PERSPECTIVE: ‘Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight’ by Marianne Moore

With an elephant to ride upon—”with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,”
   she shall outdistance calamity anywhere she goes.
Speed is not in her mind inseparable from carpets. Locomotion arose
   in the shape of an elephant; she clambered up and chose
to travel laboriously. So far as magic carpets are concerned, she knows
   that although the semblance of speed may attach to scarecrows
of aesthetic procedure, the substance of it is embodied in such of those
   tough-grained animals as have outstripped man’s whim to suppose
them ephemera, and I have earned that fruit of their ability to endure blows
   which dubs them prosaic necessities—not curios.

By Marianne Moore

When I first read this, I was immediately drawn in by the title. In fact, I was so drawn in, I spent a good deal of time considering and discussing the title before I even read the poem itself. I was considering the concept somewhat romantically: flight occurs with progress, so magic surely increases with diligence. However, I fear Moore may be more cynical than I was in this regard given the context of the poem.

The crux of the poem seems to be that aesthetic pleasures aren’t everything; in fact, Moore seems to go so far as to say laboriousness is where importance truly lies. While this may not be a revolutionary idea, it seems this poem is something of a moment of self realisation.

Poetry is generally considered to be a pretty thing, popular odes and sonnets creating an image for the masses of the art form as flowery and emotional. But Moore spends the entirety of this poem explaining the necessity of laborious travel rather than speed, of the importance of hard work over aesthetics.

I could specify each line and its argument in regards to the above, but I shall stick to a single phrase in the final line: “prosaic necessities”. For a poet known for her odes to nature, Moore uses a seemingly self-deprecating phrase to describe her work. However, I reckon there’s more than one dimension to this phrase.

Firstly is the second word: “necessities”. While she is aware of the nature of art as non-crucial for survival, she is still aware of people’s requirement for both expression and entertainment as a way for increased understanding. Art and poetry may not be the most base on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but it is still there at the levels beyond survival.

The second word to speak on is the first word used: “prosaic”. This is one place where Moore’s self-depreciation is most evident on a first read through. To call Moore’s poetry anything like humdrum seems to me a great disservice to her talents. Moreover, I genuinely feel that at a purely technical level, she’s wrong (see ‘To a Chameleon’). However, this could simply be where Moore’s focus lies outside the poem. She is well known for her odes on nature; this is where her appreciation truly lies. Thus, this may simply be her saying that what one writes (or paints, or photographs, or sings, or acts, or implements in any form of artistic pursuit) can never truly live up to the poetic nature of the universe that art can only attempt to achieve.

Maybe there’s something worthwhile, something beautiful in being a prosaic necessity; maybe magic and flight are not necessary for the understanding of what it is to be human.