Marianne Moore Moore, Marianne (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Marianne Moore 1887-1972

(Full name Marianne Craig Moore) American poet, essayist, translator, short story writer, editor, and playwright.

The following entry provides an overview of Moore's life and works. For additional information on her career, see PC, Volume 4.

A leading figure in American literature during the first half of the twentieth century, Moore was among the poets whose works heralded the transition to Modernism. Her poetry was characterized by experimental forms, descriptive detail, and careful, painstaking attention to structure and innovative meter and rhyme. As an essayist and reviewer of the work of her peers, Moore was influential in shaping the direction and public awareness of American poetry, particularly during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

Biographical Information

Moore was born in Kirkwood, Missouri, to John Milton Moore, an inventor and construction engineer, and Mary Warner Moore, who was once an English teacher. She spent her early childhood in the book-filled home of her grandfather, John Riddle Warner, a Presbyterian pastor. Months before Moore's birth, Mary Moore had moved there with her young son after John Moore was committed to an institution for the mentally ill. After Warner's death, Moore and her family moved to Pennsylvania. She attended Bryn Mawr College from 1905 to 1909, receiving a degree in biology and histology, and then spent a year acquiring secretarial training and skills in an effort to contribute to the support of her family. From 1911 to 1915, she taught office skills including bookkeeping, stenography, and typing, along with business English and law, at the U.S. Industrial Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, while continuing to compose poetry and prose. Her first professionally published poems appeared in 1915; by that time she was also writing and contributing essays and reviews to literary publications. The following year she and her mother moved to New Jersey to live with her brother, who was by then an ordained Presbyterian pastor and graduate of Yale University. In 1918, both women moved to Manhattan, where Moore began what would become a lifelong association with New York City's literary and cultural circles. Throughout the rest of her life, Moore worked steadily at her craft, publishing poems in literary magazines and then, often with major revisions, periodically collecting them into volumes. She was editor of the Dial literary magazine from 1925 to 1929, during which time she established herself not only as a poet in the Modernist tradition, but also as a steady influence on the development of the Modernist movement. Throughout her lifetime, Moore won numerous awards for her poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize for her 1951 volume, Collected Poems. She achieved a degree of celebrity status during the 1950s and 1960s as a self-possessed yet unassuming poet, a single woman of a certain age working in what was at the time still very much a man's world. Among her eclectic interests was a love for baseball; in 1968, she set aside ill health in order to throw the first pitch of the season at Yankee Stadium. After that summer, Moore published only six more poems. She was ill for nearly two years following a series of strokes, and she died at home in 1972.

Major Works

Moore's first published works appeared in the literary magazines of Bryn Mawr College during her student years. In 1915, her poetry was first published in mainstream literary periodicals including the Egoist, Others, and Poetry. Her first volume, Poems, published in 1921, contains many of these early works. Moore's 1924 Observations received the Dial Award for Literature and established her reputation as a Modernist American poet. Selected Poems (1935) featured an introduction by T. S. Eliot and included poems from Observations, in addition to new poems written during the early 1930s. Volumes from this period of her career include The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936), noteworthy for Moore's use of animals as subject material; What Are Years? (1941), which combines new and previously published works; and Nevertheless (1944), which contains “In Distrust of Merits,” a war protest poem that English-born American poet W. H. Auden lauded as among the best poetry to be written in reaction to World War II.

In 1951, Moore published Collected Poems, which won numerous prizes and vaulted her into public consciousness as one of the personalities of modern American poetry. This volume included revised versions of poems previously published in Selected Poems, plus works from What Are Years and Nevertheless. The collection also included nine previously uncollected poems and a selection of her favorite translations of La Fontaine's Fables. Moore's later works of poetry include Like a Bulwark (1956), O To Be A Dragon (1959), The Arctic Ox (1964), and Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics (1966). The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967) includes all the poems previously published in Selected Poems, plus selections from her translations of La Fontaine's Fables, and several uncollected poems. A posthumous edition of Complete Poems appeared in 1981; this included five poems Moore composed in the last years of her life, plus revisions of earlier verse.

