A Kind of Communion
by Philip Hoare
a couple of years ago, my nephew cyrus, a college student, poet and rugby captain, came down from his bear pit with a book. It was a collection of poems by Marianne Moore, a modernist poet from the 1920s. He thought I might like her work. Cyrus has very good taste, as well as being excellent in a ruck.
I’d heard of Moore before. But until now she was just an elusive New York name, a fleeting figure, hovering at the edge of things. I knew Cecil Beaton had photographed her. And that she’d been championed by WH Auden. But as I began to read her poems, I was astonished. Her energy was audible, tangible: it burst out, as if waiting for me to happen upon it. And it came fired up with a wild eccentric world of shapeshifting animals and frayed Greenwich Village nights; of glittering shards of radical art and picking her way through them, the demure Miss Moore, Titian-red hair pulled up in a bun, wearing a cape and a tricorne hat like a pirate dreamt up by Virginia Woolf and played by Tilda Swinton. A Manhattan Orlando who happened to end up on nights out with Norman Mailer, writing the liner notes for Muhammad Ali’s verse LP I am the Greatest!.
But Marianne was no man’s muse: she was one of the last century’s most brilliant female artists in her own right. Yet now she appears to have vanished, as if she’d only imagined herself.
Moore was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1887, the same town and same year as TS Eliot. She never knew her father; he was already in a lunatic asylum, where he cut off his right hand because it offended him. Moore and her brother, John, her closest companion, were brought up by their mother, Mary, a vivid, conspiratorial figure in Marianne’s life; she and her grown-up daughter would share a bed every night (albeit not with Mary’s female lovers).
Marianne went to Bryn Mawr, the celebrated women’s college Katharine Hepburn would attend a generation later, but seemed set for the life of a librarian. Then, in 1915, she went to Greenwich Village. Lou Reed might say she took a walk on the wild side.
Marianne called her first stay in New York City her “Sojourn in the Whale”, as if she had been swallowed up. Three years later, she and her mother moved to a two-room apartment in the Village, and Marianne fell into art. Perched on the corner of the sofa — there was nowhere else to work — she wrote modernist poems so strange and startling that Ezra Pound and Eliot begged to publish them. In 1925, she quit her job at the local library to edit the prestigious literary journal, The Dial. She published avant garde writing by James Joyce and Thomas Mann, but her own work was as radical as any she was editing. She collected the world, history, dreams, ideas.
In “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns”, her imagination exploded in a baroque reworking of Eliot’s “Waste Land”, in which a “strange fraternity” of tusked beasts sport on the Virgin Queen’s gown like embroidered animations. She brought the past into the present, appearing
archaic yet being utterly new. Anticipating sampling techniques by generations, she spliced together found quotations and images gathered on her wanderings, both literary and real. She was always ready and waiting. Then, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art — her Grand Tour of Europe at one remove — she saw the work of Albrecht Dürer, and fell in love.
As did I. Marianne was invading my own life as I wrote my book about the Renaissance artist, and how his art lived on long after his death in 1528. Looking at his graphic visions of rhinoceroses, hares and clumps of grass, she saw his modernity echoed in hers. With her voice in my ear, I realised that she became Dürer, channelling his hyper-detailed art in her alchemical scenarios. Writing in 1928, his 400th anniversary, she declared her love for Dürer’s “sensitiveness to magnificence in apparel”, as if he were her suitor, bringing her flowers.
It was a good match. By printing his own work and painting himself, Dürer became the first international artist; his power lay in reproduction, a kind of reincarnation. What he did in pictures Marianne would do in words. She was waiting for her man, and he was waiting for her: Dürer and Moore, red-headed androgynes twinned across time. As George Bernard Shaw, a great fan of Dürer’s, said, you use a mirror to see your face; you use art to see your soul.
Visiting England, Marianne marvelled at Oxford boys on their bicycles in their white flannels and lavender socks; she saw them as exotic birds. She liked to write about animals because, like athletes, they looked their best when caring least, she said. In London, she and her mother stayed in Bloomsbury, just round the corner from Eliot’s office at Faber & Faber, yet she declined to call on him, saying she knew how annoying it was to have visiting Americans blustering in.
Back in Manhattan, she gave way to Eliot’s pleas; he published her collected poems to vivid acclaim. People loved her work not quite knowing what it meant. It seemed to be more a kind of communion — and it became ever more elusive and electric. Moore had rediscovered her childhood love of the sea on the rocky island of Monhegan in Maine, and created new, extraordinary images that leapt from species to geology. In “An Octopus” (Moore’s titles act as the first lines of her verse), the eight-armed cephalopod turns into a glacier, then into glass that can bend (“a much needed invention”), then into a cliff the colour of clouds.
