“Omissions are not accidents.” — poet Marianne Moore

“I disliked the term “poetry” for any but Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s or Dante’s.” — Marianne Moore

T.S. Eliot felt Moore’s poetry was probably the “most durable” of all the greats writing at the time.

Sadly, I have no idea how to recreate what Moore’s poems LOOK like. WordPress irons out her jagged beginning lines. Half of the fun of Moore is what her poems look like on the page. The start of each line is staggered, like little steps, and so the reading of the poem becomes something almost experiential.

Moore was great friends with people like H.D. (more on her here) and Ezra Pound (more on him here) and she had many admirers. Her work as a critic was unfortunately cut short, due to the collapse of the literary journal she wrote for, but you can see her critical mind at work in her poems. She wrote a lot about poetry itself. She had many ideas: she wanted to let images talk to one another through the verse. Perhaps the connecting links were opaque to the readers, but this quality adds to the poems’ power, her poems are puzzles to decipher, they have been compared to Cubist paintings. Poetry is not meant to reveal all. What you leave out is almost as valuable as what you include.

Although the structure of her life was conservative and narrow, Moore was an eccentric. She lived with her mother. She worked at a library. She wore tricorn hats with little veils and fur stoles. She never married. She was hip. An individualist. You don’t break rules just by sleeping with everybody in Greenwich Village. You also break rules by NOT doing that. She was an artistic outlaw. You would never ever mistake her poems for someone else’s. She stands alone. She’s difficult to excerpt. If you pull out a single line, you miss the surrounding context. She wrote a lot of poems about animals. She anthropomorphizes from her deep empathetic observation. She perceived the impulses and objectives igniting in animals’ lives, their lives were as full as a human being’s.

Example from her poem “The Monkeys”:

“I shall not forget him — that Gilgamesh among
the hairy carnivora — that cat with the

wedge-shaped, slate-gray marks on its forelegs and the resolute tail,
astringently remarking, ‘They have imposed on us with their pale
half-fledged protestations, trembling about
in inarticulate frenzy, saying
it is not for us to understand art; finding it
all so difficult, examining the thing

as if it were inconceivably arcanic, as symmet-
rically frigid as if it had been carved out of chrysoprase
or marble — strict with tension, malignant
in its power over us and deeper
than the sea when it proffers flattery in exchange for hemp,
Rye, flax, horses, platinum, timber, and fur.'”

Nobody else used language like Marianne Moore. Her poems are slippery. I try to get “a hold” of them and they escape. I have to really concentrate, in other words. I have to slow down and savor, otherwise I skip off the surface. She used annotations for many of her poems, explaining her references. There are times when you have to know the reference in order to understand. If you’re not willing to do that work. Marianne Moore’s work will be a closed door. Like one of her most famous poems, “Marriage”. The poem is a collage of quotes, references spanning from Shakespeare to newspaper clippings from yesterday. Modernists dealt with detritus, scraps, montage, juxtaposition, found objects, disparate things put together to make sense of a senseless world.

In “The Past is the Present” she has this to say on the act of writing poems:

The occasion and expediency determines the form.

The story of the meeting above is one of my favorite Marianne Moore anecdotes. Full story here. They wrote a poem together:

A Poem on the Annihilation of Ernie Terrell

by Muhammad Ali and Marianne Moore

After we defeat Ernie Terrell
He will get nothing, nothing but hell,
Terrell was big and ugly and tall
But when he fights me he is sure to fall.
If he criticize this poem by me and Miss Moore
To prove he is not the champ she will stop him in four,
He is claiming to be the real heavyweight champ
But when the fight starts he will look like a tramp
He has been talking too much about me and making me sore
After I am through with him he will not be able to challenge Mrs. Moore.

Marianne Moore’s poetry, with its breathless rhythms and counterintuitive juxtapositions, shows the enormity of life does not exist in outward events, but in how we see and receive things, how we make associations. Plenty of people lead interesting lives, filled with scandals and sex and drugs or living in a tent in Tunisia, but all this doesn’t necessarily add up to being a good poet.

Moore was an obsessive baseball fan. The Brooklyn Dodgers her team. Her passion and presence at games was so well-known she was asked to throw out the first pitch in the 1968 World Series.

She went to all the games, a little old lady wearing a black hat with netting over her face, keeping her scorecard up to date. The people around her, who had no idea who she was, would patiently explain to her what was happening on the field. She would then decimate them with an insightful observation about the batting average of so-and-so, and her issues with the effectiveness of the pitcher’s breaking ball, and etc.

Here’s her wonderful poem “Baseball and Writing.”

Baseball and Writing

(Suggested by post-game broadcasts)

Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do;
generating excitement—
a fever in the victim—
pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
Victim in what category?
Owlman watching from the press box?
To whom does it apply?
Who is excited? Might it be I?

