Asia Life

An American Poet’s Love of China

Poet Marianne Moore had a fascination with China that found expression in her work.

David Volodzko
An American Poet’s Love of China
Credit: US Library of Congress/ George Platt Lynes

As previously noted, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in July 2014 urging better Sino-U.S. ties, closing with a few lines from American poet Marianne Moore’s “Nevertheless”:

Victory won’t come

to me unless I go
to it.

I first encountered Moore in middle school with the purchase of the 1967 Penguin edition of her collected poems, in which she eviscerated her magnum opus, “Poetry,” by removing 34 of its 38 lines. I didn’t realize then she had included the longer 1924 version in the back matter of the book. And so, sitting down to reread her complete poems recently, I was pleased to find it there, but more pleased to discover almost 20 percent of her poems reference China—in “The Plumet Basilisk,” for example, she mentions “the true Chinese lizard face […] the living fire-work,” and in “Nine Nectarines” she claims “a Chinese ‘understands the spirit of the wilderness.’”

Moore’s relationship to China is unique among American poets. Her friend Ezra Pound belonged to the Imagist movement and shared its fascination with Chinese and Japanese poetry. Though Pound tastefully admired Chinese poetry for the clarity of its verse, the trend emerged from a late Victorian fetishistic attraction to exotica. Imagism’s aesthetic descendants also include T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.

But Asia’s effect on American artists surpasses the Imagists. Mark Twain esteemed Chinese, claiming “a disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.” Emerson’s essays are drenched with Indian wisdom and his voice is audible in the works of America’s greatest poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Robert Frost spoke glowingly of Rabindranath Tagore, while Wallace Stevens handled Asian imagery directly:

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The dress of a woman of Lhassa,
In its place,
Is an invisible element of that place
Made visible

Yet Marianne Moore was one of the first to show a preference for Chinese culture in particular. In “China Is the Magic Place,” Alexandra Pechman explains: “Moore came into her own as a poet at a time when the Chinese art was gaining popularity in the United States.” However, it was not yet a time when China was widely understood. Thus, in true Imagist fashion, Moore’s ekphrastic poetry focuses on the inanimate—“certain Ming products,” “Chinese carved glass,” “the Foo dog”—like one wandering through a museum exhibition. Indeed, according to Qian Zhaoming’s The Modernist Response to Chinese Art: Pound, Moore, Stephens (2003), Moore’s first encounter with China was probably near Philadelphia in a class at Bryn Mawr, followed by a visit to the British Museum in 1911.

In Marianne Moore and the Cultures of Modernity, Victoria Bazin observes the impossibility of Moore’s Sinophilia were it not for the Eight-Nation Alliance’s invasion of Beijing in 1900, which provided the British Museum, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (which Moore visited in 1956), their vast collections of Chinoiserie: “The Western image of China in the first half of the twentieth century cannot, therefore, be extricated from the history of the West’s plunder of Chinese art.”

Moore wrote of “the sublimated wisdom of China,” frequented Chinese restaurants, visited exhibitions of Chinese paintings, watched Chinese plays, and collected Chinese texts. When her friend Monroe Wheeler departed for China, she wrote to him: “What a surprise! One of a thousand good ones for you, I hope. Japan I am sometimes interested in, but China is the magic place.” In an August 1933 letter to William Rose Benét she wrote: “I was born pro-Chinese and bombs busting in air from Japan have not reversed my allegiance.”

That Japanese bombs might reverse anyone’s allegiance to China, as if Asians are fungible, is an unfortunate timestamp, and one that illuminates the problem with Moore’s Sinophilia. Namely, its simplicity. In Marianne Moore and China: Orientalism and a Writing of America, Cynthia Stamy says Moore felt China possessed “a cultural superiority to Europe” because of its age. The veneration of ancient cultures is the act of listening to “the voice of an old intelligence,” as Emerson described the Bhagavad Gita. Moore clearly heard such a voice, but she didn’t speak its language and wound up grasping at the ethos of a place she’d never seen and the culture of a people she didn’t know. The notion of China as a “magic place” is manifestly Orientalist and her focus on paraphernalia doesn’t help. For Moore, Qian writes, the Daoist emphasis on living in harmony with nature was an attractive alternative to Christianity’s cultural mandate. But while Emerson drank from the wisdom of the Gita, Moore’s China is a dreamlike Lotusland simmering with strangeness. Even in correspondence with her close Chinese companion, the painter Mai-mai Sze, Moore addresses her as “friend of the dragon.”

Moore’s open-hearted love of China is rare and refreshing for its time, and her poetry humanized China by showing readers the stark beauty of its treasures, yet these were treasures glimpsed in museums and plundered by Western colonialists. Even so, in Modernism and the Orient (2012), Qian argues that despite their Orientalism, modernists like Moore rejected Western superiority, citing Proust’s use of the Orient to unfasten what it means to be French. Moore, Stamy writes, merely found China superior instead, but Moore also unfastened what it means to be American by exposing it to China’s voice. Moreover, says Qian, she “distinguished between orientalism and the Orient.”

“Amazingly,” Qian told me this week, “in her late life Moore acquired a more astute understanding of Chinese aesthetic than Williams and Pound ever had.”

Personally, I prefer the frosted hornless dragons conjured by Qu Yuan to those of Moore, but Pechman tells us Moore “has a considerable popularity in China” and I am pleased to hear it. “Nevertheless” end with the lines:

What sap
went through that little thread
to make the cherry red!

And I’ve never heard a better sketch of China’s history, “the living fire-work,” than this.