Anyone who tries to enjoy American poetry of the last century has his or her hands full. These poets are a fractious bunch, fighting over the few scraps thrown at them by a culture whose patience for carefully crafted language has worn thin. The only thing they seem to agree on is the other group is totally wrong.
It’s academics vs. non-academics, men vs. women, spontaneous vs. endless revisions, crystal clear (a.k.a. simple-minded) vs. murky.
But there’s one poet everyone enjoys: Marianne Moore – even when they don’t understand her. Her life and her poetry had a natural charm. Despite her many eccentricities, including sharing her bed and her meager wages as a librarian and a part-time editor with her strange, schoolmarmish mother, she was always in demand. Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and almost every magazine editor who was anyone lined up to help her get her poems published. Yet she continued to let her mother revise her poems and continued to prefer baseball, museums and circuses to literature.
Literary biographies are by their nature more biography than criticism. Leavell seems to have access to all the available information about Moore and her family so she focuses on telling that story. She doesn’t analyze Moore’s poetry at any great depth. Rather she shows how they fit into her life. There are, however, instances when the author hints at how to understand Moore’s poems better.
“For centuries European artists were taught to make their brushwork invisible in order not to interfere with the view of the painting’s subject. But by the early 20th century, painters had begun to draw attention to their paints, canvases and methods as objects in their own right – thus creating a tension between the subject represented and the medium of representation. Moore created a similar tension between what she would later call the ‘architecture’ of her stanza and its ‘tune.’ ”
The hardest passages to read in most literary biographies are the letters. It’s remarkable how ordinary a genius can be when he or she lets his or her guard down. But the Moores, influenced by “The Wind in the Willows,” invented a wonderful epistolary language. Her brother Warner is “Badger.” Marianne is “Rat” and Mother Mary is “Mole.” Marianne is always referred to as “he” even by herself.
Moore was like many women of her generation: eccentric, not very well off (her mother left her ne’er-do-well husband soon after Marianne’s birth), clannish, tough-minded, and eager to enjoy the fruits of progressive political movements like woman’s suffrage. But she always kept her progressiveness within bounds. Late in her life when Donald Hall arrived to interview her for The Paris Review (fascinating and available on the Internet) she began to put on a Nixon button but decided not to when it didn’t match her dress.
She might have lived a remarkable but underappreciated life except for one thing: her cash-strapped mother was determined that she – like her older brother – would go to an excellent college. Leavell carefully explains what it was like for a woman to go to college then. It wasn’t just male chauvinism that kept them out of higher education. It wasn’t just an oversight. There was a lot of stuff and nonsense about what happened to a woman when she studied too much. They were made for one thing and one thing alone. If they abandoned that path and went to college it was only to be a teacher of young children –as a stern warning to young ladies not to get too much education. Luckily for poetry that view was beginning to be put aside just as Moore came of age.
Though she wasn’t a very good student (she had real problems with dates and numbers) she was diligent and got into Bryn Mawr when it was on the vanguard – not only of female education – but also of education in general.
Bryn Mawr was conveniently located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Moore’s rather diffident nature was able to test the cultural waters of Philadelphia and New York City. Bryn Mawr allowed her to grow and stay eccentric. She met just enough people like the imagist poet H.D. who introduced her to a rich patron of the arts who called herself simply “Bryher” and “a certain Miss Haviland,” who introduced her to Alfred Stieglitz and his studio, 291. How she went from there to living in a tiny apartment in a deteriorating section of Brooklyn for 47 years is a story that takes hundreds of pages to tell. And Leavell does a masterful job telling it.
Pound and the Imagists tried to claim her, but she demurred. Her language was like theirs she granted – filled with things and unsentimental – but unlike theirs she adhered to the rules of meter and rhyme though she often hid it well in her strangely structured stanzas.
Moore was not the first to use syllabic verse in English. (Counting syllables rather than feet is common in French and other Romance languages.) But she was the first to shape these syllabic lines symmetrically by using rhyme schemes, forced indentations and “a flowing continuity.”
She invented found art, later made famous by Rauschenberg and others. She was forever finding objects for her poems in the strangest places: theaters, sports events, and circuses. But she often settled for these things third hand. She seldom went places, preferring to do her research in the libraries where she worked part time.
Then all at once there were rave reviews from the likes of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Eliot wrote about her “dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and … characters.” Pound said she was one of the few writers who could be counted on to “write living English.”
Everyone was trying to help her publish her first book but she resisted and she was right to do so. When that rich friend of H.D’s secretly published a book without her approval, it got bad reviews. “Clumsy.” “No style.” “Lack of inspiration.” Superficial unconventionality.” Eliot was called on to save her with a good review but he had his famous nervous breakdown and wrote “The Waste Land” instead.
“Half poets” (a term from one of her poems) like Edith Sitwell, Louis Untermeyer, Harriet Monroe (an old friend whose nose was out of joint) went for her throat. Even her friend William Carlos Williams stayed on the fence. But Eliot recovered enough to defend her and Wallace Stevens understood exactly how she used syllable count, rhyme and typographical spacing to create brilliant poetry.
But she did take one criticism seriously, that her poetry came too much from the head and not enough from the heart. The passion might not have been worn on her poetry’s sleeve. Readers needed to dig to find it, but it was always there from then on. She valued her mystery and often clothed it in the language of science, which really interested her more than literature.
“She frustrated the intellect by hurling at her readers a barrage of data,” Leavell writes. Her poems are like collages before anyone else writing in English thought of doing that. “Moore’s assemblages defy logic yet captivate the imagination by half revealing and half concealing the mind that put them together.”
Moore was more careful with her second book, “Observations.” She used T.S. Eliot’s suggestion to put the most challenging poems first and thus weed out the weaker readers. She needed to find her real audience. It was a great success and “the clear and dazzling way” Moore wrote about things had an immediate impact on her admirers – among them the young Elizabeth Bishop.
Then Moore got tricked into editing Dial magazine. She lost several years of poetry because, though she was supposed to be working part time, she devoted all her energy to it. But her unrelenting search for “individuality and intensity” changed the course of American poetry.
After World War II American poetry become “more accessible, more personal, and more poetical.” Moore fell out of favor and her influence waned. She had never been very healthy but she still managed to put on a good show when reading. (Her grandfather was famous for his speeches describing the Battle of Gettysburg that his family was unfortunate enough to witness close up and she drew on his spirit while reading.) “Despite her nervous laughter, androgynous figure and reputation for prudishness, her power seemed almost sexual to sexually alert admirers such as … (William Carlos) Williams. ‘Everyone loved her,’ recalled Williams.”
Her famous three-corner hat and her modest residence in Brooklyn and her fondness for the Dodgers kept her in the limelight, though a few elite editors like Howard Moss at The New Yorker chose to reject her poems.
One of her last projects was translating the Fables of La Fontaine. The poet John Ashbery, a bit of a riddle-maker himself, said it did her poetry a world of good. “Forced to avoid digressions and to keep syntax and verbal texture uncluttered, Miss Moore created a style whose tense, electric clarity is unlike anything in poetry except perhaps La Fontaine.”
Many think that after the dust settled and time cast its vote, her friend and protégé, Elizabeth Bishop, emerged as the best poet of the generation after Moore’s. If that opinion holds, it is one more piece of evidence that Moore was at the center of poetry during her time, not on the periphery.
Holding On Upside Down:The Life and Work of Marianne Moore,
By Linda Leavell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
480 pages, $28
William L. Morris is the co-inventor of the News poetry pages. He now lives and writes in Florida.