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Textual Fluidity, or Why We Need to Acknowledge Poetry Books in Multiple Versions

Marianne Moore and the Lessons of Multiplicity

Heather Cass White


L’œuvre intrinsèquement multiple de Marianne Moore (1887-1972) présente à ses éditeurs des difficultés presque insurmontables, comme l’atteste le nombre toujours croissant d’éditions de ses poèmes. Dans cet article, l’auteure, qui a elle-même publié trois de ces éditions, se penche sur les questions de création et de représentation poétiques qui sous-tendent ce type de travail éditorial, pour souligner les vertus mais aussi les dangers propres aux éditions papier et aux éditions numériques.

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  • 1 See the essay “Editing the Poems,” included in the New Collected Poems (Moore, 2017 343-355).

1Invited by the Observatoire du Recueil Poétique to write about the “editorial, critical, and pedagogical issues” associated with poetry books that exist in multiple versions, I found myself initially paralyzed by how much there is to say on those subjects. Professionally speaking, I have thought about little else for the past decade, in the course of my work on the intrinsically multiple poetry of Marianne Moore. During that period, I edited three volumes of her work, wrote about the implications of the changes she made to her work over time, and taught a number of seminars in which I asked students to read her poems in multiple versions. Especially in my work as an editor, I developed sets of principles for inclusion and exclusion of specific poems—as well as for their representations on the page—that were as clear and consistent as I could make them with what I wanted to show about Moore’s work. The introductions to those books lay out in detail the conclusions I gradually came to about how (and where) best to apply conventional editorial structure to her unconventionally structured corpus.1 With that paratextual work as a kind of mental safety net for my own seriousness—and with a view to providing an escape route to readers more interested in what I did as an editor than in why I did it—I am using the present essay to leave those principles aside, and investigate instead the suspicions and hesitations, provisional thoughts and uncertainties that underlie the editorial decision-making process. Such doubts are traces of the necessarily unanswerable questions editors must work with as directly as possible, such as: What is a poem? What is it made of? How can we preserve it? Which of our efforts to preserve it will change it? How do those changes matter? And how should we talk with our students about these issues?

What Is a Poem?

2The first of these questions—What is a poem?—is the big one, the all-important issue that must be settled before anything else can get done, surely before any editor can get to work on a collection. Fortunately for art, it can never actually be settled. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for editors, we must therefore proceed knowing our own answers are contingent, partial, and bear the seeds of their own obsolescence. I proceeded with an answer like this: a poem may be, as in the dominant traditions of the last hundred years or so in the United States, something we feel comfortable entrusting to the keeping of black marks on a white page, while yet feeling it is not identical with those marks. If that seems a flat (not to mention evasive) answer, the best I can do in the way of defending it is to say that having long tended to those marks, I am disinclined to go further.

3To write a poem down seems to me a touching act of faith; we build delicate and permeable vessels, made of nothing more than letters, to hold the wild material of poetry itself. I sometimes think of the word “poem” as the best we can do in the way of naming something that has no one identity, lives somewhere (never definitively in one place) on a wide scale of forces. Or perhaps “poem” is the name we give to the moment when those forces intersect stably enough, even if just momentarily, for us to apprehend it. When I try to define “poem,” I envision a weather system with intersecting fronts. One front is its material composition—which might be described with words like: hand, paper, ink, pencil, computer, pixel, typesetter, typeface, proofreader, publisher, page, white space, line break, editor, teacher, classroom, reader, singer, performer, listener. Converging on this is another front—call it the linguistic—encompassing idea, grammar, syntax, logic, vocabulary, language, sentence. And into that shades a third front I will not try to name, that carries in it eye, ear, mind, gesture, sound, music, meter, rhythm, word. And moving the whole system is breath.

