One of American literature’s foremost poets, Marianne Moore’s poetry is characterized by linguistic precision, keen and probing descriptions, and acute observations of people, places, animals, and art. Her poems often reflect her preoccupation with the relationships between the common and the uncommon, as well as advocate discipline in both art and life, and espouse restraint, modesty, and humor. She frequently used animals as a central image to emphasize themes of independence, honesty, and the integration of art and nature. Moore’s work is frequently grouped with poets such as H.D., T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and, later, Elizabeth Bishop, to whom she was a friend and mentor. In his introduction to her Selected Poems (1935), Eliot wrote: “Living, the poet is carrying on that struggle for the maintenance of a living language, for the maintenance of its strength, its subtlety, for the preservation of quality of feeling, which must be kept up in every generation… Miss Moore is, I believe, one of those few who have done the language some service in my lifetime.”
Moore was born in 1887 near St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She earned a BA in biology and histology from Bryn Mawr College; early poems such as “A Jelly-Fish” were first published in the college’s literary magazines. After graduation, Moore studied at Carlisle Commercial College and taught at the Carlisle Indian School. Moore and her mother, who were devoted to each other, moved to New York City in 1918 and Moore began working at the New York Public Library in 1921. Her first volume Poems (1921) was selected and arranged by H.D., who gathered work that had appeared in journals such as Others, the Egoist, and Poetry. Moore’s second collection Observations (1924) included poems chosen by Moore to represent the full range of her poetry’s forms and themes. The volume contained classic Moore poems such as “Marriage,” a long free-verse poem featuring collage-like assemblages of quotations and fragments, and “An Octopus,” a detailed exploration of Mount Rainier. Named for the shape of the glacier surrounding the mountain, the poem is regarded as one of Moore’s finest.
Moore was the editor of the influential literary magazine Dial from 1925 to 1929, when the magazine shut down. Moore’s work on the Dial expanded her circle of literary acquaintances and introduced her work to a more international audience. Moore published Selected Poems in 1935. The volume included poems from Observations as well as pieces that had been published between 1932 and 1934. The ‘30s and ‘40s were productive years for Moore: she published The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936), What Are Years (1941), and Nevertheless (1944). The last volume included Moore’s anti-war poem “In Distrust of Merits,” which was judged by W.H. Auden one of the best poems to come out of World War II. Moore, however, described the poem as “just a protest—disjointed, exclamatory.” Moore’s comments on poetry were notoriously ambiguous—her poem “Poetry” begins, “I too dislike it”—and she once described herself as a “happy hack.”
Moore’s Collected Poems (1951) won both the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and the National Book Award, and in 1953 she was awarded the Bollingen Prize. Her later works include a translation of The Fables of La Fontaine (1954); Like a Bulwark (1956); O, to Be a Dragon (1959); Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics (1966); and The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967), which was re-issued in 1981 with revisions to early poems and additional poems written later in life. Moore’s Complete Poems generated controversy in both editions for the significant revisions to Moore’s early work, including her heavy edits to the poem “Poetry.” Moore wrote as a note to her Complete Poems, “Omissions are not accidents—M.M.” However, critics thought slashing “Poetry” from thirty-one lines to three a mistake. Anthony Hecht once wrote that as “an admiring reader I feel that I have some rights in [this] matter. Her poems are partly mine, now, and I delight in them because they exhibit a mind of great fastidiousness, a delicate and cunning moral sensibility, a tact, a decorum, a rectitude, and finally and most movingly, a capacity for pure praise that has absolutely biblical awe in it. She (and Mr. Auden, too, as it will appear) however much I may wish to take exception to the changes they have made, have provided a field day for Ph.D. candidates for years to come, who can collate versions and come up with theories about why the changes were made.”
In addition to poetry, Moore wrote a significant number of prose pieces, including reviews and essays. Her prose works cover a broad range of subjects: painting, sculpture, literature, music, fashion, herbal medicine, and sports—she was an avid baseball fan and wrote the liner notes for Muhammed Ali’s record, I Am the Greatest! Moore’s prose works include A Marianne Moore Reader (1961), Predilections (1955), and The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (1987).
Moore was highly regarded as a poet during her lifetime and even became somewhat of a celebrity, famous for her tricorn hat and cape and featured in magazines such as Life, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. Ford Motor Company even asked her to come up with names for a new series of cars, though they rejected her suggestions. Moore’s honors and awards included the Poetry Society of America's Gold Medal for Distinguished Development, the National Medal for Literature, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. She died in 1972 in New York City.
Excluding the title, "Poetry" is only three lines long. Compared to other poems written around the same time, such as T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, Marianne Moore's poem is a piece of cake: it has no difficult words, obscure allusions, random foreign vocabulary, or grammatically twisted sentences. And it doesn't run on for pages and pages. When you read it, you find yourself thanking the high heavens for Moore's clarity, but you might also feel a bit tricked: Is that it? Is this really a poem?
Countless critics will tell you that this absolutely is a poem and, in fact, one of the most important poems of the 20th century. Countless critics will also tell you that if you had to pick just a handful of American poets to read, Marianne Moore should be one of them. And these aren't just the folks that produce your poetry textbooks, teach your literature classes, or write for this website – these critics include some great modernist poets themselves, such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., and W.H. Auden, all of whom were very public and very ardent fans of "Miss Moore."
Part of "Poetry's" fame arises from its unusual publishing history. It was first printed in 1919 in the journal Others. From that point on, Moore took to revising the poem again and again, so that four different versions of "Poetry" have circulated in print. (See Bonnie Honigsblum's essay, "Marianne Moore's Revisions of 'Poetry'" or Jeffrey D. Peterson's "Notes on the Poem(s) 'Poetry,'" both in Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet, for analyses of these varying versions.) Almost five decades after the first publication, the longest version, comprised of 29 lines, had already established itself as a canonical modernist poem when Moore took it to the cutting board again and hacked it down to three lines. Maybe even Moore thought this was a bit extreme, so she printed the revised poem with an endnote reproducing the longer version.
Now poetry students are left with the following dilemma: do we read the three-line "Poetry" on its own, or alongside the longer version? Where exactly does the poem end, if the poet attaches a longer version as an endnote? Can footnotes, endnotes, etc., be considered additional lines of a poem? In this sense, "Poetry" doesn't just give you one person's description of poetry – it makes you rethink what poetry is.
You're reading this site, so we can assume that you're either a lover of poetry or have a good reason for studying it. You probably assume this about us too. So let's be honest with each other: Don't you have moments when you read a poem, and you're like, "What? Seriously?"
These moments are more likely to happen with a 20th century poem, too. After all, Shakespeare's a genius, Alexander Pope has some clever rhymes, and Robert Browning writes about homicidal maniacs. But then you get to Ezra Pound's Cantos or, for contrast, William Carlos Williams's plum poem, and you think, "What am I supposed to do with this?"
Marianne Moore is a modernist poet who isn't afraid of admitting that modern poetry can sometimes be a little off-putting. The speaker of "Poetry" tells us that she doesn't like poetry, but she also wants to talk it out and figure out why one might keep going back to poems. Moore puts the reader's point of view into the poem and uses language that resembles the way everyday readers speak.
We might also think of "Poetry" as an intervention; Moore steps in and says, "Hey, Ezra, Bill, and the rest of you, let's consider what our readers are thinking. Maybe we should ask ourselves, 'Why should they care?'"