It’s a pitcher’s battle all the way—a duel—
a catcher’s, as, with cruel
puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly
back to plate. (His spring
de-winged a bat swing.)
They have that killer instinct;
yet Elston—whose catching
arm has hurt them all with the bat—
when questioned, says, unenviously,
“I’m very satisfied. We won.”
Shorn of the batting crown, says, “We”;
robbed by a technicality.

When three players on a side play three positions
and modify conditions,
the massive run need not be everything.
“Going, going . . . ” Is
it? Roger Maris
has it, running fast. You will
never see a finer catch. Well . . .
“Mickey, leaping like the devil”—why
gild it, although deer sounds better—
snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest,
one-handing the souvenir-to-be
meant to be caught by you or me.

Assign Yogi Berra to Cape Canaveral;
he could handle any missile.
He is no feather. “Strike! . . . Strike two!”
Fouled back. A blur.
It’s gone. You would infer
that the bat had eyes.
He put the wood to that one.
Praised, Skowron says, “Thanks, Mel.
I think I helped a little bit.”
All business, each, and modesty.
Blanchard, Richardson, Kubek, Boyer.
In that galaxy of nine, say which
won the pennant? Each. It was he.

Those two magnificent saves from the knee-throws
by Boyer, finesses in twos—
like Whitey’s three kinds of pitch and pre-
with pick-off psychosis.
Pitching is a large subject.
Your arm, too true at first, can learn to
catch your corners—even trouble
Mickey Mantle. (“Grazed a Yankee!
My baby pitcher, Montejo!”
With some pedagogy,
you’ll be tough, premature prodigy.)

They crowd him and curve him and aim for the knees. Trying
indeed! The secret implying:
“I can stand here, bat held steady.”
One may suit him;
none has hit him.
Imponderables smite him.
Muscle kinks, infections, spike wounds
require food, rest, respite from ruffians. (Drat it!
Celebrity costs privacy!)
Cow’s milk, “tiger’s milk,” soy milk, carrot juice,
brewer’s yeast (high-potency—
concentrates presage victory

sped by Luis Arroyo, Hector Lopez—
deadly in a pinch. And “Yes,
it’s work; I want you to bear down,
but enjoy it
while you’re doing it.”
Mr. Houk and Mr. Sain,
if you have a rummage sale,
don’t sell Roland Sheldon or Tom Tresh.
Studded with stars in belt and crown,
the Stadium is an adastrium.
O flashing Orion,
your stars are muscled like the lion.

She was not just a well-known figure of her era. She was a star. The galleries were packed when she gave readings. People lined up down the block. She didn’t care about current fashions/hobby-horses/political trends. She maintained a friendship with Ezra Pound throughout, even after he was persona non grata. Moore visited him in the mental hospital, wrote to him, spoke about him often. She didn’t get caught up in ideological battles. She remained aloof. People made pilgrimages to her house in Brooklyn. She “picked out” younger poets to mentor, people like Elizabeth Bishop. She inspired awe.

When one is
frank, one’s very
presence is a compliment.
— Marianne Moore, “Peter”

I “got to know her” through her contemporaries, all of whom spoke vividly about meeting her. She looms over the literary landscape for multiple generations like a sui generis monolith. She lived a long life. She was still out and about well into the 1960s.

The Mind is an Enchanted Thing

is an enchanted thing
like the glaze on a
subdivided by sun
till the nettings are legion.
Like Gieseking playing Scarlatti;

like the apteryx-awl
as a beak, or the
kiwi’s rain-shawl
of haired feathers, the mind
feeling its way as though blind,
walks along with its eyes on the ground.
It has memory’s ear
that can hear without
having to hear.
Like the gyroscope’s fall,
truly unequivocal
because trued by regnant certainty,

it is a power of
strong enchantment. It
is like the dove-
neck animated by
sun; it is memory’s eye;
it’s conscientious inconsistency.

It tears off the veil; tears
the temptation, the
mist the heart wears,
from its eyes, — if the heart
has a face; it takes apart
dejection. It’s fire in the dove-neck’s

iridescence; in the
of Scarlatti.
Unconfusion submits
its confusion to proof; it’s
not a Herods oath that cannot change.


In a famous essay of the same name, Marianne Moore said the three qualities she most admires in poets are:

Humility, Concentration, and Gusto.

Robert Lowell:

Terrible, private, and strange revolutionary poetry. There isn’t the motive to do that now.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Poets turn to her now as they always have done to learn about syllabics, about syntax (she is the late Henry James of verse). Her syllabics are straightforward. Instead of the verse being “free” or governed by meter or regular stress patterns, she chooses to build a stanza in which the lines have a predetermined number of syllables. Indentation underlines the parallels. The shape of the stanza indicates the syllabic disposition. With the addition of rhyme, this is one of the most restrictive measures a poet can deploy. It is her chosen measure.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Allusion was Marianne Moore’s method, a method that was her self. One of the most American of all poets, she was fecund in her progeny–Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, and Richard Wilbur being the most gifted among them. Her own American precursors were not Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman–still our two greatest poets–but the much slighter Stephen Crane, who is echoed in her earliest poems, and in an oblique way Edgar Poe, whom she parodied. I suspect that her nearest poetic father, in English, was Thomas Hardy, who seems to have taught her lessons in the mastery of incongruity, and whose secularized version of biblical irony is not far from her own. If we compare her with her major poetic contemporaries–Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Aiken, Random, Cummings, H.D., Hart Crane–she is clearly the most original American poet of her era, though not quite of the eminence of Frost, Stevens and Crane. A curious kind of devotional poet, with some authentic affinities to George Herbert, she reminds us implicitly but constantly that any distinction between sacred and secular poetry is only a shibboleth of cultural politics.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, May 30, 1948:

Oh–Marianne has a very nice, old-fashioned steel-engraving of Burns in the front hall. I admired it; said I hoped sometime to write something about him, & didn’t he look nice. She replied, “But he couldn’t have looked that nice, really, of course.”

T.S. Eliot, 1923, early in Moore’s career:

“I can only think of five contemporary poets – English, Irish, French and German – whose works excite me as much or more than Miss Moore’s.”

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Like the other New York modernists, Moore took seriously the challenge of avant-garde artist to fashion a new relationship to the artistic medium and to the world. Her insistent use of quotation can be seen as a poetic corollary to the synthetic phase of Cubism, in which various media were brought together in pictorial and sculptural conglomerations that radically questioned the relation of part to whole, of representation to reality… In her ambitiously modernist verse, the stanzas sprawl in jagged formations across the page, the syntax tumbles across lines in strict syllabic units, the rhymes burrow in almost undetectably discrete positions, and insistently nominalist descriptions evoke nature’s dense particularity. Like her friend [William Carlos] Williams, Moore was a sharp observer, and upholder, of the physical world; but where Williams’s world is familiar, hers includes not only steamrollers and baseball players but also unusual creatures, such as the anteater called a pangolin and the mollusk called a paper nautilus–animals faithful, like her poems, to their individualizing quirks and idiosyncracies.

Elizabeth Bishop:

“[Marianne Moore]’d call me up and read me something when I was in New York [when she was doing the La Fontaine translations] – I was in Brazil most of that time – and say she needed a rhyme. She said that she admired rhymes and meters very much. It was hard to tell whether she was pulling your leg or not sometimes. She was Celtic enough to be somewhat mysterious about these things.”

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Collage, which is handled as metaphor by Marianne Moore and by the Eliot of The Waste Land, is a much more literal process in Pound, is more scheme than trope, as it were. The allusive triumph over tradition in Moore’s “Marriage” or The Waste Land is fairly problematical, yet nowhere near so dubious as it is in The Cantos.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, December 11, 1964

Marianne’s saying the ballad was my “best” makes me a bit uneasy! I think she likes the message: “Crime does not pay” too well!…Once I wrote an ironic poem about a drunken sailor and a slot-machine–not a success–and the sailor said he was going to throw the machine into the sea, etc., and M congratulated me on being so morally courageous and outspoken.

Poet Peter Jones on “Bird-Witted”:

It appears on analysis to have a ridiculous syllabic scheme: six ten-line stanzas with a firm rhyme scenem (a-b-a-b-c-a-d-e-g-c), the lines of each stanza with, respectively, nine, eight, six, four, seven, three, six, three, seven and four syllables. Yet the poem develops naturally, the form does not brake it.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, June 30, 1948:

I went to dinner with Marianne one night before I left, and then we had a confused day or two when we thought we might travel to Maine together. It is probably just as well that didn’t work out. She showed me quite a bit of the La Fontaine. I just don’t know what to think. It all has a sort of awkwardness & quaintness that’s quite nice–& sounds very much like her, of course; I’m not sure how much like La Fontaine. And Macmillan’s has treated her very badly about the whole thing and after three years work has turned her down. But I think Viking is now interested. She asked me to say grace and I had a minute’s dreadful black-out, then some thing out of the remote Baptist past mercifully came to me in perfect condition–the only trouble was that M liked it very much and made me repeat it until she knew it, too. She is up near Ellsworth now–I had a letter yesterday. Apparently she is having difficulties with her hostesses because they refuse to let her mow the lawn.

Michael Schmidt:

Elizabeth Bishop took her early bearings from Marianne Moore. They met, they corresponded, and Miss Moore’s approbation meant a poem could be let free into the world. For Bishop it was an invaluable apprenticeship, and she kept faith with Moore as long as she could, but her reticences and those of her master were different in kind. There is a clarity that the reader has to work for and a clarity that is, at least initially, less effortful, more enchanting.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, October 25th, 1948

Miss Moore’s poems in the Quarterly and her one in the Nation strike me as clumsy trifles with good touches. With what envy though, one rereads her old good poems! We all (not you) seem such bunglers.

