In the biographies of fellow poets, Marianne Moore often comes across as a semi-recluse, living with her mother, herself an eccentric and oddly formidable character everyone is afraid to offend. Venerable yet, at the same time, fond of the circus and the Dodgers, Moore wears the aura of the past in these accounts, a revenant of an earlier time when “spinsterhood” could be liberating. This old-fashioned sensibility, however, produced one of the defining voices of modernist verse.
In a letter written late in life, she encapsulates her aesthetic with the words of the German artist George Grosz: “Endless curiosity/ observation and a/ great amount of joy in the thing.” Combining joyful curiosity with technical virtuosity, Moore produced highly polished poems that often seem, on first impression, spontaneous and free-form. In one letter, she defines poetry as “entrapped conversation.” The result of her fascination with speech rhythms is a free verse based on the strict repetition, line for line, of syllable counts from stanza to stanza. As she explains in a letter to poet Ezra Pound, she never started with the meter, but, as soon as she had a stanza whose rhythm she liked, it set the pattern for the rest of the poem.
Her poetry is often considered difficult despite her passion for clarity and precision. She deals with difficult issues, and the accumulation and compression of detail, with logical connections often left for the reader, make her poems dense. However, a combination of high moral purpose, conceptual depth, close observation, and bracing wit enliven her writing even as she lays bare humanity’s frailties.
Marianne Moore was born in Kirkwood, Missouri, just outside St. Louis, in 1887. She lived with her mother Mary and brother Warner in her grandfather’s house until his death, after which they moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Moore never met her father, who suffered a nervous breakdown after his business reverses, and she permitted herself little contact with her father’s side of the family until her mother’s death in 1947.
This suggests the kind of hold Mary had over her children. They were devoted to her, and the three of them comprised a very close- knit family. The family employed its own special language, which included an elaborate system of nicknames drawn from many sources such Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), where they found the ones that stuck: Warner was Badger, Mary was Mole, and Marianne, often referred to with male pronouns, was Rat.
Except for her four years at Bryn Mawr College, Moore lived with her mother until the older woman’s death in 1947. While in college, Moore wrote her mother and brother at least three times a week. In striking contrast to the formal tone of her later correspondence, these early letters are, at times, almost embarrassingly exuberant. Always full of pluck (thinking nothing, for example, of killing and dissecting a stray cat), Moore overflows with passionate accounts of her activities and her crushes on schoolmates. Yet, in the midst of it, she can write,
Self-possession and a spirit of forgiveness are the things to hold on to, if you want really, to be master of your fate. By self-possession, I mean courage and patience. By the other, a real Christ-like desire to aid, tolerate and endure—without any desire to dazzle.
Of course, she wanted to dazzle more than anything. The letters provide a compelling account of her struggle to reconcile the conflicting impulses toward self-assertion and self-mastery. Using a healthy sense of humor to maintain her sanity, she sublimated both drives into a poetry of close observation and sophisticated technique that obscure the personal. With adolescent fervor, she says, in one letter, that writing is merely selfish and puling if it is not great. With this all-or-nothing declaration, she set the bar very high for herself but cleared it with remarkable ease.
After Bryn Mawr, Moore moved back to Carlisle, where she completed a course in a commercial college and taught in the Indian School. It was in Carlisle, between 1909 and 1915, that Moore achieved her distinctive style. After many rejections, she made a very impressive debut. Her first poem appeared in 1915 in the London journal The Egoist, and more poems appeared soon after in two important American journals, Poetry and Others.
In a letter dated May 9, 1915, she writes her brother: “My poems came out this week to the polite oh’s and ah’s of the neighborhood—Mole is very much disgusted with me for owning up to them.” Later that year, Moore’s mother advised her not to publish a book of her poetry yet, calling her work, so far,...
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