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Feature

Moore or Less

By Danny Heitman | HUMANITIES, Spring 2016 | Volume 37, Number 2

In the autumn of 1955, a Ford Motor Company executive wrote to ask poet Marianne Moore to help him come up with a name for the company’s latest model—a request that prompted one of the oddest episodes in American literary history. Imagine Maytag recruiting Robert Frost to name a washer, or Frigidaire drafting Carl Sandburg to christen a freezer, and you’ll get some idea of how unconventional the letter from Ford might have seemed when it landed in Moore’s mailbox.

But Moore, who’d gained national celebrity as much for her personality as her poetry, was getting accustomed to strange mail. In 1951, the year she turned 64, Moore had won three top honors: the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, and the Pulitzer. “This brought her a kind of celebrity that was a quantum leap greater than that which she had had before, and she became the media’s darling,” said Moore scholar Patricia Willis.

Moore’s peculiarly charming demeanor made her a popular sensation. A longtime resident of Brooklyn who had never married, she was a seminal enthusiast of retro fashion, favoring lace collars, mink stoles, and huge hats, including a tricorne that became her signature. Her fondness for the Brooklyn Dodgers and boxing matches endeared her to people who had assumed poets wouldn’t be interested in such populist pastimes.

Here’s how Elizabeth Bishop, a fellow poet and Moore protégé, described Moore’s ascendance in those postwar years: “She was now Marianne Moore, the beloved ‘character’ of Brooklyn and Manhattan; the baseball fan; the friend of many showier celebrities; the faithful admirer of Presidents Hoover and Eisenhower and Mayor Lindsay; the recipient of sixteen honorary degrees (she once modeled her favorite academic hoods for me); the reader of poetry all over the country.”

With fame, Moore’s mailbag mushroomed, as fans and favor-seekers sent her manuscripts, trinkets, and invitations to travel near and far. The letter from Ford, though, would become one of the most memorable in the poet’s career. It was written by Robert B. Young, a Ford marketing executive who explained that the company wanted a name for its new car line that would be as evocative as Thunderbird, a label that had done wonders. Ford’s in-house creative team was stumped, Young confessed, so he was hoping a poet could rescue him. Although Young encouraged Moore to give herself free rein in brainstorming a car name, “another ‘Thunderbird’ would be fine,” he wryly added.

“I am complimented to be recruited in this high matter,” Moore responded. “I have seen and admired ‘Thunderbird’ as a Ford designation. It would be hard to match.” She agreed to the assignment, but dodged Ford’s offer to pay her, insisting that she’d take money only if she could offer “specific assistance”—meaning, presumably, the coining of a car name the company decided to use. Moore first suggested the Ford Silver Sword, named after a plant which “I believe grows only in Tibet, and on the Hawaiian Island, Maui on Mount Haleakala (House of the Sun).” Other Moore suggestions included the Resilient Bullet, bullet cloisonné, bullet lavolta, Intelligent Whale, Ford Fabergé and Mongoose Civique. Anticipator and Pastelogram made the list too, along with another Moore nomination that would become her most-quoted idea.

“May I submit UTOPIAN TURTLETOP?,” she asked Young. “Do not trouble to answer unless you like it.” Ford eventually opted for a name from its own ranks: the Edsel. If anything, Moore’s genius for car-naming was ahead of its time. Many of the names on her list appeared to anticipate the ethereal car monikers we now take for granted, such as the Honda Civic, Mustang Bullitt, and Chevy Volt.

But Moore’s efforts on Ford’s behalf were not in vain. The New Yorker eventually published her correspondence with Ford, much to the amusement of readers across the country. On one level, the letters seemed like a literary farce, the earnestly dotty ramblings of an old lady who wasn’t quite in on the joke. Not everyone has found the joke funny. Poetry critic Helen Vendler sees the letters as Moore’s sad lapse into self-caricature, a career turn that obscured her stature.

“These letters lodged themselves more firmly in the imagination of the general public than anything else Moore wrote,” notes biographer and NEH research fellow Linda Leavell. “Is the poet as hilariously remote from the modern world as the letters indicate?” Leavell thinks not. Moore allowed the letters to be printed in the New Yorker, after all, and she included them in A Marianne Moore Reader among her best work.

It’s quite possible, if not likely, that Moore knew exactly what she was doing in taking on the Ford assignment, seeing it as a chance to promote not only a car, but herself. She was a master at cultivating her own profile, despite her public image as a sheltered maiden aunt. As Leavell notes, Moore “had long regarded her own poetry as a form of advertising,” including these lines in her poem, ‘The Arctic Ox (or Goat)’:   ‘If you fear that you are / reading an advertisement, / you are.’”

And as Clive Driver, her literary executor, has pointed out, there was nothing accidental about Moore’s unconventional public character, which so many observers misread as the unstudied disposition of a naïve spinster. “Her interest in images extended to her own persona,” Driver said. “From at least the time she was in college, she was intensely interested in devising the way she appeared. Sometimes, she would put together a whole outfit, and then she would go down into the subway in one of those little booths where you could take your own picture, to see whether or not the effect that she wanted to achieve by this outfit came across in photography.”        

