How I Fell in Love with Marianne Moore: Or, Elizabeth Bishop on What Her Eccentric Mentor Taught Her About Writing
“I never left Cumberland Street without feeling happier: uplifted, even inspired, determined to be good, to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought.”
By Maria Popova
I fell in love with the poet Marianne Moore (November 15, 1887–February 5, 1972) in three pivotal palpitations.
The first was the discovery that she once saved an ancient tree with a poem, which was my entry point into all of her coruscating poetry.
The second was Mary McCarthy’s disarming account, in one of her letters to Hannah Arendt, of meeting Moore at an academic conference:
I was away from New York, an idiotic affair at Baltimore, honorary degree together with Margaret Mead, a monster, and Marianne Moore, an angel. Only one nice thing to report: we were talking about being taken to college next morning and being fetched separately, each one by her department. I said non-committally: nice of them to bother, or something to that effect. Whereupon Mead (one better call her only by her second name, not because she is a man, but because she certainly is not a woman) launched into a diatribe [about] how much all these people enjoy being with us — celebrities, etc. Before I could even get properly mad, Marianne Moore: “My, my, I can only hope we will be enjoyable.” And that was that.
The third and by far the most powerful was Elizabeth Bishop’s tender and charming piece “Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore,” found in Bishop’s Prose (public library). Bishop paints an affectionate portrait of her friend and mentor as a woman of great genius and great eccentricity, every little bit of her personhood as miraculous as her writing — a woman who was, perhaps one could say, the Oliver Sacks of poetry.
In the first edition of Marianne Moore’s Collected Poems of 1951 there is a poem originally called “Efforts and Affection.” In my copy of this book, Marianne crossed out the “and” and wrote “of” above it. I liked this change very much, and so I am giving the title “Efforts of Affection” to the whole piece.
While an undergraduate at Vassar, Bishop was introduced to Moore by her college librarian, Miss Fanny Borden (incidentally, niece of the famous axe-murderer Lizzie Borden). Upon hearing of young Bishop’s enthusiastic love for Moore’s poetry — “Why had no one ever written about things in this clear and dazzling way before?” — Miss Borden nonchalantly offered that she and Marianne had been friends since childhood. Bishop swallowed her excruciating shyness and agreed to be introduced to her hero.
She recounts the memorable encounter with which a lifelong friendship began:
The day came when Miss Borden told me that she had heard from Miss Moore and that Miss Moore was willing to meet me in New York, on a Saturday afternoon. Years later I discovered that Marianne had agreed to do this with reluctance; in the past, it seems, dear Miss Borden had sent several Vassar girls to meet Miss Moore and sometimes her mother as well, and every one had somehow failed to please. This probably accounted for the conditions laid down for our first rendezvous: I was to find Miss Moore seated on the bench at the right of the door leading to the reading room of the New York Public Library. They might have been even more strict. I learned later that if Miss Moore really expected not to like would-be acquaintances, she arranged to meet them at the Information Booth in Grand Central Station — no place to sit down, and, if necessary, an instant getaway was possible.
I was very frightened, but I put on my new spring suit and took the train to New York. I had never seen a picture of Miss Moore; all I knew was that she had red hair and usually wore a wide-brimmed hat. I expected the hair to be bright red and for her to be tall and intimidating. I was right on time, even a bit early, but she was there before me (no matter how early one arrived, Marianne was always there first) and, I saw at once, not very tall and not in the least intimidating. She was forty-seven, an age that seemed old to me then, and her hair was mixed with white to a faint rust pink, and her rust-pink eyebrows were frosted with white. The large flat black hat was as I’d expected it to be. She wore a blue tweed suit that day and, as she usually did then, a man’s “polo shirt,” as they were called, with a black bow at the neck. The effect was quaint, vaguely Bryn Mawr 1909, but stylish at the same time. I sat down and she began to talk.
It seems to me that Marianne talked to me steadily for the next thirty-five years… She must have been one of the world’s greatest talkers: entertaining, enlightening, fascinating, and memorable; her talk, like her poetry, was quite different from anyone else’s in the world.
After two years of calling each other “Miss,” Bishop and Moore became Elizabeth and Marianne to one another — a friendship first cultivated through trips to the circus. (Animals were one of Moore’s great fascinations — not only do they populate her poems, but she took to calling her family and friends by animal names to express fondness.) Eventually, Bishop began making frequent visits to Moore’s apartment on Cumberland Street in Brooklyn, where she lived with her mother. The young poet became acquainted, and regarded with affectionate curiosity, Moore’s eccentricities — her habit of bowing to the elevator man and all other service people she encountered, the trapeze on which she exercised in one of her doorways, her special fondness for snakes, a distaste for the color red so severe that she once thoroughly washed the coating off the red pills her doctor had prescribed her before consuming the medication, her spirited love of tennis, which she played with a young African American boy from the neighborhood.
But behind these amusing habits lay a serious and scrumptious talent — a writer from whom Bishop received tremendous creative sustenance and learned the most important lesson of her writing life, a lesson that applies as much to writing as it does to all art, all entrepreneurship, and all forms of putting something new and meaningful into the world:
The atmosphere of 260 Cumberland Street was of course “old-fashioned,” but even more, otherworldly — as if one were living in a diving bell from a different world, let down through the crass atmosphere of the twentieth century… During the walk to the subway and the forty-five-minute ride back to Manhattan, one was apt to have a slight case of mental or moral bends — so many things to be remembered; stories, phrases, the unaccustomed deference, the exquisitely prolonged etiquette — these were hard to reconcile with the New Lots Avenue express and the awful, jolting ride facing a row of indifferent faces. Yet I never left Cumberland Street without feeling happier: uplifted, even inspired, determined to be good, to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought, never to try to publish anything until I thought I’d done my best with it, no matter how many years it took — or never to publish at all.
Bishop made Moore’s advice the backbone of her creative ethos. A notorious perfectionist, she published only 101 poems in her lifetime — remarkably spartan output for any poet, but especially for one whose career spanned more than half a century — which nonetheless earned her the Academy of American Poets fellowship, the National Book Award, two Guggenheim fellowships, and the Pulitzer Prize, among numerous other accolades. In my own book, her memoir of Moore — a cascading delight in its entirety — remains one of Bishop’s greatest achievements. Complement her Prose, where the piece is found, with Bishop on how poetry works its magic and why everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life, then revisit great writers’ collected advice on the craft.
Published March 10, 2017