Moore's other major works include her complete version of The Fables of La Fontaine (1954), which she translated in verse from French; a collection of essays, Predilections (1955); A Marianne Moore Reader (1961) including selected poems and prose; a 1962 play, The Absentee; and The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (1986).

Critical Reception

During Moore's literary career, her poetry was favorably received by peers and critics alike. However, late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century critical assessments of her work are mixed. Some critics have charged that it is anachronistic, contrived, and devoid of passion. Among feminist critics, some laud Moore for transcending the traditional voice and conventional literary role of women in a field defined and dominated by men, while others fault her for denying femininity and sexuality in her work. In response to critics who complained of obscure references or complex perspectives in her poetry, Moore freely expressed her opinion that something that took work to write should also require work to read. Her early supporters include William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot; later twentieth-century critics who write approvingly of her work include Grace Schulman and Tess Gallagher. Moore's commitment to her craft has earned her the praise of other poets who recognize in her work the spirit of a Modernist innovator, dedicated to precision and sharpness of detail, willing to experiment and revise freely, tireless in seeking and combining strands of inspiration from science, history, art, and literature.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Poems 1921

Observations 1924

Selected Poems 1935

The Pangolin and Other Verse 1936

What Are Years 1941

Nevertheless 1944

Collected Poems 1951

The Fables of La Fontaine [translator] 1954

Like a Bulwark 1956

O to Be a Dragon 1959

A Marianne Moore Reader (poems and prose) 1961

The Arctic Ox 1964

Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics 1966

The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore 1967; revised 1981

Predilections (essays) 1955

*The Absentee (play) 1962

The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (prose) 1986

*Adaptation of Maria Edgeworth's novel.

Jean Garrigue (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Garrigue, Jean. Marianne Moore. St. Paul: University of Minnesota, 1965, 48 p.

[In the following essay, Garrigue provides an assessment of the poetry and career of Marianne Moore.]

We know this poet by her voice, by her “astonishing invention in a single mode,” by her delicate, taxing technique; we know her for the “relentless accuracy” of her eye.

This is Marianne Moore, ironist, moralist, fantasist.

She was born in 1887 in St. Louis, Missouri, and has written of herself that she is a Presbyterian and was brought up in the home of her grandfather, the Reverend John R. Warner, who was for twenty-seven years the pastor...

(The entire section is 13952 words.)

Margaret Holley (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Holley, Margaret. “Art as Exact Perception.” In The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value, pp. 1-17. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Holley discusses the poems Moore published during her years at Bryn Mawr College, all of which appeared in the campus magazines Tipyn O'Bob and The Lantern.]

Originality, it seems to me, always comes in disguise, as the inevitable precipitated by the courage to be natural.

Marianne Moore

The emergence of an original poetic voice is an uncommon cultural moment, and even traced in retrospect...

(The entire section is 6951 words.)

Margaret Holley (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Holley, Margaret. “Diligence, Magic.” In The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value, pp. 18-43. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Holley provides an overview of poems written during the first several years of Moore's post-college career.]

The seven years between her graduation in 1909 and her move in 1916 to Chatham, New Jersey, demanded patience and perseverance of Moore. She felt ready to embark on her profession as a writer, but on two fronts—daily work and publication—she had to move more slowly than she would have wished. She arrived home from college with idealistic hopes of beginning her...

(The entire section is 10995 words.)

Margaret Holley (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Holley, Margaret. “Nonchalances of the Mind.” In The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value, pp. 133-55. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Holley examines the unique characteristics of Moore's poetry during the decade from the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s, a period during which she received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.]

During the mid-forties Moore's normally brisk pace of life, which had come to include a fair amount of travel for readings and talks, slowed down to accommodate her mother's advanced age and increasing infirmity. Mrs. Moore was bedridden,...

