Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore was an American poet, critic and a member of the Modernist movement. She is renowned for her wit, linguistic precision and zoological poems. 

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Table of contents

    Marianne Moore: biography

    Marianne Moore was born in Missouri in 1887. Her parents separated before her birth, which left her mother in a situation considered less than ideal in 19th century Midwestern America. Her mother initially raised her and her brother in her Presbyterian minister grandfather’s home. They later moved to the more industrial Pennsylvania after his death in 1894. There her mother became a schoolteacher to support her family.

    In 1905, Moore enrolled in Bryn Mawr College, a private liberal arts university for women. She graduated in 1909, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, politics, and economics. This was an unusual achievement for a woman of her time, with only 5,237 American women earning a bachelor's degree in 1900.1 It was at Bryn Mawr that her first short stories and the poem, 'A Jellyfish' (1909), were published.

    At Bryn, she was an open supporter of the Suffragette movement and a member of the National College Equal Suffrage League. After her possible attendance at the 1913 march in Washington DC, she continued writing supporting the suffrage movement but under a pseudonym.

    Following her degree, she studied typing at Carlisle Commercial College, as secretarial work was a popular occupation for women of her era. After working as a typist and then a schoolteacher at the Carlisle Indian School, Moore moved to New York City with her mother. Initially working as an assistant at the New York Public Library, she began to get published in the literary magazine, the Dial. Through the magazine and her college contemporary, H.D. she met other Imagist poets like William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Her work was also published alongside Ezra Pound in the English publication, Egoist.

    Imagism is a movement that sought to represent the mundane as the poetic and to create images with words. A common characteristic is the use of juxtaposition.

    Moore's first book of poems, Poems (1921) was published for her by the Imagist poet H.D. and launched her literary career. Her popular second collection, Observations was published in 1924 and won the Dial Award. By 1925, she had become the Editor of Dial, where she worked until 1929. Moore was a hugely popular poet in her time. She won numerous awards, from the Bollingen Prize (1953) to the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Collected Poems (1951). In addition, along with Carlos Williams, she encouraged a new generation of poets like Allen Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bishop.

    Moore’s poetry is characterised by her interest in the animal kingdom, wit, irony and linguistic precision. A writer of broad interests, she also wrote prose, literary criticism essays, her (rejected) name suggestions for Ford cars and the liner notes for Muhammed Ali’s spoken word album, 'I am the Greatest' (1963). In the days before MP4s and streaming, liner notes were the words written on LPs and the inside sleeves of CD covers. Fairly unusually for a poet, she was also a lover of sports, from boxing to baseball.

    The Suffragette Movement in North America sought to gain the vote for women. The march in 1913 was held shortly before the election of Woodrow Wilson, who had publicly opposed the vote for women in 1911. Over the course of his term, he changed his views on the subject.

    In August 1920, the 19th Amendment introduced to congress in 1878 was ratified. This granted many American women the right to vote for the first time. The vote for African American women and other minorities took well into the 20th century.

    Marianne Moore: death

    After a series of strokes, Marianne Moore died a much-beloved American poet in New York City in 1972. Her will established a fund for Prospect Park’s Amperdown Elm tree. Following her death, Moore was inducted into The New York State Writers Hall of Fame (2012). Her living room and study are preserved in their original entirety by The Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Visitors can view her library and random objects like her favourite baseball, signed by the legendary Mickey Mantel.

    Marianne Moore, Portrait of Marianne Moore, StudySmarter Marianne Moore by George Platt Lynes.

    Marianne Moore: writing style

    Marianne Moore’s poetic style is broadly characterised by precision and conciseness that manages to convey meaning beyond its deceptive simplicity. Carlos Williams said that her early works evoked:

    the vastness of the particular.' 2

    Thematically, she often wrote about rare or unusual animals and nature. This zoological approach was developed while she was still in college and continued throughout her career.

    Structurally, Moore wrote in free verse without set rhyme schemes or meter but made extensive use of syllabic verse. She used a set number of syllables to structure her stanzas to create a precision of rhythm and tempo to match her words.

    Free verse is verse that has no set meter or rhyme scheme.

    Syllabic verse utillises a set number of syllables to create a precise rhythm and tempo, setting the poem's pace.

    As far as poetic devices were concerned, Moore typically used subtle rhyme styles such as slant rhymes rather than set rhyme schemes. To create a sense of flow, she also interspersed enjambment with carefully constructed punctuation. She frequently directly quoted philosophers and other poets in her poems, creating a type of intertextuality well before the Postmodernist movement decided to make this ancient technique a modern characteristic. This also reflects a modesty that is rare in well-known poets, who usually do not directly quote others in their works.

    Slant rhyme is a subtle form of rhyme where words sounds very similar but not exactly the same. Am example would be 'bridge' and 'fudge'.

    Modernism was a movement across society and culture thought to have run from about 1900 to the mid 1940s, although this is often debated. Literary modernism sought to move away from traditional forms and use new methods of innovation. Characteristics related to scientific discoveries were often used. An example is the 'stream of consciousness' writing inspired by pyschology's free association.

    Postmodernism reacted against the order of Modernism by almost exclusively favouring subjectivity and questioning traditional rationality. It is considered to be characterised by devices like intertextuality.

    Intertextuality is the reference within a text to another text, place, person or philosophy. These can be direct or indirect and add layers of meaning.

