Mentors: Marianne Moore
By Jeffrey KindleyJanuary 3, 2012
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 you are studying English. If not, do not repine, you can surmount it. When I entered college, I thought 'someone will have to read what I write.' This was written on the margin of what I submitted: 'I suppose you have an idea, if one could find out what it is.'"
I wrote back resisting her suggestions (!) and asserting that poetry at Columbia was under the highly questionable influence of Kenneth Koch, whose parody of Robert Frost, "Mending Sump," had put me off. I can't say now how I presumed to know so much about Columbia's poetic ethos 10 days after I arrived on campus; almost 50 years later it seems clear to me that I was an opinionated little prig. "Perhaps Mr. Ginsberg's Alma Mater is not the right place for me," I sniffed.
Miss Moore replied about the poem: "Leave the wording exactly as you had it. When a thing re-asserts itself, you are not likely to think of an improvement you can trust." As for Kenneth Koch: "The parody shouldn't have been hazarded and he shouldn't be judged by it. He has been very generous to me, helped me on television. Mr. Ginsberg's alma mater ... I must say, I worried about this; but you have yourself and as the Apostle Paul said, it [sic] you surmount tribulation you are so much the stronger! It's too soon to tell."
Miss Moore lived in Brooklyn at 260 Cumberland Street in Fort Greene; I lived in Hartley Hall on the Columbia campus in Manhattan. We didn't talk on the phone. I had no phone except the one in the Hartley lobby to which I could be summoned from my ninth floor room by a desk attendant, and Marianne considered the telephone "an enslaving device" and "an exasperation." We wrote letters to each other, which were delivered with remarkable promptness, now that I think of it. We had an almost daily back-and-forth at times.
The result: I still have access to every letter, note, postcard, and picture we exchanged for the next eight years, until she died in 1972; I gave hers to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, which houses the Marianne Moore collection. Included in that collection was my side of the correspondence, as well as handwritten versions of the letters Marianne would then type and send to me. They correlated everything and provided me with a CD-ROM of the photographed documents. I own a shiny circle of plastic which holds in digital form some of the most cherished experiences of my life. As she wrote in "Voracities and Verities Sometimes Are Interacting," the title of which alone is worth retreating to a mountaintop to contemplate:
One may be pardoned, yes I know
One may, for love undying.
"Among people who like to feel that they know just how things stand," Winthrop Sargeant had written in The New Yorker in 1957, "Marianne Craig Moore is regarded, variously, as America's greatest living woman poet, or as one of America's greatest living poets, or even as America's greatest living poet." A decade later John Ashbery went further, reviewing herComplete Poems in the New York Review of Books: "I am tempted simply to call her our greatest modern poet."
In November of 1963 I sent Moore a cri de coeur expressing my unhappiness with Columbia and invoking Frost's description of Oxford,
where you might hope to acquire a contempt beyond any contempt ... There was nothing here that they would not some day be able to scorn ... I never could bear the sunsuvbijches belief that they were getting anywhere when they were getting toward their degrees or had got anywhere when they had got them.
"Others are running," I wrote, "and I'm standing still, trying to see where I am." She replied to my letter with astounding equanimity: "Just remarkable, Jeff. A little too advanced for stunted thinkers." And she praised the new poems I had sent her. "I thought," she wrote, "of sending To Make a Jungle to The N.Yorker — (to Howard Moss), but I can't remember having anything accepted that I offered an editor for a friend. You send it. If you like, you might say I suggested that you offer it. Or not; I don't know which and Flesh is not Grass perhaps or A Way of Saying but not more than two items ... They will all prosper in the end. Be tenacious. Tenacity: I need that too." She enclosed two new poems she had written, "Arthur Mitchell" and "To a Giraffe." Then, just as I was about to go home for Christmas, she sent me a Special Delivery letter, apologizing for being so "inconsiderate" as to send such a thing: "I am as sudden as I am dilatory. I think you should come to 'see' me. It is snowing but they say will be sunny tomorrow." This invitation was followed by three paragraphs of detailed subway instructions and descriptions of her building ("a yellowing brick 6-story apartment-house, fire escapes on the outside").