4As I said before, I have reflected on these factors extensively in my work on the American poet Marianne Moore. She lived from 1887 to 1972, and wrote and published poetry, including numerous books, for more than sixty years. Famously, she did not simply write new poems, but also re-wrote old ones, publishing them in new forms, with different titles, often in much shortened versions. Some of her poems progressed in the usual orderly way from periodical publication, to collection in a book, to final preservation in a volume of collected or complete poems. Frequently, however, her poems pursued more erratic paths, changing each time Moore reprinted them. All too frequently—at least by some readers’ lights—Moore chose to drop poems from her oeuvre altogether. As a result, her final word on the subject of her own work, her 1967 Complete Poems, contains only just over half of the poems she actually published, and a significant number of the poems it does contain are extensively revised versions of their original selves.

Why Do Editions Matter?

5This editorial matter has had profound critical and pedagogical consequences. Among critics, it has led to considerable confusion. Some Moore scholars have argued for the superiority of long-out-of-print versions; one such scholar, the late John Slatin, refused on principle to write about any poem except in its first published version (2-3). Other scholars have proceeded as though no versions except those in Moore’s Complete Poems existed. There is no guarantee that two essays on what is ostensibly the same poem will actually be reading the same lines and stanzas. Nor is it a matter of habit for critics interested in Moore to specify which version they have chosen to write about, and why.

6Pedagogically, things have not been much better. As teachers, we trust our editions, and in Moore’s case, this has meant many of her best poems have not been taught at all, for generations, because people just didn’t know about them. It also means we have been teaching a “Moore” quite different from the one that her modernist poet peers revered. For many years, those of us who did know about the lost poems had to resort to subterfuge and guile to get them into our students’ hands. I myself typed out an entire Moore book, The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936) word for word in a rare book library, and for years afterward assigned that faulty document as a primary text to my students. One of my own professors was gleeful when he managed to obtain an illicit photocopy of Moore’s first book, Observations (1924).

7As exciting as it was to be trading samizdat with other lovers of Moore, this was a sad state of affairs for a discipline devoted to precision in matters of language. In 2002, Robin Schulze’s editorial work on Moore’s early poems gave the field a path forward. The book is called Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924. In it, Schulze reprints Observations in its entirety, in photo facsimile, and reproduces as well each of Moore’s poems through 1923 in its first periodical publication. She also compiles variant tables showing every last change Moore made to each poem between its first publication and its appearance in Observations.

8Becoming Marianne Moore enthralled me. Here, I felt, was what Moore scholars had always needed: a meticulous accounting of the poems as they changed over time, plus preservation of what Jerome McGann calls the “bibliographic code”—“the signifying dimensions of the physical medium through which (or rather as which) the linguistic text is embodied” (56). I was so excited I copied Schulze. Over the next eight years or so, I edited two facsimile-based print editions of individual Moore books, extending the canon of Moore poems available to readers in variorum format. The first edition, called A-Quiver with Significance: Marianne Moore 1932-1936, reproduced her 1936 limited-edition book, The Pangolin and Other Verse. It also reproduced the first periodical publication of each poem Moore published between 1932 and 1936, and provided variant tables showing the changes made to each poem each time she republished it in that period. The second edition, Adversity and Grace: Marianne Moore 1936-1941, followed the same procedure for Moore’s book What Are Years (1941) and all the poems Moore published between 1936 and 1941. On the basis of these books I got the chance to take on the whole of Moore’s work so that between 2013 and 2016, I edited the recently published New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore (2017). Unlike my previous two editions, New Collected Poems is standard in format: no facsimiles, and all variant material contained in a discrete section of “editor’s notes” at the back. That variant material is not exhaustive: I made choices about which variants best address most scholars’ needs, without overwhelming an interested but non-specialist reader. I also made choices about which version of any given poem to present in the main text.

