Greatly beloved yet little understood, highly esteemed yet barely known outside of English departments, Marianne Moore is a poet of paradoxes. She was generous to a fault in answering queries and granting interviews, yet she revealed her deepest feelings to no one. Although she left to posterity an archive that chronicles virtually every week of her life, the archive reveals little about her private thoughts, emotions, fears, and aspirations. She had lifelong, deeply devoted friendships—including those with T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, and other well-known writers—but she never married and apparently never fell in love. "No poet has been so chaste," wrote the critic R. P. Blackmur in 1935. Her literary maiden-aunt persona won many fans in the 1950s and '60s. But for too long since then the perceived chasteness in her art and life has all but dehumanized her in the public imagination.
From the time her poems first received notice, critics were divided on the question of feeling in her work. Mark Van Doren, Louis Untermeyer, and other leading critics of the 1920s called her poetry haughty, needlessly obscure, and devoid of emotion. But all the poet-critics whom we now consider important—T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), William Carlos Williams, and later Wallace Stevens—praised her in superlatives. From 1915, when her poems first attracted their attention, until 1925, when she won the prestigious Dial Award and assumed editorship of The Dial, they thought her the finest poet writing in America. They admired especially the subtlety of feeling in her work and her startling diction. "With Miss Moore a word is a word most," wrote Williams, "when it is separated out by science, treated with acid to remove the smudges, washed, dried, and placed right side up on a clean surface."
The one point upon which both her detractors and admirers agreed is that her readership would never be large. Van Doren placed her among the "insufferable high brows" while Eliot said her poetry was "too good ... to be appreciated anywhere." No one, least of all the poet herself, could have predicted that three decades later, at the age of sixty-two, she would launch a career as a celebrity and public poet. Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Ladies' Home Journal published her poems; McCall's paid her a thousand dollars for an interview. Macmillan and then Viking issued new books of her poems as fast as she could produce them. Her readings on college campuses drew crowds to rival those of Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas. On her eightieth birthday in 1967, she appeared on Today and a few months later on The Tonight Show. She threw out the first pitch to open the 1968 season in Yankee Stadium and was recognized everywhere for her tricorne hat and cape. She was widely hailed as America's most distinguished living poet.
While her new books of the late 1950s and '60s received glowing reviews from poets as diverse as James Dickey and John Ashbery, public life took a toll on her poetry. Instead of spending months on a single poem, as she often did earlier in her career, she wrote quickly and prolifically. She wrote primarily for a listening audience or for a specific publication or event. Ever more fluid and technically proficient, her late poems lose the verve of her earlier work; they charm rather than disarm the reader. The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, published to much fanfare on her eightieth birthday, omitted nearly half the poems she published before 1951 and included virtually all those she published afterward. This far-from-complete collection distorted her oeuvre and framed her reputation for decades to come.
Meanwhile during the 1960s and '70s young people were discovering the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and other consciousness-raising taboo breakers. To readers captivated by such voices, the witty ironies of Marianne Moore came to seem irrelevant and her elderly quirkiness embarrassing. Identity politics in the 1970s called upon women to express raw anger and honest sexuality. Rather than celebrating Moore's success as a woman poet, the new generation of feminists accused her of repressing her sexuality in order to achieve that success.
For more than a decade after her death in 1972, Moore's poetry languished in obscurity. Serious readers never doubted her prominence among America's major modernists, but she became more than ever a poet's poet, unread by all but the elite. As identity politics loosened its grip in the late 1980s and '90s, academics began turning their attention to women poets who did not necessarily fit the post-World War II feminist paradigm. Graduate students were advised to take another look at Marianne Moore. Those who investigated the Moore archives in Philadelphia and who sought out her early poems in rare-book rooms discovered a poet quite different from the media darling who still lingered in the public imagination. Dissertations and monographs about Moore's feminism and her contribution to modernism proliferated.
As more professors began teaching her poetry, anthologies expanded their selections of her work and substituted her early, difficult poems for the later, more accessible ones. In contrast to the anti-Semitism that was taking its toll on the reputations of Pound and Elliot, Moore's politics began to seem remarkably prescient. Her poetry pled for multicultural tolerance and endorsed biodiversity many decades before these issues grabbed our national attention. Her posthumously published Complete Prose and Selected Letters along with new editions of her poems have provided today's readers a more complete view of her achievements than did her Complete Poems. Yet the woman behind those achievements remains as elusive as ever.
"Moore's poems are famously unforthcoming," wrote Brad Leithauser in a 2004 book review, "you can study them for years and derive little sense of her family, friendships, jobs, and littler sense still of the nature of any balked hopes and private losses."
