12 Poems by Marianne Moore, Influential Modernist Poet

Poet Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972) isn’t an easy poet to read or digest. Yet the patient and diligent reader will be amply rewarded. Here are 12 poems by Marianne Moore sampled from a long writing career that blossomed in the early 1920s and started even earlier than that.

Moore was a modernist poet who both influenced and was influenced by other modernist poets. In Marianne Moore: A Literary Life, biographer Charles Molesworth, attempted to sum up what made her the poet she came to be, not an easy task:

“It will not do to replace with something like tough-mindedness the picture of Moore’s obscurity or eccentricity or what she called, in a different context but with a hint of playful self-description her ‘Moor-ish gorgeousness.’

She is simple and complex, direct and subtle; her tone often blends the natural and the highly cultivated. Better if her readers try to maintain more than a single perspective.

Moore, clearly one of the most well-read and intelligent writers of her generation … never flaunted her learning. In an essay published in 1957, called ‘Subject, Predicate, Object,’ she spoke of the influence her mother had on her by awakening in her a strong curiosity in things like history.

But she went on: ‘Curiosity; and books. I think books are chiefly responsible for my doggedly self-determined efforts to write; books and verisimilitude; I like to describe things.’

This is very revealing, because Moore is first and last a literary poet; her intelligence and experience are bound up with reading, in a way outmoded among many people today.”

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Poet Marianne Moore in 1935

Learn more about Marianne Moore 
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In addition to the poems following, here’s an entire post dedicated to “Marriage” — one of Moore’s  longest and most complex poems. The following poems are included in this listing:

  • Poetry
  • Baseball and Writing
  • Nevertheless
  • Rosemary
  • A Grave
  • The Paper Nautilus
  • The Past is the Present
  • Picking and Choosing
  • You Say You Said
  • Ennui
  • When I Buy Pictures
  • Silence

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I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
          if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful; when they become so derivative as to become
      unintelligible, the
   same thing may be said for all of us—that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand. The bat,
          holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician—case after case
      could be cited did
      one wish it; nor is it valid
          to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must
      make a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
      the result is not poetry,
nor till the autocrats among us can be
  “literalists of
    the imagination”—above
      insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in
      defiance of their opinion—
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness, and
      that which is on the other hand,
          genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

(First published in Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse)

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Baseball and Writing

(Suggested by post-game broadcasts)

Fanaticism? No.Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
   You can never tell with either
      how it will go
      or what you will do;
   generating excitement—
   a fever in the victim—
   pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
      Victim in what category?
Owlman watching from the press box?
      To whom does it apply?
      Who is excited? Might it be I?

It’s a pitcher’s battle all the way—a duel—
a catcher’s, as, with cruel
   puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly
      back to plate.(His spring
      de-winged a bat swing.)
   They have that killer instinct;
   yet Elston—whose catching
   arm has hurt them all with the bat—
      when questioned, says, unenviously,
   “I’m very satisfied. We won.”
      Shorn of the batting crown, says, “We”;
      robbed by a technicality.

When three players on a side play three positions
and modify conditions,
   the massive run need not be everything.
      “Going, going . . . “Is
       it? Roger Maris
   has it, running fast.You will
   never see a finer catch.Well . . .
   “Mickey, leaping like the devil”—why
      gild it, although deer sounds better—
snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest,
      one-handing the souvenir-to-be
      meant to be caught by you or me.

Assign Yogi Berra to Cape Canaveral;
he could handle any missile.
   He is no feather.”Strike! . . . Strike two!”
      Fouled back.A blur.
      It’s gone.You would infer
   that the bat had eyes.
   He put the wood to that one.
Praised, Skowron says, “Thanks, Mel.
   I think I helped a little bit.”
      All business, each, and modesty.
      Blanchard, Richardson, Kubek, Boyer.
      In that galaxy of nine, say which
     won the pennant? Each. It was he.

Those two magnificent saves from the knee-throws
by Boyer, finesses in twos—
   like Whitey’s three kinds of pitch and pre-
      with pick-off psychosis.
   Pitching is a large subject.
   Your arm, too true at first, can learn to
   catch your corners—even trouble
      Mickey Mantle.(“Grazed a Yankee!
My baby pitcher, Montejo!”
      With some pedagogy,
       you’ll be tough, premature prodigy.)

