Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was born in St, Louis, Missouri. She grew up in her maternal grandfather’s house, where her mother acted as a housekeeper. Moore’s father, an inventor, was committed to an asylum. On his death, Moore moved with her mother to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She attended Bryn Mawr College, where her study of biology contributed to her lifelong interest in animals and admiration of precise, physical description. After taking secretarial courses she taught bookkeeping, stenography and other commercial skills at the US Industrial Indian School in Carlisle. In 1915 Moore began publishing her work professionally, seven poems appearing in the London-based magazine, The Egoist, edited by the American imagist poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), a Bryn Mawr alumnus, who arranged publication of Moore’s first pamphlet of twenty-four poems, simply entitled Poems (1921) – without Moore’s knowledge.

Moore’s poems continued to appear in influential pro-modernist magazines, where her formal innovations, including her use of syllabics and the weaving of quotes from other sources into her poems, found favour with important champions such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Moore was a major Modernist innovator whose idiosyncratic, agile poems have proved as durable as they are delicate.

In 1916 Moore and her mother moved again, first to Chatham, New Jersey to keep house for her brother, and then to Manhattan after he joined the U.S. Navy in 1918. New York remained her home for the rest of her life. Moore’s first full-length collection, Observations (1924), won her the $2,000 poetry prize from The Dial, the leading literary magazine of the period. In 1925 Moore gave up her job at the New York City Library to work as the magazine’s editor, remaining in this role until its demise in 1929. The 1930s were to be a productive decade culminating, in the publication of her first Selected Poems (1935) with a laudatory introduction by T. S. Eliot who wrote “My conviction…[is] that Miss Moore’s poems form part of the small body of durable poetry written in our time…” By now Moore was regarded as a leading modernist poet, though her work’s perceived difficulty meant she remained relatively unknown to a wider readership. In the 1940s she continued publishing fine work and embarked on a painstaking translation of Fontaine’s Fables, her writing life assisted by grants from the Guggenheim and American Academy of Arts and Letters.

However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that she came to wider public attention when her Collected Poems (1951) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and The Bollingen Prize. She also began to appear at social occasions in her trademark black tricorn hat and cape. Ironically for a poet whose work practises a strenuous objectivity, she became something of a celebrity, the eccentric, high-brow poet who also loved baseball and who appeared regularly in magazines such as Life and The New Yorker. Behind the scenes, Moore continued to work hard, though some critics discern a falling-off in her later poetry. In 1968 Moore, though frail, was delighted to toss out the first ball to open the baseball season at the Yankee Stadium. That same year she suffered a series of strokes and died in 1972 in her New York City home.

The best of Moore’s poetry retains its charm and fascination with a combination of linguistic experimentation, sharp-eyed observation and erudite learning. Her unique style is amply displayed in her two Archive poems written at the peak of her career. ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’ demonstrates the way her poetry can leap from glittering detail to abstract moral and back again. This deftness is partly due to her use of syllabics, her favoured form, in which the number of syllables in the line is the organising principle, rather than whether they are stressed or unstressed, as in conventional metre. This means the lines sometimes break in unexpected places, but the technique helps give the poem, and her work in general, its unpredictable quality. Whilst a restless experimenter in terms of aesthetics, Moore’s Puritan inheritance inculcated early in her an admiration for traditional virtues such as loyalty, patience, and steadfastness. ‘What Are Years?’ is a fine lyric celebrating the quality of courage. Moore’s moral concerns are never didactic, however; she explores them through paradox – as in the final stanza here, where the singing bird is both an image of mortality and eternity. Moore’s astringent delight in the world can be heard in both her reading of these poems and in her witty and insightful comments on them.

Poems by Marianne Moore

Armor’s Undermining Modesty - Marianne Moore