Book Review

Meditated Stealth: The Life of Marianne Moore

Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
“Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions” . . .

Although these lines from “An Octopus” (1924), Marianne Moore’s ambitious counterweight to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, can be interpreted as a playful analogy for her difficult, relentlessly detailed poetry, they also sum up the challenge faced by her biographer. “An Octopus” juxtaposes an overwhelming amount of precisely observed details yet, in true modernist fashion, refrains from overt declaration of meaning. Instead, the poem invites the reader to find and interpret the patterns that link the details. As in many Moore poems, an identifiable speaker is nowhere to be found, yet everywhere present. No “I” surfaces amidst the poem’s two hundred thirty lines, yet they are saturated with an assertive sensibility. The precise descriptions and shifts of perspective attest to the fineness of the observer: no one else but Marianne Moore could have written this poem.

But while the proliferation of detail and the “meditated stealth” of Moore’s speakers are among the signal pleasures of her poetry, these habits, as practiced by Moore in her life as well as in her poetry, could easily turn into a nightmare for a biographer. The Moore archive at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia is larger than that of any other modernist poet. As the editors of Moore’s Selected Letters note, “the family correspondence is extraordinary in its volume, its continuity over most of the years of her life, and in its detail. Whenever [Moore] was separated from her mother or brother for more than a few days, she wrote them letters. The Rosenbach Museum and Library . . . lists over 13,500 leaves (often written in small hand on both sides) in this correspondence between the years 1905 (when Moore entered college) and 1947 (when Moore’s mother died and her brother virtually stopped saving the poet’s letters).” Her correspondence with friends and fellow poets is forbiddingly, if not equally, copious. The archive also houses drafts of Moore’s poetry, essays, and translations; filing cabinets full of the newspaper clippings that she kept about the eclectic subjects that interested her; and the many notebooks into which she transcribed things that struck her collector’s eye (and ear), ranging from fragments of conversation she had overheard, to memorable passages from the sermons and lectures she had attended, from books and articles she had read, and even from the letters she had received (evidence that her correspondence was copious enough that even she sought a way to cull it).

A biographer of Moore would not only require the astuteness and sheer stamina to assess all of this material, but the agility to avoid getting bogged down in it when writing the book. Along with finding the patterns in the details, the biographer would also face the challenge of finding Moore herself, whose recessiveness and valuation of humility led her to deflect attention from herself, whether in her poems or in her public appearances, throughout her life.

In Holding On Upside Down,[1] the first authorized biography of Marianne Moore, Linda Leavell admirably surmounts these obstacles. In particular, the book aims to portray Moore on her own terms—a goal that would seem fundamental in any biography but which is not so clear-cut with Moore. Leavell points out in her introduction that Moore was as cagey about self-revelation in her letters as she was in her poems and published prose. Among the extensive correspondence that Moore left behind, including letters still in possession of the family, no trove exists in which Moore bares her heart and soul about the questions that most interest her readers: about her sexuality; about how and why such a radically experimental poet could have lived most of her adult life with her mother; and about whether Moore’s Presbyterianism at all conflicted with her modernist perspective. In her introduction, Leavell confesses, “I knew when I began the project that my greatest challenge as Moore’s biographer was not accumulating the facts . . . so much as gleaning from the abundance of facts a compelling story. But eight years and six hundred draft pages into the project, I realized that while I had come to know [Moore’s mother] Mary and [brother] Warner rather well, I still knew little about Marianne.” As in Moore’s poems, the correspondence and commonplace books are freighted with detail, yet, as Leavell notes, what Moore does not say is just as important as what she records—so much so that “omissions are not accidents,” her curt preface to The Complete Poems (1972), could serve as a cautionary motto to a biographer. Leavell therefore had to learn how to interpret Moore’s omissions: “I was not much better off than the biographers who begin with a paucity of facts. . . . While learning to read my subject’s silences, I cut my draft by nearly half and rewrote the book. The best record of her inner life, I discovered, was in her poems.”

Moore’s poems, of course, resist “biographical readings,” and one of the book’s greatest strengths lies in Leavell’s ability to contextualize the poems in relation to the life without indulging in over-interpretation. Leavell never forces the poems into a confessional mode but convincingly mines them for elements of the poet’s interior life, especially of Moore’s spirited responses to circumstances over which she had no control.

