Kathleen Flenniken


The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore

Edited by Bonnie Costello, Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

It is hard to overestimate the impact of Marianne Moore’s letters. They are at least as important as Moore’s poems. This in no way denigrates the poems, it only serves to communicate the immense pleasure and discovery that comes of this personal and professional correspondence covering the years 1905 – 1969. The Moderns come to life here. The poets’ relationships, one to another, become clearer. And the voice behind Moore’s poems is explained: Moore’s curiosity, playfulness, integrity and intelligence are present in every letter, along with a generosity of spirit, faith, and a personal warmth that rides between the lines of her poems, and might be missed without this glimpse into her personal life.

Marianne Moore, by dint of her unique poetic voice, scrupulous standards, and her five years as editor of the literary magazine The Dial, was celebrated by the most influential modern poets. William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, H. D., Wallace Stevens and many more literary figures of the 20th century, reviewed and admired Moore’s work in print and corresponded with her. Many became lifelong friends. One notable example is Ezra Pound, whose fascism and extreme opinions, despite his genius, made him a difficult man to admire or enjoy. Moore made no attempt to hide her dislike of Pound’s politics. She voiced it. In one letter, circa 1955 (but not dated), some 35 years into their friendship, she writes in full, “EZRA, when a philosopher’s speech is unsavory, indeed foul, of what use has philosophy been to him. This needs no date—no question-mark. It is for all time.” In many more letters, though, she shares with Pound her ideas about poetry, and even, often, inquires with real interest about Ezra’s health and his parents’ health. Moore’s friendship with H. D. resulted in the publication of her first book, published without her knowledge (or consent) in England, a move that hurried Moore’s career along. Wallace Stevens, whom Moore revered and held up as a supreme influence, on one occasion seemed to write to Moore for reassurance about his Ideas of Order. Insecurity seems impossible to believe of Stevens, but Moore responded in a bolstering, respectful manner. And while her personal relationship with T.S. Eliot was never more than the cordial, epistolary kind (they met a few times, but in a manner that did not satisfy Moore), Eliot observed in 1959 that, “One of the books which obviously must in the fullness of time be published…will be the Letters of Marianne Moore.” These letters put flesh and bones on the Modernist movement. They reveal the insecurities, admiration, and sometimes the competitive sparks that connected this school of brilliant writers, and they establish Marianne Moore as an important figure in the movement.

One of the most rewarding letters in the book is written to Allen Ginsberg, dated July 4, 1952, in response to his manuscript, Empty Mirror. Moore does not step back from the vulgarity in Ginsberg’s poems—she charmingly steps up it. “In the opening piece—or rather as the climax—the last line, you say, ‘I wandered off in search of a toilet.’ And I go with you, remember. Do I have to?” Later, “Empty Mirror is too literal, you don’t get behind it. […] [Y]ou did not choose the title, ‘His heart was a bag of shit’; or ‘Existence is a load of shit.’ Any line that occurs in the course of the work as your pronouncement should be able to serve as a title.” Concerning Ginsberg’s anger about and repudiation of his life, she says, “What makes us read a gruesome thing like Tolstoi’s ‘The Power of Darkness’ or Gogol’s “A Lodging for a Night’ or the Book of Job? We read it and thank it because it puts a weapon in our hands; we are the better able to deal with injustice and with a sense of ‘God’s injustice.’ An understanding eye penetrated the dispiriting and called it dispiriting. If we share in the conspiracy against ourselves and call existence an insult, who cares what we write? […] You see and feel with interest. Can’t you be grateful for that? If not, not. But try.// “Why do I say all this? Because your trials, your own realness, and capacity, affect me.” The next letter in the book is a response to Ginsberg’s father, who has thanked Moore for her letter and conveyed Allen Ginsberg’s gratitude.

It is a little like watching the miracle of birth filmstrip to read Moore’s early letters to Elizabeth Bishop, which begin in 1934 when Bishop was still a student at Vassar, and to follow their correspondence through 1969. Moore has been described as Bishop’s mentor, but that does not do justice to the abiding affection the two poets shared. Certainly early letters are of a mentor to a fine student, and for four years Bishop addressed her letters to “Miss Moore” until asked to use “Marianne.” But even early, there are references to lovely afternoons spent together, including trips to the circus and Coney Island. Moore became friendly with Bishop’s friends, and Bishop with Moore’s mother. The tenor and balance of the letters shift with Elizabeth’s maturity. Moore and Bishop become friends and peers, with Moore asking for Bishop’s opinions as often as not. Bishop clearly enjoyed sending Moore exotic gifts and photographs in order to extract Moore’s exuberant thank yous, which amounted to descriptions and flights of fancy worthy of her poetry.

But in the end it is her letters to family that tell the most about Moore. Marianne lived with her mother most of her life until her mother’s death. Marianne’s brother Warner traveled as a Naval Chaplain. The letters she wrote to Warner over her lifetime reveal her brilliant attention to the world of everyday objects and relationships, along with her religious faith, her politics (Republican, but a very different sort than we see today), her devotion to her mother and brother, and her view of herself. In her college letters, Marianne often refers to herself in the third person as “he,” (as do her family). Moore’s later life with her mother unfolds not as duty but as pleasure. She says once to Ezra Pound, "I am cautious about encouraging visitors who … might bore my mother. She is over the heads of most of them." In fact, the intimacy shared by Marianne, her mother, and her brother, revealed in these letters, explains in good part Moore’s self-confidence in an age before suffrage, her completeness in an age of marriage, her bravery in a modern age of poetry.

This book is culled from 30,000 preserved letters, some of them as long as 50 pages. Moore says to Allen Ginsberg, “I am real myself. I write too many letters, then am too tired to do my work.” It is difficult not to feel gratitude.