“Criminally Eclectic”: Marianne Moore, the Almost Laureate

Marianne Moore, 1935. Credit: George Platt Lynes.

Marianne Moore, 1935. Credit: George Platt Lynes.

In 1945, Louise Bogan became our fourth U.S. Consultant in Poetry (or Chair in Poetry, as the position was originally called) and, notably, the first woman to take the post. Recommended by Robert Penn Warren, she eventually won the battle over the other five front-runners: R. P. Blackmur, Theodore Spencer, Paul Engle, Winfield Townley Scott, and Delmore Schwartz.

Bogan indeed made history as our first woman Consultant in Poetry (now the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry). But, as history would have it, she wasn’t the first woman asked to be Consultant—Marianne Moore was.

Marianne Moore never served as Consultant, as we know, though it’s important to note how history would have shifted if she had. Moreover, it’s important to note the power and influence that Moore’s work held—no matter how “eclectic,” no matter how Moore herself would have balked at these accolades—on her contemporaries at the time, and in its position at the forefront of modern American literature today. Why, then, didn’t Moore serve?

In a letter dated March 13, 1944, Moore declines the position offered by Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, writing:

. . . I feel I must needs justify in some way all the care you have expended on this thought of my possibly coming to the Library of Congress to succeed Allen Tate in his work there. But a realistic pondering of your letter makes plain to me—apart from my need to remain where my mother and I now are—that I am scarcely qualified for this Library work.

She then characterizes her knowledge of poetry as “criminally eclectic” and deems herself “not a good reference worker”—somewhat puzzling words from a woman who would gain considerable recognition as both a poet and critic.

Over the next several years, Marianne Moore declined at least three additional invitations to serve as Consultant in Poetry. Before Elizabeth Bishop took the position in 1949, for instance, Librarian of Congress Luther Harris Evans had tried again unsuccessfully to urge Moore to come to Washington.

Marianne Moore's letter to Librarian of Congress Archer MacLeish declining the Consultant in Poetry post. March 13, 1944.

Marianne Moore’s letter to Librarian of Congress Archer MacLeish declining the Consultant in Poetry post. March 13, 1944.

When Louise Bogan took the position in 1945, she initially felt conflicted about leaving her job as a long-time poetry reviewer for The New Yorker. But, as she wrote to Allen Tate—a close friend and poet who had served as Consultant in Poetry from 1943-44—she accepted the Consultantship “with both eyes wide open to the difficulties involved.” In Tate’s estimation, according to his introduction in Sixty American Poets, Bogan was one of the “best women poets in America in the traditional lyric mode: I make that qualification, looking towards Marianne Moore . . . Miss Bogan has a sustained power and a sense of form that nobody else can quite equal, and with very little of the violence of language typical of her contemporaries she achieves a fine originality.”

Later in this anthology, which he assembled during his time as Consultant, Tate qualifies his statement on “looking towards Marianne Moore”:

Miss Moore is one of the half dozen most original poets of our time, in any language. She will never be popular: her severity, her lack of “emotional interest,” her intellectualism, and her syllabic metrics will keep her poetry from ever reaching a large public.

 

Some might say, Not so fast, Allen Tate, as Moore was highly respected in her lifetime. But Tate’s note on Moore is an interesting one, since it would prove to be simultaneously true and false. Compared to Bogan, considered a fierce formalist, Moore’s modernist approach took on a more “unbridled” quality, as described by T. S. Eliot. Many viewed her work as too avant garde or obscure, and Moore’s own privacy and perpetual dissatisfaction with her writing limited her success to a certain degree.

Moore was a perfectionist, a notorious revisionist, and over the course of her more than 50-year career published only 101 poems. One of her most well-known poems, the iconic “Poetry”—which begins, “I, too, dislike it”—appeared in the first edition of Observations in 31 lines. A few years later, in the second printing of the same book, “Poetry” had been cut to 13 lines. When Moore’s Complete Poems hit shelves in 1967, the entirety of the poem took shape in three lines:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

As for popularity, well, Moore’s Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1951, and in 1953 Moore was awarded the Bollingen Prize. By the mid to late 1950s she was, for all intents and purposes, a celebrity. One could, for instance, see her around town in her signature cape and tricorn hat; on The Tonight Show talking baseball with Jack Paar; profiled in Sports Illustrated; and featured on the cover of Esquire. Moore wrote the liner notes for Muhammed Ali’s spoken word album, I Am the Greatest, and threw the opening pitch in the Yankees’ 1968 season.

Earlier, in 1955, The Ford Motor Company had asked Marianne Moore to suggest names for a new series of cars. After months of correspondence—with contributions from Moore like Utopian Turtletop, Thunderblender, Pastelogram, and The Intelligent Whale—Ford wrote Moore to formally reject every name on the list, instead going with Edsel.

Alas, we don’t live in a world where we can drive Utopian Turtletops or reminisce about Marianne Moore’s time as Consultant in Poetry, but isn’t it nice to imagine?

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