Marianne Moore on Elizabeth Bishop:

Some authors do not muse within themselves; they ‘think’ – like the vegetable-shredder which cuts into the life of a thing. Miss Bishop is not one of these frettingly intensive machines. Yet the rational considering quality in her work is its strength – assisted by unwordiness, uncontorted intentionalness, the flicker of impudence, the natural unforced ending.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

There is something of Blake and of the Christopher Smart of Jubliate Agno in Moore, though the affinity does not result from influence, but rather is the consequence of election. Moore’s famous eye, like that of Bishop after her, is not so much a visual gift as it is visionary, for the bests in her poems are charged with a spiritual intensity that doubtless they possess, but which I myself cannot see without the aid of Blake, Smart, and Moore.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, January 15th, 1948:

I wanted to see the bits of Miss Moore’s notebooks in the 1st–but somehow the editors have managed to ruin them too as much as possible. I don’t think she should have let them use them like that. I cannot abide this adulation of “work in progress” stuff, and that photograph of the “little worn old books”, etc., seems to me a real tear-jerker that should not have been allowed until after Marianne’s death…

Randall Jarrell:

[Her poem’s forms] have the lacy, mathematical extravagance of snowflakes, seem as arbitrary as the prohibitions in fairy tales; but they work as those work–disregard them and everything goes to pieces…Her forms, tricks and all, are like the aria of the Queen of the Night: the intricate and artificial elaboration not only does not conflict with the emotion but as its vehicle.

William Carlos Williams:

As Marianne Moore used to say, a language dogs and cats could understand. So I think she agrees with me fundamentally.

Marianne Moore:

In his book Ezra Pound, Charles Norman was very scrupulous. He got several things exactly right. The first time I met Ezra Pound, when he came here to see my mother and me, I said that Henry Eliot seemed to me more nearly the artist than anyone I had ever met. “Now, now,” said Ezra. “Be careful.” Maybe that isn’t exact, but he quotes it just the way I said it.

T.S. Eliot, preface to Selected Poems (1935):

[Marianne Moore is] one of the few who have done the language some service in my lifetime.

[A Venus redeeming] a nation haunted by Puritanism.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, March 30, 1959:

I didn’t know until about two weeks ago that Marianne had had what they think was a slight stroke. Incredible to relate, it affected her speech for a few days–but she was better the last I heard of. I’d like very much to get back to see her, and Lota and I talk hopefully of next September, but the hope is rather faint.

From the Marianne Moore entry in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Marianne Moore was one of the most original poets of her time, original in her mode of perception, in her kind of poetry, even in the way her stanzas appear on the page. She proceeds by acute, if often indirect, observation, commenting in an impersonal yet distinctive voice. She marvels at the peculiarities of animals and draws inferences from them, sometimes by ironically comparing lower with higher animals, though she may prefer either group… [Her poems] usually rhyme, although finding the rhyme may take some effort.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

“Glory for ashes” might be called Moore’s ethical motto, the basis for the drive of her poetic will toward a reality of her own particulars. Her poetry, as befitted the translator of La Fontaine, and the heir of George Herbert, would be in some danger of dwindling into moral essays, an impossible form for our time, were it not for her wild allusiveness, her zest for quotations, and her essentially anarchic stance, the American and Emersonian insistence upon seeing everything in her own way, with “conscientious inconsistency.”

Marianne Moore:

In Henry James it is the essays and letters especially that affect me. In Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance, his definiteness, his indigenously unmistakable accent. Charles Norman says in his biography of Ezra Pound that he said to a poet, “Nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, under stress of some emotion, actually say.” And Ezra said of Shakespeare and Dante, “Here we are with the masters; of neither can we say, ‘He is the greatest’; of each we must say, ‘He is unexcelled.'”

Elizabeth Bishop:

“‘Insomnia,’ which Marianne Moore said was a cheap love poem … Marianne was very opposed to that one … I don’t think she ever believed in talking about the emotions much.”

Marianne Moore on Ezra Pound:

The Spirit of Romance. I don’t think anybody could read that book and feel that a flounderer was writing … [The early poems] seemed a little didactic, but I liked them.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, September 5, 1956:

I was on a magazine conference held at Harvard this summer and saw Marianne Moore and felt like falling at her feet. She had to sum up the other speakers and spoke of Philip Rahv “looking volumes each time an intention of the Partisan Review was misconstrued.”