(The entire section is 9913 words.)

Bernard F. Engel (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Engel, Bernard F. “Reaffirmations: Late Period Poems.” Marianne Moore, pp. 113-45. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

[In the following essay, Engel offers a critical overview of the poetry produced by Moore from the late 1950s through the publication of “Prevalent at One Time” in the fall of 1970, the last of her verse to appear during her lifetime.]

Publication in 1961 of A Marianne Moore Reader indicated the poet's arrival as a celebrity and as a writer known to a wider public than critics and her fellow modernists. The Reader gives a sampling of her essays and reviews, twenty-three pieces from Collected Poems and twenty-four from...

(The entire section is 13974 words.)

Jeredith Merrin (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Merrin, Jeredith. “Re-seeing the Sea: Marianne Moore's ‘A Grave’ as a Revision of the Tradition.”In An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition, pp. 66-80. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Merrin offers a critical assessment of Moore's poem, “A Grave.”]

“Man looking into the sea” begins Marianne Moore's first published version of “A Grave” (“A Graveyard,” The Dial, July 1921). This version as well as another, earlier version, which was resurrected and printed by Ezra Pound in Milan in 1932, are both in turn revisions of Moore's unpublished “A...

(The entire section is 5442 words.)

Darlene Williams Erickson (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Erickson, Darlene Williams. “Introduction: The Wizard in Words.” In Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision, pp. 1-13. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Erickson offers an introduction to Moore's poetry, focusing in particular on a sense of magic and imagination inherent in the poet's work.]

                                        O imagnifico,
wizard in words—poet, was it, as
Alfred Panzini defined you?
Weren't you refracting just now
on my eye's half-closed triptych
                    the image, enhanced, of a glen—

Marianne Moore, “The Mind, Intractable Thing”

D. H. Lawrence...

(The entire section is 5768 words.)

Jeanne Heuving (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Heuving, Jeanne. “‘An Artist in Refusing’.” In Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore, pp. 17-29. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Heuving explores the influence of gender on Moore's voice and identity as a literary figure among predominantly male peers.]

What allows us to proceed … is that we interpret, at each “moment,” the specular make-up of discourse, that is, the self-reflecting … organization of the subject in … discourse. This language work would thus attempt … to return the masculine to its own language, leaving open the possibility of a...

(The entire section is 6412 words.)

Jeanne Heuving (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Heuving, Jeanne. “Moore's ‘High’ Modernism: A Comparison with Her Male Peers.” In Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore, pp. 30-48. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Heuving contrasts specific examples of Moore's poetry with thematically similar poems by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams.]

Some feminine poets of the present day seem to have grown horns and to like to be frightful and dainty by turns; but distorted propriety suggests effeteness.

—Marianne Moore, Trial Balances (1935)1


(The entire section is 6518 words.)

Bethany Hicok (essay date summer 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hicok, Bethany. “To Work ‘Lovingly’: Marianne Moore at Bryn Mawr, 1905-1909.” Journal of Modern Literature 23, no. 3/4 (summer 2000), 483-501.

[In the following essay, Hicok explores “Bryn Mawr's crucial significance to [Moore's] development as a poet.”]

In an August 1921 letter to her friend Bryher, Marianne Moore wrote that her experience at Bryn Mawr gave her “security in my determination to have what I want.”2 She described to Bryher the “intellectual wealth” she had received there as not something that could be “superimposed,” but something that must be “appropriated” (Selected Letters, p. 178). This statement...

(The entire section is 9492 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Goodridge, Celeste. Hints and Disguises: Marianne Moore and Her Contemporaries. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989, 175 p.

An overview of Moore's career as a poet-critic in the company of twentieth-century American poets Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot.

Martin, Taffy. Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 151 p.

A biographical and critical treatment of Moore's life and work as a modernist poet in America.

Nitchie, George W. Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia...

(The entire section is 795 words.)