Half a century or so ago, when literate Americans still read poetry or thought they should, everyone knew about Marianne Moore, the white-haired, great-auntish New York writer who loved polysyllables, exotic animals and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and turned up around town in a signature Paul Revere hat.
Her work was considered “difficult” but, at least in its reader-friendly late style, delightful. Even many nonreaders owned her 1951 “Collected Poems,” with its appetizingly small format and pretty dust jacket: powder pink with royal blue type.
Then came the 1960s, steamrolling over American culture, clearing ground for a new New. Pop singers were now poet-stars. The political, personal and otherwise, was what mattered. The liberations were underway: black power, the women’s movement, gay rights. Moore, who died in 1972 at 84, seemed like the relic of a repressed, elitist age.
Times have changed again. Identity politics have gained nuance. Generations of feminist scholars have reassessed their heritage. To read Moore now is to find what wasn’t obvious before: her joy in vernacular language (“plain American which dogs and cats can read”); her emotional candor, oblique but true; her principled commitment to all liberations, with a bias toward the freedom in self-restraint.
In short, the moment is ripe for her to be restored to us, depixified and complex. And so she has been in a swift, cool but empathetic new biography called “Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore,” by Linda Leavell.
The book’s title comes from one of Moore’s classic pieces, “Poetry,” which opens dismissively — “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle” — and goes on to define the value of a form in which the quirkiest and humblest of beings — “the bat holding on upside down in quest of something to eat” — find significance, even greatness, as existential role models in how to be different and survive.
In Moore’s life, as in her writing, ordinariness and difference were inseparable. She was born in Kirkwood, Mo., in 1887, in the home of her maternal grandfather, a Presbyterian minister. Faith stayed with her lifelong. Her parents were together just two years. Moore’s father suffered a psychotic breakdown and vanished. She never knew him.
Her mother, Mary, raised her and her older brother, Warner, alone, then with the help of a young lover, Mary Norcross, who provided a steadying influence on the bright, shy poet-to-be. Even with Norcross present, though, the family remained a closed unit, a micro-society with its own language of baby-talk English and pet names derived from “The Wind in the Willows.” In family letters, Moore is addressed as Rat; her brother as Badger; her mother as Mole.
This self-protective circle took a hit when Norcross moved out, and again when Warner married. But the mother-daughter bond held firm. Apart from Moore’s college years, the two lived together, in tiny apartments, often sharing a bed, until Mary’s death in 1947, when Moore was almost 60.
Ms. Leavell’s book usefully concentrates on the poet’s early life. It’s what we know least about, how she grew. Her education at the progressive, all-female Bryn Mawr College was a crucial experience. It immersed her in a developing Modernism as she read Yeats, Ibsen and the Jameses, Henry and William, along with Bunyan and Blake. It led her to begin writing in a serious way. It introduced her, through the campus journal, to the roles of editor and mentor.Those four years also tested her psychologically, helped her to learn what kind of life would let her be the writer she wanted to be. For four years, she was in crisis, thrilled by independence, crushed by homesickness. In the end, feeling her mother could not do without her, she opted to return to the nest. But in reality, need met need. Home brought certainties that Moore depended on, and within its close quarters, she carved out through poetry, a private creative space.
To many modern eyes, the situation is perverse. Several contemporaries, including her somewhat condescending protégée, Elizabeth Bishop, considered her captive to a monster. Ms. Leavell, wisely, suspends full judgment. She lets Moore, in her poetry, have the deciding, admonitory word: “we do not admire/what we cannot understand.”
Paradoxically, while Moore’s lifestyle was narrow, her cultural tastes were the opposite. Every aspect of Modernism — literature, music, art, film — seized her interest. And this interest made New York a natural destination.
In 1918, Moore and her mother moved to Greenwich Village, settling in a basement apartment so cramped that they ate meals while perched on the edge of the bathtub. But despite discomforts, New York was where they belonged, and they knew it. And here, in Ms. Leavell’s book, a more familiar history begins.
Thanks to a few earlier reconnaissance missions within the local avant-garde, and by the appearance of her poems in magazines, she arrived in New York with a reputation. And she was in near-peak form.
Poems, some of her finest, emerged one after the other, each vetted by her mother, always her first and most trusted reader. For ready cash, Moore wrote book reviews, most for The Dial, where she gave contemporaries like Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams some of their earliest and most perceptive notices. She reviewed Gertrude Stein’s “Making of Americans,” reading the 900-plus page novel, which most people found incomprehensible, and turning out a fully comprehending rave, all within in a week.
By this time, 1926, she had been named The Dial’s editor and had produced a book of poetry. Called “Observations,” it has many astonishments, including two of her longest and greatest poems, “Marriage” and “An Octopus.” Both are, in her characteristically odd-angled way, social and political commentaries, one on love’s power to abuse and bless, the other celebrating individuality within pluralism and the ethical generosity — William James’s “democratic respect” — that that entailed.To say these poems are difficult, which they are, is only to say we haven’t learned to read them yet.
Mr. Leavell moves on fast from here. Intriguing figures — T. S. Eliot, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Mina Loy — pass in a flash. One longs to linger, though there’s a sense that they flashed by Moore, too. She only occasionally encountered her most admired and admiring peers face to face. She knew them largely through the thousands of letters she wrote.
In one more play of paradox, or perversity, just when her New York career was going full steam, Moore, with her mother, left the Village for Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on the pretext of being closer to Warner, then a chaplain at the nearby Navy Yard. Moore would live there for 36 years, staying on, crippled by mourning, after her mother’s death, and returning to Manhattan only for the last few years.
By then, she had become a media star, a status that she helped shape. A wardrobe of tricorn hats and capes served as a form of visual branding. Once unnerved by the spotlight — anxiety caused by readings could send her to bed for weeks — she gained ease, chatting on television, throwing pitches at baseball games, and collecting, in person, the academic and civic honors.
Some critics have been unforgiving of this late-career bid for fame (or, as I view it, for family). Ms. Leavell sees a prolonged falling off in the quality of writing. Moore, whose work was accused of being obscurant, tried to make it more topical and accessible, in the process tapping a vein of sentimentality she had long suppressed.
And there was the matter of late-in-life self-editing, which left everyone aghast. In her 1967 “Complete Poems,” Moore cut entire stanzas out of canonical poems, and reduced “Poetry” itself to three lines from 29.
What really matters, though, is how her work — which was her life — looks now as a whole. It looks fabulous. A new complete poems came out in 2003. Open any page from 1919 to 1950, and you’ll find miracles of wit, moral equipoise and deep but self-effacing emotion. It says much for Ms. Leavell’s account of Moore’s life that for all the hard and hard-to-fathom facts it marshals, it leaves the miracles intact.
HOLDING ON UPSIDE DOWN
The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
By Linda Leavell
Illustrated. 455 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30.