Marianne Moore was one of the 20th century’s most accomplished and innovative modernist poets, renowned for the precision and exquisiteness of her imagery. Along with her modernist peers T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams, she helped to reinvent the form of the genre in a manner that showcased her singular aesthetic vision. Her verses, especially the early ones, are at once difficult, sharp, and lucid; critic William Logan described her as “a metaphysical poet gone rogue.” She was interested in anything and everything, and her observation, particularly of nature, was almost microscopic. Her friend and fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop called her “The World’s Greatest Living Observer,” and Moore labeled herself a “literalist of the imagination.”
Moore was born in 1887 in Kirkwood, Missouri and grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She never knew her father, who was hospitalized in Massachusetts after a nervous breakdown. She and her mother lived with her maternal grandfather until he died in 1894. Mrs. Moore eventually moved her daughter and son to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where Moore matriculated at Bryn Mawr college in 1905 and earned a B.A. in 1909. At this time she began to write poetry and submit pieces to the college’s literary magazines. After graduating she began taking secretarial classes at Carlisle Commercial College and taught at Carlisle Indian School. In 1911 Moore and her mother traveled abroad to England, Scotland, and France; they visited numerous art museums. In 1915 Moore began seriously writing poems.
Moore and her mother moved to the artsy, bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village, New York City in 1918, where Moore worked at the New York Public Library. She befriended many of the modernist poets, and it was one of them (H.D., Hilda Doolittle) who took Moore’s works to London in 1921 and published them in the collection Poems, without her permission.
Moore released her own collection of poems, many of which had been in the 1921 version; this was the famed Observations of 1924, and it contains many of her most famous works, including “The Octopus.” The volume won the Dial’s award for achievement in poetry.
From 1925 to 1929 Moore edited the famed literary magazine The Dial. She did not write much poetry during this time, but returned to it after the magazine folded. In 1935 she published Selected Poems, in 1936 The Pangolin and Other Verse, and in 1941 What Are Years. In 1951 she published her much-lauded Collected Poems, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Some critics had an issue with this collection because she shortened her famous poem “Poetry” to only three lines, and substantially revised other works as well, but it nevertheless achieved great fame.
Moore and her mother lived in Brooklyn for a time. Her mother died in 1947 and Moore returned to Manhattan in 1966. Her poetic work from the 1960s is generally considered by critics to be inferior to her earlier work.
In her later years, Moore wrote a great deal of prose, including essays and reviews. She was a huge fan of baseball and not only wrote poems about the sport but attended many games in her signature tricorn hat and cape. She also wrote the liner notes for Muhammad Ali’s record I am the Greatest and was asked by Ford Motor Company to suggest names for a new series of cars (although they chose not to use any of them).
Moore was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing (1945), the Poetry Society of America’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Development, the Bollingen Prize (1953), the National Medal for Literature (1968), and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and five other universities.
Moore died in 1972 in New York City after a series of strokes. She was 84 years old.