Throughout the book, Leavell argues that the core circumstance against which Moore struggled was her relationship with her mother, to whom she felt bound, and yet who granted her no privacy whatsoever: spatial (until her mother’s death in 1947, Moore had no “room of her own” in which to write), psychological, or emotional. Poetry thus became Moore’s refuge. Leavell proposes, and demonstrates throughout the book, that Moore turned the extreme limitations imposed upon her by her mother into a source of strength through her poetry:

. . . expressing her feelings in enigmatic, overcondensed poetry became for Moore a means of survival. From the time when she was twenty-three until her mother’s death when Marianne was almost sixty, the two women lived together and were rarely apart for even one night. Mary Warner Moore did all of the housekeeping and mostly supported her daughter’s literary ambitions. She was the first reader of everything that Marianne wrote, and she served as a trusted assistant during the four years that Marianne edited The Dial. The two were genuinely devoted to each other and enjoyed each other’s company—while the mother exacted from her daughter the emotional subservience of a young child. Marianne had no place to hide—except in her poems.

Building on this thesis, Leavell develops fascinating readings of the poems as celebrations of survival and resistance to tyranny that, in the context of the life, are the only form of rebellion Moore could muster against her mother, even as these themes, as articulated in the poems, are framed as “impersonal” enough to escape a damningly personal interpretation by that ever-present first reader. Calling Moore “a student of nonconfrontational combat,” Leavell argues that “although she could never risk open disagreement with Mary, she could write poems like ‘Critics and Connoisseurs’ that mocked Mary’s pieties so subtly that Mary herself would never know.” Moore’s lifelong habit of “meditated stealth” was strategic, driven by psychological necessity.

But the looming presence of Mary Warner Moore throughout the first six decades of Marianne’s life also presents a narrative challenge. If readers turn to the biography to seek a grand moment when Moore strikes out on her own, they will be disappointed. Like the lives of many of poetry’s great originals, Moore’s life does not conform to a standardized plot, especially a romance plot. But in Leavell’s capable hands, such lack doesn’t make the life uninteresting or the narrative anticlimactic. Along with her contextual interpretations of the poems, Leavell’s other great achievement in the biography is her crafting of a lively narrative that explores how Moore became such a fiercely original poet, critic, and editor. The narrative not only centers on Moore’s interior life and family relationships, but also on her friendships with modernist poets and visual artists. Although Moore has long been accepted as a major modernist poet, her inclusion in the canon has come to seem somewhat routine; the image of Moore in her late years as the grandmotherly eccentric, feted and beloved, has eclipsed the view of Moore as a radical modernist innovator, idolized and imitated by her peers during the teens and 1920s. In Holding On Upside Down, Leavell shifts the focus back to where it belongs: to Moore as a central figure around whom the other major modernists coalesced.

To that purpose, Leavell opens the book not chronologically, with Moore’s birth or an overview of her ancestry, but with a chapter detailing the exhilaration of Moore’s first unescorted trip to New York City, in December 1915, at the age of twenty-nine. She went, ostensibly, to attend a training session at the YWCA on East 52nd Street, but slipped away as soon as she could to visit Alfred Steiglitz’s gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, where she impressed him so much with her knowledge of modern art that he admitted her to his inner sanctum, where he displayed the most radical pieces. This opening chapter not only offers narrative interest but lays the foundation for one of Leavell’s major arguments about Moore’s achievement: that the poetry she had been writing while living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, since her graduation from Bryn Mawr in 1909 was already modern. The originality of style and perspective that are hallmarks of Moore’s poetry and prose were already in place by 1915. Her contact with New York culture, on this visit, on future visits during the following year, and after she and her mother moved to Greenwich Village in 1917, accelerated her development as a poet, but the essential elements, including her unconventional topics, deployment of quotations, and lack of sentimentality, were already in place.

As the book unfolds, Leavell tacks back and forth between examining Moore’s family life and her literary life. As touchstones for the connections she develops between Moore’s family tensions and the generation of her poetry, Leavell identifies three major turning points, all having to do with Moore’s filial duty.

