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Marianne Moore created a new type of verse, yet she denied that she was a poet. what she wrote was called poetry, she said, because there was no other category in which to put it. There are, in fact, no commonly accepted terms for describing the whole of her work and few accurate tags for designating the most radical forms she perfected. The verse received attention from the avant-garde poets and critics who were her contemporaries and from the generation of poets that followed them. she also became well-known, in the later years of her life, as an American eccentric, but her accomplished work baffled many readers. she continues to be more highly regarded than widely read.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Literary Disposition
As a child, Moore’s family experienced frequent changes of fortune and loss. Her mother, Mary Warner, had married john Milton Moore, an engineer and inventor, in 1885, but left him shortly afterwards. Marianne Craig Moore, who was born in 1887 in the house of her maternal grandfather after her parents were separated, never knew her father. After her grandfather died when she was seven, her mother took Marianne and her brother to live in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Living on a small inheritance, the family was often in strained circumstances, and Mary Moore took a job as a teacher of English at Metzger Institute for Girls, at which her daughter had begun preparatory work in 1896. Marianne never married, and, except for the four years that she was a student at Bryn Mawr College, she lived with her mother until her death in 1947.
Moore’s family influenced her literary disposition. Her paternal grandfather, William Moore, was a ”bookish man” who owned a large library. During the last years of life he read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A through Z. He was also the brother of ”Captain Bixby,” the steamboat pilot for whom Samuel Clemens—better known as the author Mark Twain—was an apprentice on the Mississippi River. Moore, who majored in biology and histology at Bryn Mawr, told Donald Hall in a 1961 interview that she was sure laboratory studies affected her poetry: ”Precision, economy of statement, logic employed to ends that are disinterested, drawing and identifying, liberate—at least have some bearing on—the imagination.” She thought seriously of studying medicine.
Fame at Home and Abroad
Upon graduating from Bryn Mawr, Moore took a business course at Carlisle Commercial College in 1909-1910, and went with her mother for the first time to England and Paris in the summer of 1911. Thereafter she taught typing, stenography, bookkeeping, commercial law, and commercial English—and also fixed the typewriters and coached the boys in field sports—at the United States industrial Indian School in Carlisle. Continuing to write, she contributed ten poems to the Bryn Mawr alumnae magazine during the years 1910-1915.
The following year Moore and her mother joined her brother Warner in Chatham, New Jersey, where he had begun his own Presbyterian ministry. Meanwhile Moore’s poems appeared in a variety of ”little magazines.” They were usually short lyrics or appreciations of admired writers and biblical characters. in 1918 Moore and her mother moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where Moore worked at the New York Public Library. She began to acquire literary friends, including William Carlos Williams, Alfred Kreymborg, and Wallace Stevens. She also became a contributor to the Dial, then the most discriminating literary magazine in America.
In 1921 Winifred Ellerman (known as Bryher), an aspiring English novelist, and Hilda Doolittle, an expatriate American poet who wrote under the initials ”H. D.,” printed Moore’s Poems in London. The title of the poem ”The Fish” interestingly runs into the first sentence of the poem. In ”Poetry,” she states her dislike for ”all this fiddle” about poetry, referring to poets as ”literalists of the imagination.”
In 1917, just as the United States entered World War I, Moore’s brother joined the U.S. Navy and went immediately on convoy duty. Moore moved with her mother in 1918 to a basement apartment at St. Luke’s Place in Greenwich Village, where they lived until 1929.
The year 1925 was pivotal for Moore, who moved from the job of checking out books at the library to that of editor of the Dial magazine, where she worked until it ceased publication in July 1929. She remembered later that ”those were days when … things were opening out, not closing in.” The Dial concentrated on the arts and sought to connect high culture with all aspects of national life. The work was, Moore said, ”a revel,” even though she had to contend with the grudges and grievances of contributors. To her discredit, she rejected a section of James Joyce’s ”Work in Progress”—ultimately published as Pinnegans Wake (1939)—but she was generally clear sighted and prescient. The editing helped her to win her first international recognition, and, after the magazine was discontinued, she was able to support herself and her mother by writing verse and independent reviews or occasional essays.
Moore’s zeal for learning, her resoluteness, her continuing lively responses to what pleased or troubled her became a matter of public interest. She knew how to grow old without ceasing to grow. For instance, in 1955 and 1956, when she was approaching seventy, she attended poetry workshops given by W. H. Auden and Louise Bogan. Having won the triple crown of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and Bollingen Prize in Poetry for her Collected Poems (1951), Moore could well have conducted the classes herself. Instead, the doyenne of American poets, as Elizabeth Bishop recounts, ”took notes constantly, asked many questions, and entered into the discussions with enthusiasm.” The other students were timid and nonplussed in the presence of Moore, who said she ”was learning a great deal, things she had never known before.”
