Moore, Marianne (1887–1972)

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Moore, Marianne (1887–1972)

American poet, editor, and scholar who was a shaping force in the American Modernist tradition. Born Marianne Craig Moore on November 15, 1887, in Kirkwood, Missouri; died in New York on February 5, 1972; daughter of John Milton Moore and Mare (Warner) Moore (an English teacher); attended the Metzger Institute, Pennsylvania; Bryn Mawr College, B.A., 1909; graduated from Carlisle Commercial College, 1910; never married; no children.

Lived with her mother, brother, and maternal grandfather until she was seven; moved after grandfather's death to Carlisle, Pennsylvania (1894), where Mary Moore began work as a teacher; submitted poems to college literary magazine, Tipyn o'Bob (1907–10); cultivated an interest in 17th-century prose writers who remained influences on her work; traveled abroad (summer 1911); taught and coached at the U.S. Indian School in Carlisle (1911–15); first poem, a satire on war, appeared in the Egoist; other poems published in Poetry the same year (1915); work reviewed in Egoist by H.D., a Bryn Mawr classmate (1916); began keeping a notebook that became a storehouse of ideas for poems (1916); moved with her mother to New York City (1918); worked as private tutor, secretary, and assistant in the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library; became part of a circle that included Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and others; became acting editor of the Dial, influential literary magazine (1925–29); moved with her mother from Greenwich Village to Brooklyn (1929), where she lived for nearly 40 years; became critic and reviewer of works by many of her contemporaries (1920s); met Elizabeth Bishop (1934) and began a correspondence that lasted until her death; began translation of La Fontaine's Fables (1945); nursed her mother through numerous illnesses; Mary Moore died (1947); threw out the first baseball at Yankee Stadium (1968); continued to write and translate until shortly before her death.


Dial Award (1925); Helen Haire Levinson Prize from Poetry (1932); Ernest Hartsock Memorial Prize (1935); Shelley Memorial Award (1940); Guggenheim fellowship (1945); Pulitzer Prize (1951); National Book Award (1951); Bollingen Award (1953); National Medal for Literature (1968); membership in National Institute of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; 16 honorary degrees.

Selected writings:

Poems (1921); Observations (1924); Selected Poems (1935); The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936); What Are Years (1941); Nevertheless (1944); Collected Poems (1951); The Fables of La Fontaine (1954); Predilections (1955); Like a Bulwark (1956); O to Be a Dragon (1959); A Marianne Moore Reader (1961); Tell, Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics (1966); The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967); The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (revised ed., 1981); The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (1986).

In a 1966 interview for Shenandoah, the poet Elizabeth Bishop expressed her discomfort with poetry that seemed complacent in its convictions and praised her friend Marianne Moore for writing poetry without reliance on a single myth or system. In Moore's poems, Bishop said, "a remarkable set of beliefs appears over and over again, a sort of backbone of faith." Bishop's metaphor contrasts myth with an organic structure that supports its body's weight without rigidity, a center constructed of small well-articulated components allowing a range of movements and postures. The metaphor also implies fragility; damage to the backbone has impact on the entire body. Bishop's image attributes all of its qualities—strength, flexibility, and vulnerability—to Moore's poetry. We see the body of work as if it were one of the many posed, agreeable animals found in Moore's work—Peter the cat, "springing about with froglike accuracy," or the jerboa, launching itself "as if on wings, from its matchthin hind legs."

Bishop's description of Moore's work is accurate as well as affectionate and can be of real service to the new reader of Moore's poetry, a sometimes daunting mixture of surprising perceptions, stylistic innovations, and quiet erudition. A committed reader will find the "backbone" and learn to delight in poetry that is both strong and lissome. The poems are rich in precise details, often gathered from careful observation of animals and human artifacts, but even those that seem most detached from human experience may gradually reveal themselves as gently ironic explorations of our shortcomings and follies.