Along with her lifelong interest in advertising, Moore had another reason to help name a car. “Marianne was intensely interested in the techniques of things—how camellias are grown; how the quartz prisms work in crystal clocks; how the pangolin can close up his ear, nose and eye apertures . . . how to drive a car; how the best pitchers throw a baseball; how to make a figurehead for her nephew’s sailboat,” Bishop recalled. “The exact way in which anything was done, or made, or functioned, was poetry to her.”  

Moore was an objectivist poet, which meant, among other things, that she believed writing about objects could be a good way to explore larger moral and emotional truths. Among her friends was fellow objectivist William Carlos Williams, who famously penned a handful of lines about a red wheelbarrow to touch on such themes as nature, neglect, and the balance between beauty and function.

Moore tackles equally ambitious subjects in “Four Quartz Crystal Clocks,” a poem that allowed her to indulge two of her favorite fascinations, marketing and mechanical devices. The poem draws on a promotional pamphlet from the Bell Telephone Company. It opens like this:

     There are four vibrators, the world’s exactest clocks;
     and these quartz time-pieces that tell time 
     intervals to other clocks,
     these worksless clocks work well . . .

Later in the poem, Moore draws a parallel between chronological accuracy and linguistic accuracy. She notes how quickly tiny alterations in language can throw a whole scheme of understanding wildly out of calibration. The bellboy who collects our luggage is entirely different from a bouy-ball that marks a part of a sea, although the words sound almost like twins. She mentions similar gulfs of meaning between “glass eyes” that taxidermists use and “eye-glasses” that we use to see.

Although Moore’s comparisons seem obvious at first, she invites us to realize just how bizarre our mother tongue is, the smallest adjustments in syllables pointing the listener in radically divergent directions. A poem about clocks evolves into a poem about words—a poem that’s ultimately about poetry itself.

It’s a quintessentially objectivist poem, one that illustrates the strengths of this particular school of literature as well as its complications. Moore’s poetry, so often grounded in clocks or church steeples, tiny animals, a paper nautilus, or a page from a magazine, can seem emotionally arid to the casual reader. If there’s no obvious contest of love or other emotional conflict at the heart of the narrative, then what’s really at stake, and why should we care?

But “Four Quartz Crystal Clocks” has a quiet passion at its core, contemplating as it does the narrator’s obsession with precision. The poem underscores Moore’s primary ambition—to see the world and render it with surgical accuracy on the page. She saw literary precision as not just cleverness, but a moral imperative. Moore implies in “Four Quartz Crystal Clocks” that without this kind of clarity, order quickly slides into chaos.    

“To read a poem by Marianne Moore is to be aware of exactitude,” another Moore friend, poet Grace Schulman, writes. “It is to know that the writer has looked at a subject—a cliff, a sea animal, an ostrich—from all sides, and has examined the person looking at it as well.”

Moore knew that this kind of exactitude was an ideal easily corrupted by human fallibility. In an early poem, “Leaves of a Magazine,” she describes how magazine pages reveal their treasures:

     They open of their own will to the place
     Where Captain Kidd stands with averted face
     And folded arms, as solid as an oak,
     His loosely knotted sash and scarlet cloak
     Encircling him, and flapping in the breeze.   

But later in the poem, we see that the pages have grown imperfect from use:

     A block of shade, with blurs and puckers where
     Admiring hands have often brought to bear
     Their pressure on the picture and the rhyme
     Of buccaneering in the olden time. 

In this way, or so Moore seems to say with her reference to the smudges and abuses of “admiring hands,” our attempt to see what’s real and true and beautiful becomes compromised by our familiarity with it. Poetry, she hints here, is one way to renew our sense of life’s strangeness. And strangeness, in fact, is a hallmark of Moore’s sensibility. Her poems, though grounded in earthly concerns, can read like reports from an alien planet.

That’s especially true of “An Octopus,” Moore’s acclaimed poem inspired by Mount Rainier. The title refers to eight glaciers radiating from a mountain, although Moore doesn’t explicitly mention Rainier in the poem. This can seem like militant obscurity, and maybe it is. But in so obliquely referencing a national landmark, then describing it as a monster, Moore forces us to see a landscape as a life force, and not simply a tourist destination:

     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,”
     it receives one under winds that “tear the snow to bits
     and hurl it like a sandblast
     shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.” 

At six pages, “An Octopus” is one of Moore’s longest poems, and its size chimes with its subject. The poem reads like a dense mountain of fact; it’s as if Moore is suggesting, perhaps ironically, that nature can be completely colonized by the human mind, if only we throw enough observation at it. The quotation in the poem, from an article in the Illustrated London News, is one of many in “An Octopus,” and it points to her penchant for filling her poetry with prose fragments from other commentators. There’s often so much quotation in a Moore poem, in fact, that the voice behind the verse can sound impersonal and aggregated, like an entry in an encyclopedia. She copiously documented these sources in notes that accompanied her poems, as if she were writing a term paper. But it’s in the selection and arrangement of this material that Moore expresses her vision. The odd juxtaposition of these excerpts—derived from sources as varied as classical quotation, commercial pamphlets, and tourist brochures—gives Moore’s poetry its dreamlike quality, much like the collages of her friend, the artist Joseph Cornell.

