Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was an American poet, editor, reviewer, and translator. Her poetry is an innovative mixture of common and exotic things and creatures, forthright and imaginatively playful.
Marianne Moore was one of the most interesting poets writing in English in the 20th century. It is impossible to compare her with other poets, because she was so special—a fabler whose animals remain animals, a baseball fan, and a praiser of museum rarities, office furniture, scientists, and biblical characters. Her poetry embodies precise observation and language, syllabic meter and light rhyme, the flow of cultivated American talk, and unique forms. Her experimental method, however, served traditional values, for Moore was a moralist, aware herself that she was sometimes too didactic.
Marianne Moore was born near St. Louis, Mo., on Nov. 15, 1887, in her maternal grandfather's Presbyterian parsonage. Her mother was living there with her brother, after her father's nervous breakdown. When Moore's grandfather died in 1894, her mother and the two children stayed temporarily with relatives. In 1896 they moved to Carlisle, Pa., where Moore's mother taught at Metzger Institute. Moore studied there and for recreation sketched, bicycled, and played tennis. At Bryn Mawr College she majored in social sciences and contributed to the literary magazine. Upon graduation in 1909, she studied typing at Carlisle Commercial College with an eye to journalism, but instead, after a summer in Europe, taught commercial subjects at Carlisle Indian School (1911-1915).
Marianne Moore's poems first appeared publicly in 1915. The following year she and her mother joined her brother in Chatham, N.J., where he had begun his 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. "George Moore" is characteristic in its subject, angular visual form, syllabic meter, and rhyme. It is symmetrical, containing 13 lines, 6 lines leading up to a central 7th, and 6 leading away, duplicating the syllable count and rhymes of the first 6, but in reverse.
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, such as William Carlos Williams, Alfred Kreymborg, and Wallace Stevens. She had also become 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 (H.D.), an expatriate American poet, printed Moore's Poems in London as a friendly surprise. The title of "The Fish" interestingly runs into the first sentence of the poem. "The Fish" also continues her eccentric couplets and hyphenated line ends, light rhyme, and rhymed, syllabic meter. But the volume shows an advancing skill in sustaining a conversational tone and greater confidence in her own taste and experience, as in "When I Buy Pictures," "Picking and Choosing," and "Poetry." In "Poetry" she states her dislike for "all this fiddle" about poetry, referring to poets as "literalists of the imagination."
Marriage (1923), a blank-verse monologue of nearly 300 lines, blends quotations, allusions, and ironies. Observations (1924), which won the annual Dial Award, shows a marked increase in free verse among the new poems, for instance, in "Silence," "Bowls," and "An Octopus." The last, an extended commentary, is set in a glacier-dominated national park rich in lessons of adaptation by native forms of life as well as pinto ponies gone native: "the cavalcade of calico competing/ with the original American menagerie of styles."
In 1925 Moore became acting editor of the Dial and was editor from 1926 until it ceased publication in 1929. That year she resumed her career as poet and reviewer and moved with her mother to Brooklyn to be near her brother, who had been transferred to the navy yard there.
In Selected Poems (1935), Moore renounced free verse. All the new poems in the collection employ rhyme and syllable-count lines. "Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play" is a three-panel poem treating a steeplejack, an aspiring student, and the hero Washington and a dignified Negro guide at Mount Vernon. "The Jereboa" uses an Egyptian desert mouse to contrast defensiveness and the plenty of frugality with luxury and excess. "No Swan So Fine" points an allied moral by means of an art object.
The title poem of The Pangolin and Other Poems (1936) gets at values through an anteater. A cluster of poems about Virginia finds virtues and vices in natural and man-made phenomena; these and some uncollected poems make up What Are Years? (1941). The title poem alludes to World War I, and the volume ends with "The Paper Nautilus," which asserts that love is life's best hope.
Nevertheless (1944) contains "In Distrust of Merit," an eloquent comment on the war and Moore's shame that "I inwardly did nothing." "The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing" is a delightful cascade of imagery and thought in which subject and manner are one.
In 1946 Moore began her long labor of translating La Fontaine's Fables. Her Collected Poems appeared in 1951, and the following year she won a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize. She published her translation of The Fables of La Fontaine in 1954. Like all creative translators, she had entered into the original, and at times one is conscious not so much of La Fontaine as of her wit, language, and imagery.
Predilections (1955), a selection of Moore's reviews and essays, demonstrates that she was one of the best informal critics of her age. As in her verse, her urge is to affirm. Other volumes continued to appear, each introducing or recalling rewarding pieces, in 1956, 1959, 1961, and 1966. The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore appeared in 1967. Marianne Moore died on Feb. 5, 1972, in New York.
Further Reading on Marianne Moore
Most of Marianne Moore's work is listed in Eugene P. Sheehy and Kenneth A. Lohf, The Achievement of Marianne Moore: A Bibliography, 1907-1957 (1958). The only full-length study of her is Bernard F. Engel, Marianne Moore (1964), but she is discussed in most books about 20th-century poetry. A chapter in Lloyd Frankenberg, Pleasure Dome (1949), demonstrates how Moore transforms facts into enchanting free-form poems. Some of her personal and literary concerns touch those of Pound in The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941 (1950). In The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (1951) she appears frequently as friend and fellow craftsman. Roy Harvey Pierce places her historically in The Continuity of American Poetry (1961).
Several generations of poets and critics have responded to Moore's work, and their comments are found in collections of their essays: Yvor Winters, Primitivism and Decadence (1937); Morton D. Zebel, ed., Literary Opinion in America (1951); Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (1951); Richard P. Blackmur, Language as Gesture (1952); and Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age (1953). Critical opinion is contained in Charles Tomlinson, ed., Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays (1970).