They crowd him and curve him and aim for the knees. Trying
indeed! The secret implying:
   “I can stand here, bat held steady.”
      One may suit him;
      none has hit him.
   Imponderables smite him.
   Muscle kinks, infections, spike wounds
   require food, rest, respite from ruffians. (Drat it!
      Celebrity costs privacy!)
Cow’s milk, “tiger’s milk,” soy milk, carrot juice,
      brewer’s yeast (high-potency—
      concentrates presage victory

sped by Luis Arroyo, Hector Lopez—
deadly in a pinch. And “Yes,
   it’s work; I want you to bear down,
      but enjoy it
      while you’re doing it.”
   Mr. Houk and Mr. Sain,
   if you have a rummage sale,
   don’t sell Roland Sheldon or Tom Tresh.
       Studded with stars in belt and crown,
the Stadium is an adastrium.
      O flashing Orion,
      your stars are muscled like the lion.

(From The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore © 1961, 1989)

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you’ve seen a strawberry
that’s had a struggle; yet
was, where the fragments met,

a hedgehog or a star-
fish for the multitude
of seeds. What better food

than apple seeds – the fruit
within the fruit – locked in
like counter-curved twin

hazelnuts? Frost that kills
the little rubber-plant –
leaves of kok-sagyyz-stalks, can’t

harm the roots; they still grow
in frozen ground. Once where
there was a prickley-pear –

leaf clinging to a barbed wire,
a root shot down to grow
in earth two feet below;

as carrots form mandrakes
or a ram’s-horn root some-
times. Victory won’t come

to me unless I go
to it; a grape tendril
ties a knot in knots till

knotted thirty times – so
the bound twig that’s under-
gone and over-gone, can’t stir.

The weak overcomes its
menace, the strong over-
comes itself. What is there

like fortitude! What sap
went through that little thread
to make the cherry red!

(Title poem from the collection Nevertheless, 1944)

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Beauty and Beauty’s son and rosemary–
Venus and Love, her son, to speak plainly—
born of the sea supposedly,
at Christmas each, in company,
braids a garland of festivity.
Not always rosemary—
since the flight to Egypt, blooming indifferently.
With lancelike leaf, green but silver underneath,
its flowers– white originally —
turned blue. The herb of memory,
imitating the blue robe of Mary,
is not too legendary
to flower both as symbol and as pungency.
Springing from stones beside the sea,
the height of Christ when he was thirty—three,
it feeds on dew and to the bee
“hath a dumb language”; is in reality
a kind of Christmas tree.

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A Grave

Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you
      have to yourself,
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,
but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.
The firs stand in a procession, each with an emerald turkey-foot at
      the top,
reserved as their contours, saying nothing;
repression, however, is not the most obvious characteristic of the
the sea is a collector, quick to return a rapacious look.
There are others besides you who have worn that look—
whose expression is no longer a protest; the fish no longer
      investigate them
for their bones have not lasted:
men lower nets, unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating
      a grave,
and row quickly away—the blades of the oars
moving together like the feet of water-spiders as if there were no
      such thing as death.
The wrinkles progress among themselves in a phalanx—beautiful
under networks of foam,
and fade breathlessly while the sea rustles in and out of the
the birds swim through the air at top speed, emitting cat-calls as
the tortoise-shell scourges about the feet of the cliffs, in motion
      beneath them;
and the ocean, under the pulsation of lighthouses and noise of
advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in which
      dropped things are bound to sink—
in which if they turn and twist, it is neither with volition nor

(1921; later published in The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, © 1981)

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New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore

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The Paper Nautilus

   For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
   Writers entrapped by
   teatime fame and by
commuters’ comforts? Not for these
   the paper nautilus
   constructs her thin glass shell.

   Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
   white outside and smooth-
   edged inner surface
glossy as the sea, the watchful
   maker of it guards it
   day and night; she scarcely

   eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold in her eight
   arms, for she is in
   a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram’s horn-cradled freight
   is hid but is not crushed;
   as Hercules, bitten

   by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
   the intensively
   watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,—
   leaving its wasp-nest flaws
   of white on white, and close-

   laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
   a Parthenon horse,
   round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
   is the only fortress
   strong enough to trust to.