9If you are counting—as I wasn’t while I was creating these editions—my work alone means that three new books have been added to the Moore canon. In the course of editing a poet known for her multiplicity, I have multiplied the already multiple texts available to the reader. Not everyone thinks I have done the field a service. The first user review of New Collected Poems received on Amazon, for example, was not encouraging. The reviewer gave it three out of five stars, and titled his review “Don’t Believe the Hype!” Here is the final paragraph:

Instead of getting this edition, if you’re interested in Moore, you could obtain Observations and the other volumes White characterizes as Moore’s key books—the Selected Poems edited by T. S. Eliot (1935), the Collected Poems (1951) and the Complete Poems (1967), all readily available from Amazon and probably at a library near you—and decide for yourself if Moore’s changes are for the better. Or you could trust the judgment of Grace Schulman, a poet and Moore scholar, who did a very readable edition of Moore’s poems for Penguin. As for this edition, don’t believe the hype! (Amazon review of Marianne Moore’s New Collected Poems)

  • 2 The case against Schulman’s edition has been made chiefly by Miller, 2004 (“The Responsibilities of (...)

10The final edition the reviewer mentions, Grace Schulman’s Poems of Marianne Moore, was published in 2003, and was intended to be the new standard edition of Moore’s work. The reviewer is correct to identify a tension between it and New Collected Poems: if Schulman’s book had done the work the Moore community had hoped it would, there would have been no need for mine to exist. Since others have written about the problems with Schulman’s edition, and since my own book lays out the case for its existence in some detail, there is no need to go into it here.2

11Instead, I want to take seriously the heart of the first part of the reviewer’s critique, which seems to me to be less about any one edition, than about the idea of editions at all. What the reviewer is expressing, after all, is a fundamentally reasonable argument against editions not prepared by the poet. If, as he says, editions prepared by the poet are still to be found, why should a reader take an editor’s word for anything? Perhaps especially if the poet’s canon is already characterized by multiplicity (as in the case of Moore), we as readers, teachers, and students, ought rather to focus on the ample evidence of the intentions she left behind, rather than swelling the canon with our own selections among them.

Who Are Editions For?

12Of course, the question would be simpler if Moore’s audience were uniformly devoted to her work, if her readers were mostly interested individuals with sufficient money to buy original, increasingly rare editions, and leisure to permit them lengthy and detailed comparisons of those editions. Instead, her audience—like that of most well-known poets—is heterogeneous. There are a handful of professionally trained specialists in Moore, modernism, and poetry generally who are insatiable for information about her poems, including the material circumstances of their publication. Then there are a great many more college-level teachers and students of poetry who are not Moore specialists, but who, in search of a wider sense of the modernist movement, want to read some Moore with reasonable confidence that they are reading the “standard” or “canonical” Moore. And beyond such teachers and students, are the millions of readers who do not know Moore at all, but among whom is some percentage—however small—that might find her by chance, and be seduced by the right presentation into sticking with her.

13To really reach the millions, I would have to do a kind of work I have not done yet. Maybe I could get Beyoncé to quote her in a song, or persuade one of the Kardashian/Jenners to sell a line of T-shirts with her face on them. Meanwhile, I have concentrated on the hard-core fans and interested generalists. My first two editions addressed specialists, namely the readers willing to take on the forbidding density of information in variant tables (for example) and familiar enough with the poems already, not to be distracted by the lively visual language of facsimile reproductions.

14The imagined audience for New Collected Poems is broader, as it seeks to include interested generalists as well as specialists. The essence of editing for generalist readers is making choices. Trade editions of a poet’s collected works tend necessarily to be guided by a fairly ruthless pragmatism, in which the editor takes on a basic—if implicit—challenge. Imagine a reader who may only ever know a poet through this particular book. What are the poems he or she must not miss? As it happens, my own answers to that question in New Collected Poems are, in many cases, different from Moore’s. Overriding her decisions is in fact the purpose of the book. My only point here is that I have cheerfully accepted the need for such editions, and the partialities they entail.

  • 3 Two of Marianne Moore’s original collections have been republished since the original composition o (...)