Marianne Moore was born in 1887 in Kirkwood, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis), home of the Reverend John Riddle Warner, her maternal grandfather. Her father John Milton Moore was

institutionalized with mental illness before she was born, and they never met. Moore, her brother John, and their mother Mary Moore lived in Missouri until Marianne was seven years old, when her grandfather died, and then moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Mary Moore found a position teaching English at the Metzger Institute, and Moore was enrolled as a student there. Her first ambition was to be a painter, for which she showed some talent, but when she entered Bryn Mawr College she was leaning toward a concentration in English. Ironically, she was actively discouraged from this field of study, on the basis that her writing was not good enough; she majored in social science and biology instead, but submitted both poetry and short fiction to the college literary magazine. Poetry came to hold particular interest for Moore quite early and remained a focal point. (Although she contributed many important critical essays and reviews to American letters throughout her professional career, writing fiction claimed little of Moore's attention. A piece of fiction begun in 1929 was still unfinished four years later, when she mentioned it to a publisher, and was in fact never completed.)

After graduating from Bryn Mawr (1909) and Carlisle Commercial College (1910), Moore spent four years at the U.S. Indian School in Carlisle, where she taught stenography and bookkeeping and coached outdoor sports. Athletics remained an abiding passion: interviews with Moore in later years were often enlivened by her informed judgments on baseball, especially as played by her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. Like the animals who most charmed her, athletes were "miracles of dexterity."

To explain grace requires a curious hand.

—Marianne Moore, from "The Pangolin"

Moore and her mother spent the summer of 1911 traveling in England and France and then settled back down to live together, as they did until Mary Moore's death. They remained in Carlisle until 1915, a momentous year for Moore. Her first poems were published that year, in the Egoist, Poetry, and Others, and she submitted a manuscript of more than 60 poems to Malory House for a series of works by modern poets. She was unsuccessful in the latter venture, but in 1916, Moore asked H.D. (Hilda Doolittle ) for help in finding a publisher. This manuscript eventually became Poems (1921), submitted by friends, without Moore's knowledge, and published by Egoist Press. The same year saw Moore in New York for a week's visit, a trip that had farreaching consequences, both personal and professional. While there, she met several influential writers and artists, including the photographer Alfred Stieglitz; she also met Guido Bruno, who published four of her poems the following year.

Moore and her mother moved to New York in 1918, after a two-year residence in New Jersey, near her brother. Moore had been eager to make New York her center since her first brief visit, and the change satisfied long-time desires for a real community and a larger scope for her imagination. Her poem "New York" (1921) ends with a comment (quoting Henry James) on the "accessibility of experience" offered by the city. The 1910s and 1920s gave Moore a wide range of new experiences: she worked at a variety of jobs while writing and submitting poems shaped by themes that would engage her attention to the end of her life. Poems like "Poetry" (1919), in which Moore hopes for a future when poets will rise above "insolence and triviality" and make "a place for the genuine," explore claims for what writing can or should accomplish. The same period saw Moore struggling to deal with the effects of war and other challenges of modern life. "The Fish" (1921) describes an underwater scene, swirling around a cliff that is beautiful but devastated by "external marks of abuse." The juxtaposition of life and death closes with a characteristically cool but pointed conclusion. The chasm-side is both dead and eternal; "the sea grows old in it." Although the poem remains firmly placed underwater, the ominous images imply metaphorical connections to the world of human experience. Such oblique connections between the natural and the human realm are quite common to Moore's work.

Observations, published in 1925, confirmed impressions left by Poems (1921) that American poetry had something new in Moore's work. The poems were typically Modernist in many ways—clearly influenced by Imagist and French Symbolist forerunners—but certain stylistic elements were uniquely Moore's. The poems were composed of long sentences, owing much to prose styles, but chopped and arranged in lines of varying length. The form of a typical poem looks random at first: careful analysis reveals a tight construction utilizing both rhyme and meter. Unlike most metrical poetry in English, Moore's is composed on the basis of the number of syllables in a line, rather than on a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. She was influenced by French verse in this regard. Like the earlier volume, Observations included a number of poems written to or about favorite animals. She was particularly fond of animals with quirky habits of characteristics. Metaphorical comparisons and contrasts between animals and humans animate many of Moore's poems, but such connections are rarely direct and never cruel.

