Sally Keith

Marianne Moore’s “The Pangolin”: The Artist-Engineer and the Mystery in the Math

And didn’t Aristotle say that it is the mark of a poet to see
resemblance between apparently incongruous things!
Marianne Moore


Question: How does everything fit?

Answer: No, we crave art.

Answer: We want the shiny math lending machines their intricate look.

Answer: We love all the sleek parts.

Correction: We want a puzzle that works.

Question: What is precision in relation to a need for art?


“Precision is a thing of the imagination,” writes Marianne Moore1 .


Question: How, though, shall we be precise?

Answer: Triangulation is the measurement of the elements necessary to determine the network of triangles into which any part of the earth’s surface is divided in surveying; broadly: any similar trigonometric operation for finding a position or location by means of bearings from two fixed points a known distance apart2.


Albert Einstein first visiting America in 1921, was heralded unusually as a hero of science. Americans entered technological and commercial modernity with the invention of vacuum cleaners, enameled bath tubs, telephones, and automobiles. So as democracy moved with science and invention, so poetry moved. American poets living at home (notably Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens) sought a new audience for whom they wrote poems that moved with a new American sound3.


Marianne Moore opens her essay, “Idiosyncrasy and Technique,” quoting Auden’s inaugural lecture at Oxford: “Every poem is rooted in imaginative awe4.”


Question: How does the measurement of the elements necessary fit inside an art?

Answer: There are eight eleven line stanzas in Marianne Moore’s poem “The Pangolin5.” The exception is the ninth, which is the middle stanza and has ten lines.

Answer: There are twenty three sentences, four of which are very short and three of these are simple. Each stanza’s syllabic count is roughly: 9/15/9/16/13/11/14/8/4/10/9.


Of Marianne Moore, Hugh Kenner writes: “Counting her syllables, revealing and concealing her rhymes, setting down her finely particularized exempla for elucidation by tone alone, putting “unconscious elegance” into tension against “sophistication” and showing how art, a third thing, can endorse the former without false entanglement in the latter, she has accomplished things of general import to the maintenance of language that no one else had had the patience, the skill, the discipline, or the perfect unselfconscious conviction to adumbrate6.”



Marianne Moore: It never occurred to me that what I wrote was something to define. I am governed by the pull of the sentence as the pull of fabric is governed by gravity…7.

Answer: Moore weaves math and grace and art. Moore’s art adds to math without tripping on its means—the “unconscious elegance,” the grace.

Explanation: Approximately one per poem third, Moore’s labyrinthine sentences pull the reader into the poem like a thread sinking into a weave; the sentence momentum overcomes the strong enjambment created by the specific and complex syllabic pattern. Occasionally enjambment is eschewed and complete syntactic units lie uninterrupted as single lines. Like the poem’s four short sentences, in these instances the complete thought settles in a groove. Conversely, often one complex sentence and one simple sentence are cinched on a single line: for example, “The Pangolin’s” third sentence begins immediately after, yet on the same line as, the poem’s shortest sentence (“Armor seems extra”) and like water over a series of rock ledges the units of composition are dropped down the page, spanning three stanzas. Seven lines from the beginning of the sentence start, a complete syntactic unit, (“exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night”) the name of what the pangolin endures, fills the seventeen syllable line, completely. Here we are held still. We linger and we wait.

Our experience of the poem is marked not only by the descriptive language but by the shape of the poem, determined largely by the unit of the line. The experience of falling seven lines to the complete syntactic unit will remind us of a similar rest in the first stanza, where Moore describes the pangolin as “impressive animal and toiler of whom we seldom hear.” Not only is the sensation of pausing on uninterrupted units similar, but both lines strike the reader as directly related to the work of the poet and artist-engineer. Both landing-lines are significant and meaningful statements; both allude to the combination of mystery and diligence. The rhyming structure steadies the place for new thought. With two fixed points, we are grounded and may anticipate a leap. Between an X and an X there is a Y. Between the pangolin and the writer-man, is what?


Simone Weil’s Gravity & Grace begins: “All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analagous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. We must expect things to happen in conformity with the laws of gravity, unless there is supernatural intervention8.”


Question: Then what is the wind?

Answer according to Einstein: Motion is relative.

Answer according to Weil: “Grace is the law of the descending moment9.”

