Replete in tricorn hat and cape, modernist poet Marianne Moore lived and wrote not with anonymity—for she was quite famous—but with enduring mystery. When asked about her peculiar uniform, Moore commented that she wanted to dress like “Washington crossing the Delaware.” This explanation is very telling of the poet’s personality: it offers no autobiography but speaks to her larger thematic interest. Moore strove in her poetry to breach new waters with ingenuity and to reclaim those metaphysical lands that the World Wars had left decimated. And in the early 20th century, New York City was a hub of modernist thinkers and writers.
In 1918, Moore moved with her mother to Greenwich Village and rented a small basement apartment. It was so small, in fact, that oftentimes mother and daughter took their dinner perched on the edge of the bathtub. And while these conditions were not ideal, Moore arrived in New York already quite notorious for her work in the imagist movement. Three years previous, she had taken her first unescorted trip to attend a class at the YMCA on East 52nd Street. Yet, young Marianne escaped to Alfred Steiglitz’s Gallery at 291 5th Avenue and impressed the curate so much with her knowledge of modern art that he invited her to view his private collection of more radical pieces. They maintained their friendship when Moore made the permanent move. Both Moore and Steiglitz ran in modernist circles with the likes of William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Elizabeth Bishop.
After publishing quite a few poems in prestigious literary journal, Dial, Moore became its editor from 1925-1929. Despite the depths of her talent and intelligence, the meek poet prized humility above all. Without Moore’s knowledge, novelist Bryher (then a lover of H.D.) collected 24 of Moore’s poems and published them in a small volume entitled, Poems (1921). Moore was rather appalled at this move and stated bluntly that she wouldn’t have chosen those poems nor would she have published them without a keen editorial vivisection. Nevertheless, this publication jumpstarted a career that led to over 23 published volumes of Moore’s poetry. So, it cannot have been too reprehensible.
From their apartment in the Village, Moore decided to move herself and her mother to Fort Greene in Brooklyn. She was to spend the next 36 years there, until her final move to Manhattan. In the interceding years, Moore wrote voraciously, intelligently and radically and her work went on to receive the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, and a Pulitzer.
All was not so serious, however. Moore balanced complex, high-minded poetry with visits to the Jack Paar Show to discuss her other love, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Journalist George Plimpton introduced Moore to Mohammad Ali for whom the poet wrote lyrics to his spoken word record, I Am the Greatest. Infamously, in 1958, Ford asked Moore to name the much-anticipated new automobile. Her submissions were: Mongoose Cirique, Utopian Turtletop, and Pastelogram. Sadly, Ford did not choose any of these gems.
A bright burning thing in their constellation, first and second generation modernists orbited Marianne Moore. Elizabeth Bishop, herself a mentee of the poet, wrote an Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore (1948):
Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
Come like a daytime comet
With a long unnebulous train of words,
From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
Please come flying
In reply to which, Marianne might have written the famed line: “Superior people never make long visits” (Silence).