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On Marianne Moore's Life and Career

Elaine Oswald and Robert L. Gale

mmooreyoung.jpg (30881 bytes)She was born Marianne Craig Moore in Kirkwood, Missouri, the daughter of John Milton Moore, a construction engineer and inventor, and Mary Warner. Moore had an older brother, John Warner Moore. She never met her father; before her birth his invention of a smokeless furnace failed, and he had a nervous and mental breakdown and was hospitalized in Massachusetts. Moore's mother became a housekeeper for John Riddle Warner, her father, an, affectionate, well-read Presbyterian pastor in Kirkwood, until his death in 1894. Moore's mother, always overly protective, moved with her children briefly to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Moore attended the Metzger Institute (now part of Dickinson College) through high school. In 1905 she entered Bryn Mawr College, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; published nine poems, including "A Jelly-Fish," in its literary magazines Tipyn O'Bob and the Lantern; and majored in history, law, and politics, graduating with a B.A. in 1909. Much--perhaps too much--has been made of Moore's later casual assertion that laboratory studies in biology and histology caused her to consider studying medicine; at any rate, one result of such work was her love of intricately shaped animals and also a lifelong respect for precision in description. She also expressed a desire to become a painter. After taking secretarial courses at Carlisle Commercial College (1910-1911), she taught bookkeeping, stenography, and typing and commercial English and law at the U.S. Industrial Indian School at Carlisle with admirable success until 1915. One of her students was Jim Thorpe, the famous Native American athlete.

In the summer of 1911 Moore and her mother traveled in England, Scotland, and France, and while abroad they visited art museums in Glasgow, Oxford, London, and Paris. In 1915 Moore began to publish poems professionally. Seven poems (including "To the Soul of 'Progress,’" displaying her early habit of rhyming single-syllable lines, sometimes spaced apart) appeared in the Egoist, a London bimonthly edited by Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and featuring modern imagist poets, whose delicacy and compression she admired. Four (including "That Harp You Play So Well" about David the psalmist, and two about Robert Browning and George Bernard Shaw) appeared in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (Chicago), which featured innovative writers quickly admired and influential. And five (including two on William Blake and George Moore) were published in Others, a magazine Alfred Kreymborg coedited. During these years Moore was reading much avant-garde poetry and criticism and was beginning to publish subjective reviews and critical essays.

In 1916 Moore moved with her mother from Carlisle to Chatham, New Jersey, to help keep house for her brother, by then a Yale University graduate and a Presbyterian minister. When in 1918 he joined the U.S. Navy as a chaplain, Moore and her mother moved to Manhattan. By this time she was friendly with Kreymborg, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams and was also esteemed by H.D., T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. H.D., with the help of her patron Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), who was then H.D.'s lover, selected twenty-four of Moore's poems, many of which had appeared in the Egoist, and published them in a small book titled Poems (1921) without her knowledge. From 1921 until 1925 Moore worked part-time in the Hudson Park branch of the New York City library. Her London book was expanded to include fifty-three poems and was published in the United States as Observations (1924). In 1924 she won an award of $2,000 for achievement in poetry given by the Dial, the distinguished monthly pro-modernist magazine edited and partly financed by wealthy Scofield Thayer, whom Moore had met in 1918 and who was regularly publishing her verse. Especially significant in winning the award were three poems. "A Graveyard" (later called "A Grave") is a Melvillean picture of the ocean, seemingly inviting but in reality rapacious and devouring. It was Moore's first poem to be translated into a foreign language and appeared in Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie (1928). Her "New York" criticizes the city for general viciousness (synecdochized as a fur-trade center) but also praises it as a center for experience-seekers. And "An Octopus," one of Moore's most splendid long poems, is a scientifically accurate, highly colored word picture, with annotated quotations, of Mount Rainier, in Washington State, which she had climbed in 1920 with a group including her brother.

In 1925 Moore took over from Thayer as editor of the Dial, remaining there until 1929, at which time the journal was discontinued. After this, never marrying, Moore supported herself by freelance writing and with occasional help from former Dial backers. In 1929 she and her mother moved to Brooklyn, where Moore remained after her mother's death in 1947 and until her own final move back to Manhattan in 1966. Moore's years at the Dial were part of a hiatus in her publishing life. But in 1933 she was awarded the Helen Haire Levinson Prize from Poetry, which gained her national attention and spurred her to renewed creativity. Her next volume, Selected Poems (1935), which included several of the fifteen poems she had recently published between 1932 and 1935 in periodicals and anthologies (including "Camillia Sabina" in Active Anthology, ed. Ezra Pound [1932]), confirmed her position as a leading modernist poet. T S. Eliot provided a laudatory introduction for the collection, writing in part: "My conviction ... for the last fourteen years ... [is] that Miss Moore's poems form part of the small body of durable poetry written in our time, of that small body of writings, among what passes for poetry, in which an original sensibility and alert intelligence and deep feeling have been engaged in maintaining the life of the English language." Despite Eliot's well-founded praise, the book sold poorly, and in 1940 nearly 500 copies were remaindered at thirty cents apiece.