Example: Watch the leaf ushered down by the wind as if the force above it and the force below it are equal, as if it is pressed to a half-moon curve held by a spine of fishing string and so that, alternately, it feels the upward tug, then downward, first from leaf tip and then stem.

Correction: Marianne Moore, in distinguishing her poetry from writing for money or fame, explains how her own writing must “ha[ve] a burning desire to objectify what is indispensable to one’s happiness to express10.”

Answer: It is genius and grace by which Moore moves the pangolin description from scientific detail to art historical references to the piety of the monks below the mullions of Westminster Abbey in order to end with man welcoming day. The force that equals the intellect, as evidenced by the hard intersection of syntax, sentence length, and line, is another force: glee.

Therefore: Glee is the force in the breath. Glee is the wind.

Explanation: “The Pangolin” opens in unusual celebration (“Another armored animal—/scale lapping scale with spruce cone regularity until they form the uninterrupted central/ tail-row!). Is it the fact of the tail’s composition of single scales or simply that there is yet one more armored animal which so excites the voice? Although we can’t know, we listen as the joyful tone extends. The encouraging “yes,” for example, in “the night miniature artist engineer is/ yes, Leonardo da Vinci’s replica—”) blows its sentence along as if Moore is taking in the whole of the world, quickly fielding questions and calmly answering riddles, too. There is joy simply in the extension to figures like da Vinci and Gargallo. There is joy in the elaborate discussion of the pangolin’s encounter with the ant. As we listen to the lines, the ornamental adverbs (“peculiarly” and “unpugnaciously”) unfold syllable by syllable and the words sound, literally, like notes in a song. Moore’s gleeful device fits inside of the higher “sophistication” of the dominant, mathematical structure; it is these small joyful turns that, yes, “save years” and finally allow for flight.


from Marianne Moore’s “When I Buy Pictures11”:

It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,

it must be “lit with piercing glances into the life of things”;

it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.


from quotation found on exhibit wall in Washington D.C.:

The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, in part, thereof. What I mean is that the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colors and temperatures; surrounded and interlard with wisps of gaseous conditions, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form—Alexander Calder


Question: What is the system of the Universe? Why are we surveying?

Answer: The universe is the whole body of things and phenomena observed or postulated: COSMOS12

Answer: The universe happened. It exploded out of nothing. The earth is one of nine spheres orbiting a fireball of energy, the sun.

Answer: “The agent of gravity, according to Einstein is the fabric of the cosmos13.”

Explanation: Einstein’s theory of general relativity, whereby space and time communicate the gravitational force through their curvature, was ground breaking in that it worked against Newtonian intuition that motion and the speed of light are constant. The theory of the universe changed. Space and time were revolutionized.

Correction: Although general relativity accounts for relationships between space and time, it cannot be applied to the universe’s smallest parts. Quantum mechanics provides the framework of laws governing the microscopic scales of atoms and subnuclear particles. The troubling relationship between general relativity and quantum mechanics is tangible in the study of black holes, for example, where scientists are ever perplexed by the question of whether the universe is constant, expanding, or shrinking14.

Question: But can the massive and the minuscule ever be joined?

Answer according to Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe : “Recall that the problem in merging general relativity and quantum mechanics turns up when the central tenet of the former—that space and time constitute a smoothly curving geometrical structure—confronts the essential feature of the latter—that everything in the universe, including the fabric of space and time, undergoes quantum fluctuations that become increasingly turbulent when probed on smaller and smaller distance scales15.”

Answer according to String Theory: “Fundamental ingredients of nature are not zero-dimensional point particles but tiny one-dimensional filaments called strings16 .” Considering the smallest units to be loops rather than lines will help reconstitute a Theory of Everything (T.O.E.).

Question: What is a Theory of Everything?

Answer: The Theory of Everything is a quest. The quest is for the bridge between Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which explains the large scale properties of the universe and helps us understand that space and time bend, and the precise descriptions and theories of sub-atomic particles given by quantum mechanics. The Theory of Everything will encompass all forces and all matter, from the arc of the planets’ orbit to the smallest possible unit: the quark.


Question: So if the poem is a system, how shall we account for the relationship of the parts?

Answer: We study patterns and connections. We note that the sound of the words make up the poem’s smallest part.