It is not Moore's dearth of feeling but rather its depths, she claimed, that make her poems unaccommodating. "Feeling at its deepest—as we all have reason to know—tends to be inarticulate. If it does manage to be articulate, it is likely to seem overcondensed, so that the author is resisted as being enigmatic or disobliging or arrogant." Yet expressing her feelings in enigmatic, overcondensed poetry became for Marianne Moore a means of survival. From the time she was twenty-three until her mother's death when Marianne was almost sixty, the two women lived together and were rarely apart for even one night. Mary Warner Moore did all of the housekeeping and mostly supported her daughter's literary ambitions. She was the first reader of everything that Marianne wrote, and she served as a trusted assistant during the four years that Marianne edited The Dial. The two were genuinely devoted to each other and enjoyed each other's company—while the mother exacted from her adult daughter the emotional subservience of a young child. Marianne had no place to hide—except in her poems.
Her many poems about obscure, and often armored, animals are both studies in the art of survival and acts of survival themselves. As impersonal and unforthcoming as they might seem, these poems reveal much, I have found, about the poet's interior life. Marianne always defended her mother to outsiders. She told an interviewer in the 1950s that her mother was "the least possessive of beings," yet said in a later interview, without mentioning her mother, that she felt herself to be "a case of arrested emotional development." Her poetry includes many images of confinement, such as "the sea in a chasm, struggling to be / free and unable to be." And it rails against greed, tyranny, egotism, and all forms of possessiveness. Her heroes are nocturnal, unassuming, solitary creatures. They survive by fortitude and nonviolent resistance.
As constraining as Mary's love was, Marianne found in that love the artistic space she needed. As she wrote about the eggs of an obsessive mother in "The Paper Nautilus," she was "hindered to succeed." Not only did she insist to her friends that living with her mother provided the ideal environment in which to work, she proved it. With literally no "room of her own," she wrote poetry that stands at the forefront of American modernism.
Living within the narrow confines of her mother's love, Marianne Moore came to identify with the oppressed and marginalized. She valued individual freedom and autonomy above all else and knew from experience the difficulty of achieving them. "Politically I cannot contemplate anything but freedom for all races and persons," she wrote. Sweeping generalizations of any kind were for her a form of tyranny, and she repeatedly warned against typecasting or lazy first impressions. Those who make the effort to be precise and to recognize nuances of individuality she praised as heroes. The cry for freedom in her domestic life becomes in her poetry a political imperative.
I knew Marianne Moore's name before I knew that of almost any other poet. The eighty-year-old celebrity read at the University of Texas when I was thirteen, and two of my friends were driven a hundred miles to hear her. The next time her name caught my attention, I was researching an honors thesis on William Carlos Williams. I learned from his autobiography that he and Moore formed part of the circle of artists who clustered in Greenwich Village tearooms and art galleries during the years before World War I. "We'd have arguments over cubism which would fill an afternoon," recalled Williams. "There was a comparable whipping up of interest in the structure of the poem. It seemed daring to omit capitals at the head of each poetic line. Rhyme went by the board. We were, in short, 'rebels,' and were so treated." That poets, painters, sculptors, and photographers knew one another, launched magazines together, and drew inspiration from one another fascinated me. I wanted to know as much about their world as I possibly could.
Marianne Moore's place in this world was the focus of my research in 1984, when I first investigated her archive at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. I found long, vividly detailed letters about Moore's first visit to Alfred Stieglitz's influential 291 gallery, snippets of conversation from subsequent Village gatherings, and numerous reviews she saved of the famous 1913 Armory Show, which introduced cubism and fauvism to the American public. My findings at the Rosenbach and my growing appreciation for Moore's enigmatic poetry convinced me that she understood the questions posed by moddern art as few writers of the time did and that she responded to those questions in ingenious ways. I began to understand why her better-known contemporaries held her in such awe. This was the subject of my first book, Marianne Moore and the Visual Arts: Prismatic Color.
When Marianne's elder brother, Warner, left home for college in 1904, the Moore family threesome began a voluminous correspondence that would last for most of their lives. While searching in these letters for Moore's encounters with the visual arts, I became enthralled with the family's private language and the complexities of their relationships. They called one another names such as Fangs, Biter, and Baby Fawn, and they used a private vocabulary that often baffled me. The world they shared seemed as idyllic to me as that of The Wind in the Willows, a book all three adults loved. After they read it in 1914, Marianne adopted the character of Rat, the "scribbler of verses," for herself Mary, her mother, became the home-loving Mole, and Warner, the distinguished Mr. Badger. Not only did I recognize in the family letters the verbal wit and playful obscurity of Moore's poetry, but I found myself envious of the family's closeness. The private language and mythology both reinforced their bonds of affection and excluded outsiders. But the more I read, the more I began to sense something lurking in this family idyll that was both less innocent and more interesting.