The first major turning point, set in motion by her mother’s lesbian relationship with another woman, is a revelation for readers already familiar with the basic outline of Moore’s life. The intense bond between Moore, her mother, and her brother arose from the difficult circumstances of their early life together: the religious psychosis of Moore’s father, John Milton Moore, led her mother, Mary Warner Moore, to abandon him three months before she gave birth to Marianne. The resulting financial hardships sealed the bond between Mary and her children. The family eventually settled in Carlisle, where Mary taught English for small wages and board (for herself and her family) at Metzger Academy. Even before the move to Carlisle, the three Moores had begun their lifelong practice of using pet names to refer to one another, calling Marianne Warner’s “brother” and referring to her with male pronouns. This coded way of speaking not only intensified their attachment to one another, but also served as a barrier to outsiders—or a sign of acceptance, if the Moores opened the circle of nicknames to include a new person. When Marianne was twelve, that honor was granted to Mary Norcross, a young woman with whom Mary Warner fell passionately in love. The relationship thrived for the next nine years, and Mary Norcross was an important influence on Marianne, for she encouraged the young poet to attend her own alma mater, Bryn Mawr, and helped motivate her to stay. After a difficult freshman year, Marianne flourished and resolved to become a writer. Graduating in 1909, she returned to Carlisle to attend business college and seemed poised to begin exploring the world on her own. That possibility diminished, however, when Mary Norcross left Mary Warner for another woman in 1910. Marianne had struck out on her own and spent the summer doing secretarial work at Melvil Dewey’s Lake Placid Club but returned to Carlisle in October. Although her probationary job had been terminated, she came home, at the urging of Mary Norcross, to support her mother in the wake of the breakup. “Thus,” Leavell writes, “Marianne’s mentor and confidante, the one who had first opened the door to Bryn Mawr and a path to independence, all but closed that door.” Moore lived in tight proximity with her mother for the next thirty-seven years.

But the door was not yet closed entirely. Mrs. Moore had hopes that she could spend the rest of her life with both her son and daughter. Such an arrangement could have offered some freedom to Moore, because Warner could share the burden of attending to their mother. In early 1916, Moore and her mother moved to Chatham, New Jersey, to share the manse provided to Warner, who had become a Presbyterian minister. But in November 1917 he began a lifelong career as a Navy chaplain, and the next spring he married. Moore and her mother felt betrayed, and their relations with Warner took time to heal. They moved to a single-room apartment in Greenwich Village, which, although it put Moore at the center of modernist cultural ferment, also meant sharing suffocatingly close quarters with her mother. Leavell observes that, “at the same time Marianne was developing a reputation as one of the most radical of the new poets, she learned to avoid conflict at home by being the child that Mary wanted her to be.” Although Moore and her mother eventually moved to a larger apartment in Brooklyn, the dynamic between them never changed, and her mother, in control of their finances, consistently practiced a frugality—fastidiously saving everything—that kept their standard of living only a step above poverty.

After both of these turning points, Moore’s response was not only psychological, in resigning herself to the child’s role, but also physical. Already thin, she lost weight dramatically. Leavell notes that Moore “had become a ‘he’ in the family from the onset of puberty and thwarted her own sexual development, probably unconsciously, by not eating.”

Although she tended to eat well when she was away from home, in the wake of her mother’s breakup with Mary Norcross, her appetite suffered; likewise, “her weight dropped to 75” three years after she moved to the Village. Leavell references this and other physical evidence to explain Moore’s lack of interest in sex: “too little body fat causes both amenorrhea and the loss of libido.”

To her credit, Leavell objectively reports, but does not sensationalize, these revelations. Rather than turning Moore into a victim, she emphasizes her fierceness in pursuing poetry, and also her charisma, the uncanny effect Moore had on so many of her modernist peers, male and female. Her combination of gender neutrality, sense of style, and inaccessibility fascinated people: “her lesbian friend Bryher called her ‘a case of arrested emotional development,’ who ‘haunt[ed] places full of potential victims’ (victims, that is, of her inadvertent seductiveness).” Leavell stresses that Moore herself “repeated the diagnosis late in life to explain why she had never been ‘matrimonially ambitious.’”

