Saturday, November 15, 2014

Marianne Moore—Mischievous Mistress of Modern Poetry

Marianne Moore as a youthful teacher.

Today is the birthday of one of the most important and creative of 20th Century American poets.  Marianne Moore was born in the St. Louis suburb Kirkwood, Missouri on November 15, 1887.  Her engineer father suffered a nervous breakdown before her birth and was confined to a mental hospital.  Moore never met him.  Her mother, with whom she was virtually inseparable over her life time, brought Moore and her brother into the home of her father, a Presbyterian minister.  It was a close and supportive family environment.  When her grandfather died in 1894, her mother moved the family to Pennsylvania.  But a significant part of Moore remained rooted in that parsonage.  She remained a devout Presbyterian and a loyal Republican her entire life.

The family settled in Carlisle where Moore attended high school at the Metzger Institute, now part of Dickinson College.  In 1905 she entered the prestigious near-by Seven Sisters women’s college Bryn Mawr.  She published her first poetry in the school’s literary magazine.  She credited her love of the biology laboratory with enhancing her attention to detail in description and a fascination with animals, who would become one of her regular subjects. 

After graduation in 1909 Moore attended a local business school to learn stenography, bookkeeping, and other office skills.  From 1911-1915 she taught business classes at the U.S. Industrial Indian School at Carlisle, where she was an admired and respected instructor.  One of her students was the fabulous athlete Jim Thorpe who triggered her life-long admiration for athletes, who also became frequent subjects for her poetry.

In her spare time, Moore was avidly reading the most advanced avant-garde poets—the Imagists whose work she admired and internalized.  By 1915 her poems were appearing in the most important magazines of modern poetry—the Egoist in London edited by Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry, and in Others, edited by Alfred Kreymborg.  Many of these poems were observations on other poets and writers including the Palmist King David, Robert Browning, George Bernard Shaw, William Blake, and George Moore.

After concluding the school year at Carlisle, Moore and her mother moved to New Jersey in 1915 to keep house for her brother, by then a Presbyterian minister himself and a Yale graduate student.  After he enlisted for World War I they moved to New York City, largely so that Moore could concentrate on a career as a poet.  The two women lived together until her mother’s death in 1947.  Perhaps because of her dedication to her mother, Moore never married or had a documented serious romance.

But she did not live the life of a recluse.  An expansive, vivacious woman Moore soon had a wide list of friends among the New York literati.  Wallace Stevens, another poet whose outward life as a conventional businessman belied his daring experimentalism as a poet, became a close, lifelong friend.  Others drawn into her orbit included William Carlos Williams.  She was in regular correspondence with H.D., Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot in Britain.  Pound, who took pride in being the center of the Imagist movement and a mentor to many poets, became a special friend.  Moore stood by him personally even when she was revolted by his fascination with Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism and scolded him on his cheap anti-Semitism.  She continued to correspond with him when he was imprisoned for his treasonous World War II propaganda broadcasts and visited him in his later years when he was confined to a Washington, D.C. mental hospital.

To support herself and her mother, Moore took a job with the New York Library.  

Memorialized as in mid-career.

In 1921, without Moore’s knowledge H.D. arranged for the publication of a collection based on poems sent to her for consideration in the Egoist.  Moore was displeased with the book Poems.  She did not approve of the selection and yearned to revise or revisit some of the poems—she regularly revisited earlier work throughout he long career.  None the less, the slender volume helped establish Moore’s reputation as a major poet and led to an expanded and more comprehensive American collection under her own editorship, Observations published in 1924. 

Through the 1920’s Moore published highly regarded poetry in many of the most important magazines.  So esteemed was Moore in poetry circles that she was selected to take over the editorship of the Dial, then the preeminent American literary magazine, in 1925 when its editor Scofield Thayer suffered a nervous breakdown.  She continued to edit that publication and mentor young writers much as her friend Pound had done until the magazine finally folded in 1929.

After the stint as editor, Moore supported herself as a freelance writer, critic and poet.  She and her mother moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but she remained a central part of the city’s literary life.

In 1931 T.S. Eliot wrote the introduction to her next collection, Selected Poems published in 1935.  Despite the popularity of her poems in leading magazines and her receipt of Poetry’s Helen Haire Levinson Prize in 1933, the book was a sales disappointment.

Despite the setback, Moore continued writing.  She regularly re-edited and re-visited earlier work, including her most famous verse, Poetry.  Her work appeared in both literary and popular magazines including the Kenyon Review, the Nation, the New Republic, the Partisan Review, and the New Yorker.  Collections culled from these submissions were regularly published—The Pangolin and Other Verse in 1936, What Are Years? in 1941, and Nevertheless in 1944.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing in 1945 and a $1,000 joint grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, Moore had the leisure to take her friend W.  H. Auden’s suggestion that she undertake a fresh, creative translation of the French fables by Jean de La Fontaine.  The project consumed her energies for some years and shook her self-confidence when it was initially rejected by her publisher.  The book finally was published in 1955.

Despite the set-back, the 1950’s were very good to Moore.  Her 1951 Collected Poems did some collecting of its own—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award in 1952 and the Bollingen Prize in 1953.  The book sold almost 5,000 copies by 1952—a runaway best seller for poetry.   Moore was becoming ever more a public persona in New York, appearing at readings, social events, baseball games, and boxing matches in a dramatic black cape and tri-corn hat.  She became the friend of successive mayors and sometimes served as a hostess at Gracie Mansion events.

In 1955 Ford Motors executives famously asked Moore to suggest name for a new car that they had under development.  Some poets would have been offended at being “commercialized.”  Not Moore, who believed anything could be poetry if the words were true and compelling.  She took the assignment with relish and eventually submitted 11 suggestions including Resilient Bullet, Ford Silver Sword, Mongoose Civique, Varsity Stroke, Pastelogram, Andante con Moto, and Utopian Turtle Top.  Ford was unamused and called the car the Edsel instead.  Maybe it would have sold better as the Utopian Turtle Top.

Moore shown in 1966 in her late life trademark tri-corn hat with her pal Muhammad Ali for whom she wrote the liner notes for his spoken word album of poetry.

Despite her personal conservatism, she remained devoted to bold, experimental poetry and poets like Allen Ginsberg.

Moore was also passionate about sports, particularly boxing and baseball.  She wrote about both in poetry and in essays.  She became a friend and supporter of young Cassius Clay and was delighted to write the jacket notes for his 1963 Columbia spoken word album I Am the Greatest.  One of her most prized possessions, showed off in a place of honor in her New York apartment was a signed baseball given to her by Mickey Mantle.  In 1968 Moore had the thrill of a lifetime when her beloved New York Yankees invited her to throw out the first pitch of the season.

Unfortunately, Moore suffered a stroke shortly after her Yankee Stadium triumph. Confined largely to home, she continued to try to write through a succession of more strokes but complained that, “nearly every word I write is missing the last letter.”  She died on February 5, 1972 at the age of 84.  Her apartment living room was reassembled and can be viewed at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.

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