Moore wrote “An Octopus” after taking a trip to Rainier with her older brother, Warner, and her mother, Mary. It was a happy occasion for a family that had known many challenges. Moore was born in 1887 in Kirkwood, Missouri. Her father suffered a nervous breakdown before her birth, and she never met him. The Moores moved in with her maternal grandfather, a minister whose death in 1894 prompted the family to move again, to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Moore entered Bryn Mawr College in 1905, where her interest in writing grew. After graduating in 1909, she worked as a teacher, and by 1919, with Warner embarked on a career as a naval chaplain, Marianne and Mary had settled in New York.  Marianne worked as a secretary, librarian, and tutor while pursuing her literary ambitions. Her poetry brought her to the attention of The Dial, an influential literary journal that hired Moore as its editor in 1925. She ran The Dial until its publisher’s declining health forced it to close in 1929. At a time when few women held positions of authority in American letters—or anywhere else in America, for that matter—Moore’s reviews helped advance a new era of literary modernism. Her circle included William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, who praised her as “one of those few who have done the language some service.”

But not everyone was a fan. Informed by her upbringing in a minister’s household, Moore had a strong—some would say confining—sense of propriety. As The Dial’s editor, she rejected excerpts from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as too crude, and she insisted on changes to Hart Crane’s poems, too. Referring to Moore’s tenure at The Dial and Harriet Monroe’s leadership of Poetry, Crane lamented that the nation’s two leading literary journals were edited by “hysterical virgins.”

Moore, Bishop recalled, had once reprimanded her for using the term “water closet” in a poem.  But despite her nineteenth-century manners, Moore impressed Bishop chiefly as a daring innovator. As a college student, Bishop was eager to meet Moore after reading her poems. “I hadn’t known poetry could be like that,” Bishop wrote. They became close friends. “She must have been one of the world’s greatest talkers,” Bishop recalled. “Entertaining, enlightening, fascinating, and memorable; her talk, like her poetry, was quite different from anyone else’s in the world.”

Bishop’s homage to her mentor, a poem called “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” casts Moore as a kind of metaphysical fairy buzzing over the Gotham skyline. But the image of Moore as an amusing sprite tends to downplay just how ambitious and shrewd she was. She’d made her way to the top of New York literary culture, becoming an influential editor and poet, all the while insisting on her own, idiosyncratic standards of art and life. “She was extraordinarily, I think we would say, gutsy,” poet Richard Howard once said.

George Plimpton told of arriving to escort Moore to a Dodgers game, then being given a postcard of a pangolin, a kind of scaly anteater, as a gift. “It is hard to know what to say, presented with a postcard of an anteater,” he remarked about the experience. Moore was fascinated by animals and often wrote poems about them. Those poems “are really not about animals,” Howard said. “Her poems are about herself."

     If “compression is the first grace of style,”
     you have it. Contractility is a virtue
     as modesty is a virtue.

The quotation in “To a Snail” comes from Demetrius (though Moore attributes the line, incorrectly, it seems, to Democritus). For Moore, the reason for so much quotation in her poems seemed self-evident. “When a thing has been said so well that it could not be said better,” she explained, “why paraphrase it?” 

Moore’s calm insistence on being herself was part of her public appeal. Her death in 1972 at age 84 brought the exit of one who was arguably the last celebrity poet of her generation. Robert Frost had died in 1963, Carl Sandburg in 1967. With Moore’s death, the nation lost one of the last poets that might actually have been recognized by passing strangers on the street. But it was a fame that, in Moore’s last years, appeared to operate apart from her work, not as an extension of it. She was widely known among many people who didn’t seem to know her poems.

They weren’t, after all, easy poems to get to know, and they still require readers to meet them at least halfway. Moore helped usher in a new era of poetry that was generally more cryptic and less accessible—a genre that now tends to resonate among a niche readership rather than the broad general public. She seemed to recognize the complications she had helped create. 

“I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle,” Moore famously wrote of poetry. “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.”

About the Author

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.

Funding Information

NEH funding has supported numerous Marianne Moore projects over the years. One of the more recent efforts was a $144,801 grant to advance the digitization of several small literary magazines where the works of Moore, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and other important writers were published. Linda Leavell was the recipient of three separate research grants from 1989 to 2005 for projects relating to the works of Marianne Moore, including her award-winning 2014 biography Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore. Sources: Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, A Marianne Moore Reader, The Best of Plimpton by George Plimpton, Elizabeth Bishop: Prose, The Poems of Marianne Moore, The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, Voices and Visions, a 1980s public television series about American poets, and Great Women Writers, edited by Frank Magill.