Women You Should Know:
(November 15, 1887 – February 5, 1972)
by Siofra McSherry
An adopted native of New York, Marianne Moore was one of the greatest American modernist poets, admired with an unusual unanimity by her peers, from Gertrude Stein to John Ashbery. A graduate of Bryn Mawr, Moore edited the modernist magazine The Dial in the 1920s, a position that placed her at the centre of international modernism, a taste creator and a maker (and breaker) of reputations. She lived with her mother in Brooklyn until the latter’s death in 1947. Her attachment to her birth family led her to fulfil Virginia Woolf’s injunction to woman writers—that we must have a room of our own—with a significant caveat: the room was shared, not with a husband or children, but a nonetheless demanding and loving companion. Moore was sexually indeterminate and resolutely chaste for her entire life: she considered marriage, in fact, to be a dangerous institution it took a woman all her “criminal ingenuity” to avoid.
As a poet, Moore emerged a clean original. Her succinct style, almost taxonomic precision, esoteric subject matter and scattergun interests formed an unprecedented combination. The product of her writing gave her pause when she was asked to describe it as poetry; she allowed that what she wrote was, at least, closer to poetry than anything else. Moore loved to recount the details of the surface of an object, whether a Chinese enamelled plate or the side of a glacier, and adored odd, armoured and strange animals like pangolins and armadillos. Poetry, she states in her most famous poem, is supposed to give us “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”,something that stands between the raw and the genuine.
Moore has long been one of my favourite poets, and it is probably impossible to break down the attributes of something one loves in order to explain that love to others. I admire her virtuosity and wit and her incredible eloquence, and there is an ascetic, almost Quaker-like philosophical slant to her thought that appeals to me. When it comes down to it, though, I love the precision of her work, the time and attention she paid to everything she came across, and the fact that so much of the world and its endlessly various phenomena seemed to her to be worth thinking and writing about. She paid as much attention to the rules of baseball as an etching by Dürer. This is the essence, to me, of a mind that is fully present and appreciates living.
Despite the difficulty of her poetry, Moore was one of the best known and respected poets in America at the time of her death. She appeared on the Today show, was photographed for Vogue, and threw out the starting ball of the season for her beloved Yankees. Her popular profile has faded somewhat in recent years, and I would love her name to come as easily to mind as Stein’s or Eliot’s when discussing modernism, or great American poets, or even 20th century literature. I hope this might find some new readers for her: she repays time spent with her a hundredfold.
The contents of Moore’s Brooklyn apartment, along with her papers, are preserved at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia.
Siofra McSherry is a writer, researcher and doctoral scholar. She has published her poetry widely and writes art reviews for thisistomorrow.info.