The true legacy of Marianne Moore, modernist monument.
By Stephen Burt
When a book's spine says Complete Poems most readers assume the book includes all of a poet's output, or at least everything published in that poet's lifetime. Marianne Moore's poems yield a different story. Throughout her career Moore (1887-1972) revised her work meticulously, some say compulsively; the 1967 Complete Poems, which she compiled and arranged, leaves out much of the early work that first won her notice, and includes other work only in later revisions. But the Moore who in 1919 wrote the poem titled "Poetry" (which begins "I too dislike it" and contains the famous phrase "imaginary gardens with real toads") was a recent Bryn Mawr graduate, committed to her own poetry but deeply unsure about its merits; an ex-schoolteacher who had just moved to New York City with her mother; a reader of "little magazines" published abroad; and a self-declared socialist. The Moore who revised "Poetry" in 1951, and the even older poet who cut it to a mere three lines in 1967, was long ensconced in her adopted Brooklyn, a minor celebrity noted by Time and Life for her ornate hats and her interest in baseball, and a reliable Republican.
Many American poets see Moore as one of the monuments of modernism, up there with Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens (or, depending on which poets you ask, with Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein). Yet Complete Poems long remained the only book of Moore's poems consumers could purchase. In 1997 Bonnie Costello—known for her critical studies of Moore and Elizabeth Bishop—produced, together with two other editors, Moore's Selected Letters (a tough selection; Moore sometimes wrote 50 a day, and over 30,000 survive). The sparkling, informative, well-received correspondence set the stage for a Moore resurgence.
That resurgence has begun. Last year the University of California Press offered Robin Schultze's...