| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Marianne Moore had a high reputation among American
poets by the 1920s, but was not well known by the reading public until the
1960s. Raised in Kirkwood, Missouri and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, she published
verse in school publications while attending Bryn Mawr College, from which she
graduated in 1909. She continued to write while teaching at the U.S. Indian
School in Carlisle, and working as a secretary, tutor, and assistant librarian
in New York City from 1911 to 1915. Her first professional publications in
England and the United States in 1915 brought her the acclaim of other writers.
She became a close associate of both William Carlos Williams and Wallace
Stevens, and in 1925 was given The Dial magazine award for Observations (1924).
Five consecutive issues of The Dial lauded her work; she soon became editor of
the journal, which was perhaps the best-known American magazine of literature
and art during the 1920s.
her four years with The Dial she published little of her own work, but in the
1930s Moore began again to accumulate awards as critics and other poets lauded
her craftsmanship and precision of observation. Her greatest accolade came from
T. S. Eliot, who in the introduction to her Selected Poems (1935) said she was
one of the few writers who had made a contribution to the language. Moore used
neither neo-metaphysical conceits nor private imagery: yet she remained “a
poet’s poet” until 1952 when, following publication of Collected Poems (1951),
she was given the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Bollingen
after such acclaim, however, her work continued to be regarded as exceedingly
difficult, and was seldom included in the school anthologies which give most
Americans their first acquaintance with the work of poets. But her
three-cornered hat and delightfully idiosyncratic conversation made her a
public “character,” and by the 1960s she was a favorite of Life magazine and
the New York Times. Her being lionized as a celebrity is curiously at odds with
her aesthetic of impersonal and objective values, and it raises questions about
the larger fate of poetry in American culture. Equally questionable is the way
in which such an intelligent and serious poet could be reduced to the
stereotypes of eccentric “genius” and benevolent grandmotherly dottiness.
Meanwhile, she translated from the French The Fables of La Fontaine (1955), a
work she rewrote four times. Classroom recognition finally came after critics
in the 1960s demonstrated that the reader willing to slow down and pay
attention will find her poems one of the most delightful bodies of writing of
our time. Her essays are equally idiosyncratic—one of her favorite words—and
of her reputation for difficulty arose from the seemingly quirky habit in her
early poems of breaking words in the middle at the ends of lines, even though
the lines did not extend to the page margins. This came from adhering strictly
to syllable-counting as the means of determining line lengths. Her stanzas are
typically made up of lines kept parallel in length by this device. Thus the
six-line stanzas in “Abundance” open with three lines of five or six syllables
each; these are followed by two lines of ten or eleven and one of seven or
eight. These metrics support the careful, precise statement of “observation”
that a poem deals with. Another source for the opinion that Moore’s work is
difficult may have been the fact that she was determined to be as relatively
objective as her male peers.
had a strict, at times even prim, sense of moral values. She often found her
values exemplified in animals exotic to the American public; both her animal
lore and other information frequently came from the wide reading that was one
of her principal sources of experience. In her rigorous view, abundance comes
not from a plethora of luxuries but from devotion to duty; fortitude is one of
the primary necessities for survival; and good poetry must make room for the
“genuine.” She took much delight in the well-made, whether the product of human
craftsmanship or a creature of nature such as the chameleon. The best emblems
for her thought and feeling were those that suggested the combination of the
physical, esthetic, and religious grace that she found represented by the pangolin
(the scaly anteater). Perhaps she was on occasion fussy in her endless revising
and fondness for exact detail. But her “gusto,” frequent tone of delight, play
of humor, fastidious sense of right and wrong, and fascination with the play of
the mind give her work the enduring “enchantment” she sought.
Bernard F. Engel|
Michigan State University
In the Heath Anthology
To a Chameleon
An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish
What Are Years?
The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing
The Pangolin and Other Verse
The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore
The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore
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A Marianne Moore Chronology
From the Modern American Poets site, compiled by Darlene Williams Erickson.
The Academy of American Poets
A biography and several poems by Moore.
Twentieth Century Poetry: Marianne Moore
Short biography and links to other Moore sites.
Bonnie Costello, Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions, 1982
Bonnie Costello (ed.), Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, 1997
Bernard F. Engel, Marianne Moore, 1963, revised 1989
Donald Hall, Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal, 1970
Critanne Miller, Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority, 1995
Charles Molesworth, Marianne Moore, A Literary Life, 1990
George W. Nitchie, Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry, 1969