used, the speech-act is inevitably different. To repeat J. G. A. Pocock's dictum, words constitute not just actions but "acts of power toward persons." In a poem consisting, except for two and a half lines, entirely of quotation and depicting the relationship between a daughter and a father, it is particularly crucial to understand how speech-acts are performed on others, and where negotiations of power enter into the performance(s).

[. . .]

This poem has long been read as a sincere appreciation of a father's dictum that "superior people" may be known by their independence and "restraint"--and in her Notes Moore reports that the appreciation is a daughter's (Miss A. M. Homans). Recently, however, various critics have read the poem differently. Jeanne Heuving argues that the daughter quotes her father's words ironically to show both his dominating will-to-power and her subversion of it: "Inns are not residences," the poem ends--which is to say, that even if a literal, or a poetic, daughter rests within the house of a father, she does not and perhaps cannot spiritually or practically "live" there. Slatin sees the daughter using silence with what Moore in "Marriage" calls "criminal ingenuity," to circumvent the father's authority and appropriate it to herself as restrained speaker. Charles Altieri observes that "Silence" concludes Moore's Selected Poems and hence suggests "that everything in the book contributes to, and is modified by, this dialectical assertion of her female strength. This assertion, in turn, depends on a controlled manipulation of the very "restraint" that the father assumes epitomizes his word and that the daughter acknowledges as exemplifying her very different values. "Should [the daughter] either overestimate her power or underestimate the task [of fixing her father and freeing herself], she is likely to trap herself in poses of hatred and obsessive resistance that only confirm his victory . . . One in her situation must refrain from any self-staging."

A return to speech-act theory strengthens such readings. By structuring the poem as representing a two-way process of communication, Moore reveals and establishes her moral insistence on the possibility of response: anyone can talk back, as it were, and the most responsible rhetorical and poetic stance is to abet that possibility. By emphasizing the imperfect character of her verse--those characteristics that distinguish it from traditional poetry, or the perfect(ed) literary icon--Moore seems to encourage readerly intervention or response, and hence a structure of freedom. Again, as J. G. A. Pocock suggests, because we do not initiate and cannot monopolize the language we use, we neither fully control its power nor prevent others from sharing it: "In performing a verbalized act of power, I enter upon a polity of shared power"--even if that power is shared unequally, and against the will of the institutionally more empowered speaker.

Using this vocabulary, one could say that "Silence" quotes a father performing an act of power upon his daughter, in a way that presupposes her silent, or restrained, obedience. The daughter responds however by repeating this father's words at length, in a new performative act that undermines, if it does not transform, the power structure assumed. She changes the father's pronouncement--which apparently was intended to prevent the freedom of a two-way process of communication--into an opportunity for response. Moreover, her statement implies that now be is the one incapable of response: one of the few nonquoted lines reads, "my father used to say"--suggesting that he can no longer repeat this behavior (emphasis mine). She manipulates the father's words so as to structure a "polity of shared power" rather than a relationship of "power over."

That she does not simply reverse the situation so that she now assumes "power over" the father is revealed, as Altieri implies, by the fact that her response does not voice simple resistance: she accepts the father's words and his concept of restraint. What she rejects is his elitist and controlling uses of language which assume that behavioral "superiority" and all other power relationships are stable--hence that response can be prevented. And by rejecting his concept of language even while using every one of his words, she suggests that response to her own speech-act is welcome. The poem offers a concise paradigm for feminist analysis of any daughters relationship to patriarchal or phallic language.

More to the point of my discussion of quotation, however, is the poet Moore's use of the daughter's quotation of the father--which again constitutes a separate speech-act and performance of power from either the father's or the daughter's. By structuring this poem as a monologue, without dramatic context, Moore implies that it addresses a general audience. And in this context, the poem's text at first seems to function analogously to the father's words: as an unexplained directive to the reader about how "superior people" act, or read poems. The politics of the daughters speech-act within the poem and of Moore's poetry, generally, however, suggest a more complex relationship. Again language theory may be useful. In The Poem as Utterance, R. A. York hypothesizes that a poem may "reverse[ ] the usual polarity of language, in which presupposition ... act[s] as an inconspicuous background for a dynamic speech act" by instead making the reader work to understand not just the content of its words but the conditions of the utterance, the presuppositions, that make them appropriate. In "Silence," Moore indeed leaves the conditions for both the fictionalized utterance (the daughter's to the father) and the poetic utterance (hers to the reader) a matter of interpretation--that is, she constructs the poem as a speech-act that functions as the opposite of a command.

Pocock refers to the inherent uncontrollability of language. Annotated quotation provides a stunning instance of Moore's more radical because chosen relinquishment of the claim to original control of her words: here, the poet doubly documents (through quotation marks and through notes) that she borrows from others. Moore, in such a reading, functions simultaneously as father and daughter--as she perhaps does in all her quoting. As poet, she is structurally the father--even as woman--and therefore, as I have argued, resorts to a variety of formal strategies and themes to undermine that structure of (patriarchal) authorial authority. Through that undermining, she is also structurally the daughter, debunking the notions that any text is "superior" to others (using quotation to place overheard speech on the same level as literature) and that any speech-act unilaterally prevents the possibility of response or alternative political structuring--including her later revisions of her own words. As daughter, the poet marks the uncontrollability of language that has allowed her own response. As discussed earlier, Moore indeed prefers the unlovely, the not fully controlled--the "mere childish attempt to make an imperfectly bal- / lasted animal stand up"; she has a "very special fondness for writing that is obscure, that does not quite succeed." Such imperfection--born of "ardor, of diligence, and of refusing to be false"--gives freedom of both expression and response.


From Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.