    Of her work, she has said:

    I tend to write in a patterned arrangement, with rhymes … to secure an effect of flowing continuity … there is a great amount of poetry in unconscious/fastidiousness.' 3

    Marianne Moore: poetry

    Moore’s poetry is considered part of the modern American canon. Many of her popular works are written about animals but she also wrote about abstract themes of philosophy. Let's take a look at a few.

    Marianne Moore: 'To a Snail' (1924)

    If "compression is the first grace of style,"you have it. Contractility is a virtueas modesty is a virtue.It is not the acquisition of any one thingthat is able to adorn,or the incidental quality that occursas a concomitant of something well said,that we value in style,but the principle that is hid:in the absence of feet, "a method of conclusions";"a knowledge of principles,"In the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

    Thematically the poem, 'To a Snail' is about the attributes, both real and imaginary, of a snail and their relation to poetic aesthetics. Structurally, the poem is a subverted blason written in free verse. It is pretty short at just twelve lines over one stanza. It also follows the characteristic syllabic verse approach of all of Moore’s poems.

    A blason traditionally compared a woman's physical attributes to grand earthly objects or celestial bodies. The form originated with Petrarch and his sonnets which have become known as Petrarchan sonnets.

    A subverted blason, like 'To a Snail' usually indirectly mocks the traditional format by switching a woman for a snail or even a boyfriend.

    Moore uses her usual quotation style, directly quoting phrases whose origins are difficult to pinpoint as they have been re-quoted with edits or paraphrased many times over the centuries.

    Can you find examples of traditional blasons? What differences between these poems and Moore's 'To a Snail' can you spot?

    Marianne Moore: 'What are Years?'

    This is one of Moore’s most famous and widely read poems. Published in 1941, the poem is about human mortality, misfortune, courage and the difference between good and evil. These themes are more surface level and therefore more accessible than many of her other poems.

    What is our innocence,what is our guilt? All are naked, none is safe. And whenceis courage: the unanswered question,the resolute doubt—dumbly calling, deafly listening—thatin misfortune, even death, encourages others and in its defeat, stirs the soul to be strong? Hesees deep and is glad, who accedes to mortalityand in his imprisonment, risesupon himself asthe sea in a chasm, struggling to befree and unable to be, in its surrendering finds its continuing. So he who strongly feels,behaves. The very bird, grown taller as he sings, steelshis form straight up. Though he is captive,his mighty singingsays, satisfaction is a lowlything, how pure a thing is joy. This is mortality, this is eternity.'

    Thematically, the first stanza asks age-old philosophical questions about the nature of innocence and guilt, unfair misfortune and death, as well as courage and how we can find it.

    The answers are delivered in stanzas two to three. Moore, interestingly considering her Presbyterian background and beliefs, mentions that mortality is to be embraced and accepted. She suggests that mere satisfaction is lowly while finding joy, despite the inevitable earthly end, is the ideal.

    Structurally, the poem is also syllabic, free verse over three stanzas.

    Marianne Moore, Sea in a chasm, StudySmarter'What are the Years?' features the 'sea in a chasm' symbolism.

    Marianne Moore: Complete Poems

    Moore published her heavily self-edited collection, The Complete Poems in 1967. In this update, many of her previously published poems were rearranged, reformatted and pruned. The poem 'Poetry' was infamously edited from the 1919 version of 30 lines and five stanzas to the 1932 version’s three stanzas. Moore further edited it down to a poem of just three lines in 1967.

    Critics and readers were dismayed and there is still much debate about which version is the one with authority. In practice, the editing merely aligned with Moore’s philosophy of conciseness detailed in her poem, 'To a Snail'. As she wrote:

    Omissions are not accidents'. 4

    Marianne Moore - Key takeaways

    • Marianne Moore was born to a single mother in the state of Missouri in 1887.
    • She attended a private liberal arts college for women, Bryn Mawr. It was here where she published her first zoological work, which would be an ongoing theme for her.
    • Her literary career began in 1921 when H. D. published her book, Poems.
    • Considered a Modernist and an Imagist, her work often featured animals and nature.
    • Moore has won numerous awards from the Pulitzer to the National Book award and is considered a pioneer of the North American Modernist movement.

    1 Margaret Nash, Lisa Romero, 'Citizenship for the College Girl'. Teachers College Record Volume 114. 2012.

    2 'Marianne Moore'. 2022

    3 Emily Stokes, 'Holding Upside Down: Marianne Moore', The Guardian. 2014.

    4 Jennifer Szalia , 'Omissions are not accidents', Slate. 2013.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Marianne Moore

    How did Marianne Moore die?

    Marianne Moore died after a series of strokes in 1972.

    What is Marianne Moore's most famous poem?

    Marianne Moore's most famous poem is thought be 'What are Years?'. Perhaps her most infamous poem is 'Poetry', the 1967 version.

    What are the themes in poetry by Marianne Moore?

    Marianne Moore often wrote zoological poems about unusual animals with themes of abstract philosophical, aesthetic or moral principles.

    Why was Marianne Moore important?

    Marianne Moore is considered important as a poetic pioneer of the North American Modernist movement.

    What are some themes in Marianne Moore's poem 'What are years?'

    Themes include mortality, misfortune, good, evil and courage.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What professions did Marianne Moore work in before becoming a poet?

    What type of poems does Marianne Moore usually write?

    What is the name for the type of verse that Marianne Moore uses to create rhythm and structure in her poetry?


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