Consider “Another armored animal—scale” to be the first sound unit in “The Pangolin.” The three opening multi-syllabic ă-sounding words are connected with the dash to the long ā of “scale.” Whereas “Another armored animal” lends multiplicity, sonically and by extending the possibilities for meaning, the dash ushers us on and into the smallest part, the scale. This initial juxtaposition (large against small/many against one) is essential to reading patterns in “The Pangolin.” In line two, the regularity of the scales is extended, symbolically, by the multiplication of the long ā: “ lapping scale (ā) with spruce-cone regul(ā)rity until they(ā).” Then, into this ā-sounding string, new sound patterns are interlard. Pattern lets in variation and subconsciously our mind is programmed: given a base, we accept adornment; given bearings from two fixed points a known distance apart, a new position may be named.

Of course, it is not an exact math; still the idea of a sonic cluster, call it XXY, where two similar sounds bracket, or lead to, a new sound is the root (the most essential unit) from which this poem grows. In the third and fourth lines notice both the progression from short-ă to short-ĭ and the affect of the long vowel sounds in exclamation: “from the(ă) unin(i)terru(ă)pted central(ă)/ t(ā)il-r(ō)w! This(i) near arti(i)choke with(i) head and legs and grit(i)-equipp(i)ed gizz(i)ard.” Now the short-ĭ dominates (“the night m(i)niature art(i)st eng(i)neer (i)s”) and the sounds are shifting towards the long-ē, which will occur one time per line for the next five lines (Leonardo, hear, seems, ear-ridge, ear) making a sound-chain the work of which is now more vertical in nature. The sonic clusters work so that the horizontal stretch of a seventeen syllable line, for example, is equal in integrity to the rhythm by which the sentences tick down the page systematically.

In the sixth stanza (as the poem transitions from describing an animal mechanistically to describing man metaphorically) alliteration and assonance accumulate in “c(ō)ld luxurious/ l(ō)w st(ō)ne s(ē)ats,” a sonic cluster which would lead wonderfully, were it direct, into “between the thus/ ingenious roof-supports,” transferring the long-ō to a long-ē and backed by the repeated short-ŭ (“l(ŭ)xurio(ŭ)s, Between the th(ŭ)s ingenio(ŭ)s”), but which is held at bay by the inserted “a monk and monk and monk.” But brilliantly! The bland insertion makes a space, reminiscent of the dash, and the space is the thing the poem repeatedly asks us to traverse. And so the riddle repeats.

Similarly the “The Pangolin” ends in rapid succession of the XXY formation17: pairs/ hands/hairs; serge-clad/strong-shod; pray/fear/hear, thwart/dusk/work/done, again/sun/anew. As a final encapsulation of the rule, the poem rests. The penultimate line, ending “anew each day,” is followed by the string “and new and new and new” and looking even more closely than we had before, we notice: “nd” holding “a “ apart from “new” and this does steady our soul. The penultimate line, then, is the fact the poem finally relinquishes, that which “comes into and steadies”; it is what we believe: between elision and eliding, we reside.


Question: What really is a quark?

Answer: A quark is a particle acted upon by the “strong force.” Quarks exist in six varieties (up, down, charm, strange, top, bottom) and three colors (red, green blue)18”.

Answer according to Steven Hawking: “Any set of three quarks—these make up a proton—would have strings at their heart. To get an idea of comparative size, imagine that an atom is the size of the solar system. By comparison, a string is the size of an atom19

Answer according to current events: The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Frank Wilczek, David Gross, and H. David Politzer for discovering characteristics of the strong force called “asymptotic freedom.” This complicated theory was a counterintuitive discovery. The three physicists solved the problem of getting close enough to electrons without the standard equation blowing up from the increasing charges of the quarks. Wilczek, Gross, and Politzer discovered that “the strong force gets weaker at a close range—much as a taut spring relaxes when the ends are brought close together20.”

Answer: Inside the math there are smaller and smaller parts. Inside the smallest part counterintuitive discovery is not only possible but integral to figuring the whole. What goes against, then, is what completes.

Answer according to Keats: Do not reach after facts.


Question: Do you believe that the composition of the root cell is the same as that of the stem tip?

Answer according to Alice Fulton: The mathematician Benoit Madelbrot first came to the fact that “certain chaotic structures contain[ed]deep logic or pattern” and in 1975 he coined the term “fractal.” Fractal verse includes two poem types: “geometric” fractals, those which contains identical patterns at various scales, and “random” fractals, which center upon elements of chance. Fractals impose an order on turbulent forms21.

