PERSPECTIVE: ‘To a Steam Roller’ by Marianne Moore

By Marianne Moore

I feel a little awkward writing about this poem; initially, I considered it to be a commentary on authoritative rule, but it turns out it’s just a commentary on authority. Specifically, this poem is apparently about critics. In fact, I read on a site called about the structure of this poem reflecting two natures.

The first two lines of each stanza are rhyming, a traditional poetic form. Each of the first two lines also speaks in rather illustrative language (such as “Sparkling chips of rock” in the second stanza).

However, the second two lines of each stanza are more laborious, and they don’t rhyme. It reads more like critical prose than imaginative poetry.

A nice little detail Moore utilised was described by Caitlin, an Owl Eyes staff member, as such:

The quotation marks around these lines suggest that the speaker is incorporating an external source in order to make her point. This quotation comes from an article written by Lawrence Gilman about the music of Leo Ornstein. This is not an allusion to a famous piece of criticism, but rather an obscure academic text used to bolster her point. This form of citation and obscurity adds to the academic tone of these lines. Ironically, the speaker uses the very means by which the steamroller communicates ideas in order to disprove its theoretical position.

Any university student has done exactly this. In fact, I’ve literally just done it. However, there is one critique I genuinely have for Moore.

She uses this vague quotation to prove the irrelevancy of the critic, yet it is something she commonly does. In her poem, ‘Fear is Hope’, she is responding to an old Chaucerian poet the masses have never heard of. In ‘Reticence and Volubility’, she refers to Dante and Merlin (however, I will grant this is a much more well known reference). In ‘To a Strategist’, Moore sets about complementing a British politician most of the world has never heard about.

Moore is a critic, as any artist should be. Moreover, she uses vague references to either bolster her points or to discuss. And while I don’t inherently disagree with her feelings on professional criticism, I also feel the pot-kettle aspect of the situation should not be left unacknowledged. Or maybe that’s what the end of the poem is. Maybe she is aware she’s one of those steamrollers; maybe she has simply been lucky enough to be acquainted with the butterfly of poetic inspiration.

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