“Mon Dieu, What a Mother!”

Marianne Moore’s poetic voice was supremely idiosyncratic—and so was her family life.
Oliver Barrett

In one of the funny bits in Virginia Woolf’s mostly unfunny To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay half-listens to a graduate student in philosophy droning on about his dissertation. The young man, she gathers, is working seven hours a day on “the influence of something upon somebody.” Woolf’s satirical swipe at the academic paper is all too pertinent to literary biography. How fervently we hope to explain Somebody’s brilliance by invoking the influence of Something! Marianne Moore—one of America’s greatest and most idiosyncratic poets—became famous partly on the strength of the theory-resistant contradictions of her character and her creations. But were we to isolate a single Something of influence on Moore, a new biography by Linda Leavell, Holding On Upside Down, suggests that both credit and blame might go to the poet’s mother.

In an earlier book on Moore, Leavell argued, not very convincingly, that modernist visual artists were central to Moore’s poetic technique. It’s true that Moore, born in 1887 in Kirkwood, Missouri, and educated at Bryn Mawr (where she published stories and poems in the literary magazine but excelled in biology class), was a representative and proponent of all that was new, brave, and unsettling in modern literature. Yet she never really fit the contours of the modernist movement. A gloved-and-hatted stickler for propriety, she was a Hoover lover and an FDR hater. She was a New Yorker, mostly a Brooklynite, for much of her life, but this cosmopolitan poet, who delighted in arcane references to Scarlatti or “the staff of Aesculapius,” also wrote what Leavell nicely calls “data-dense animal poems.”

Moore’s view of poetry was that it ought to be clear and simple, but she fooled herself that her love of the precise phrase made her not-difficult. She relished unpredictable conjunctions of diction and discontinuities of tone, while remaining apparently indifferent to the modernist tenet that contemporary life was inherently fragmentary or meaningless. She just found distraction exciting. Her idea of a transition was an aside: her poem “To a Steam Roller” describes, and mimics in its sounds, the crushing action of the machine, and then out of the blue Moore adds, “As for butterflies …” as if answering an interlocutor’s irrelevant question. Her idea of an aside was that it might well provide a good ending, fresher than a return to the topic at hand. Here’s the final sentence of the poem, in full: “As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive / of one’s attending upon you, but to question / the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.”

In an age that largely eschewed rhyme, she ended lines mid-word, or on unpromising words like the—but rhymed them, and also buried exact rhymes inside her lines. T. S. Eliot praised her for her mastery of “light rhyme,” the practice of chiming an accented syllable with a weak one. (Such a rhyme, like know/hero, will in the wrong hands seem merely unskillful.) A talky, pointed awkwardness born of arbitrary-seeming patterns was Moore’s hallmark, and arguably harder to achieve than the free verse of such poets as her friends Hilda Doolittle and Ezra Pound. Although Moore was the first American poet to write most of her poems in “syllabics”—a technique in which syllables but not accents are counted—she denied her reliance on syllabics per se. It was for her a means to produce an irregular-looking but pleasing stanza shape tailored to each poem: something beyond the convention Robert Lowell would later call “stiff quatrains shoveled out four-square.” (Leavell unhelpfully returns time and again to what she calls, in the singular, Moore’s “stanza.” No, these were her stanzas—of a manifold variety.)

Moore said, in different ways throughout her career, that she wasn’t sure the verse she was writing was poetry. And yet she pronounced confident, often prescient, judgment on her contemporaries’ poetry. An influential reviewer and editor for the 1920s journal The Dial, she was proud of her choices for the magazine, publishing the young Hart Crane and the aging Yeats. Throughout the Jazz Age, dressed eccentrically in the fashions of 1907, Moore dined out with the misbehaving bohemians and trust-fund sophisticates she met through her job—and then she took the subway home, to her mother.

“Mon Dieu, what a mother!,” one of Moore’s literary friends, the suffragist Alyse Gregory, confided in a letter to a friend. The domination of Mary Moore over her daughter—the pair lived together in ostentatious frugality until Mrs. Moore’s death in 1947, when the poet was about to turn 60—riveted the New York literary world during their lives. Gregory added that Mrs. Moore was “inexorably, permanently, eternally rooted and not to be overlooked, and remorselessly conversational.” Yet Mrs. Moore had her distinguished admirers, too. The artist Joseph Cornell saluted her “almost silent way of saying important things.” Edmund Wilson told Allen Tate that Mrs. Moore was one of the most intellectual women he knew.

Presented by

Mary Jo Salter is the author of seven volumes of poetry, most recently Nothing by Design (Knopf). She is a Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

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