Answer according to “The Pangolin”: The network of small sonic clusters are mirrored on a macro level where sounds, words, and syntactical structures repeat throughout the poem to the same effect. This is also a form of triangulation. The repeating fractal has an XXY-shape.


Question: Without reaching after facts, how can we create? How, for example, can we say we make art?

Answer according to the description of the pangolin walking: “…stepping in the moonlight/ on the moonlight peculiarly, that the outside/ edges of the hand may bear the weight and save the claws// for digging”

Question: What does it mean to step “in the moonlight”? What does it mean to step “on the moonlight?”

Answer: This means perception gets revised.

Answer: We believe that the smallest scales of the poem-machine are integral to its smooth running, even if, and as, unexpectedly, they flip.

Answer: It focuses our attention at the level of the preposition. We see in. Inside prefixes abound.

Definitions: -in: [akin to OE un-] illogical, inconclusive

-in: [L –in, into] in, within, into, toward, on

-un: [OE; akin to OHG un-, L in] 1. not 2. opposite of

-un: [OE un, on, alter. of and-against] 1. do the opposite of 2. release from

3. bring out 4. bring out of 5. cause to cease to be

Answer according to the fractal:

Part I: UN

In the poem’s third line the regular scale pattern on the pangolin body is broken by the pattern on the tail (interestingly, it is notable that the tail balances the pangolin body); specifically Moore adumbrates, “until they [the scales]”/ form the uninterrupted central/ tail-row!” Here the prefix –un first enters the poem with the subordinating conjunction “until.” Next listen to the word “uninterrupted” versus the word “interrupted”; the added prefix extends the adjective beyond its average length and the new sound progresses piece by piece, almost spine-like. Uninterrupted. In the second stanza “unfamiliar ground” and “unpugnaciously” frame the moonlight stepping description.

Next the sonic systems intersect as the pangolin “rolls himself into a ball that has/ power to defy all effort to unroll it”; leading out from the linked consonance of the repeated –ll and the framing of “ball” inside “roll,” we read “un roll it; strongly in tailed, neat” which is located directly above “curled-in feet” (a feat which becomes more sophisticated when we remember the intricate syllabic system lurking beneath). The –un prefix has broken us out of the first frame (the –ll repetitions), through the mostly monosyllabic “neat/ head for core, on neck not breaking off, with,” and on to the sentence finale, where –un changes to –in and the end rhyme acts as anchor: “with curled in feet.” Stanzas four and five continue, using “unhurt,” “unintruded on,” “uninjurable;” until finally the double negative “not unchain-like,” used to describe the pangolin, assures us of Moore’s purposeful attention to sound even at the level of the prefix. The prefixes [XX] bracket and repeat as a stabilizing force from which newness will rise.


Now as the poem eases its way from the detailed animal description, through the monks, to the description of man in terms familiar to the pangolin, there are fewer –un prefixes and more repetitions of “in”: from “ingenious” to “time in which to pay,” to the accumulation of “in” between the seventh and eighth stanzas. In the final two clauses of the sentence describing man’s work in the world, Moore writes “IN fighting mechanicked/ like the pangolIN; capsizing IN// disheartENment. BedizENed or stark.” As the stanza breaks separating “capsizing in” from “disheartenment,” so two ideas of grace are brought together; either it is like the machine and the pangolin’s imbricate skin which turns in tightly to save itself, or it is the mystery and fallibility of man who depends on what may be divine in order to make art. The poem itself has capsized, turning the nature of man on top of the pangolin and turning what was –un to what is –in. As the description of man and pangolin are blurred, we read “unignorant/ modest and unemotional, and all emotion” and as again we are led in by the repeated prefix and then released by the negation via “all,” we arrive at the poem’s final affirmative stanza where there is no un- but where “Again the sun!” again clenches two intersecting systems (repeated “in” and repeated “-n”) and at last the soul breaks forth, again.


“To explain grace requires a curious hand.”