During the 1920s, Moore began a second career as critic and reviewer. Many of the prose pieces appeared in the Dial. Her comments on work by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, and other influential writers make interesting reading and remain helpful even now. She turned her critical talents to good use as the acting and then permanent editor of the Dial (1925–29), where she remained until its demise. Moore and her mother moved from Greenwich Village to Brooklyn when the Dial ceased publication. Her editorship of the magazine coincided with a brief hiatus (1925–32) when Moore published no poems of her own.

Selected Poems came out in 1935, closely followed by The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936). These books further explore territory mapped out in earlier work. They contain some of Moore's finest poems and continue her experiments with free verse, the shape of the line, and her idiosyncratic use of quotations (always scrupulously punctuated and attributed to their sources), mostly prose passages drawn from her reading in various disciplines. Moore met Elizabeth Bishop in 1934, an occasion that fostered an important friendship and one of the most fruitful professional partnerships of the century. Wide-ranging correspondence between the two encouraged each to keep working; Moore's interest in rhyme was bolstered by Bishop's ingenuity in her own work.

During the 1940s and subsequent years, Moore produced fewer poems, and many critics see a decrease in the quality of her work, as well. She published What Are Years (1941) and Nevertheless (1944) and then no more poetry until Like a Bulwark (1956). Personal hardship accounted in part for the slow-down; her mother, long in frail health, began a serious decline in the 1940s and died in 1947. Moore's own health was precarious, and nursing her mother certainly took a great deal of heart and energy that might otherwise have gone into her writing. The project that tided Moore over during these years was a piece of translation that W.H. Auden asked her to take on. She began working on La Fontaine's Fables in 1945 and published the completed translation in 1954. During the 1950s, she translated shorter works and wrote a play. Predilections, a collection of her prose pieces, was published in 1955. Moore's last two books of poetry, O to Be a Dragon (1959) and Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics (1966), were of uneven quality.

From the 1960s on, Moore was probably more famous as a lovable eccentric than as a poet. At some point in middle age, she had begun wearing a black cape and tricorn hat that became her trademarks. Her love of baseball and her loyalty to the Brooklyn Dodgers endeared her to many who would not otherwise have known her. In one well-publicized episode in her public life, in 1955 Moore had been asked to suggest names for the car eventually called the Edsel. Her list, not surprisingly, contained a number of names of animals, chosen for their most agreeable or impressive qualities. Nevertheless, Moore's poetry and her critical acumen have established her as one of the central figures of the Modernist era. Her work is precise and difficult, although hardly impenetrable. Very few poems are about the speaker's experience in any direct way. They tend instead to look at human and natural worlds from a slight distance, employing precision and restraint in description, offering clear-eyed criticism and compassion in roughly equal measures. Moore's affection for creatures of all kinds is central to her work. Intellectual but not stuffy, the poetry and prose consider problems of experience, the predations of time, the chaos at the core of modern life, in ways that are both realistic and hopeful.


Brown, Ashley. "An Interview with Elizabeth Bishop," in Shenandoah. Vol. 17. Winter 1966, pp. 3–19.

Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989.

Moore, Marianne. The Complete Poems. NY: Viking Press, 1981.

suggested reading:

Engel, Bernard F. Marianne Moore. NY: Twayne, 1989.

Hall, Donald. Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal. NY: Western, 1970.

Jarrell, Randall. "Her Shield," in Poetry and the Age. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.

Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. NY: Atheneum, 1990.

Monroe, Harriet . "A Symposium on Marianne Moore," in Poetry. Vol. 19, 1922, pp. 208–216.

Ostriker, Alicia. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1986.


Correspondence and other papers located at Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia; Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

Mary M. Lacey , Assistant Professor of English, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana