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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Marianne Moore

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.

During 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 Prize.

Even 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 charming.

Part 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.

Moore 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
England (1921)
Poetry (1921)
To a Chameleon (1921)
An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish (1924)
The Pangolin (1936)
What Are Years? (1941)
Nevertheless (1944)
The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing (1944)

Other Works
Poems (1921)
Observations (1924)
Selected Poems (1935)
The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936)
Collected Poems (1951)
The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967)
The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (1989)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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