After the attraction and repulsion of prefixes, we may turn to the next larger system of repetition: the word and then the sentence. Marianne Moore’s repeated word is “grace”—she names and names and names the blaring thing that cannot be named. One, it is the property of Thomas-of-Leighton. Two, it is the way the tail works—for only grace would let a tail be a tool. And then at the poem’s center, where there is a missing eleventh line at the end of the fifth stanza, where the splitting of “adversities” and “conversities” bridge the stanza gap, after “not” has undone “-un,” and before the poem’s second (of four) short declarative sentences, also the most poignant thematic statement (“To explain grace requires a curious hand”), there is an accumulation and three time repetition, a tri-partite stack, of “grace.” From here Moore pushes off from the short sentence into the poem’s longest and most complex complete sentence, which, if we liken the poem form to triptych, negotiates the turn from left panel to center panel, the details of the pangolin to that of the church. The long sentence is anchored at the other end by the third short declarative: “A sailboat was the first machine.”

At large the poem holds the description of a pangolin against the description of man. The connective mechanism, again, is grace. Grace is the fractal. And yes literally here in the poem’s center, the word “grace” repeats to form a cluster around the exact point where the poem’s syllabic math breaks—at the exact point where “adverstites” is followed by the “con-” of “conversities” which is only rewarded its second half after the stanza break. More incredible may be that the poem turns to monks in a cathedral (and notice how we are eased into this by the “monk and a monk and a monk” which must rhyme with “Sun and moon and day and night and man and beast” as well as, if we look forward, the final “and new and new and new) and then, most miraculously to the sailboat—the first machine. And like the gospel story of Jesus allowing Peter to walk on the water to show the force of faith, here mystery has allowed the poem to sail. We must not look down. We should be blown by the glee. Without thinking, we are.


Question: But can grace really work?

Answer: Glee has blown us where we knew not before: from the horizontal pangolin to the vertical man, through the cathedral and the sail boat, as if the bow and the arms of the cross have been dropped down the mast, down the spire. So the boat and the church, one a cross on a peak and stable in the wind and one a cross moving through the water on the wind, pull together the poem’s two halves, the very vertical man and the horizontal pangolin. Grace is this curious intersection and Moore’s is the syllabic math that has managed to leave open a middle, while holding steady the sides (here: man & pangolin): “Pangolins, made for moving quietly also” (so like the sailboat) “are models of exactness,/ on four legs; on hind feet plantigrade,/ with certain postures of man.” At the poem’s end we turn to the man and from man to the unknown thing which both makes him and allows him to make. Here where “anew each day” leads to “and new and new and new” the soul just might break forth unexpectedly and yet again.



Donald Hall: I wonder what Bryn Mawr meant for you as a poet. You write that most of your time there was spent in the biological laboratories. Did you like biology better than literature as a subject for study? Did the training possibly affect your poetry?

Moore: Did laboratory studies affect my poetry? I am sure they did. I found the biology courses—minor, major and histology—exhilarating. I thought, in fact, of studying medicine. Precision, economy of statement, logic employed to ends that are disinterested, drawing and identifying, liberate—at least have some bearing on—the imagination, it seems to me22.


“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed,” writes Einstein23.


“will your experiment be finished”/ “science is never finished”24 writes Marianne Moore, quoting Einstein.


1 “Feeling and Precision,” in Predilections (New York: The Viking Press, 1955), 4.
2 Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.
3Lisa M. Steinman, “Science and American Modernism: Saint Francis Einstein,” in Make in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 57-77.
4A Marianne Moore Reader (New York: The Viking Press, 1961), 169.
5Complete Poems (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1970), 117-120.
6 “Meditation and Enactment,” in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969), 164.
7 “The Art of Poetry: Marianne Moore,” in Marianne Moore: A Collection on Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969), 33.
8Gravity & Grace, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1952), 45.
9 Ibid., 48.
10A Marianne Moore Reader, 169.
11Complete Poems, 48.
12 Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.
13 Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 71.
14 Ibid., 78-84.
15 152.
16 Ibid., 422
17 In other words, the end of the poems is full of instances where two exact rhymes either bracket or lead to a near rhyme.
18The Elegant Universe, 420.
19 David Filkin, Stephen Hawking’s Universe: The Cosmos Explained (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 258.
20 Charles Seife, Science, Vol 306, Issue 5696, 400, 15 October 2004.
21 “Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Electric” in feeling as foreign language: the good strangeness of poetry (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1999), 43-59.
22 “The Art of Poetry: Marianne Moore,” in Marianne Moore: A Collection on Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969), 23.
23 Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1982), 11.
24 “The Student” in Complete Poems, 101-2 .

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