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.
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.
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).
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.