15Even granting that a printed reader’s edition will make choices beyond the poet’s own, however, print is not the only option available now. Looked at in another light, the Amazon reviewer has laid the foundation for an argument on behalf of building a web-based archive of Moore’s poetry rather than creating new print editions at all. The digital arena promises us potentially limitless access to primary material, and limitless ways to view, organize, and compare that material. It is especially attractive in light of the practical limitations on even the most interested reader’s ability to see for him or herself. While it is true, for example, that Moore’s Selected Poems is available on Amazon, at the time of this writing there was only one copy on offer and it sold for $250. More and cheaper copies were for sale on, but one could have wiped out the available stock with a single semester’s class order.3

16Even when we leave aside the question of access, comparing multiple versions of the same poem is tiring and finicky work—the kind of thing a reader might gratefully turn over to the untiring eye of a good piece of collation software. A properly managed database of Moore’s poetry could compare every known draft of every poem and display the results in many interesting ways. The internet, at least potentially, satisfies a craving for completeness, for holding everything in one place. With this possibility in mind we might ask again: What is the point of new editions—new partial pictures—when we could have a single locus containing it all? Why would any of us choose to have less of a poet’s work when we could have more? Why would we settle for a book when we could have an archive? Why re-typeset what we can digitally scan? Why go through an editor when we can tailor digital collations to our own specifications? Why not enjoy the luxury of a built-in dictionary, hyperlinks to annotations and relevant surrounding documents, and the innately accumulative authority of the web’s crowd-based wisdom rather than the partial views, biases, and competence of any given individual?

17It may sound like these questions are the elements of someone’s internal debate—that is because they are. None of these are rhetorical questions to me. In fact, I am participating in a web-based archive of Moore’s work, The Marianne Moore Digital Archive (, whose director is Cristanne Miller (at SUNY Buffalo) and whose associate directors are Elizabeth Gregory (at the University of Houston) and myself. Our first project, which will take many years and many contributors, is to scan, transcribe, and annotate Moore’s more than one hundred working notebooks. These notebooks contain Moore’s extensive notes on conversations, lectures, books, and poems in progress, as well as a wealth of sketches she made in her careful, scientifically-trained hand.

18Any one notebook provides uniquely direct information about the sources of the found language she worked into her art. Taken together, they form an extraordinary portrait of her mind at work. The point of The Marianne Moore Digital Archive is to make widely available material now only accessible to visitors to Moore’s physical archive at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In other words, we aim to do exactly what my Amazon reviewer wants, namely to encourage people to see for themselves what Moore did. Why not do the same for the poems, and be done with it?

Why Not Edit Everything Online?

  • 4 The North American rights to Moore’s poems are shared between Viking Penguin and Simon and Schuster (...)

19One immediate answer is copyright. Under the terms of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1997, all of Moore’s work published after 1923 will remain under copyright until seventy years after her death, or 2042. This makes any edition of her complete work expensive (too expensive for an individual editor without the financial backing of a major publisher), and it also requires the several rights-holders of her work to agree to internet-based publication.4 The publishing industry has not uniformly embraced such a mode yet.

20However, questions of money and publishing platform are tractable. Sometimes money can be found for worthwhile projects, and the squaring of traditional publication structures with internet platforms is likely simply to be a matter of time. The deeper question then is: To what extent does an internet-hosted archive shape the way its users receive the poetry itself? Reading on the internet is not like reading in books. That is not, on the face of it, an argument against reading on the internet, but it does suggest that editors of such an archive will need to be keenly aware of the differences, if they are interested in presenting Moore’s work at least in some ways as Moore herself—and her peers—knew it.

21What concerns me more at the moment are the intricacies of editing for specialists, as in my facsimile editions and The Marianne Moore Digital Archive. I have concerns about what I see as the unintended consequences of this sort of work—the way it builds up a parallel canon of information that can itself become the object of study and—if one is not careful—might come to substitute for the reading of poems themselves. I think of this as an existential issue that comes clothed in pedagogical raiment.

  • 5 A bibliography of this work would be impossible here. However, I date my own interest in editing in (...)