Marianne Moore, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, 1956:

Then Harvard’s little magazine Conference at which I throve (useless as I was professionally); cool pleasant weather and such companionable people…R & E Lowell. I do like them–heartfelt, generous, genial, initiate; and so prepossessing! Philip Rahv gave a stern A-One talk on values in use as over against mildewed dictatorial culture. The L’s invited me to a tea that was notable–flowers in a stone dish–a Boston-in-its-glory pair of drawing rooms–large window embrasures and millions of books ascending the walls. William Alfred (?) was an ornament at the conference, so punctual, so learned, so cheerful.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, October 24, 1956:

When I arrived at the 5th Avenue palace Marianne Moore was sprawled like some Boucher goddess in a print dress and black cartwheel hat on the huge marble disc of the huge marble banister. Next to her Louise Bogan looking a little stiff, proud and shocked. We went into the ballroom, a room a mile wide and long with a green carpet, nothing anywhere except a green carpet, little rickety iron chairs hugging the wall, and a green baize-covered lopsided ping pong table. We ordered into the elevator, a matchbox that would only scarcely hold me and Miss Moore… Moore sayings: Some one proposed Padraic Colum. “Well lately he has split apart.” She meant his poetry had. Referring to you, “Poor Elizabeth, she does her best to bear up and rejoice.” To W.C. Williams, “And his is sometimes ASTONISHINGLY RIGHT, sometimes!” To Mr. Warburg, who seemed on the point of proposing a second meeting for a second ballot, “But these meetings are death to me.” Someone said that he didn’t suppose she often undertook the trip in from Brooklyn. Miss Moore: “I am just back from California.” However, she was always small, gracious, mobile, and beautiful. I feel utterly in love with her.

Marianne Moore:

If emotion is strong enough, the words are unambiguous. Someone asked Robert Frost (is that right?) if he was selective. He said, Call it passionate preference. Must a man be good to write good poems? The villains in Shakespeare are not illiterate, are they? But rectitude has a ring that is implicative, I would say. And with no integrity, a man is not likely to write the kind of book I read.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, November 24, 1965:

I just love Marianne. We did a Pound television program together, then she came to dinner with Bob Giroux and Eliot’s widow. The most powerful poet now writing in English.

From the Marianne Moore entry in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

That her verse embraces many characteristics of prose was almost revolutionary, reconstituting the relationship of these two media and attracting to her many poets equally concerned to be matter-of-fact and anti-rhetorical.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, February 15, 1960:

Yes, I saw the montage photograph of you and Marianne–I wonder what surrealist advertising man thought that up! We sent a nice and fearfully rich coffee-grower friend of ours to call on Marianne at Christmas time, and she (the plantation owner) was so overcome by Marianne that she immediately sent her I don’t know how much coffee. It is the best coffee in the world, I know, because we get sent some more once in a while and I suspect that Marianne is giving it to the janitor…Marianne adores jewels–and sure enough, in her letter about the friend she described the huge diamond rings she wears–

Marianne Moore:

I think [William Carlos Williams] wouldn’t make so much of the great American language if he were plausible and tractable. That’s the beauty of it – he is willing to be reckless. If you can’t be that, what’s the point of the whole thing?

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, April 1, 1964

I’ve seen Marianne Moore a couple of times, once introducing Auden very wittily calling him a “fantasist who was also a sage,” and ending with a humorous quote from Auden that all ills of the body were ills of the soul, and “I give you Mr. Auden.” Then later at a small poets party for Vernon Watkins, where for all her fragility she stayed with us 7 hours talking. Her baseball is way over my head.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

These seven poems by themselves have an idiosyncratic splendor that restores my faith, as a critic, in what the language of the poets truly is: diction, or choice of words, playing endlessly upon the dialectic of denotation and connotation, a dialectic that simply vanishes in all Structuralist and post-Structuralist ruminations upon the supposed priority of “language” over meaning.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, May 20, 1948

I read Carley “The Grave,” “The Sweet Dead Whale,” “Silence” and a few others and with the momentum of your stories, more or less converted her. My admirer Flint, who writes me so many letters, wrote me about how Blackmur was all wrong about her–her poems being as personal as they could be. I can’t write essays as letters but this fits my theory on re-reading. All the animals and places are analogies (roughly) of Miss Moore and her art–so I take the Canadian mountain which you got me to really read for the first time [“The Octopus”]. What a massive overwhelming poem it is.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, May 22, 1948

To my great surprise, Marianne has accepted the invitation to have dinner before your readings. When I talked to her the other day she said that she believed on such occasions one should stay severely alone for several hours ahead of time, in order to “freeze the force” properly. Of course I irreverently suggested a shot of Novocain, but anyway, she likes Mr. Tate very much, and she began by refusing & then by imperceptible stages worked herself around into an enthusiastic acceptance. I think it will be very nice.

William Carlos Williams on “Marriage”:

Marriage, through which thought does not penetrate, appeared to Miss Moore a legitimate object for art, an art that would not halt from using thought about it, however, as it might want to. Against marriage, “this institution, perhaps one should say enterprise”–Miss Moore launched her thought not to have it appear arsenaled as in a textbook on psychology, but to stay among apples and giraffes in a poem.

Marianne Moore, preface to A Marianne Moore Reader:

Why an inordinate interest in animals and athletes? They are subjects for art and exemplars of it, are they not? minding their own business. Pangolins, hornbills, pitchers, catchers, do not pry or prey–or prolong the conversation; do not make us self-conscious; look their best when caring least.

