I WAS WATCHING a new friend make cocoa in her kitchen. She boiled water while the chocolate was melting on a separate burner, poured the water into two teacups and allowed them to sit while the milk began to simmer in another pan.
"Elizabeth is wonderful but she gets carried away," she said. "She tries too hard to describe the wart on the chin for accuracy, don't you think?"
She emptied the water from the warmed teacups, then poured the milk and melted chocolate into the cups with extreme care and stirred them together. The cocoa was the best I had ever tasted. It was 1964. My new friend was Marianne Moore, then 76. "Elizabeth" was Elizabeth Bishop. I was a college freshman.
When I was 16 I fell in love with Moore's book Observations, published by The Dial Press in 1924, which I had discovered in the stacks of the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon. I stole it from the library, justifying my theft because the card pocket showed no one else had checked it out for 20-odd years. Besides, I needed to have that book; it was long since out of print and Xerox was not yet a household name. Years later I got my own copy, returned the one I had stolen, and gladly paid the hefty fine.
In August of 1963, shortly before I left Portland to go to Columbia, I sent Marianne Moore six poems I had written and a note saying that I would like to meet her. She quickly responded ("since he who gives quickly gives twice/in nothing so much as in a letter," as she had written in her poem "Bowls") saying that she liked the poems and noting that they were beautifully typed. But she was "beleaguered": "in fact to show you that it is true," she said, she would "enclose my 'offensive card'! — with 2 misprints in it — let it go in despair ... But I shall see you sometime, that I shall."
Her "offensive card" read:
MARIANNE MOORE IS RELUCTANT TO SAY THAT SHE CAN NOT DO ANY OF THESE THINGS:
RECOMMEND EDITORS FAVORABLE TO VERSE BY CHILDREN OR WORK BEQUEATHD [sic] FOR PUBLICATION;
PROVIDE DATA FOR THESES, LECTURES, SCHOOL ASSIGNMENTS, MEMOIRS;
DOES NOT PROVIDE COLLECTORS OF AUTOGRAPHS WITH CARD, STAMP OR ENVELOPE;
DOES NOT READ BOOKS WITH A VIEW TO COMMENTING;
ASKS FRIENDS WHO ARE MEMBERS OF UNIVERSITY OR OTHER FACULTIES NOT TO SUGGEST HER TO THEIR STUDENTS OR TO VISITING SCHOLARS AS AVAILABLE FOR CONSULATION [sic].
She had corrected the "bequeathd" and "consulation" errors in pen.
I flew off from Portland to New York in September — my first plane ride ever — thinking of Elizabeth Bishop's "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore":
Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
Shortly after I arrived at Columbia I sent her another poem. She replied immediately saying she liked it and offering a few editorial suggestions. She added: "I hope you have a modest, unegotistical instructor — if y...read more