The Poets Marianne Moore (1887-1972)


About the Poet

Marianne Craig Moore, a notable figure who liked to dress in a black tricorn hat and cape, became one of mid-twentieth-century America's most recognized poets. Readers identified with her rigorous portrayal of ordinary themes, which included baseball, street scenes, common animals, and public issues, notably in "Carnegie Hall: Rescued." Her friendships with poets made her a force in directing modern poetry away from the rigid verse forms of the Victorian era. For her generous mentoring, William Carlos Williams referred to Moore as a female stele supporting the efforts of her peers.

Moore was born November 15, 1887, in Kirkwood, Missouri, near St. Louis to Mary Warner, a teacher, and John Milton Moore, who died in 1894. Moore and her brother, John, grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her mother taught English at the Metzger Institute to support the trio. In 1909, Moore completed her education in biology and history at Bryn Mawr, where she edited and published fiction and verse in the college literary journal, Tipyn o'Bob.

A tour of England and France provided Moore with inspiration from art and architecture she found at museums and Victor Hugo's residence. To support a publishing career, she completed a year's business training at Carlisle Commercial College. She taught math, typing, commercial law, and shorthand at Carlisle's U.S. Industrial Indian School for four and a half years while publishing "Pouters and Fantails" in Poetry, "To a Man Working His Way Through the Crowd" and "Poetry" in Others, and "To the Soul of Progress" in The Egoist. Her tentative literary beginnings earned the support of poets H. D., Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams.

After moving with her mother to Chatham, New Jersey, then to Greenwich Village, New York, Moore tutored privately while working part-time as assistant librarian at the Hudson Park Public Library from 1918 to 1925. During this era, she established literary friendships with Robert McAlmon and Winifred Ellerman, who published a Moore collection, Poems (1921), in London without her knowledge. A well-received beginning, Poems was issued in the United States as Observations (1924), winning an award from The Dial, which Moore edited from 1925 to 1929. Additional submissions to The Egoist established her reputation for imagist modern poetry. She ceased writing for three years, then earned the 1932 Helen Haire Levinson Prize and the 1935 Ernest Hartsock Memorial Prize for Selected Poems (1935).

Moore's friendships with poets Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens placed her at the heart of the era's literary achievement, which color her essays later collected in Pedilections (1955), an examination of the artistry of poets Ezra Pound and Louise Bogan and dancer Anna Pavlova. In the introduction to Selected Poems, T. S. Eliot epitomized Moore's writing as durable and continued to laud and promote her verse for thirty years. She maintained a steady output with The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936), What Are Years (1941), and Nevertheless (1944), her most emotionally charged anthology.

Following the death of her mother in 1947, Moore worked for seven years translating the fables of Jean de La Fontaine. A significant addition in her canon, Collected Poems (1951), won a National Book award, Bollingen Prize, and Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She issued five more volumes — Like a Bulwark (1956), O To Be a Dragon (1959), The Arctic Ox (1964), Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite Steel, and Other Topics (1966), and A Marianne Moore Reader (1961), a compendium of poetry, prose, and an interview — and concluded her verse contributions at age 81 with The Complete Poems (1967). In addition, in 1962, she produced a stage version of Maria Edgeworth's The Absentee and revised Charles Perrault's fairy tales (1963).

Moore died on February 5, 1972, at her Brooklyn home, and was memorialized at the nearby Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Chief Works

Moore's critical essay in verse, "Poetry" (1921), plays the devil's advocate by forcing the art to prove itself. Composed in her fastidious "if . . . then" style, the poem names types of response: "Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must . . ."

In line 18, she reaches a pivotal point in the discrimination between poetry and prose with the declaration that "One must make a distinction." Like a punctilious grammar teacher, she calls for "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," an image freighted with her expectations of "raw material" that she labels "genuine."

With the graceless pedantry of a schoolmarm, Moore pursues a clear definition of nationality in "England" (1921). In line 26, she halts differentiation between English and French style or Greek from American to pose a rhetorical question: "Why should continents of misapprehension / have to be accounted for by the fact?" As though chastising the slipshod student, she concludes, "To have misapprehended the matter is to have confessed that one has not looked far enough." With crisp geometric finality, she winds down her argument against comparisons with incontrovertibility of logic: "It has never been confined to one locality."

Curiously devoid of humanity, "A Grave" (1924) offers a naturalistic view of the sea as a repository of lost objects and the dead. Moore pictures the "well excavated grave" flanked by firs standing appropriately at attention, "reserved in their contours, saying nothing," like well-disciplined ushers. She pictures the drowned corpse as unheeding to scavenging fish and unintrusive on sailors, who row on the surface with no thought to the skeletal remains below.

The second half of the poem plays with a flexible analogy — the water-spider shape of a boat propelled by oars as seen from under water. The seriality of motion parallels waves rustling the seaweed, but in no way inhibits the sea bird overhead that scouts the scene at water level. The advance of the tide is significant to the combined movement of shore life "as usual," sweeping over the restless turnings of objects below. Moore enlarges meaning in the choice of "breathlessly," a reminder of drowning, and "rustle," a suggestion that the sea carries off its conquests like a rustler stealing livestock.

"The Mind Is an Enchanted Thing" (1944), a masterwork of deliberation and diction, pursues a similarly minute definition by following human sense perceptions over explicit stimuli — a "katydid-wing," kiwi, piano performance, and gyroscope. Mimicking a question in line 1, the poem moves over examples of meticulous mental analysis to arrive at a conclusion in line 13: "It has memory's ear / that can hear without / having to hear."

The ability of the brain to replicate stored sounds, smells, and images bemuses the poet-speaker, who describes the power as "strong enchantment." In the last three stanzas, the puzzle of intricate patterns leads Moore to conclude that memory delights in "conscientious inconsistency." Unlike the heart, which veils itself in self-willed mist, the mind dismantles dejection, the eye-to-the-ground state introduced in line 12. By accepting variant patterns as "unconfusion," the mind opens itself to an unlimited number of interpretations.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Summarize the milieu of Mountain Rainier as depicted in Moore's ode "An Octopus."

2. Analyze several of Moore's verse fables — for example, "His Shield," "The Fish," and translations from la Fontaine.

3. Using "To a Snail," "Silence," "No Swan So Fine," "The Jerboa," "O To Be a Dragon," or "The Paper Nautilus," locate examples of what Moore calls "the genuine."

4. Contrast Moore's scientific eye for detail with that of poet A. R. Ammons.

5. Discuss the role of memory in Moore's poetry.

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