Biography of Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972)
Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, highly esteemed by her fellow colleagues. Moore’s often-quoted advice in ‘Poetry’ was that poets should present for inspection “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”. Characteristic for her works is cryptic zigzag logic, eccentric rhythms, and ironic wit. Her best-known poems feature animals and are written in precise, clear language. Moore was a friend to many of the greatest artists and writers of the 20th century, such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, and Allen Ginsberg.
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
(from ‘Poetry’, 1921)
Marianne Moore was born near St. Louis, Missouri, as the daughter of
an engineer-inventor. Moore was brought up with her brother in the home of her grandfather, the Reverend John R. Warner, the pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church. Her father, John Milton Moore, suffered a mental breakdown before Moore’s birth and
was committed to a psychiatric hospital; she never met him. In 1896 the family moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Moore’s mother, Mary Warner, worked as a teacher at the Metzger Institute, a private girls’s school.
“The passion for setting people right is in itself an afflictive disease. Distaste which takes no credit to itself is best.”
Moore was not an outstanding student at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, but she was popular, active in the social life, and contributed to the student literary magazine, the Tipyn O’Bob or Tip. Among her friends were Peggy James, daughter of psychologist William James, and Frances Browne, with whom she traveled to Europe in the 1960s. During her college years Moore considered herself primarily as a writer of prose. Her first odes and sonnets she had composed already at the age of seven. Moore graduated in 1909 with a degree in biology and histology. She taught typing and bookkeeping for four years at the U.S. Industrial Indian School in Carlisle. In 1911 she spent a summer in England and France. Her first poems appeared in The Egoist, an English periodical, and Alfred Kreymborg’s Others in 1915. In Greenwich Village at Kreymborg’s apartment she met such young avant-garde poets as Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. After living for some years to Cheltenham, New Jersey, with her mother, she returned in 1918 to New York City, again with her mother. From 1919 she devoted herself to writing, working initially as a secretary, private tutor and library assistant at the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library.
Moore’s first book, POEMS, appeared in London in 1921, when she was 34. It was published without her knowledge by two of her friends, Hilda Doolittle and Robert McAlmon. Poems was followed by MARRIAGE (1923) and OBSERVATIONS (1924), which won the Dial Award for “distinguished service to American letters”. T.S. Eliot noted her work early and wrote in 1923: “I can only think of five contemporary poets – English, Irish, French and German – whose works excite me as much or more than Miss Moore’s.” These works contain some of her best-known poems, including ‘To Steam Roller’, ‘The Fish’, ‘When I Buy Pictures’, ‘Peter’, ‘The Labors of Hercules’ and ‘Poetry’. In Observations Moore brought to her verse the rhythm of prose; she also avoided the rhyme in about half of its poems.
In 1925 she became an acting editor of The Dial, an influential American journal of literature and arts, where she worked until the journal was discontinued in 1929 for financial reasons. During these years she published texts from such writers as Paul Valery, T.S. Eliot, who admired her language, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and Ortega y Gasset. The closing down of Dial was a severe blow to Moore’s career as a critic, although he continued to publish essays on diverse subjects. Moore’s SELECTED POEMS (1935) was highly praised by Eliot, who wrote in the Introduction: “My conviction, for what it is worth, had remained unchanged for the last fourteen years: that Miss Moore’s poems form part of the small body of durable poetry written in our time.”
As several other writers in her time, Moore was interested in
the creative process and the relation between expression and real
things. In one poem she stated:
“If eternal action if effete
and rhyme is outmoded,
I shall revert to you
Habbakkuk, as on a recent occasion I was goaded
into doing by XY, who was speaking of unrhymed
Moore’s poetry is marked by an unconventional but disciplined
use of metrics. Her poems have been compared to Picasso’s cubist portraits – she moved swiftly from image to image. Sometimes she used pseudo-scholarly language or referred to art history, music, and to current affairs:
“Dürer would have seen a reason for living
in a town like this, with eight stranded whales
to look at; with the sweet sea air coming into your house
on a fine day, from water etched
with waves as formal as the scales
on a fish.”
(from ‘The Steeple-Jack, 1935)
Among her favorite subjects are exotic animals, which she also described in the essay ‘What There is to See at the Zoo’ (1987).
“The zoo shows us that privacy is a fundamental need of all animals. For considerable periods, animals in the zoo will remain out of sight in the quiet of their dens or houses. Glass, recently installed in certain parts of the snake house at the Bronx Zoo makes it possible to see from the outside, but not out from the inside.”
World War II deepened Moore’s personal world view which was fundamentally religious in nature – she was a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church. In the foreword to A MARIANNE MOORE READER (1961) she wrote: “My favorite poem? asked not too aggressively – perhaps recalling that Henry James could not name his ‘favorite letter of the alphabet or wave of the sea.’ The Book of Job, I have sometimes thought…” Acceptance of the human lot is seen in her collection WHAT ARE YEARS? (1941). Her tragic identification with the world of pain reflected from NEVERTHELESS (1944). Her mother, who died in 1947, appears to have been Moore’s closest friend, and her death affected her deeply. Collected poems Moore dedicated to her mother. She also kept a notebook of her mother’s sayings, and regarded her as almost a collaborator, especially with the translation of The Fables of La Fontaine.
Moore’s later books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning COLLECTED POEMS (1951), which was also awarded the National Book Award (1952) and the Bollingen Prize in 1953, PREDILECTIONS (1955), a volume of critical papers, and IDIOSYNCRASY AND TECHNIQUE: TWO LECTURES (1958). Moore’s influence is seen in such writers as Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarell, Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell. When the aspiring young poet Sylvia Plath met her in 1955, she saw Moore as “someone’s fairy godmother incognito.” Marianne Moore was a prolific letter-writer – producing sometimes up to 50 letters a day. She died in New York City on February 5, 1972.
Biography By: Petri Liukkonen