I didn't find the letter in my mailbox until the evening on which I was to leave. So much for Special Delivery! But we agreed to get together when I returned from Oregon.
Saturday, January 11th, will be good, about 3 o'clock? And maybe we could eat nearby. You will have to take the Seventh Avenue Subway from 114th Street and change at Columbus Circle or earlier to an Express (to Atlantic Avenue). If you see a taxi take it and let me reimburse you. I'd like to. Eleven blocks you would have to walk otherwise.
You may not hear from Howard Moss for a long time but today I had a note from him enclosing revised proof of my AN EXPEDIENT —LEONARDO DA VINCI's (AND A QUERY) — written a long time ago. I shall mention your having sent the two poems at my suggestion and telling him that I like various others. (In my piece, there is one sentence which I incorporated for my own encouragement:
It was patience
protecting the soul as clothing the body
from cold, so that "great wrongs
were powerless to vex,"
and problems that seemed to perplex
him bore fruit, memory
making past present
"like the grasp of the gourd,
sure and firm.")
You need not answer this, Jeff ... Enjoy Vacation. Cast off care
Howard Moss at The New Yorker wrote back to me in Oregon (even rejections came quickly in those days), "sorry to say that we decided against" the poems I had sent him but adding an invitation to "try us again, please."
Miss Moore wrote, "You shouldn't have got both poems back; very disappointing ... You have to 'cling on' as Mr. Spears [Monroe Spears] says about the difficulty of pinning W H Auden down to definite answers."
I came back to New York with the enticing prospect of my dinner with Marianne, now scheduled for January 11th. "I am looking for you Saturday about three," she wrote. "Don't try to be exact — don't on any account worry to be on the dot; come earlier if you arrive early. I don't like to talk while cooking, so we have to eat out (nearby) and about five in order to get certain items."
I arrived on the dot, pressed the MOORE button in the lobby and ascended in the elevator. She greeted me at her door: a tiny, fragile-looking woman whose long white hair was wound in a braid around her head, held in place by a tortoise-shell pin. She welcomed me with a shy smile and apologies for the travails I must have endured in making my way to Brooklyn on the subway.
Winthrop Sargeant described her Cumberland Street apartment perfectly in his 1957 New Yorker profile:
Miss Moore's apartment is the apotheosis of snugness; indeed, it is snug almost to the point of restricting free movement, owing to a vast collection of miscellaneous objects she has amassed over the years ... In addition to the furniture (comfortably old-fashioned and not in itself obtrusive), the hoard includes a tremendous array of books, in which the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer rub bindings with Latin classics and volumes on science, history and travel — all of them painstakingly dusted and kept either in crowded bookcases or in upended apple boxes that line the narrow hallways.
She escorted me down the long entry hall of the apartment, past bookshelves, artifacts, paintings, photographs, and went into the living room. At one end was her desk, arranged very neatly and covered (as was practically everything in the apartment) with animal figurines; totems is perhaps a better word. An oil painting by E.E. Cummings of a yellow rose hung on the wall between her living and dining area, and what someone once called the "wise-eyed" photograph of T.S. Eliot hung in the hall. A marlin spike ("Except I've been corrected," said Miss Moore: "It isn't a marlin spike, it's a fid") hung on the wall in the living room. Pictures and paintings were everywhere — some recognizable, some not.
I was invited into the kitchen for the cocoa making, during which, prompted by noticing the E.E. Cummings painting, I asked her about a comment she had made in an essay on Cummings: "He does not make aesthetic mistakes."
She should have "qualified her remark," she said. What was meant: He never writes about an emotion that is not genuine, which he has not experienced. "He doesn't falsify what he feels." The description of the emotion may not be perfect, but it's a description of something genuine, not assumed. She felt, however, that Cummings was too inclined to be "cute." He stressed things that might have been valid if less emphasis had been put upon them.