While these first two turning points effectively closed off the possibility for Moore to achieve independence from her mother, and thereby solidified her commitment to poetry as a refuge, the third turning point liberated her but had serious repercussions for her poetry. After almost a decade of failing health, Mary Warner Moore died in 1947, when Moore was fifty-nine. Without the productive limitation of her mother’s constant presence, Moore simplified her style, and although she gained a popular audience, her verse lost much of the density and subterfuge that energize the poems collected in Observations (1924) and Selected Poems (1935).

Leavell’s last three chapters detail Moore’s surprising transformation into a popular culture icon, which began with her winning of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize for Collected Poems (1955). In her signature tricorne hat and cape (Moore aimed to dress “like Washington crossing the Delaware”), Moore became a media celebrity, featured in popular magazines such as Life and Sports Illustrated and appearing on The Jack Paar Show, Today, and The Tonight Show. Rather than spend months on a single poem, as she did before her mother’s death, she sped up her production, publishing “thirty-three new poems and ten books” “between her seventieth and eightieth birthdays.” For The Complete Poems (1972), she also severely revised, or eliminated, a significant number of her earlier poems. These late chapters of the biography are thorough in detailing Moore’s many awards and public appearances but not quite as interesting as the previous twenty-one chapters, due not to Leavell’s craft as a biographer, but to the reality that, with the death of her mother, much of the generative tension had gone out of Moore’s life.

But Leavell also discusses how Moore’s literary reputation faltered after her death in 1972, due in part to a shift in poetic taste: “In the new era of identity politics, Moore became the wrong kind of woman with whom to identify. Little did [Adrienne] Rich and her adherents imagine in the 1970s and ’80s that the fatherless Moore had been raised by lesbians and educated by feminists [at Bryn Mawr]. . . . Readers familiar with Moore’s early work have never doubted her prominence among America’s major modernists. But her reputation reverted abruptly after her death to what it had been before World War II: she was a poet’s poet, unread by all but the elite.”

But that invisibility was not entirely the fault of changes in taste or of Moore’s own shift in her approach to poetry. Due to various factors, the Estate took far too long to commission an edition of Moore’s letters and to appoint a scholar to write the authorized biography. Holding On Upside Down is so well-executed that it was worth the wait, and its belatedness is the responsibility of the Estate, and no fault of Leavell’s. Yet, while Marianne Moore, over forty years after her death, finally has a reliable biography, she is also the last modernist poet to have her life chronicled. She was also the last major modernist to have her correspondence published (Selected Letters, an astutely edited volume, appeared in 1998). The result of all of this belatedness is that Moore has been, up until now, defined too often through the eyes of other first and second generation modernists. Like the woman she describes in “Those Various Scalpels,” Moore has been difficult to see because she has been refracted into so many pieces: portrayed as an auxiliary character in other biographies, or described, and sometimes even caricatured, by other poets in their letters. The combined effect of these portrayals has been to reinforce the image of Moore as a dowdy conservative and to diminish her achievement as a modernist innovator.

To redress this imbalance, at a number of points in her biography, Leavell strategically reframes well-known anecdotes from Moore’s perspective. For example, Moore’s 1917 poem “Those Various Scalpels” has often been seen as a portrait of Mina Loy. Revising this assessment, Leavell notes that, while “five lines of the poem are devoted to the Florentine enamel brooch that Loy was wearing when she and Moore met,” “the distinctive hairstyle . . . belongs not to Loy but to Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale,” an advocate for women’s suffrage. Leavell proposes that the poem is not a description of Loy or of Hale, but “essentially a self-portrait—based on H.D.’s [1916] review of [Moore’s] work.” The parallels Leavell develops between the review and the poem are convincing, especially in regard to how Moore characteristically reconfigures her sources (in this case, Moore turns H.D.’s praiseful weapon analogies into “an ambivalent self-caricature”).

