Book on Marianne Moore reveals a poet immersed in pop culture

February 24, 1991|By Michael Collier

MARIANNE MOORE: A LITERARY LIFE. Charles Molesworth. Atheneum.

472 pages. $29.95. To the American public, Marianne Moore, a pivotal figure of modernist literature along with T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and H.D., is best remembered as an eccentric, Mary Poppinsish woman who trimmed herself out with dark cloaks and tricorn hats.

Miss Moore could be found at Belmont Park race track, throwing out the ball on opening day at Yankee Stadium, meeting with Cassius Clay or speaking in avid terms about her Brooklyn neighborhood, where she lived with her mother for many years. In the 1950s, her wit as a poet along with her descriptive clarity and gift for precision brought her a contract from Ford Motor Co. to help in the naming of "a rather important new series of cars." Moore's suggestions of "Anticipator," "Thunder Crester," "Regna Racer" and "Marigravue" did not prevent Ford from naming the car, ill-fatedly, the Edsel. When Marianne Moore died in 1972, at the age of 85, she had become a cultural celebrity on the order of Jimmy Durante, Helen Hayes and Joe Louis, among whom she had appeared in 1966 on a cover of Esquire.

Moore's status as a celebrity, which came in the last 20 years of her life, runs counter to the image we have of writers, especially poets, as consummate outsiders.

Yet in Moore's case, celebrity and her participation in popular culture speak to both the paradox of her character and the source of vitality that fed her poems and made them bold examples of a 20th century imagination.

Charles Molesworth's "Marianne Moore: a Literary Life" is the first full-scale biography of Moore and as such is an engaging and informative book, useful to anyone seeking the facts surrounding her life and work. But to anyone seeking an understanding of the complex and paradoxical Marianne Moore, the Moore who could say in 1958, after winning the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, "anyone could do what I do," Mr. Molesworth's book will be disappointing.

Much of the disappointment stems from Mr. Molesworth's reliance on paraphrased letters between Moore, her mother and her brother, Warner. In the book's introduction, Mr. Molesworth sets down his methodology: "I have chosen to limit my interpretations of her [Moore's] character by relying more on literary than on psychological questions. Hence most of my evidence focuses on the external facts of Moore's life. In part this is because I was not allowed to quote from the unpublished correspondence of Moore and her immediate family."

The main problem with this method is that by merely paraphrasing and ordering these letters into a narrative, Mr. Molesworth presents material that he refuses to interpret. His hope is that the literary facts he presents will point up psychological answers. This often is true of his discussions of Moore's poems, but the paraphrased letters themselves are full of psychological facts.

The obsessive and symbiotic relationship between Moore and her mother obviously is one of the most powerful and important influences in the poet's life and begs for sensitive and circumspect analysis. Moore's dependence on her brother for religious and political ideas needs additional exploration, especially in light of Warner's neurotic relationship with his family. For whatever reason, Warner was incapable of being in the presence of his mother and wife at the same time, and as a result he created elaborate plans to guarantee such meetings rarely took place.

Often, Mr. Molesworth's refusal to interpret psychological detail creates a generalizing tendency in his literary evidence. Typical of this tendency is his summary of Moore's friendship with Ezra Pound. Mr. Molesworth concludes a discussion of the two poets this way, "He [Pound] might have learned as much from her as she learned from him."

Regardless of the serious flaws in "Marianne Moore: a Literary Life," there is enough in its pages to satisfy. At times, Moore -- who wrote about poetry, "I, too, dislike it" -- is present in stunning and vivid ways, as when we learn that she enjoyed working on poems while sunbathing on the roof of her Brooklyn apartment building. Mr. Molesworth provides such telling detail all too infrequently, and as a result his portrait of Moore ultimately is flat and passionless.

Although Mr. Molesworth's book is not the definitive biography he hoped it would be, it does make clear the job of Moore's next biographer, to bring alive the character of Marianne Moore in all of its troubling and interesting, eccentric, complexity.

Mr. Collier is a poet living in New Haven, Conn.

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