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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

[4011] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Marianne Moore (1948), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-42513].

Moore, like many other authors in this unit, was born in the Midwest but eventually settled in the East. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1909, and, after traveling for two years with her mother abroad, taught at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania for four years. She continued to live with her family and in 1916 moved with her mother to Brooklyn, New York, to be with her brother, who was a minister there. In New York, Moore worked as a teacher and librarian, all the while producing poetry. Her first poems came out in “little magazines” such as Poetry and Egoist, and her connections with them introduced her to the artistic avant-garde. Unknown to Moore, in 1921 the poets H.D. and Winifred Bryher published her volume Poems. In 1924 Moore published another collection, Observations, which received the Dial magazine award for poetry. Moore became editor of the Dial in 1925 and remained there until the magazine ceased publication in 1929. Her work on the Dial introduced her to many key literary figures of the time, including Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, and James Joyce. Though she did not write much poetry while editing the Dial, her work for the magazine helped to sharpen her critical abilities, and her next book, Selected Poems (1935), is considered one of her most important. This volume contained some of her best-known poems, including “The Jerboa” and “Poetry.” Moore was also an insightful critic and published many essays of literary criticism. In 1951 Moore’s Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the National Book Award, and she became something of a celebrity; the Brooklyn Dodgers, a baseball team Moore followed avidly, once asked her to throw out the ball that would open their season.

Moore’s poetry is characterized by an attention to careful observation of the natural world in an attempt to find new connections between poetry and the world. She includes many references to scientific and historical texts that inform her thinking about the natural world; notably, she avoids literary allusions that would link her poetry to a literary tradition. Her verse structure and meter are subtle and complex, and readers must look carefully to understand her formal and linguistic choices. She came to favor a simpler style of diction in her later work, and her language is considerably more ornate in her earlier poems than in her later ones. In the face of World War II, many of Moore’s poems became more social in theme, expressing her desire that humankind would work toward becoming more humane. In her poem “In Distrust of Merits,” for example, she posits that the mutual distrust that promotes war may be overcome, suggesting that “contagion of trust can make trust.” She asks readers to look inward to understand the causes of war and offers hope that if one can win internal battles, war may be averted in the future.

Teaching Tips

  • Moore’s poetry is a good place for students to start thinking about the different ways in which poems can be organized. For example, poems may be structured around a description, story, meditation, or argument. Choose a poem by Moore that has a more straightforward narrative, such as “A Grave” or “Baseball and Writing,” and divide it into three to five parts that you feel correspond to the structural divisions of the poem. The more advanced students are, the more parts you can divide the poem into. Break students into groups and give each group one segment of the poem and ask them to determine where in the order of the poem the passage falls. Ask them to support their claim by hypothesizing about why they believe it is a particular section of the poem and what beginnings, middles, or ends usually look like. After having made their own claims, groups should talk with one another to compare passages and to determine the relationship between the various sections. This can be followed by a full class discussion of the poem and an analysis of one of Moore’s more difficult structures, such as “Poetry” or “The Paper Nautilus.”
  • The absence of specifically female experience in Moore’s poetry is also worth noting and may become more apparent to students when contrasted to the work of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, for example. Students might discuss why Moore felt that her identity as a woman and her identity as a poet were incompatible and then examine how her work takes on experiences that can be generalized to all of human-kind, rather than focusing on the experience of women.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: After reading “Poetry,” consider what Moore says about why readers should care about poetry. What does she believe makes certain kinds of poetry important? What would she classify as “not poetry”?
  2. Comprehension: What is “In Distrust of Merits” about? According to Moore, how does war happen? What does she mean in the last stanza of the poem when she says that “There never was a war that was / not inward”?
  3. Context: How does Moore’s poetic form communicate ideas differently than if, for instance, these poems were written as essays? What can “Nevertheless” or “In Distrust of Merits” achieve in poetic form that it could not attain as prose? How do the rhyme and rhythm of the poems influence your reading of them?
  4. Context: In “Poetry,” Moore describes how some poetry becomes too far removed from the things that are truly important and useful. Consider some of the other modernist poems you have read (by Eliot or Pound, for example); what do you believe Moore (or the speaker in this poem) would think about poems that rely heavily on literary allusions?
  5. Exploration: Moore was a mentor to the poet Elizabeth Bishop, which Bishop acknowledges in her poem “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore.” Both poets are known for their animal poems, some of which are odes, poems that use the subject or occasion for the poem to investigate the potential power of the poet. Compare Bishop’s “The Fish” to Moore’s “To a Snail.” What attracts the speaker of the poem to these animals? To what extent is the animal or the viewer of the animal like a poet? From what source does the power of the poet arise? What are the limitations of this power?

Selected Archive Items

[4011] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Marianne Moore (1948), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-42513]. 
Moore, wearing bowtie, poses in front of a wall of books. Moore’s poetry emphasized the natural world and, during and after World War II, social themes.

[5365] Frances Benjamin Johnston, Carlisle Indian School (1901), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-119133]. 
Photograph of students at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Poet Marianne Moore taught at the school for four years, after graduating from Bryn Mawr College.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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