Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2006
Article abstract: An early leader in Modernist poetry, Moore eventually gained recognition as one of the half-dozen major poets in English of the middle twentieth century.
Marianne Craig Moore was born on November 15, 1887, in Kirkwood, Missouri, near St. Louis, where her mother had moved after a breakdown had permanently institutionalized her father. Her mother’s brother, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, provided all Marianne knew of a father during her first years. Upon his death in 1894, Marianne, an older brother, and her mother moved to be with friends at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Here Marianne attended the Metzger Institute, where her mother took a part-time teaching position. Another Presbyterian pastor, George Norcross, involved young Marianne in the life of the mind and the spirit.
Marianne next enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, where she struggled, especially during the first two years, gradually finding a home in the biology laboratory and at the literary magazine, although literature courses daunted her. To contribute to the household income after receiving her degree in 1909, she took a business and secretarial course at Carlisle Commercial College. This gained her a job at the Carlisle Indian School, at the time a center for assimilating American Indians into the common culture. Here she taught classes in English and business skills, maintained the typewriters and stenographic equipment, and coached both boys and girls in field sports for four years. She also sent out poems for publication, placing pieces in the most prestigious and progressive journals of the time: Egoist (London) and Poetry (Chicago).
In 1916, mother and daughter moved first to Chatham, New Jersey, and then two years later to New York, where Marianne lived for the rest of her life. At first supporting herself by tutoring, Moore eventually obtained a part-time position with the New York Public Library, but she quickly decided to devote her life to literature. Without her knowledge, some of her editors and readers at Egoist published her first book, Poems, in 1921. Her subsequent volume Observations (1924), however, proclaimed her entry into the literary lists. Besides containing some of her finest and most reprinted poems, it declared her dedication to the literary life. Editing Dial, another pioneering journal, from 1925 to 1929 confirmed her decision. When that journal ceased publication, Moore resolved to devote the rest of her life solely to writing.
For the next forty years, Marianne Moore supported herself as a freelance reviewer, essayist, and poet, proving it possible to make money by writing: By the time she “retired,” she had put enough away so that she could live comfortably on the interest, even in a sickbed. She also gained recognition, though quietly. Throughout her publishing career, every new work earned both acclaim and merit; her list of literary prizes was longer, the weight of her medals heavier, than those of her more celebrated colleagues. She may look at first like a token “female representative” among the writers, but a second look reveals that if there was prejudice against women writers, Moore deserves more credit for having broken through the barriers. Besides, her male peers were the first to acknowledge her eminence.
At least some of her lack of celebrity stems from her own withdrawn habits, her failure to promote herself. Still, within her own limits, she outperformed all of her rivals. She alone succeeded at supporting herself entirely by writing—the only professional among amateurs. Moreover, she is the only world-class poet to have thrown out the first pitch of the season for both the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, just as she is the only one to have held a conference on poetry with then-heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Late in life, she even gained a semipopular following, especially after being seen about New York conspicuously garbed in billowing cape and tricorn hat. In the 1960’s, the picture magazines made regular copy of her. Yet she never found the audience she deserved.
What is called her early work was hardly early; she was in her mid-thirties before her publications gained much currency. Still, many of her best-known poems and several signature techniques appeared in her first two books. Her fascination with animals, especially with exotic and bizarre forms, stands out, as do her jagged lines, quirky rhythms, and metaphorical tangents. Still, although she gained positive reviews, she had not yet found herself. Editing The Dial, however, introduced her to the leading writers of the time, and she made much of her contacts. Several of those writers urged her to publish more widely, and her Selected Poems (1936) was introduced by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965). From that point on she did not lack readers.
Selected Poems did not so much break new ground as expand established colonies. It also demonstrated one of Moore’s most ingrained habits, variously considered irritating or refreshing. Several touchstone poems reappeared here in altered form; the poet had improved them, even after publication. Such constant tinkering is typical of Moore. For her a poem is constantly in process, in the act of being brought about, rather than a product fixed and definite. In her final volume, The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967), she perfected this process, paring down her best-known poem, “Poetry,” to a three-line distillation of the original thirty-four. In doing so, she deprived many readers of lines they cherished. At the same time, again typically, she made amends by reprinting the original version in the notes appended to the text of the poems—another characteristic gesture of playfulness.
That habit of concentration, of reducing poems to their metaphorical essence, is at the core of Moore’s poetic practice, although this was not at first recognized. Partly because of her fascination with depicting unusual animals in minute detail, partly because her second book was titled Observations, she was long considered a visual poet, distinguished as much by what she saw as by her techniques of reporting and reconstructing. Thus a catalog of typical titles reads much like the roster of a peculiar zoo: “The Fish,” “No Swan So Fine,” “The Frigate Pelican,” “The Pangolin,” “The Jerboa,” “To a Snail,” “Sojourn in the Whale,” “The Basilisk,” “Elephants,” “Peter” (about a cat), and many more. Even poems ostensibly dealing with unrelated topics regularly modulate—by Moore’s methods—to images of animal behavior. Furthermore, this pseudopictorial mode carries the animal images over into other scenes, so that reading Moore often seems like touring a splendid museum.