They were fables, in the original meaning, as stories of animals that stood in for human beings. They were innate, opaque, dealing in myth and subterfuge. But you could peer behind the curtain and realise that, slyly, she was talking about the Easter Rising in Ireland or the horrors of racism. Her readers were dazzled; Marianne knew her effect. “I fairly sparkle now and then,” she said, quite modestly, then turned her attention to a pangolin or a jerboa or an anteater dancing delicately across the floor.
In 1939, Auden arrived in New York, proclaiming Marianne his favourite poet. It was another love affair. She said she was bound to him by “hoops of steel”; he said her work was “dolphin-graceful”; he was using her own words. By now Marianne’s brother John, concerned for their welfare, had moved his sister and mother to an apartment in Brooklyn. They disdained the second bedroom and continued to sleep in the same bed. Locals thought they were witches.
They were right: Marianne was a magician performing arcane rites. In “The Steeple-Jack”, her most amazing work yet — pre-titled, in a post-modern way, as “Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play” — the poet watches from her window as a steeple-jack climbs the steeple at the end of the street; and suddenly, her German prince is in downtown Brooklyn, which has become a New England fishing village with leviathans strewn on the shore. It’s a movie in her head, with jump-cuts worthy of Stanley Kubrick or Nicolas Roeg.
“Dürer would have seen a reason for living
in a town like this, with eight stranded whales to look at; with the sweet sea air coming into your house on a fine day, from water etched
with waves as formal as the scales on a fish.”
Then everything changed again. In 1947, Mary Moore died and Marianne was released from her mother’s spell. Always dressed stylishly, often in borrowed clothes (she liked a tailored suit with slash-back lapels), she adopted a new guise, both modern and centuries old. In her black cape and velvet tricorne, she was an 18thcentury superhero, a performance artist ahead of her time. Her almost naïve, faerie otherness made her the cynosure of mid-century Manhattan. She wore a 39-cent mask to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball — the party of the century — and still got noted in Vogue. She sat for the great photographers — Henri CartierBresson, Carl Van Vechten, George Platt Lynes, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus — as if she’d hypnotised them, staring down their greedy lenses. That calm gaze gave nothing away.
There was nothing precious about Marianne. She delighted in her fame, like a good-luck penny picked up off the street. She was filmed for an airline commercial campaign that included the shaven-headed crime writer Mickey Spillane and a leather-jacketed Andy Warhol. Her pay-off line was to say, “When you’ve got it, flaunt it”, which she uttered with such archness that she even overshadowed Warhol’s deadpan delivery (his voice was determined too weedy and was overdubbed in the edit suite). And in a commission the envy of any pop artist, Marianne was asked by Ford to devise a name for their new model. She came up with a stream of increasingly wayward possibilities — the Aërundo, the Thunderblender, the Mongoose Civique and The Intelligent Whale — names so crazy I wonder if she wasn’t conducting a freakish little art prank of her own. Her suggestions culminated in the defiantly surreal Utopian Turtletop. Ford ignored them all and came up with Edsel instead. The car failed pitifully, and lost the firm $250m.
Moore’s openness was set against her intensely internal art. She was a partygoer; but she had also said, presciently, back in 1919: “Some sort of handy mask ought to be invented for the city social event.” She’d flourished in the Roaring Twenties and was equally as relevant in the Swinging Sixties. In her Brooklyn apartment she’d receive any visitor — like Quentin Crisp, another eccentric New York resident a generation later — and gave them a dime for their subway ride home. A baseball fan all her life, she was invited to throw the first pitch at the Yankee Stadium in 1968. Meanwhile, George Plimpton, legendary editor of The Paris Review, took her to prize fights, hanging out afterwards with Mailer and Ali.
That led to Marianne’s most audacious gig: writing the sleeve notes for Ali’s I am the Greatest! album, in which she compared the boxer to an Elizabethan poet: “He is literary — in the tradition of Sir Philip Sidney, defender of Poesie. His verse is ornamented by alliteration.” She was right, of course. Ali’s dandy style and proto-rap elided with the flash of Sidney in his doublet and hose. She’d assumed them both into her canon, her gang. She had a new guise: as a national treasure. When she died in 1972, President Richard Nixon issued a statement on her passing.
God, I wish I’d known her. In the famous Gotham Book Mart photo of poets and writers in 1948, which gathered together Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Edith Sitwell, Stephen Spender and Elizabeth Bishop among other luminaries, Moore sits at Auden’s feet as he perches on a ladder. High and low. You might think her someone’s granny who’d wandered in out of the rain. But she radiates genius, and I am in love. I met three of those writers in that photo. I’d swap them all, and all their works, for one minute with Marianne.