NYPL's Marianne Moore: Writing Her Way Onto the Shelves

By NYPL Staff
March 22, 2021

In honor of Women's History Month, the Library is taking a look back at some of the remarkable women who changed The New York Public Library—and the field of librarianship—forever with our new series, Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL. Each week this March, we will be sharing reflections from our current staff on how the impact of these trailblazing figures from the Library's 125-year history are still felt today. 

Marianne Moore. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1701001

About Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore was a pivotal American, Modernist poet of the 20th century. A colleague of writers Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, H.D., and Elizabeth Bishop, among others, her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951. In the 1920s, Moore worked as a part-time clerk at the Hudson Park Branch of The New York Public Library, which some critics have linked to the exacting and cataloguing character of her writing. Before being hired, she used the Hudson Park Library, as she lived in the community. Her work can be found today in the research collections of the Library, specifically the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of American and English Literature.

Marianne Moore’s Legacy

Reflection by Carolyn Vega, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Curator of English and American Literature

Plaque commemorating Marianne Moore outside 260 Cumberland. Credit: Carolyn Vega.

When I walk with my daughter to the swings in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, we pass by the haunts of some of my favorite authors. Before we moved across the neighborhood, we lived between Walt Whitman’s rowhouse (on Ryerson Street, unmarked) and Richard Wright’s apartment (on Carlton, which is soon to be co-named for the author). Close by, too, is James Agee’s place. But the best part of our walk is going up Cumberland, where we always pause and say hello to Marianne Moore, who lived at number 260 from 1929 to 1966. A small plaque marks the building, and I think of her sitting in her living room, which overlooks the street, surrounded by books, oil paintings, and old-fashioned furniture. I can picture this so clearly because the contents of her living room (from another apartment) are on permanent display at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia. How many poets have had their most intimate living spaces memorialized in such a way? Not many!

But then again, not many poets collaborated with Muhammed Ali, threw the opening pitch of a Yankees season, or worked for the Ford Motor Company on naming a new car (two personal favorites from her suggestions: the Utopian Turtuletop and the Mongoose Civique). And this isn’t even including the prizes. Moore was awarded the Bollingen in 1951, the Pulitzer, for her Collected Poems, in 1952, and was thrice nominated for the National Book Award, which she won also in 1952. 

The way Moore tells it, she came to poetry—if not by happenstance, if not reluctantly—then almost as if she had no choice. She thought of being a painter or studying medicine when she was younger, and, when it came to writing, poetry was a distant third to fiction or drama. But once she moved to New York City in the 1910s she became, according to William Carlos Williams's autobiography, “a rafter holding up the superstructure of our uncompleted building” of Greenwich Village poets and writers. When asked, in a 1961 Paris Review interview, about the genesis of her poetic career, Moore said: “I do not now feel quite my original hostility to the word [poetry], since it is a convenient, almost unavoidable term for the thing (although hardly for me—my observations, experiments in rhythm, or exercises in composition). What I write, as I have said before, could only be called poetry because there is no other category in which to put it.”

Once committed, Moore was a tenacious poet: she submitted one poem for publication no less than 35 times. She was also a fearless editor. From 1925–29 she led The Dial, an influential magazine that originated as the chief vehicle for the writings of the Transcendentalists in the 1840s. Under her leadership, The Dial published the work of Maxim Gorki, Marie Laurencin, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, William Butler Yeats, and many others.

Moore is well known for her 1919 piece “Poetry” which begins, “I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” The version of this poem as first published concludes that poetry is inescapable for those interested in true expression:

In the meantime, if you demand on
one hand,

          in defiance of their opinion—

     the raw material of poetry in

  all its rawness, and

  that which is on the other hand,

     genuine, then you are interested
in poetry.

Recently, I’ve been returning to her 1941 work “What Are Years.” This poem has inspired many, including artists (like Mark di Suvero) and musicians (such as Philip Glass), but it feels especially relevant now: to me, the title alone speaks to this strange, unsettling, amorphous pandemic-time we’re living through. And the first lines bring me back to the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer: 

  What is our innocence, 

  what is our guilt? All are 

  naked, none is safe. 

The poem interrogates the narrator’s own reality. She argues for honesty and true expression (the “raw material” of 1919’s “Poetry”), and for continuing the fight for truth despite one’s mortality:

The very bird, 

grown taller as he sings, steels 

his form straight up. Though he is captive, 

his mighty singing 

says, satisfaction is a lowly 

thing, how pure a thing is joy. 

This is mortality, 

this is eternity.

Moore wrote this poem in 1941, while living in that apartment that my daughter and I regularly pass on Cumberland Street. What would she make of the neighborhood today? Looking out of her living room window, would she have donned one of her famed tricorn hats to join me and my daughter, and countless others, streaming up her street to the (for me, daytime and baby-friendly) protests and vigils in Fort Greene Park last summer? Marianne Moore fought for women’s suffrage and identified, in today’s terms, as a white ally (though her politics could be problematic), so I would like to think so. In any event, her poetry has recently been a guidepost for me.

The New York Public Library has strong holdings in the Marianne Moore collection of papers and the James Sibley Watson/The Dial papers, as well as related collections of Modernist writers. Researchers should also be aware of the Marianne Moore Collection at the Rosenbach and the Marianne Moore Digital Archive, hosted by SUNY Buffalo, as well as the Dial/Scofield Thayer papers at the Beinecke.

This is part of the Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL series. Find out how the Library is celebrating Women's History Month with recommended reading, events and programs, and more.