Ultimately, however, Moore’s work strikes home because of technique, structure, and imaginative wit, qualities that rule her major publications: The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936), What Are Years? (1941), and Nevertheless (1944). Although Moore had experimented early with free verse and Imagist formulas, in these works she developed her idiosyncratic forms and verbal techniques. She derived these from the wordplay of certain sixteenth and seventeenth century English prose masters: Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, Francis Bacon, and Sir Thomas Browne. Her poetry begins, as her contemporary and friend Ezra Pound had prescribed, as good prose—that is, it exemplifies precision, conciseness, weight, poise, and exactness. This gives her work hard edges, definite lines, a felt presence; her poems display rather than decorate. Often they seem to be sculpted.
Moore developed poetic forms and techniques to complement these prose-based virtues. Although her metrics are basically conventional, she considered the stanza rather than the line as the formal center of the poem. Her poems began with an individuating stanzaic form, chosen ordinarily by working with a found or invented verbal pattern—more often than not a quotation from something essentially prosaic: a guidebook, a review, a memo. Completing the poem meant fashioning further stanzas on identical linear patterns, so that the rhymes and line divisions all occurred at precise points and each poem had a unique pattern. Furthermore, because the line divisions do not control the shapings of the phrase, Moore was free within the formal strictures to exploit the phrase rhythms characteristic of prose. The cross-patterns thus generated often seem abrupt and jagged, even crude, at first, but they allow her wit and playfulness to sport within them, and occasionally break free. An early poem, “The Past Is the Present,” established this aesthetic objective for all of her work: “Ecstasy affords/ the occasion and expediency determines the form.”
Despite making a living out of writing and gaining some late recognition, Marianne Moore cannot be termed a female pioneer or even a successful role model in a conventional sense. She lived almost as a recluse, acquiring fame only as a caricature of the female poet, grotesquely caped, bonneted, and caparisoned. Far from asserting her sexual independence, she spent most of her life caring for her increasingly infirm mother and her minister brother; clearly, she was the hero in the family. She carried Victorian reticence about sexuality around with her as if it were a veil. As the editor of The Dial, she rejected some overt sexual references in a submission by Hart Crane, prompting him to call her a hysterical virgin; and, asked late in life for her opinion about current poets, she complained about their sexual frankness.
Nevertheless, she deserves credit as the truest liberator. At a time when almost no one in a remarkable generation of poetic genius could make literature pay, she did. Furthermore, she showed that women could compete on equal terms with men in one of the most intensely combative arenas anywhere: that of professional literature. What better demonstration could anyone ask of the potential of women? As daringly as any explorer into uncharted regions, she blazed her own trails, established her own range, and gained the respect and admiration of the men who walked beside—but never before—her. She continues to hold the territory she staked out.
Goodrich, Celeste. Marianne Moore and Her Contemporaries. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989. In some respects a study for specialists, this work does document the interactions between Moore and her more conspicuous male colleagues T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. It is fully documented and indexed, and contains a selected bibliography.
Holley, Margaret. The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. This mainstay standard scholarly commentary on Moore’s poetry is more readable and useful than most. It provides insights and persuasive interpretations. The biographical sketch is separate and concise, and the text also includes a chronology of publication, notes, an accurate bibliography, and an index.
Martin, Taffy. Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Martin attempts to integrate Moore into the women’s movement, with some success but also some strain. The study combines biography and commentary, and includes notes and an index.
Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. New York: Atheneum, 1990. Molesworth’s work is the major literary biography, massive in scholarship and compiled from total immersion in all available sources. Meticulous in its detailed reconstruction of Moore’s life, it has been criticized for failing to bring its subject to life. It includes full scholarly apparatus.
Phillips, Elizabeth. Marianne Moore. Modern Literature Series. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982. Intended as an introduction to the poet and woman for the general reader, this work achieves its objectives. Although the biographical material is dated and superficial, Phillips’ work remains the first reference of choice. It is fully noted and indexed.
Tomlinson, Charles, ed. Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Although it is badly dated, this work contains indispensable material not readily available elsewhere: letters, an interview, early reviews about and by Moore, and particularly essays by leading critics of the mid-century: Kenneth Burke, John Crowe Ransom, Stevens, Williams, Randall Jarrell, and various major scholars.
Willis, Patricia C., ed. Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1990. This major work is invaluable for making possible an uncluttered view of the poet. It collects essays about Moore’s life and writings from a kaleidoscopic array of perspectives and by a formidable battery of scholars. It also contains a complete and useful annotated bibliography.