At age seventy, in additions to taking poetry classes and tango lessons, she learned to drive a car, although she never owned one. Famous for liking baseball, she was asked to throw out the first ball for the opening day at Yankee Stadium in 1968 and showed up in midseason of 1967 to practice. She enjoyed being a writer, but, asked when she was seventy-two at what point poetry ”had become world-shaking” to her, she replied, ”Never!” Marianne Moore died on February 5, 1972, in New York. Despite ”the obvious credentials of Moore’s chief competitors,” including William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery has said, ”I am tempted to call her our greatest modern poet.”
Works in Literary Context
A variety of sources and modes serves many purposes in Moore’s work. Expressing both religious and aesthetic concepts, her poetry is not without political implications and social criticism. Its moral fervor, furthermore, is inseparable from her close attention to language. Having come of age during the period of modernism when writers, following the example of European artists, were highly experimental, Moore, as she wrote later of Elizabeth Bishop, was ”archaically new.”
Birds as Metaphor
From What Are Years, Moore’s ”He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron”’ showcases Moore’s regard for natural history. She writes about extinct birds—the roe known only from its remains and legend, the flightless moa, the great auk—and the flightless ostrich, exploited, threatened, and nearly extinct. The ostrich—a ”camel-sparrow”—”was and is / a symbol of justice.” The poem fuses observation with interpretations. The sorrow over the plight of an endangered species joins with themes that are essentially religious and political.
Of her four poems published in 1918, the only one Moore chose to include in her later definitive text is ”The Fish.” It seems to signal a turning point in the poet’s development as, in Elizabeth Bishop’s words, ”the world’s greatest living observer” of natural phenomena. Here the ocean is both beautiful and treacherous, a source of life as well as a place of conflict, danger, and destruction. The curious paradox of dying life within the sea, and of the sea dying within what thrives on it, is emphasized in the third and fourth lines of the poem, where a mussel ”keeps / adjusting the ash-heaps.” The sense of life dying (and growing) within the sea, and of the sea aging (and perhaps renewing), hovers over the poem.
Works in Critical Context
James Dickey has written that, if he had to choose a poet to construct heaven ”out of the things we already have,” he would choose Moore. Her heaven, he said, would be ”Much, most probably, like the earth as it is, but refined by responsiveness and intellect into a state very far from the present one; a state of utter consequentiality.” He explained that she ”spent her life in remaking—or making— our world from particulars that we have never adequately understood on our own,” but that the creative person open to experience can ”endow. . . with joyous conjunctions” and reach ”conclusions unforeseeable until they were made.”
Moore’s work, as Bonnie Costello has pointed out, ”does not conform to a strict chronological development.” Each book she brought out not only published or republished earlier poems, sometimes reworked, sometimes resurrected in a revised form from her very early output (as with ”I May, I Must, I Might”), but also included a variety of poems in very different styles and on very different themes. In her books she assembled her verse in groups that represent a variety of modes from different periods regardless of chronology of composition.
The ambitious modesty of these poems, beginning with ”The Fish” and culminating with ”The Monkey Puzzle,” may be lost, as John Ashbery has pointed out, ”in the welter of minutiae” that inhabit some of them. Ashbery also notes an ”unassuming but also rather unglamorous wisdom that flashes out between descriptions of bizarre fauna and rare artifacts” that is also evident in the work that would follow. The small detail and the monumental are held together conditionally and depend on each other. Among the first critics to recognize Moore’s objectives in 1925 was Yvor Winters, who wrote that their basis is ”the transference of the metaphysical into physical terms.” ”I am,” he said, ”sure of her genius.”
- Abbott, Craig S. Marianne Moore: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
- Borroff, Marie. Language and the Poet: Verbal Artistry in Frost, Stevens, and Moore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
- Dickey, James. Babel to Byzantium. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968, pp. 156-164.
- Hall, Donald. Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal. New York: Pegasus, 1970.
- Phillips, Elizabeth. Marianne Moore. New York: Ungar, 1982.
- Tomlinson, Charles, ed. Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
- Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. New York: Random House, 1954, pp. 121-131.
- Ashbery, John. ”Straight Lines Over Rough Terrain.” New York Times Book Review (November 26,1967): 1, 42.
- Elizabeth Bishop. ”Efforts of Affection.” Vanity Fair 4 (June 1983): 44-61.
- Hall, Donald. ”The Art of Poetry IV: Marianne Moore.” Paris Review 7 (Summer/Fall 1961): 41-66.
- –. ”An Interview with Marianne Moore.” McCall’s 93 (December 1965): 74, 182-190.
- Vendler, Helen. ”On Marianne Moore.” The New Yorker 54 (October 16, 1978): 168-193.
- Winters, Yvor. ”Holiday and Day of Wrath.” Poetry 26 (April 1925): 39-44.
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