Some critics feel that from about this time in her career Moore made little progress; she herself described her artistic development as jerky. In addition, such evolution as there was seems hard to track because of her habit of revising old poems for republication, composing new poems--for example, "To Victor Hugo of My Crow Pluto" (1961) and "To a Giraffe" (1963)--on subjects similar to those of old efforts, and creating later poems with fresh or at least newly modulated insights--for example, "Rescue with Yul Brynner" (New Yorker, 20 May 1961), praising the actor's relief work for refugee children, and "Baseball and Writing" (New Yorker, 6 Dec. 1961), celebrating her beloved Yankees but mainly comparing two painful arts. It is also true that the first version of "Poetry," undoubtedly her best-known work, first appeared in Others in 1919. Considerably revised, it contains her arresting dictum that poetry should offer true-to-life toads in gardens of the imagination. Furthermore, "No Swan So Fine" and "The Jerboa," both often anthologized, were first published in 1932. "No Swan So Fine" suggests that a beautiful china swan, symbol of art, has serenely outlasted Louis XV of France, its cocky whilom owner. "The Jerboa" celebrates the enviable naturalness of the jerboa, an African jumping rat, interfering with which will curse you.

Moore continued to place poem after poem in reputable periodicals such as the Kenyon Review, the Nation, the New Republic, and the Partisan Review and then collect them, and others, in book form--for example, in The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936), What Are Years? (1941), and Nevertheless (1944). The title pieces of these books are excellent. "The Pangolin" stunningly equates the pangolin, a scaly African and Asian ant-eating mammal, with Leonardo da Vinci, both being alike artists and engineers, and goes on to compare the pangolin's graceful, functional form to that of the spruce cone, the artichoke, and Westminster Abbey ironwork. Moore's annotations make it clear that while her sources may include direct observation they are mainly esoteric reading. "What Are Years?"--a stellar lyric--ends by paradoxically equating a bird's joyful song with both mortality and eternity. In "Nevertheless" Moore implicitly praises her own life and creativity when she images the red of the cherry as the miraculous result of a bit of thread-thin sap. In 1945 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for creative writing and a year later a $1,000 joint grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. With leisure thus provided, she followed her friend W H. Auden's suggestion and began meticulously translating the Fables choisies, mises en vers of Jean de La Fontaine, whose realistic moral messages and ingenious craftsmanship she had long admired. The project took too much of Moore's creative energy for almost a decade and cost her considerable self-confidence when the first publishing firm to which she submitted the work rejected it. While laboring over this work, she occasionally conferred with Pound, then confined to Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. During this time she also wrote Pound and sent him a little spending money.

The 1950s brought Moore several more awards and growing public recognition, which thereafter never abated. Her Collected Poems (1951) won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1952 and the Bollingen Prize in 1953; it sold almost 5,000 copies by 1952. When she formally accepted the National Book Award, she made the often-quoted remark that her work is called poetry for lack of any other category to put it in and added that she was "a happy hack." Her Fables of La Fontaine, after going through four painstaking drafts, finally appeared in 1954. Although many reviewers praised her translations, some found fault in them, and the prevailing opinion is that they do not represent her best poetic accomplishment. The French government, however, was sufficiently impressed by her Fables to award her the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. Her critical essays on writers and artists such as Louise Bogan, Jean Cocteau, E. E. Cummings, Pound, and Anna Pavlova, among many others, are collected in Predilections (1955). Moore saw Pavlova in November 1921 and wrote H. D. and Bryher (10 Nov. 1921) a long description as minutely detailed as a five-minute color film. In "Anna Pavlova" (Dance Index, Mar. 1944) Moore reveals her awareness of the interrelationship of various art forms when she defines Pavlova's performance as "flawless" because "she affectionately informed her technique with poetry." Moore gathered more poems in Like a Bulwark (1956), O to Be a Dragon (1959), and Tell Me, Tell Me (1966) and more prose pieces in Idiosyncrasy and Technique (1959) and Poetry and Criticism (1965).

