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Steam Rollers Run on Money - A poetic analysis of Marianne Moore

Updated on May 22, 2014


It is human instinct to judge, but no judgment can be made without reason. It is personal. Jealous of the neighbor with a new car, the C.E.O. that does not appreciate his kids, and cringing in aggravation at the cackling laughter leaking into quiet computer time at the local coffee shop. This mindset of progression and accumulation is a product of society as a whole. There is a dependence on the individuals that stray from the norm because it is those people that display what normal is not. Writers of all kinds have the opportunity to be those people. Poets, novelists, journalists, and playwrights alike share in a journey to expose reality. One of these writers was a brave poet named Marianne Moore. Her perception of society can be analyzed from many stand points including but not limited to Marxist Criticism, New Historicism, and Feminist Criticism in her poem, “To a Steamroller”. Her weighted words linger and open the mind to new ways of thinking. While it is completely fair to assume she is talking about a man in her poem, it is also important to take into consideration the ways her word choice reflects on higher powers in society. Utilizing the three criticisms listed above, a deeper understanding of this enlightening poem will be illuminated with regard to time period, equality of men and women, and the relationship between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’s’.

"To a Steam Roller" By Marianne Moore

The illustration
is nothing to you without the application.
   You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down
      into close conformity, and then walk back and forth 
         on them.

Sparkling chips of rock
are crushed down to the level of the parent block.
   Were not ‘impersonal judgment in aesthetic
      matters, a metaphysical impossibility,' you

might fairly achieve
It. As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive
   of one’s attending upon you, but to question
      the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.

Academy of American Poets


Marianne Moore was born on...

Marianne Moore was born on November 15th in 1887 and finished her education with a bachelor’s degree in 1909 ( Her writing style reflects a time period in America that put men on a pedestal. Women were still seen as accessories to men preceding the First World War. In 1920 women were finally recognized into the voting community as well as the workforce in America’s post war society. Marianne Moore was among the women who were finally gaining a foothold in the emerging progressive movement. Her poetry was an expression of her personal perception. In this line from “To a Steam Roller”, “The illustration/is nothing to you without the application” she may be considering the presence of women in America’s future. Men had no use for women’s rights so long as women were confined to kitchens and linens. It was not until a hefty war took hold of the country, causing a great need for workers in factories and war supporting programs, that women were accepted as capable replacements for men. This provoked a new way of looking at women from both a male and female perspective.

From a feminist standpoint...

From a feminist standpoint, straying away from the context in which the poem was written, a “steam roller” is a common expression of a controlling partner. It is possible to view many of the lines from this poem from the standpoint of a suppressed woman in an unbalanced relationship with a man. For example, in this line Moore could be reflecting on the congruence between her mother and her in that they were both controlled by men; “Sparkling chips of rock/are crushed down to the level of the parent block”. The “parent block” represents her mother and the “sparkling chips” could be the remains of the women after the deconstruction of man’s intention. Here, Moore could be pointing out the impossibility of the man ever finding another partner, even though she recognizes that she fell in love with him; “As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive/of one's attending upon you, but to question/the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.” It is easy to conceptualize a poem about a failing relationship, especially in a time so focused on the man of the house, however it is not the only perspective that matters.


Finally, with a Marxist lens...

Finally, with a Marxist lens, the relationship between the rule makers and abiders is displayed by many of the lines in “To a Steam Roller”. Arguably, every line coincides with the idea that a higher power is preventing the rise of the uncorrupt. For example, “You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down/into close conformity, and then walk back and forth on them”. She could be presenting the idea that a sheep in a group, will think like the group. Conformity is inevitable in a society that shuns the modern thought provokers. The triumph of destruction is evident in big business and government. A steam roller is a machine designed to crush objects at the hand of man. It is interesting how people have conceptualized a piece of manmade machinery as a figurative object that crushes a person’s right to live. In this line Moore brings up the idea that superficial judgment is fair practice in human interaction; “Were not "impersonal judgment in aesthetic/matters, a metaphysical impossibility," you/might fairly achieve/it”. While it is common to judge, the ability to make impersonal judgments is impossible. Again, it is natural to judge, however, the very nature of judgment is personal and will be internalized. This is relevant to the Marxist criticism because Moore could be suggesting that the higher powers are turning a blind eye to the problems facing the lower classes. It is not uncommon for resistance to rise up against those in power. It can take any form, including the written word. Moore could very well have been an advocate for counterculture and revolution during her time as a writer.


In conclusion, it is very possible to view a single piece of writing through different lenses. One could argue that this enables the reader to view the world in a multitude of ways. Having a unique outlook on life and the world is a liberating experience which is shared by anyone that creates. In turn, creativity is a unique experience that makes any creator extraordinary. Marianne Moore was obviously a creator. Every word she took down was a documentation of her life. Her writing was personal, influential, and inspiring. It does not matter whether or not her poem, “To a Steam Roller” was about a relationship, the denial of women’s rights, or a rebel spirit, it is unique and beautiful and should be celebrated.

Works Cited

“Marianne Moore.” Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.


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