Miss Moore served the cocoa in the living room with a plate of crackers and cookies, little pieces of imported cheese, and a dish of macadamia nuts. I mentioned that I had tasted macadamia nuts for the first time on the plane from Portland and thought they were delicious. She immediately disappeared, returning with a jar of them that she promised to wrap up "to take back to your quarters."
We talked about the poets that mattered most to her: Pound, Frost, Eliot, Auden, Williams, Stevens. Frost was a magnificent man, she said. He refused to let people use him as a stepladder. "Mr. Frost, would you show this to ..." "Mr. Frost, could you see that this appears in ..." Frost simply said no.
In 1923 Frost came to Brooklyn to give a reading, she told me, and noticed her in the audience. Afterwards he pointed her out and said, "I want to speak to her." "Why aren't your poems in a book?" he asked her. "I'm going to do something about that." She told him, "I've just had two offers simultaneously from Macmillan and Faber & Faber." "Oh, well then," said Frost, "that's all right."
The phone rang during our conversation. It was her lifelong friend Hildegarde Watson calling. I overheard, "I'm sorry, Hildegarde, Mr. Kindley is here at the moment. Can you call back later?"
I felt then — I feel now — like a wholly un-entitled all-time winner of the deference sweepstakes.
We talked about Baudelaire because I was studying his poetry at Columbia. What did I think of Baudelaire the man? she asked. Better versed in the poems than the poet, I didn't know what to say. "Well, I'll say what I think of him," she ventured. "Never has preoccupation with one's own sorrows and inadequacies been carried quite so far. He has some marvelous effects, but their context all but destroys them." Exit Monsieur Baudelaire from our conversation.
I was also studying Racine, whom she said she had always found difficult in print, so she hadn't read very much. "There's no sense in making work of reading." But a production of Phèdre by the Comédie-Française with Marie Bell had impressed her when she hadn't expected to be impressed. "I was so enthused after seeing Marie Bell's Phèdre that I bought myself a bag of hot chestnuts and came home vastly replenished!"
Before we left for dinner Miss Moore gave me a tour of her apartment, pointing out photos of her mother and brother, Warner, a William Blake print, animal curios — pangolins, jerboas, arctic oxen, elephants — and books, books, books. She pointed out two piles of books she'd recently received: "Good ones," she declared, pointing to a short stack, and "bad ones," indicating a towering pile by the front door (bound, I later learned, for delivery to the Strand bookstore).
She put on her signature tricorn hat and cape and we walked down tree-canopied Cumberland Street past the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, which she attended regularly, to the restaurant she had chosen. We arrived promptly at 5, in time to get "certain items."
The waitress greeted her with "Hi there, sweetie, how ya doin'?" This was an abrupt switch from the discussion of Lionel Trilling — "I must say, that man shouldn't attempt to criticize poetry, ever" — which we had been sharing on our walk. The waitress had a patronizing air; her "Take your time, sweetheart" and "Can I help you, honey?" implied that she had little patience with the elderly. Miss Moore rose above it and looked at me with a smile which said, "You and I know who I am, don't we?" Nothing supercilious. Nothing haughty. We knew who she was.
The "certain items" to be ordered as our appetizer were, alas, cherrystone clams. I had never eaten a clam in my life, and the prospect of sliding one down my throat made my gorge rise. But here I was in Brooklyn, in a restaurant with Marianne Moore. I was determined not to throw up.
She told me her greengrocer asked her if she had retired — stopped writing. She told him no, it was the same as always: Things still interested her; she hadn't yet given up. She was planning several new poems: One about a persimmon tree and its blossoms, inspired by her reading; another about a picture of a spotted tiger from an Indian museum; and yet another about an insect trapped between the screen and the window in her kitchen. She tried to help it escape by putting a glass over it, but it wouldn't be aided — "as we all avoid help, blind to the right direction."