22I first noticed that something big was up in this respect in my teaching of Emily Dickinson. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Dickinson criticism over the last two decades will know that editorial theory has taken over the field. The questions about how best to read, teach, and publish her handwritten, jotted down, frequently epistolary, and multiply fragmented work are so fascinating, and so profound in their implications for our understanding of art-making and interpretation, that they are rightly an entire field unto themselves.5 I myself love these issues. What troubles me more and more, however, is that such questions are also inevitably easier to think about, than actual lines of poetry. Just like my students, I revert happily to debates about poetry as a visual as well as a linguistic medium, or about the page as a neutral or dynamic field, when faced with a line of poetry that flummoxes me. And in the best sense, nearly all of Dickinson’s lines flummox me.

23Of course, my intellectual laziness is no reason not to pursue textual scholarship on Dickinson. I can exert discipline—on myself and in my classroom—to keep us all focused on the poems, even when it hurts. What I worry about, is establishing paratextual reading protocols in texts themselves, a danger to which online presentations strike me as particularly prone. As an example, let me share a discussion I have had more than once with my colleagues at The Marianne Moore Digital Archive. Our present policy is to annotate the notebooks we transcribe and publish, so that hyperlinks will take readers to bibliographic information about texts Moore cites, biographical information about people she mentions, PDFs of images and periodicals (copyright permitting) to which she refers. On the whole, I am not in favor of this policy. My colleagues argue (persuasively, and with tradition on their side) that providing such information is a service to the archive’s readers, and the kind of work one expects professional editors to do. They subscribe to the theory that one can distinguish between interpretive annotation—to which they are opposed—and annotation that provides minimally necessary cultural context—of which they approve. I am less sure about this. I am inclined to say that all annotation is by definition interpretive; that the moment we provide information to supplement a poem, we are also making an implicit argument about how to read that poem.

24To take a simple example, providing biographical information about a name suggests first, that what we know about the name is the same as what Moore knew; second, that Moore uses the name as a biographical referent rather than, say, a group of phonemes; and third, that knowing biographical information not contained in the poem is relevant to reading the poem as a poem. Some or all of these things may be true, of course, and like most people, most of the time I read as though they were. However, I draw a distinction between what I do in my own reading and scholarship, and what I ought to be doing in an archive. For my money, the point of an archive is to provide the cleanest access possible to what the poet did. Once we start adding to that, in however well-intentioned a way, we create a parallel canon of information that, in my opinion, makes unjustified claims on a user’s attention.

25I dread the generations of students who might take my annotations as gospel, and be dissuaded from their own research in ways I cannot possibly anticipate. Again, to take only a very simple example: forty years ago, no one thought it necessary to track down the source texts of Moore’s many, many quotations. Now, partly because digital technology makes it easy to do, it is standard critical practice. At the time of Moore’s death in 1972, no one thought of her as a feminist poet. Now, that is the critical consensus. Twenty years ago, the idea of a gender-fluid Moore poetics hardly existed. Now it is a major new direction in Moore studies. Who knows what the next generation will take for granted about Moore, or poetry in general?

26Any one of us, acting as an annotator, is a conduit for our personal and historical biases. Again, it is not that those biases are necessarily wrong, it is simply that they are invisible to us, as are their effects on the readers who encounter them. Whereas an interpretive essay is clearly marked as the product of an individual situated in time, digital annotation shades much more readily into the appearance of objective fact. Worse still, digital annotation can be stored and integrated into the reading experience so readily and so unobtrusively that there is little incentive to do anything but accumulate it. My first fear is that in annotating Moore’s notebooks, we are doing a great deal of work that will later have to be undone by editors with an entirely different set of interpretive concerns. My second is that no one will undo it, and the paratextual canon will simply swell.

What Is a Poem?

27I have entered here on questions about what is text and what is paratext, about the ways historical knowledge and poetic making do and do not intertwine, and about the shifting territory between representation and interpretation that will never be decided and should never be decided. All I wish to note is that the entry of digital archives into the picture answers none of them—and in fact, as I see it, sharpens the stakes of the decisions editors will always have to make. No presentation of a poet’s work is neutral or transparent, and it is always the responsibility of editors to perceive and explain the impact of their choices on a reading audience. I would argue that the more neutral a presentation seems to be, the more carefully we ought to tread, mindful that we do not know what we do not know.

