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Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell – review


A biography of the great modernist poet Marianne Moore traces a life lived in her mother's shadow

"Critics and Connoisseurs" – a good introduction for novices to the modernist poetry of Marianne Moore– begins with typical wryness: "There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious / fastidiousness." The images that follow – "Certain Ming products, imperial floor coverings of coach-wheel yellow" – are almost obsessively precise, yet the message of the poem is ambiguous. At one point, Moore seems to take a moral stance against the notion of "ambition without understanding", but later goes on to describe, with evident pleasure, a swan that cannot resist investigating a piece of food being carried upstream. "I have seen this swan and / I have seen you," Moore writes in a turn to the second person that never fails to take my breath away, although it remains unclear to me whether she is scolding or empathising with the reader.

TS Eliot, one of Moore's greatest champions, claimed that the "moderately intellectual" would be hard-pressed to appreciate Moore's emotional depths – understandably annoying some critics, who insisted Moore's style was overly technical, her tone "superior" or "finicking". In her insightful new biography of Moore, Linda Leavell analyses "Critics and Connoisseurs" and other poems, and argues that their themes are convoluted with good reason. Despite being one of the most remarkable minds of her generation, Moore spent her adult life living in a series of small apartments with her mother, Mary Warner, a politically liberal but pious woman, who resisted giving her daughter the personal freedom she both craved and feared. Born in 1887 and raised in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (Moore never met her father, who was admitted into a mental institute shortly after her birth), Moore might have moved to New York or even London after attending Bryn Mawr College, but she ultimately felt it necessary to return home to Mary, who was depressed after a break-up with her female partner, and suffered from various ailments (although she lived to be 85). While few of Moore's letters express anything but protectiveness toward Mary (who in turn monitored Moore's eating, warned her against "overexertion", and paid most of her earnings into an out-of-reach savings account), it is easy to agree with Leavell that Moore's bouts of depression and illness were likely the results of her claustrophobia.

Writing poetry, then, offered Moore a rare private space, but even the poems were not insulated from her mother's influence; "ambition without understanding" was just one of many phrases of disapproval or judgment spoken by Mary that Marianne recorded in her notebook before working into a poem. "Although she could never risk open disagreement with Mary," Leavell writes, "she could write poems … that mocked Mary's pieties so subtly that Mary herself would never know." While Mary ostensibly encouraged her daughter's creativity, she only really approved of moral or didactic verse; Moore's evocation of experience or artistic struggle for its own sake – the swan going for the tiny, moving piece of bread, an ant "overtaxing its jaws / with a particle of whitewash" – represented a small but powerful act of rebellion. If Moore's poems seem difficult or indirect, Leavell suggests, it was because they had to be.

Leavell skilfully recreates the psychological arena in which Moore lived and worked, taking a nuanced approach to what her friend Bryher once identified as her "case of arrested emotional development". After an infatuation with Peggy James, niece of Henry, at Bryn Mawr, Moore had "no man-instincts whatsoever", as her mother put it, and preferred to devote herself to her poetry and, inevitably, family life. A possible reason for this is hinted at in Leavell's exegesis of "The Boy and the Churl", a short story written by the young Moore about a maiden aunt who envies her nephew's freedom and tries to restrain it. As Leavell explains, Moore identified not just with the young boy, but also the aunt; the story, she explained to a friend, "takes off Peggy and me". Moore clearly knew all too well the greed inherent in possessive love; it seems that, having experienced both sides of its power, she wanted no more of it.

Despite her contemporaries' confusion about what William Carlos Williams called her "mother thing", Moore was adored by both sexes. (Marianne "was our Saint," wrote Williams, "in whom we all instinctively felt our purpose come together to form a stream".) When Scofield Thayer, editor of the Dial, took an unwanted romantic interest in her in 1921, she retaliated with the long satirical poem "Marriage", apparently outraged. (Thayer, informally separated from his wife, Elaine Orr, nonetheless financed the care of her child with EE Cummings.) At such turbulent moments, poetry clearly played an important role for Moore, allowing her to organise the world that threatened to overwhelm her, and to frame it in ironising quotation marks. "Marriage", like many of Moore's best poems, is comprised largely of phrases and sayings borrowed from people, magazines, business books, and other poems – "Liberty and union / now and forever" – which she juxtaposed with a skill that Leavell, whose first book focused on Moore's relationship with modernist art, compares to the assemblages of Joseph Cornell.

At their best, Moore's poems – which often feature small animals such as "the bat holding on upside down" adopted by Leavell as the title of this book – engage with the cramped surroundings in which they were created. It is interesting, however, to read Moore's less successful, more inhibited attempts at self-expression. Like the 20- or 30-page letters Moore rattled off to friends and family most weeks ("Life is so exciting that I don't know whether I'm on my sidewheelers or my tail fins," she wrote to her brother during what sounds like a fairly grisly trip to Europe with Mary), her only novel was the product of a kind of emotional evasion; set in a fairytale bohemia, its heroine Eloise claims to live in "a little attic in New York where I read and do some work and a lot of cogitating". (The novel was rejected by Macmillan in 1939.) Her less successful verse is similarly lacking in "unconscious fastidiousness"; the much-anthologised "In Distrust of Merits" was pieced together from remarks made by Mary about the second world war collected over several years, the poet's ironising juxtapositions apparently absent.

After her mother's death in 1947, when Moore was 59, she won countless prizes and awards, was profiled inLifeand the New Yorker, and threw out the ball to open the 1968 Yankees season. She was also largely abandoned by the younger generation, who preferred the autobiographical hellraising of Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich to Moore's increasingly didactic, occasional verse. It has been a source of regret to Moore's most ardent fans that, having been proudly inscrutable, her poetry became almost too accessible, and her image "cuddly"; Helen Vendler in particular has lamented the publication of Moore's communications with Ford Motor Company, who invited her to come up with names for a new vehicle. (Moore's attempts – "Bullet Cloisonné," "Mongoose Civique," "Utopian Turtletop" – confirmed her to be laughably out of touch.) Leavell is ultimately unable to challenge this picture of the older Moore; perhaps it is inevitable that the absence of the tyrannical Mary should leave this final section of the book oddly flat, just as Moore's need to be loved by a wider readership should come at the expense of her appealing mystery. For every moment in this biography that leaves us wishing Moore could have had a little more freedom – some time to travel, a love affair, a room of her own – there is another poem to remind us that her most powerful work emerged from her bitter frustration.

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