She was also writing a piece about Frost conjoined with a review of Reuben Brower's new book on him, Constellations of Intention. She had just published "an embarrassment" in Harper's Bazaaron beasts and jewels ("appallingly tortured prose") and was repeatedly asked to write her memoirs: "a gigantic task — where to begin?" She had no new books coming out except a reissue of her translation of the fables of La Fontaine in paperback.
She commented on a raft of other poets, some in the flow of conversation, some at my prompting. Her judgments were often balanced: "Randall Jarrell makes patchwork quilts of mediocre poetic ideas. His poems are good, realistic, honest — but not outstanding," for instance, or "Richard Wilbur's poems don't stay in my mind, which must be an indication of their worth — to me, at least. He's very accomplished, though. I like his translations of Molière." When making "pronouncements" she had a way of tilting her head back a bit and lifting her right hand in the air, fingers curved, almost as if she were preparing to play the piano. The best new books of poetry she had read recently? I. A. Richards's Goodbye Earth and Eric Schroeder's Visions of Elements.
We had downed our cherrystones — they were, of course, not bad after all — and proceeded to our entrees. For John Ciardi, the poetry editor of The Saturday Review, she had nothing but disdain: "John Ciardi is a horrid poet and a horrid man. The Saturday Review prints practically no good poetry, mostly drivel. Anne Morrow Lindbergh refused to write again after Ciardi's demolition of her book. He's too cruel — brutal. No need to destroy anything that fragile."
I would go back to my dorm after this visit and immediately write down everything, aided by her epigrammatic abilities — "I can't abide May Swenson, but May Sarton can be excellent" — and the thrill of feeling that I was at the center of the poetic universe. "Wystan's shorter lyrics are magnificent, don't you agree?" Yes, I did, but I didn't always agree with her. Of William Empson, a poet I greatly admired and admire, she would only say he was very good, but tried too hard at times. And she was tentative in her remarks about William Stafford, a mentor of mine from Portland, whose Traveling Through the Dark had recently won the National Book Award. He "writes realistic verse," she said. "I like what I've seen."
Poetry magazines were in decline, she said. "Saturday Review is going down, and I only subscribe to Poetry for the reviews. The New Yorker only occasionally prints poems of any worth." I said something about how times had changed since the days of The Dial, the exemplary literary magazine she edited from 1925 to 1929, which prompted her to remark that the new anthology of The Dial, recently published, was an abomination, "written by an outsider who got the facts all wrong and added a ridiculous commentary."
"Check, sweetie?" asked the waitress when we had finished our quite wonderful meal.
"I'm leaving out a lot," I said in the letter to my high school teacher I wrote immediately after I returned from Brooklyn to my dorm. I knew it was important to record as much as I could.
I'm leaving out what she said about her mother, how she told her to read "Spenser's Ireland," how she cannot understand anyone who does not love his parents, how she never realizes the worth of such trivia as her proofs (which have sold for over $300), what she said about her sketches and water-colors (and the painting she showed me), what she said about writing and Cassius Clay and her years at The Dial. This letter is probably the most inadequate one I've ever written.
The letter was kept by my teacher for years and returned to me by her daughter when she died — however inadequate it might have been, I'm grateful, 47 years later, to have it.
Miss Moore walked me to the subway — against my wishes. But it was her Brooklyn, after all, and she had her way. She gave me two gifts (in addition to that carefully wrapped jar of macadamia nuts): a copy of her translation of Perrault's stories inscribed, "For Jeff Kindley who is much further on than I am — a linguist. So he must be lenient. Marianne Moore January 11, 1964," and a bag containing two chocolate pastries that she had bought at a neighborhood bakery. "When you have a good baker," she said, "his work deserves to be enjoyed."
She waved goodbye to me as I went down the stairs at the subway station, and I waved helplessly and happily back.
Jeffrey Kindley has written plays, movies, TV shows, children's books, and a single book of poetry, The Under-Wood.
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