While Moore was steadily writing during these years, she also emerged as somewhat of a celebrity. Her tricorn hat and black cape became her personal insignia at public events. She liked the shape of such hats, she said, because they concealed the defects of her head, which, she added, resembled that of a hop toad. She was featured in Life magazine, the New York Times, and the New Yorker and acted as an unofficial hostess for the mayor of New York. She was even asked by Ford Motor Company officials to suggest names for a new series of cars. She gamely offered at least nineteen, the worst being "Magigravue," "Pastelogram," and "Turcotingo," and the best perhaps including "Chaparral," "Mongoose Civique," and "Silver Sword." Declining all of her suggestions, Ford chose the name "Edsel." A climax of a sort came for Moore when, though in poor health, she tossed out the baseball to open the 1968 season at Yankee Stadium. She once said she would give much to have invented the admirably intricate stitch pattern of baseballs. Publishing only six poems after the summer of 1968, Moore suffered a series of strokes, was a semi-invalid for nearly two years, and died in her New York City home.

Moore has proved to be an engaging puzzle, not only to critics of her time but to later ones as well. It is seen that her themes broadened to a degree as she matured. In early works she emphasized a need for discipline and heroic behavior. Later she stressed the need for spiritual grace and love. To survive, she hinted, one must be alert, disciplined, and careful. Gradually she moved from scrutinizing one object to comparing several objects. She delighted in whimsically describing characteristics of animals and athletes, seeing both organisms as subjects and exemplars of art. Never dogmatic in propounding her morality, she often distanced herself and remained furtive by attributing declarative dicta to others and by commenting on quotations and even photographs expressing the point of view of others. For these reasons, critics have not yet reached a consensus--is she modern or anachronistic, imagistic or objectivistic? Regardless, Moore tremendously relished her quietly intense, largely bookish, often convivial life, made memorable to a host of friends by her rapid-fire talk. She was superb at her chosen craft. Her expression is notable for deftness and sharpness of detail, linguistic experimentation, and integration of fresh observation and obscure reading. She teases the reader into looking at reality with keener vision, as though, like her, seemingly for the very first time; challenges the reader to accept the relationship of big and little, animate and inanimate, ideal and object; and invites the reader to note, and practice, the power of words. To those who complained that her poetry often seemed obscure, she once replied that something that was work to write ought to be work to read. Her life displayed and her writings expressed the virtues of courage, loyalty, patience, modesty, spontaneity, and steadfastness.

Most of Moore's manuscripts, letters, notebooks, and diaries are in the Rosenbach Foundation in Philadelphia, Pa. Other repositories are the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and the Newberry Library in Chicago, Ill. Collections of her writings are A Marianne Moore Reader (1961), The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967; rev. ed., 1981), and The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia C. Willis (1986); although neither of the last two books is "complete," both are generously representative. Craig Stevens Abbott, Marianne Moore: A Descriptive Bibliography (1977), and his Marianne Moore: A Reference Guide (1987), list, respectively, primary and secondary material. Margaret Holley, The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value (1987), includes a chronology of Moore's published poems, pp. 195-202. The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, ed. Bonnie Costello et al. (1997), reveals much personal information. Charles Molesworth, Marianne Moore: A Literary Life (1990), is an illuminating biography. The following discuss Moore's professional friendships: Celeste Goodridge, Hints and Disguises: Marianne Moore and Her Contemporaries (1989); Joan Feit Diehl, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity (1993); and Robin G. Schulze, The Web of Friendship: Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens (1995). The following analyze Moore's subjects, themes, and techniques: Donald Hall, Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal (1970); Pamela White Hadas, Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection (1977); Taffy Martin, Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist (1986); John M. Slatin, The Savage's Romance: The Poetry of Marianne Moore (1986); Darlene Williams Erickson, Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore (1992); and Linda Leavell, Marianne Moore and the Visual Arts: Prismatic Color (1995). Bernard F. Engel, Marianne Moore, rev. ed. (1989), valuable throughout, is especially admirable in treating Moore's Fables of La Fontaine; Elizabeth Phillips, Marianne Moore (1982), also fine throughout, explicates "An Octopus" especially well. Numerous critical essays on Moore are collected in Charles Tomlinson, ed., Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays (1969); Harold Bloom, ed., Marianne Moore (1987); and Joseph Parisi, ed., Marianne Moore: The Art of a Modernist (1990). An obituary, beginning on the front page and with two photographs, is in the New York Times, 6 Feb. 1972.

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