Call it the Curious Case of Marianne Moore. She was an American Athena, spawned by no particular school but championed by every major poet of her generation. Her poems are Wonderlands populated by spiny creatures and pools of sudden malice, where language is precisely used and used precisely. She was also a beloved pop icon, instantly recognizable in her tricorne hat. She threw the first pitch for the Yankees in 1968, palled around with Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali, and was invited by Ford to name a new car. The New York Times noted her death in 1972 on page one. She continues to anticipate us with her enthusiasm for data and sampling texts, her horror of sentimentality.
Biographies, wrote Auden, are “always superfluous and usually in bad taste.” I’m inclined to believe he’d make an exception in the case of Holding On Upside Down, a new book about his great friend Moore. It’s deliberate and sensitive—“creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,” in Moore’s words—capable of containing her many contradictions, most notably her desires for recognition and privacy.
Moore left behind thirty-five thousand letters but few clues to her personality. She strove, as Frost wrote, “to keep the overcurious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters,” and she largely succeeded. Her biographer Linda Leavell admits, “Eight years and six hundred draft pages into the project, I realized that while I had come to know [Moore’s mother and brother] Mary and Warner rather well, I still knew little about Marianne.” Eventually, Leavell determines that the poems are “the best record of her inner life,” and turns to them as a primary source of information—with mixed results.
She reads the poems as gnomic journal entries. Thus “The Fish,” an inky philosophical whorl, becomes a coded reference to a rift in the family, an interpretation based on a single image: water driving “a / wedge / of iron through the iron edge / of the cliff.” The book falters when Leavell goes this far, and she frequently goes this far. She comes to conclusions like (and I shudder to type this): “The most significant legacy of Marianne’s kindergarten experience is her almost instant affinity, when she encountered it in the early twentieth century, for the work of other moderns.”
But Leavell’s reliance on the poems also allows her to stalk more interesting quarries, like how Moore’s familial history shaped her desire for secrecy and self-erasure. It’s a gothic story, right down to the names—appropriately enough, our enigmatic poet was descended from a family called Riddle. Her parents separated before she was born. She never met her father, who suffered from religious mania and hacked off his right hand. Marianne; her brother, Warner; and her mother, Mary, lived together in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a tight trio, with a private language. Mary insisted on the unity of the family; there would be no growing up, no defection. “We are like people interrupted in love-making the minute any outside persons come in,” she gloated.
The greatest threat Mary perceived was marriage. Not her own—she’d fallen in love and taken up with a female friend—but her children’s. When Warner finally married, it took the family three years to reconcile.
Moore proved more tractable. When Mary’s lover left her for another woman, Moore returned home to live, and Mary referred to them as a “young couple.” They never parted. Until Mary died, they shared a bed, and Moore endured her mother’s constant scrutiny: Mary read Moore’s letters, edited her writing, and controlled her money. When Moore decided to move to New York in 1918 to be closer to other writers, Mary accompanied her, convinced that “Ratty,” her thirty-year-old daughter, was “too little to be chased about by big cats.”
But the big cats adored her. Eliot and Pound were quick to recognize her talent and were impatient to help her publish a book. Her poems, Leavell says, were Moore’s room of her own, a place where she could resist and hide from her mother (whom she publicly credited with her success); they were “instructions in the art of survival and acts of survival themselves.” Moore “became a student of nonconfrontational combat,” she writes, citing the line “Surrender, may be conquest.” But it’s just as easy to pluck another line to “prove” the contrary—say, “an animal with claws should have an opportunity to use them.”
Which brings us back to the poems. Has any poet ever loved looking more than Marianne Moore, who visited zoos and the circus so religiously? Could anyone else have noticed the “gondoliering legs” of a swan, “the edgehog miscalled hedgehog”? Now that we understand how scrutinized Moore was, we begin to imagine what a relief it must have been for her to look rather than be looked at. We notice how scrupulously she maintains her distance from the obscure objects of her desire. There is an ethics of looking and loving in her work, a point she makes explicit in an essay on her fellow “literary bachelor” Henry James, who “seems to have been haunted by awareness that rapacity destroys what it is successful in acquiring.” Moore loved the zoo for the animals, but she must have loved its bars, too, the bars that kept the people out.
Holding On Upside Down asks us to look at this savant of looking, a poet who loved performing and purging her papers, who knew how to hide in plain sight. Moore described a jellyfish as “visible, invisible,” which is her own achievement. And like the jellyfish, which opens and closes, invites and resists, looks so silky and packs a sting, she keeps us at a rapt remove. A couple of weeks after meeting Marianne Moore, a young Elizabeth Bishop wrote to a friend: “She is simply amazing. She is poor, sick, and her work is practically unread, I guess, but she seems completely undisturbed by it and goes right on producing perhaps one poem a year and a couple of reviews that are perfect in their way. . . . She is really worth a good deal of study.” As Bishop intuited and Leavell proves, few poets resist and reward patient study as much as Marianne Moore. And if we look at her through the bars of this sympathetic biography, I don’t think she’d much mind.
Parul Sehgal is an editor at the New York Times Book Review.