28Ultimately of course, moving carefully into the unknown, “cowering forth, tread paced / to meet an obstacle / at every step” (as Moore has it) (Moore 2017, 144), is the essence of working in and among poems. Poetry—an illusion “more precise than precision” (188), an imaginary garden “with real toads in [it]” (27), an “infinitely complicated starkness” (26), a “relentless accuracy” with a “capacity for fact” (77), “a strange experience of beauty” that “tears one to pieces” (63), an art with a “surpris- / ing modernness and fanciness / and stateliness” (122)—is its own obstacle to editorship, and also an endless invitation to it. “It is more than a day’s work / to investigate this science” (69) of holding multiplicity in a single location, and of multiplying the presentations by which we know a given poet’s (or poem’s) immutable singularity. It is impossible work, in pursuit of the siren song of artistic “truth.” May we never lose the tune.

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Amazon review of Marianne Moore’s New Collected Poems. Accessed 3 June 2024.

HOWE, Susan. The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, University Press of New England, 1993.

LEVY, Ellen, “Natural Reticence: Editing Marianne Moore.” Literary Imagination, vol. 12, no. 2, 2010, p. 229–241.

MCGANN, Jerome John. The Textual Condition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

MILLER, Cristanne. The Responsibilities of Inclusion and Omission: Editing Marianne Moores Poems. The Virginia Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 1, 2004, p. 232-248.

MILLER, Cristanne, Elizabeth GREGORY, and Heather Cass WHITE, eds. The Marianne Moore Digital Archive. Accessed 17 April 2024.

MOORE, Marianne. The Pangolin and Other Verse. London: Curwen Press, 1936.

MOORE, Marianne. The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

MOORE, Marianne. Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924. Ed. Robin G. Schulze. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

MOORE, Marianne. The Poems of Marianne Moore. Ed. Grace Schulman. New York: Viking, 2003.

MOORE, Marianne. A-Quiver with Significance: Marianne Moore, 1932-1936. Ed. Heather Cass White. Victoria: ELS Editions, 2008.

MOORE, Marianne. Adversity & Grace: Marianne Moore, 1936-1941. Ed. Heather Cass White. Victoria: ELS Editions, 2012.

MOORE, Marianne. Observations. 1924. Ed. Linda Leavell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

MOORE, Marianne. New Collected Poems. Marianne Moore. Ed. Heather Cass White. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

MOORE, Marianne. Selected Poems. 1935. London: Faber & Faber, 2019.

SCHULZE, Robin G. “How Not to Edit: The Case of Marianne Moore.” Textual Cultures: Texts, Contexts, Interpretation, vol. 2, no 1, 2008, p. 119-135.

SLATIN, John M. The Savage's Romance: the Poetry of Marianne Moore. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.

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1 See the essay “Editing the Poems,” included in the New Collected Poems (Moore, 2017 343-355).

2 The case against Schulman’s edition has been made chiefly by Miller, 2004 (“The Responsibilities of Inclusion and Omission: Editing Marianne Moore’s Poems”), Schulze, 2008 (“How Not to Edit: The Case of Marianne Moore”), and Levy (“Natural Reticence: Editing Marianne Moore”).

3 Two of Marianne Moore’s original collections have been republished since the original composition of this essay, Observations, edited by Linda Leavell (2019), and Selected Poems (2019), reissued as one of the ten key titles celebrating Faber and Faber’s 90th anniversary (editors’ note).

4 The North American rights to Moore’s poems are shared between Viking Penguin and Simon and Schuster. World rights are owned by Faber and Faber.

5 A bibliography of this work would be impossible here. However, I date my own interest in editing in general to my reading of Susan Howe’s seminal essay “These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values” in The Birth-Mark (131-154).

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Heather Cass White, « Marianne Moore and the Lessons of Multiplicity »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Heather Cass White

University of Alabama

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