The Student
Portrait of Marianne Moore
The unspoken feminism of Marianne Moore
by Hannah Udall, 12/10/21

Prior to the Women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, poetry was an occupation dominated by men. The progress feminism has made in recent years makes it difficult for contemporary readers to comprehend the oppression that characterised women’s lives in the early twentieth century. A woman did not have a separate legal identity from her husband, conveying information about contraception was illegal and the status of women was confined to the maternal and domestic sphere. Literary journals were edited and managed by men, and this resulted in the female experience being absent in academic discourse.

Marianne Moore was one of the first poets to be respected by the literary establishment. The modernist movement opened up new possibilities for female poets as traditional aesthetic values and forms were re-evaluated in the tumultuous post-war period, with emotion and intuition gaining importance over a steadfast faith in reason. In order to be successful, poets avoided writing about the female experience, it deemed too trivial or disinteresting for the art of poetry. Moore rarely wrote about the feminine, and this could be seen as a misgiving of her poetry; it failed to add progress to the women’s movement. She was a very successful poet of the time, however, and consequently showed the world that ‘woman’ and ‘poet’ could by synonymous. T.S. Eliot wrote of Marianne Moore as being ‘one of those few who have done the language some service in my lifetime.’ And William Carlos Williams praised her precise and condensed verse being such ‘that in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events.’

Moore rarely wrote emotional pieces and her work has been called cold. Moore was instead concerned with uniting art and the natural world, as well as discipline in art and life. Her poetry is feminist as it is unconventional, rebellious in its subject matter, and powerfully opinionated.

Moore lived a life which was unconventional for a woman of the period. She never married and there is little evidence of romantic attachments. She does not discuss sexual identity in her writing and critics have deemed her lack of discourse around identity as being a failing of her poetry. Yet the idea that Moore’s poetry is lacking due to its avoidance of femininity and sexuality is starkly anti-feminist. A woman poet should be able to stand on the same level as that of a man, and have the same freedom regarding subject matter that a male poet does.

Moore grabbed this freedom with little regard for others’ opinion, simultaneously allowing poetry to progress whilst inspiring future generations of poets to write in line with the dictate of their heart, and shun society. Despite the possibility to infer themes of resistance in her work, staying reticent on issues of racial and gender injustice is a position of privilege which Moore was lucky to have, and should not be easily accepted.

She was one of the first poets to write ‘found poetry’, often including quotes and phrases from other places in her verse, which can be viewed as Moore taking ownership of a language not made to be used by women. Critics have complained about her poetry lacking emotion, and it is interesting to wonder if her poetry would get the same response if she were a man. In response, she wrote that ‘feeling… at its deepest tends to be inarticulate.’ Whilst her poetry may seem vague, this was intentional, with Moore saying that ‘expanded explanation tends to spoil the lion’s leap.’

Moore will remain an important poet, making her mark as an eccentric character dressed in a black cape and tricorn hat, printed on the front cover of Life magazine and The New York Times. Whilst poets like Audre Lorde who came after Moore famously worked with liberation movements of the twentieth century, Moore still holds a place of prominence for her poetic talent and vision of what women in poetry can do.

Image: Wikimedia Commons