Later in the book, Leavell offers a revisionist twist to Moore’s relationship with Elizabeth Bishop. The story of Moore and Bishop has been told often enough that Leavell rightfully devotes more space in her biography to Moore’s friendships with other writers, such as H.D., than to Moore’s bond with Bishop. Breaking with conventional interpretations of the Moore-Bishop dyad, Leavell refrains from using a mother-daughter analogy and instead emphasizes their friendship. When they met in 1934, following a year when she and her mother were often ill, “Marianne needed the friendship as much as Bishop needed a mentor. For the first time in many years, Marianne had the kind of literary companionship she had known during her early years in the Village.” Amusingly, Moore’s version of a trip to the circus with Bishop “cast[s] Bishop in the role of college-girl sophisticate”; when Moore, aiming to snip hairs from the heads of baby elephants, asked Bishop to distract the older ones with stale bread, Bishop balked. Moore wrote to Warner, “Miss Bishop fed her slices timidly with new white chamois gloves and protested vehemently, ‘It’s breathing on me.’” This version is a far cry from Bishop’s portrayal of the incident in her essay “Efforts of Affection,” in which Moore seems rather dotty and Bishop styles herself as a brave co-conspirator.

Leavell also gives readers a new perspective on an incident made much of by biographers of Hart Crane: the extensive revision suggestions she made, as editor of The Dial, to “The Wine Menagerie.” Crane allowed the poem to be published with the changes (the original was retitled, cut by two-thirds, and the remaining lines regularized) but savaged Moore in his letters as “a hysterical virgin.” While acknowledging the aesthetic differences between the two poets, Leavell notes that Moore went on to accept, without revision requests, six more poems by Crane and tried to find an objective reviewer for his first book, White Buildings. Throughout her chapter on Moore’s four-year tenure as editor of The Dial, Leavell emphasizes not only her hard work (for low pay) but her notable lack of conservatism. At The Dial, Moore exercised “the paradoxical combination of self-assertion and self-effacement that characterizes her poetic persona.” She dedicated herself so single-mindedly to the job that she wrote no poetry during her years as editor, yet left her artistic mark on the magazine through her pursuit of “individuality” and “intensity,” whether through the prose she wrote, especially for the unsigned “Comment” section, or the diverse range of authors she published. In particular, she did not publish the work of well-known authors merely for the sake of name recognition (she published Yeats’s “Among School Children” but rejected other poems by him) or for the sake of being avant-garde (she rejected excerpts from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake but accepted Gertrude’s Stein’s “The Philosophy of Composition”). She published emerging writers, such as Stanley Kunitz and Louis Zukofsky, venerable elders such as George Saintsbury, “included women in virtually every issue she edited,” and, adds Leavell, “much of what she published celebrates the dignity of people marginalized by ethnicity and class.” Leavell’s chapter on Moore’s editorship of The Dial is framed as a contrast to the Crane episode; because she opens with the Crane conflict, the rest of the chapter, documenting Moore’s meticulous and creative approach to editing, implicitly rebukes Crane’s belittlement of Moore.

The implicit rebuke is a common strategy that Leavell adopts in Holding On Upside Down. Throughout the book, she eloquently advocates for Moore with an appealing directness. But Leavell also favors a form of ethically motivated restraint reminiscent of Moore’s own tendency to allow readers to come to their own conclusions. There are many moments in the narrative when another biographer would have sensationalized the material or offered summary judgment, especially of Moore’s mother. For example, in relating an incident from 1923 when Mrs. Moore inexplicably chloroformed a kitten that she and Marianne had adopted and doted upon, Leavell does not pass judgment on Mrs. Moore, but focuses on Marianne’s grief. In her devotion to accuracy, and her respect for the dignity of the people whose lives she chronicles in Holding On Upside Down, Linda Leavell is worthy of the praise Moore reserved for Henry James in “An Octopus”: “like Henry James, ‘damned by the public for decorum’; / not decorum, but restraint; / it was the love of doing hard things / that rebuffed and wore them out—a public out of sympathy with neatness.” Chronicling the life of Marianne Moore is a hard thing to do, and Leavell, with a Moorish blend of precisely chosen details, high ethical standards, and love, rescues Moore from invisibility and restores her to the forefront of modernist poetry.

[1] HOLDING ON UPSIDE DOWN: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore, by Linda Leavell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30.00.