Marianne Moore:

If you have a genius of an editor, you are blessed: e.g. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Robert Lowell:

“When I began writing most of the great writers were quite unpopular. They hadn’t reached the universities yet, and their circulation was small … The great period of blowing the lid was the time of Schoenberg and Picasso and Joyce and the early Eliot, where a power came into the arts that we perhaps haven’t had since. These people were all rather traditional, yet they were stifled by what was being done, and they almost wrecked things to do their great works – even rather minor but very good writers such as Williams or Marianne Moore. Their kind of protest and queerness has hardly been repeated. They’re wonderful writers. You wouldn’t see anyone as strange as Marianne Moore again, not for a long while. Conservative and Jamesian as she is, it was a terrible, private, and strange revolutionary poetry. There isn’t the motive to do that now. Yet those were the classics, and it seems to me they were all against the grain. Marianne Moore as much as Crane.”

From the Marianne Moore entry in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Moore shares the anti-ornamental and antisentimental disposition of her contemporaries, but she is less pretentious in manner, more reserved in tone, and more rigorous in engaging seemingly trivial details. She writes with a hard-edged, objectifying precision that confounds traditional categories of gender, as does H.D., and she upholds, like Pound, “direct treatment of the thing” and the exact word (le mot juste).

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

As several critics have ventured, “Marriage” is Moore’s The Waste Land, a mosaic of fragments from Francis Bacon, the Scientific American, Baxter’s The Saint’s Everlasting Rest, Hazlitt on Burke, William Godwin, Trollope, The Tempest, a book on The Syrian Christ, the Bible, Ezra Pound, and even Daniel Webster (from an inscription on a statue!), and twenty sources more. Yet it is a poem, and perhaps is more ruggedly unified than any other poem of such ambition by Moore.

Marianne Moore:

I took a great liking to Hart Crane. We talked about French bindings, and he was diffident and modest and seemed to have so much intuition, such a feel for things, for books – really a bibliophile – that I took special interest in him. And Dr. Watson and Scofield Thayer liked him – felt that he was one of our talents, that he couldn’t fit himself into an IBM position to find a livelihood; that we ought to whenever we could, take anything he sent us.

I know a cousin of his, Joe Nowak, who is rather proud of him. He lives here in Brooklyn, and is at the Dry Dock Savings Bank and used to work in antiques. Joe was very convinced of Hart’s sincerity and his innate love of all that I have specified. Anyhow, The Bridge is a grand theme. Here and there I think he could have firmed it up. A writer is unfair to himself when he is unable to be hard on himself.

Elizabeth Bishop, “A Sentimental Tribute,” Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Spring 1962:

Lately I have heard one or two poets and critics sound upset because they don’t think that the poem about Yul Brynner is as good as, say, The Pangolin. How solemn can one get? Surely by now Miss Moore is entitled to write any old way, any new way, she wants to.

In 1955, Sylvia Plath sent Marianne Moore some poems. Anne Stevenson, in Bitter Fame, described what happened next:

In July, to Sylvia’s surprise and keen distress, Miss Moore sent her in reply what Sylvia saw as “a queerly ambiguous spiteful letter… ‘Don’t be so grisly,'” she commented; “you are too unrelenting.'” And she added “certain pointed remarks about ‘typing being a bugbear.'” Sylvia concluded that Miss Moore was annoyed because she had sent carbon copies instead of fresh top sheets. That seems unlikely. While Marianne Moore usually admired Ted’s work, she never warmed to Sylvia’s, disliking the early traces of the very elements that later were to carry her to fame: macabre doom-laden themes, heavy with disturbing colors and totemlike images of stones, skulls, drownings, snakes, and bottled fetuses — hallmarks of Sylvia’s gift.

Ted Hughes never forgave Moore for this slight, writing a poem about included in Birthday Letters.

A Literary Life, by Ted Hughes

We climbed Marianne Moore’s narrow stair
To her bower-bird bric-a-brac nest, in Brooklyn.
Daintiest curio relic of Americana.
Her talk, a needle
Unresting – darning incessantly
Chain-mail with crewel-work flowers.
Birds and fish of the reef
In phosphor-bronze wire.
Her face, tiny American treen bobbin
On a spindle,
Her voice the flickering hum of the old wheel.
Then the coin, compulsory,
For the subway
Back to our quotidian scramble.
Why shouldn’t we cherish her?

You sent her carbon copies of some of your poems.
Everything about them –
The ghost gloom, the constriction,
The bell-jar air-conditioning – made her gasp
For oxygen and cheer. She sent them back.
(Whoever has her letter has her exact words.)
‘Since these seem to be valuable carbon copies
(Somewhat smudged) I shall not engross them.’
I took the point of that ‘engross’
Precisely, like a bristle of glass,
Snapped off deep in my thumb.
You wept
And hurled yourself down a floor or two
Further from the Empyrean.
I carried you back up.
And she, Marianne, tight, brisk,
Neat and hard as an ant,
Slid into the second or third circle
Of my Inferno.

