Call it the Curious Case of Marianne Moore. She was an American Athena, spawned by no particular school but championed by every major poet of her generation. Her poems are Wonderlands populated by spiny creatures and pools of sudden malice, where language is precisely used and used precisely. She was also a beloved pop icon, instantly recognizable in her tricorne hat. She threw the first pitch for the Yankees in 1968, palled around with Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali, and was invited by Ford to name a new car. The New York Times noted her death in 1972 on page one. She continues to anticipate us with her enthusiasm for data and sampling texts, her horror of sentimentality.
Biographies, wrote Auden, are “always superfluous and usually in bad taste.” I’m inclined to believe he’d make an exception in the case of Holding On Upside Down, a new book about his great friend Moore. It’s deliberate and sensitive—“creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,” in Moore’s words—capable of containing her many contradictions, most notably her desires for recognition and privacy.
Moore left behind thirty-five thousand letters but few clues to her personality. She strove, as Frost wrote, “to keep the overcurious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters,” and she largely succeeded. Her biographer Linda Leavell admits, “Eight years and six hundred draft pages into the project, I realized that while I had come to know [Moore’s mother and brother] Mary and Warner rather well, I still knew little about Marianne.” Eventually, Leavell determines that the poems are “the best record of her inner life,” and turns to them as a primary source of information— with mixed results.
She reads the poems as gnomic journal entries. Thus “The Fish,” an inky philosophical whorl, becomes a coded reference to a rift in the family, an interpretation based on a single image: water driving “a / wedge / of iron through the iron edge / of the cliff.” The book falters when Leavell goes this far, and she frequently goes this far. She comes to conclusions like (and I shudder to type this): “The most significant legacy of Marianne’s kindergarten experience is her almost instant affinity, when she encountered it in the early twentieth century, for the work of other moderns.”