The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore Analysis

Marianne Moore

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The 1981 edition of The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore is the “Definitive Edition, with the Author’s Final Revisions” of a 1967 collection of the same title, and includes five additional poems written in her last years. It contains all the poems the poet wished to preserve, 125 in all, along with a handful of her translations from the Fables (1668-1694) of Jean La Fontaine.

These are poems of immaculate phrasing, metrically and formally intricate, containing frequent quotations from a variety of sources and dealing in many instances with animals and athletes. There is nothing quite like them. They are a woman’s poems: Marianne Moore’s poems, the poems of a very particular woman. Moore was born in 1887 near St. Louis—T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis less than a year later—and grew up without a father. She was extraordinarily close to her mother, to whom she dedicated her collected poems. It was of her mother that she wrote, “In my immediate family there is one who ‘thinks in a particular way,’ ” and “Where there is an effect of thought or pith in these pages, the thinking and often the actual phrases are hers.”

They are the poems of someone who would declare of poetry, “I, too, dislike it,” but who nevertheless “discovers in it . . . a place for the genuine.” They are, in a sense, reluctant poems—poems that forced themselves on their author. “I certainly never intended to write poetry,” she once told an interviewer. “That never came into my head.”

They are the poems of one who was not considered particularly good at her chosen majors, English and French, while at Bryn Mawr College, one who spent most of her time in the biology laboratories and thought about studying medicine. Many of them deal with Moore’s minute observance of many different...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Despite her early publication in little magazines alongside such modern masters as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, the modernism in Moore is all her own. As Eliot wrote, “Miss Moore had no immediate poetic derivations.” Her tone, style, and voice, for reasons discussed above, are unique. This in turn has made it hard to follow her. As John Unterecker notes in his foreword to George Nitchie’s book Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry (1969), “to be ‘influenced’ by Marianne Moore’s devices would be to produce conspicuously imitative work. Her extreme peculiarities isolate her from her admirers, preserve her from founding a tradition.”

As Harold Bloom has shown in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973), however, the creative misreading of an earlier poet by a later allows a kind of influence that is far from imitative. Joanne Feit Diehl in Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity (1993) explores the use Bishop has made of her older friend and mentor, Moore. Diehl cites Robert Lowell approvingly for his assertion “that Elizabeth Bishop is impossible to imagine without Marianne Moore.” Bloom suggests that Richard Wilbur and May Swenson should also be counted among the American poets whom Moore influenced.

The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

ph_0111201253-Moore_M.jpg Marianne Moore Published by Salem Press, Inc.

America from 1920 to 1950 was alive with literary genius: the turmoil surrounding the two world wars and the Great Depression supplied the energy for the enduring achievement that was Modernism. Thus, many of its practitioners are remembered not only as masters of their time and place but also as permanent contributors to the theory and practice of prose and poetry. In this tumult, some lesser but still great talents have lost critical attention. With the nearly simultaneous publication of Bonnie Costello’s Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions and this complete collection of Moore’s verse, a great poet of this great period has been rescued from an obscurity that is more understandable than it is deserved.

While Moore’s three-cornered hat, long black cape, and mania for baseball granted her some celebrity while living, her poetry lacked the simplicity, obvious grace, and intelligibility which confer popular appeal and a broad audience. On the other hand, her work never attracted the sustained critical exegesis devoted to contemporaries and admirers of her verse such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Her originality fell in the space between, at once whimsical and scholarly, a mixture of colloquialism and Latinate constructions which was calculated to leave a mark on her fellow poets and on poetry itself, but not on the public.

Still Marianne Moore was not without recognition in her eighty-five years. In her lifetime (1887-1972), she published ten books of poetry, a translation of Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables, and a collection of essays (Predilections, 1955). For these and her editorship of The Dial from 1925 to 1929, she was honored with the Shelley Memorial Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Medal for Literature. She also knew and influenced many of the major writers of the twentieth century, from Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) to Wallace Stevens.

Moore was born near St. Louis in Kirkwood, Missouri, on November 15, 1887. Following her father’s early nervous breakdown, she, her mother, and brother lived in the house of her maternal grandfather, a local Presbyterian minister. After this restrained childhood, she attended Bryn Mawr College, where her first poems were published in the undergraduate monthly in 1907. Like another great American woman poet, Anne Bradstreet, she had little confidence in her early work, and, as in Bradstreet’s case, her first book of verse, Poems (1921), was published without her knowledge or permission.

Moore’s personal, highly idiosyncratic verse is a mix of seemingly incongruous elements, such as her love of language and her undergraduate training in biology. Thus, she could tell Donald Hall that in her poems “words cluster like chromosomes.” This vision of poetry is one that tries to link the formalities of life’s own structures to those of verbal arrangement. The reader of her verse discovers a form that appeals to the senses, to living perception. The poet and her observations are linked in a natural marriage, a double helix of thought and feeling in an economy of words. As in the moment of sexual reproduction, these poems possess an excitement and seeming spontaneity at the same time that they transmit a genetic code which is beautifully rigid and predetermined: science and humanism join together.

This image of the living word generated out of a moment of dialogue between the poet and her object clearly indicates a central aspect of her creative method....

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Choice. XVIII, June, 1981, p. 1418.

Christian Century. XCVIII, April 29, 1981, p. 487.

Diehl, Joanne Feit. Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Proposes a theory of influence based on Melanie Klein’s work to replace Bloom’s Oedipal theory and the revisionist Freudianism of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (1988-1989). Useful as a reading of the two poets in conjunction, “intertextually.” With notes and an index.

Library Journal. CVI, June 1, 1981, p. 1226.

Merrin, Jeredith. “Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.” In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Emphasizes the differences between the two poets, concluding, “It is time that each poet had a chapter of her own.”

Moore, Marianne. A Marianne Moore Reader. New York: Viking Press, 1961. A useful introduction to the poet’s work, containing as it does a generous selection of her poems, a larger selection of the Fables of La Fontaine than is available in The Complete Poems, and twenty prose pieces. With notes and an index.

The New Republic. CLXXXIII, August 23, 1980, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, March 15, 1981, p. 7.

Nitchie, George W. Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. Particularly interesting on the ways in which Marianne Moore reworked her poems from one collection to the next—as also on the ways in which she chose and sorted them differently. A straightforward introduction, emphasizing the poet’s moral intelligence. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Stapleton, Laurence. Marianne Moore: The Poet’s Advance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Stapleton’s was the first study to benefit from full access to Moore’s manuscripts, notebooks, and correspondence, and it is on these that he bases his interpretations of the poems. He thus reaches further back in the compositional process than Nitchie. Includes a reading of her prose, along with notes, bibliography, and index.