(From The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore © 1961, 1989)

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The Past is the Present

Revived bitterness
is unnecessary unless
   One is ignorant.

To-morrow will be
Yesterday unless you say the
    Days of the week back-

   Ward. Last weeks’ circus
Overflow frames an old grudge. Thus:
    When you attempt to

Force the doors and come
At the cause of the shouts, you thumb
   A brass nailed echo.

(This poem is in the public domain)

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Picking and Choosing

Literature is a phase of life: if
      one is afraid of it, the situation is irremediable; if
one approaches it familiarly,
      what one says of it is worthless. Words are constructive
when they are true; the opaque allusion—the simulated flight

upward—accomplishes nothing. Why cloud the fact
       that Shaw if self-conscious in the field of sentiment but is
             otherwise rewarding? that James is all that has been
       said of him but is not profound? It is not Hardy
            the distinguished novelist and Hardy the poet, but one man

“interpreting life through the medium of the
      emotions.” If he must give an opinion, it is permissible that the
critic should know what he likes. Gordon
       Craig with his “this is I” and “this is mine,” with his three
wise men, his “sad French greens” and his Chinese cherries—
     Gordon Craig, so

inclinational and unashamed—has carried
       the percept of being a good critic, to the last extreme. And
         Burke is a
psychologist—of acute, raccoon-
      like curiosity. Summa diligentia;
to the humbug whose name is so amusing—very young and very
rushed, Caesar crossed the Alps on the “top of a
      diligence.” We are not daft about the meaning but this
with wrong meanings puzzles one. Humming-
      bug, the candles are not wired for electricity.
Small dog, going over the lawn, nipping the linen and saying

that you have a badger—remember Xenophon;
       only the most rudimentary sort of behavior is necessary
to put us on the scent; a “right good
       salvo of barks,” a few “strong wrinkles” puckering the
skin between the ears, are all we ask.

(ca. 1920; This poem is in the public domain)

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You Say You Said

“Few words are best.”
      Not here. Discretion has been abandoned in this part
      of the world too lately
      For it to be admired. Disgust for it is like the
Equinox—all things in

One. Disgust is
      No psychologist and has not opportunity to be a hypocrite.
      It says to the saw-toothed bayonet and to the cue
Of blood behind the sub-

Marine—to the
      Poisoned comb, to the Kaiser of Germany and to the
      intolerant gateman at the exit from the eastbound ex-
      press: “I hate
You less than you must hate

Yourselves: You have
      Accoutred me. ‘Without enemies one’s courage flags.’
      Your error has been timed
      To aid me, I am in debt to you for you have primed 
Me against subterfuge.”

(1918; This poem is in the public domain)

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He often expressed
A curious wish,
To be interchangeably
Man and fish;
To nibble the bait
Off the hook,
Said he,
And then slip away
Like a ghost
In the sea.

(1909; This poem is in the public domain)

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When I Buy Pictures

or what is closer to the truth,
when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible
than the intensity of the mood;
or quite the opposite—the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist
      of the hour-glass,
and deer and birds and seated people;
it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal
      biography perhaps,
in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse;
an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic
      in three parts;
the silver fence protecting Adam’s grave, or Michael taking Adam
      by the wrist.
Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that
      detracts from one’s enjoyment.
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved
      triumph easily be honored—
that which is great because something else is small.
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be “lit with piercing glances into the life of things”;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.

(1921; This poem is in the public domain)

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My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residences.

(1924; First published in The Dial)

2 Responses to “12 Poems by Marianne Moore, Influential Modernist Poet”

  1. There is, in your printing of “Nevertheless,” an important mistake (much reproduced): Instead of “as carrots from mandrake” read “as carrots form mandrake” etc.) The first version makes no sense: the second (Moore’s original) means “just as carrots, while growing as a root vegetable, sometimes make not a normal straight root, but sometimes split into two roots growing from the same top, or curl into a ram’s horn shape, because of some deflection-point, like a stone they have to grow around, so a deformity in a person (for instance, a limp) is often a sign of some obstruction they have had to overcome by struggle (for instance, a childhood polio infection.” Please correct, in service to Moore!

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