A decade later, on her last visit to England,
Holding court at a party, she was sitting
Bowed over her knees, her face,
Under her great hat-brim’s floppy petal,
Dainty and bright as a piece of confetti –
She wanted me to know, she insisted
(It was all she wanted to say)
With that Missouri needle, drawing each stitch
Tight in my ear,
That your little near-posthumous memoir
‘OCEAN 1212’
Was ‘so wonderful, so lit, so wonderful’ –

She bowed so low I had to kneel. I kneeled and
Bowed my face close to her upturned face
That seemed tinier than ever,
And studied, as through a grille,
Her lips that put me in mind of a child’s purse
Made of the skin of a dormouse,
Her cheek, as if she had powdered the crumpled silk
Of a bat’s wing,
And I listened, heavy as a graveyard
While she searched for the grave
Where she could lay down her little wreath.

Marianne Moore, 1935:

Some feminine poets of the present day seem to have grown horns and to like to be frightful and dainty by turns; but distorted propriety suggests effeteness. One would rather disguise than travesty emotion; give away a nice thing than sell it; dismember a garment of rich aesthetic construction than degrade it to the utilitarian offices of the boneyard.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Moore, with her rage to order allusion, echo, and quotation in ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds, helps us to realize that the belated Modernism of the Gallic proclamation of the death of the author was no less premature than it was, always already, belated.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, November 22, 1964

I’ve just read through Marianne’s new Faber collection, and rather to my surprise think it’s as good as anything she’s ever written–a kind of wild, lyrical abandon, and four or five or her most serious poems, and almost everything good. Some of them made my eyes water. Oh me, she’s really so much better than Berryman or Roethke, our best this year.

From the Marianne Moore entry in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

She brings quotations from popular culture into poetry, like Eliot, but she welcomes instead of satirizes them. In the verbal collage of the ambitious long poem “An Octopus,” Moore juxtaposes various sources–travel guides, fashion magazines, science, journalism, literature, philosophy, even a remark “Overheard at the circus”–to suggest both the vastness of Mt. Rainier and its sublime ineffability, a massive and heterogeneous presence that outstrips all attempts at description. She takes the stance neither of critic nor of connoisseur, both roles being too peacock-tailed and dominating for her taste.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, December 23, 1960:

I’ve talked to Marianne Moore a couple times on the phone–“Robert, I am in eclipse.” Meaning she, poor thing, had been suffering from dysentery. About The Mid Century [that] gives her book and mine away together and our photographs have been combined into one–“Like Pompeii and Herculaeum.” We had a little contest saying how much we loved and mired you–Brooklyn accent, “Of course she venerates you.”

Marianne Moore, interview with Donald Hall:

Precision, economy of statement, logic employed to ends that are disinterested, drawing and identifying, liberate the imagination.

Marianne Moore:

Shouldn’t we replace vanity with honesty, as Robert Frost recommends?

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, August 20th, 1961:

I’ve heard recently from Marianne, and she doesn’t sound well at all. I’m glad I’m going to see her. Her publishers seem to be treating her badly, as usual–“outwitting” her, as she puts it. “I never protest at being diminished, Elizabeth, but had I known I was being outwitted I would have disrupted the peace in any language known to me.” “Robert Lowell; starring, I am glad to say. I don’t know anyone who knows anything who does not like his Racine and Baudelaire…his firmness and working out of a problem–the rhythm.” (She is always awfully impressed by RHYTHM.)

Friend of Marianne Moore, 1987:

I remember she once began a story with ‘I was leaving Boston wearing two hats…’ I can’t remember the story itself, I was too much taken up with the preamble. The hats were obviously too big to pack. I think the tricorne was the first classic hat and the big flat-brimmed one was more often worn laters; she wore it when she came to tea with us in our London flat. She was about to go on a holiday in a canal boat in England, which I found difficult to believe. But one had to be ready to believe anything of Marianne.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, January 22nd, 1962:

I’ve been reading Mary McCarthy’s On the Contrary–also Marianne’s Reader, which I promised to review for the Bryn Mawr magazine. Strange contrast–Mary so sane and mean; Marianne so mad and good–which do you choose? And they both lie like rugs–at least I shouldn’t say lie, but anything I know at first-hand of their impressions aren’t mine at all. Marianne admiring the Duke of Windsor’s style! Mary giving her poor dead 1st husband another beating still: “Notions of the superman and the genius flickered across his thoughts…” But Marianne can astound, and there are always some of those marvelous poems. Mary seems like all the rest of us, striving, striving.

From the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Moore is devoted to the quirkiness of animals, to their stubbornness or flexibility, their dignity or lack of it. Unlike D.H. Lawrence, she offers no depth psychology of the jerboa or the fish, and she makes no attempt–she would consider it futile, in view of the distinctness of each creature–to share its fundamental drives. Unlike Jean de La Fontaine, whose fables she translated, Moore draws lessons from nature obliquely, as if to say more would be embarrassing for both author and reader.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, April 20, 1958:

Marianne Moore was here reading at Brandeis. There’s no more “poor, brave Elizabeth.” She is delighted with your life, knows Lota’s whole history, down to the names of the “grandchildren,” and has no end of praise for her competence and kindness and charm. Her reading, hard to hear and parse, was full of gentle and sharp things, as she complimented Rahv, Harry Levin, Cowley, put on her glasses, took them off, looked now like my grandmother, now like a clear-browed girl. She spoke of the “devious and interminable” introductions–this for John Ransom–to a Frost evening.

