Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore, 1957 - photo by Imogen Cunningham

Marianne Moore (November 15, 1887 – February 5, 1972) was a poet who belonged to the American Modernist movement. Her poetry was notable for its wit, irony, and use of syllabic verse. She was also a respected translator.

At right, a 1957 photo of Marianne Moore by the noted photographer Imogen Cunningham.

Politically, Marianne was heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, often supporting the movement anonymously through her writing. She was viewed as a celebrity throughout much of her life, and she received numerous honorary degrees and awards for her works, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Medal for Literature.


Early life

Marianne was born in Kirkwood, Missouri, on November 15, 1887. Her mother and father separated before she was born, and she was raised by her mother, Mary Moore. She lived with her mother and her brother in St. Louis until the age of 16, and her grandfather, a Presbyterian minister, was a highly influential figure in her life.

After her grandfather’s death in 1894, Marianne and her family lived with relatives. In 1896, Marianne moved with her mother and brother to Pennsylvania, where her mother worked as an English teacher at a private school.

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poet Marianne Moore young. . . . . . . . . . . 

College education and beyond

In 1905, Marianne enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, majoring in history, political science, and economics. Hilda Doolittle (“H.D.”), another future poet, was Marianne’s classmate during her freshman year.

As a student, Marianne began writing short stories for the college literary magazine, and this experience inspired her to become a professional writer. Ms. Moore graduated from Bryn Mawr College with her bachelor’s degree in 1909, and she then studied typing at Carlisle Commercial College.

From 1911 through 1915, Moore worked as a teacher at Carlisle Indian School. She moved with her mother to New York City in 1918 and became an assistant at the New York Public Library in 1921.

She was introduced to many poets, including Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, and began to write for the Dial, a literary magazine. From 1925 to 1929, Marianne served as acting editor of the magazine.


Early publications

Marianne’s poetry was first published in spring 1915 in The Egoist and Poetry magazines. Poetry, her first book of poems, was published in 1921 by her former classmate, Hilda Doolittle, without Marianne’s knowledge. Observations, her second book of poetry, was published in 1924 and won the Dial Award that same year.

“The Octopus,” an exploration of Mt. Rainier that is now regarded as one of Marianne’s finest poems, was included in that publication. The volume also included “Marriage,” a poem written in free verse that featured quotations.

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New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore

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Major works and awards

The 1930s and 40s were to be Marianne’s most productive years. Her next book of poems, Selected Poems, was published in 1935. It included poems that had been published in Observations and other poems that were published from 1932 to 1934. This was followed in 1941 after a gap of a few years by The Pangolin and Other Verse in 1936 and What Are Years?

Her subsequent work, Nevertheless, was published in 1944 and included an anti-war poem entitled “In Distrust of Merits.” W.H. Auden remarked that the poem was one of the best pieces of poetry from the World War II period.

Collected Poems was published in 1951, and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 1953, Marianne also won the Bollingen Prize. Other works from the 1950s and 60s include Like a Bulwark (1956), O to Be a Dragon (1959), and Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics (1966).

The Complete Poems (1967) was, as the title implies, the most complete collection yet, folding into it most of the other collections. From the book:

“All the poems she is willing to preserve — 120 of them — are assembled in this book … The saints and baseball players are here, the buffalos and basilisks, moral triumphs and mechanical marvels — charmed into art by Miss Moores’ sagacity, wit, and affection. Along with her translation of The Fables of La Fontaine (of which a few are included here as samples), Complete Poems represents the achievement of a unique figure in American letters.”


Poetic style and revision

For Marianne Moore, heartfelt and precise expression was the most important aspect of the written word. Most of her poems were written in syllabic verse.

She used stanzas that had a predetermined number of syllables to structure her poetry, and she enjoyed borrowing fragments and quotations from other writers in her works. About her own work, she commented “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.”

She had a special fondness for animals, and her poems frequently featured imagery from nature. Her friend William Carlos Williams once described her early works as evoking “the vastness of the particular.” He stated that when Marianne wrote even of a seemingly small object, the reader could feel “the swirl of great events.”

The Achievement of Marianne Moore: A Biography by Eugene P. Sheehy and Kenneth A. Lohf describes her work:

“Her line is long, gathering in its wake a host of observed detail and sharply drawn images, which she leaves to stir their own unaided ripples in the reader’s imagination. Her mood is at once elegant and ironic, conversational yet restrained, the starting point of her mediations often being rare or fabulous animals.”

In her later years, Marianne revised many of her earlier poems. In The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967), she reduced “Poetry,” one of her most highly regarded poems, from its original thirty-one lines to just three lines. Although her revisions generated significant controversy, she maintained that the omissions were not accidental.

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Poet Marianne Moore

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The legacy of Marianne Moore

After a series of strokes in her later life, Marianne passed away in New York City on February 5, 1972. She established a fund in her will to protect the Camperdown Elm tree in Prospect Park in New York City; she had previously written a poem about that particular tree.

After her death, Marianne was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1996. She was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame in 2012. The Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia preserved her living room in its original layout, and visitors today can view her entire library, including poetry drafts, photos, letters, and a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle.

More about Marianne Moore

On this site

Selected works (poetry)

  • Poems, 1921
  • Observations, 1924
  • Selected Poems, 1935
  • The Pangolin and Other Verse, 1936
  • What Are Years, 1941
  • Nevertheless, 1944
  • A Face, 1949
  • Collected Poems, 1951
  • Like a Bulwark, 1956
  • Idiosyncrasy and Technique, 1958
  • O to Be a Dragon, 1959
  • Dress and Kindred Subjects (1965)
  • Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel and Other Topics (1966)
  • The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967)
  • The Accented Syllable (1969)
  • The Complete Poems (1982)
  • Complete Poems (1994)
  • Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907 –1 924 (2002)
  • Poems of Marianne Moore, ed by Grace Schulman (2003)

Selected Works (prose)

  • The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (1986)
  • A Marianne Moore Reader (1961)
  • Predilections: Literary Essays (1955)

Biographies, letters, and literary criticism

  • The Achievement of Marianne Moore: A Biography by Eugene P. Sheehy and Kenneth A. Lohf
  • Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Charles Tomlinson (1969)
  • Marianne Moore, Subversive Modernist by Taffy Martin (1986)
  • The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value by Margaret Holley (1987)
  • Marianne Moore: A Literary Life by Charles Molesworth (1990)
  • Marianne Moore: The Art of a Modernist, ed. by Joseph Parisi (1990)
  • Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority by Cristanne Miller (1995)
  • The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore (1997)

More information and sources

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