Contrary to the common perception that Moore led a chaste and cloistered life—a view she tried to foster—these letters reveal a family dynamic that was both familiar to me and strange. The value the Moores placed upon education and their high moral purpose were familiar. But not the animal names, the subterfuge, and the extraordinary agility with words—nor the absent father, the lesbian mother, the feminist upbringing, and the fierce opposition to most heterosexual unions. "Sometimes I think 'If I could just present [Thomas] Hardy with our life story,'" Marianne's mother once mused, "'he might have a ready-made story needing no adjustings or additions.' " I found a drama in these letters quite different from the narrative of Moore's first biography, which focused on the "external facts" of her life.
The first few weeks of a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on literary biography (conducted by N. John Hall at the CUNY Graduate Center in 1998) convinced me to attempt a biography of Moore. But knowing that her family had denied the previous biographer permission to quote from her archive, I did not want to proceed if they would stand in my way. I was advised to write to Marianne Craig Moore, the poet's niece and literary executor, and request a meeting. She called me immediately upon receiving my letter and offered to come to New York with her sister Sallie the following week. To my great surprise, they told me over lunch that they had been looking for a biographer and had been waiting for the right person to step forward. I had hoped for cooperation at best and found myself interviewing for my dream job.
In the course of our three-hour conversation, I warned them that the Marianne Moore who emerged from my pages might not resemble the aunt they knew. Sallie Moore nodded appreciatively and told me she hoped I would bring imagination as well as scholarship to the task. On the basis of my first book and our meeting that day, I was granted the full support of the estate. The Moores made it clear that they wanted me to have the freedom to tell my story as I pleased. The whole family has been remarkably magnanimous ever since, even when my findings surprised them and contradicted what they had always believed to be true. I was shown documents that no one outside the family had seen. These documents, especially a large cache of letters about Moore's father, filled a major gap in her history.
The great majority of my conclusions, however, are drawn from archives that have been available to scholars since the poet's death in 1972. I knew when I began the project that my greatest challenge as Moore's biographer was not accumulating the facts—though that would take time—so much as gleaning from the abundance of facts a compelling story. But eight years and six hundred draft pages into the project, I realized that while I had come to know Mary and Warner rather well, I still knew little about Marianne. She was the least engaging character in the family drama I was piecing together. Why did she stay with her mother rather than making the break into adulthood as Warner did? And why did she appear to share her mother's genteel pieties at the same time that she joined a group of artists whose sole purpose was to overthrow them? Most important, where out of the profusion of words that make up her archive—some thirty-five thousand letters as well as manuscripts, notebooks, and photographs—could I find answers to these questions?
I was not much better off than the biographers who begin with a paucity of facts, I realized, and would have to pay close attention, as they do, to circumstantial evidence. Marianne remained angry for three years after Warner announced his intention to marry Constance Eustis, an intelligent and spirited young woman. But she shared her feelings with no one. To Mary she presented only a "little narrow white face with a monk-like severity." To Warner she wrote brief, newsy letters. The long, playful letters she was not writing revealed more about her feelings than the letters she wrote. While learning to read my subject's silences, I cut my draft by nearly half and rewrote the book. The best record of her inner life, I discovered, was in her poems.
Although Moore's poetry does not invite biographical interpretation, it does offer excellent advice to the biographer. As an expert herself in assembling facts and quotations, she taught me the difference between "relentless accuracy"—which demands hard work, imagination, and respect for human dignity—and what she called "the haggish, uncompanionable drawl of certitude."
Marianne Moore stands with Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, her famous protégée, as one of America's greatest women poets. And she stands alongside Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams as one of our great modernists. She deserves to be more widely known, if for no other reason, because her work epitomized what other modernists aspired to. Eliot and Williams found little to like in each other's work and yet both nearly idolized Moore's. She did not just break with the past but responded in imaginative ways to the questions modernism posed.
Like the iridescent surfaces and shifting perspectives to which she was drawn, her poetry can seem puritanical to one reader and postmodern to another. And while she often took political positions that are labeled conservative, she was arguably the most liberal-minded of the modernists. She herself eschewed such labels and asked her readers to do so. With distinctive phrases such as "certain Ming products" and "miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi," she undercuts aesthetic hierarchies and reveals the poetry in America's "business documents and school-books." With her startling precision and unsettling wit, she invites us to view the world with what she regards as a characteristically American mind, one that is "incapable of a shut door in any direction."
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About the Author
Linda Leavell has been studying Marianne Moore's life and work for nearly three decades. Among her previous publications is the award-winning critical study Marianne Moore and the Visual Arts: Prismatic Color. She lives with her husband in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
Farrar, Straus and Giroux