Marianne Moore:

When I went to see Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths, about the third time I went, the official who escorted me to the grounds said, Good of you to come to see him, and I said, Good? You have no idea how much he has done for me, and others. This pertains to an early rather than final visit.

I was not in the habit of asking experts or anybody else to help me with things that I was doing, unless it was a librarian or someone whose business it was to help applicants, or a teacher. But I was desperate when Macmillan declined my Fables. I had worked about four years on them and sent Ezra Pound several – although I hesitated. I didn’t like to bother him. He had enough trouble without that, but finally I said, Would you have time to tell me if the rhythms grate on you? Is my ear not good? Yes, he said. The least touch of merit upsets these blighters.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, April 26th, 1957:

Marianne has called here once, looking adorable, just back from 3 weeks in Bermuda, wearing, she said, her “Toreador Hat and Teddy Bear Coat.” She’s been sick all the past week, though, and although she’ll talk for hours on the phone she won’t let me come over and do any cooking for her, as I wanted to. She’s getting much franker about people–gets off some wonderful remarks, and her vision of the Institute is apocryphal and wonderful…

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore
by Elizabeth Bishop

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.
Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
Please come flying.Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, April 26th, 1962:

I think it would be a good idea to have mimeographed copies of the poems you speak of, to hand out…In general [the Brazilians] know Frost and Millay and E. Dickinson–Pound, Cummings–And Eliot, well.–He has been a great influence on some of them, like Vinicius de Moraes, in his early books (The “Black Orpheus” poet). (D. Thomas–yes–but they don’t really understand him.) Wallace Stevens, vaguely, and Marianne not at all–at least until I got here, and I certainly have done very little propagandizing.

Marianne Moore:

Gusto thrives on freedom, and freedom in art, as in life, is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, December 2nd, 1956:

Marianne is wonderful, that’s all. If I don’t mention my health she writes implying that she knows I’m concealing my dying throes from her. If I say I’ve never felt better in my life (God’s truth) she writes “Brave Elizabeth!” (Lota says it’s a form of aggression.) She used to send one rather stolid, timid friend of ours on Errands of Mercy, to people he’d never met. She told him that “poor Peter Monro Jack” was in desperate straits, sick, lonely, heaven knows what all, and the friend went to call, probably taking a bag of groceries or a bunch of flowers, and found a large gay party going on, with everyone in evening dress. Also Marsden Hartley–dying and all alone in a miserable garret–he was found to be in a friend’s most luxurious apartment, with a Steinway grand and a cook and a maid waiting on his every wish! I have to repeat one of the few bon mots of my life here. I told the unfortunate friend, whose name was Lester, “You’re for the Moores and Martyrdome.”

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, June 21, 1958:

Last Sunday, Marianne Moore read before thousands on the Public Garden. I went rather fearing that neither her poems nor her delivery would carry. They didn’t very much, yet that seemed irrelevant. She entered with a black cloak and black jacket and a diamondy green dress. The cloak came off, then after slight hesitation, the jacket, then another pause and the cloak went on again. She had her audience. Each obstruction fell into her hands: a whistle from the amplifier (“I see I have a rival”), trucks rumbling down Boylston Street, a mute bean-shaven young man, who kept pushing her back to the speaker, an unexquisite mass of red flowers, received with a disgruntled, admiring, “gorgeous?” Each epigram was cheered. Jack Sweeney’s Irish wife said in amazement, “Why, this is the only real American.”

From the Marianne Moore entry in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Her verse is so unassuming that it is almost surprising to see how many poets–W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, Jorie Graham–acknowledge her as the source for some of their efforts.

By Marianne Moore

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible, the
same thing may be said for all of us—that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand. The bat,
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited did
one wish it; nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not poetry,
nor till the autocrats among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance of their opinion—
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness, and
that which is on the other hand,
genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

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2 Responses to “Omissions are not accidents.” — poet Marianne Moore

  1. Jeff Gee says:

    I love all the little anthologies you cobble together for these birthday posts, but this might be my favorite. When I first read it a year or two ago, it opened up her work for me. I’d always put her aside as a sort of “subject for further exploration,” and then never did any exploring, beyond the handful of anthology pieces that were opaque to me. I needed to see it (or her) through those Elizabeth Bishop letters and so forth, to get what a blast she is. Her poems are like Joseph Cornell boxes, but they RHYME.

    • sheila says:

      Jeff – hey, thanks, this means a lot! She really is a blast – I love that. Truly carved out her own path. didn’t give a damn!

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