MARIANNE MOORE

A Literary Life

By Charles Molesworth

Atheneum. 472 pp. $29.95

THERE WAS a time, three or four decades ago, when America had stopped reading poetry but had not yet lost interest in poets as celebrities. It had stereotypes, and found people to fit them. If Robert Frost was the rural sage, Marianne Moore, the longtime Brooklynite in black cloak and tricorne hat, was the prim, dotty spinster poetess; her celebrated fascination with baseball -- which, in 1968, culminated in an invitation to the 80-year-old to throw out the opening-day ball at Yankee Stadium -- only gave the image a charming twist.

Yet the real Moore, as Charles Molesworth's biography reminds us, was as paradoxical as her public image was simplistic. Though fond of books with titles like How to Keep Happy, she was reportedly praised by Edmund Wilson as "one of the most intellectual women he had ever met." Though prudish and celibate, she was "one of the most sexual women" who ever crossed Kenneth Burke's path. And though a shrewd literary politician, she was cited by Bryher, companion of the poet H.D., as "the most sincere artist I know." On the battlefield of modernism, Moore was warmly received in both camps: Eliot hailed her "original sensibility and alert intelligence," Williams her "range of thought." And she evinced both arrogance and modesty, gaining notoriety, as editor of the Dial in the late 1920s, for revising the work of eminent poets, yet alleging in 1952 (when she won the National Book Award) that "anyone could do what I do."

During her half-century in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn, Moore seems hardly to have missed a New York literary party; yet her personal life was extremely private and unglamorous. Until death parted them, she lived with her mother, a pious, possessive schoolteacher who served as her editor and censor. Molesworth insists that Moore was an independent spirit; but she was plainly ruled by her mother in ways that she perhaps never admitted to herself or others. Bryher wrote of a time when Mrs. Moore took ill and Marianne "would only eat her mother's diet -- raw vegetable juice." What are we to make of this? (Or, for that matter, of the family letters in which Moore is spoken of as a boy?) Molesworth tries hard to retire the notion of Moore as eccentric; but if she wasn't eccentric, there's no such thing.

And the style, of course, was the woman. Meandering and dispassionate, the typical Moore poem runs between one and four pages and comprises an accentual-syllabic chain of remarks, images and quotations in which the surface is typically meticulous and ornate, the connections by turns capricious and witty and the ultimate point often hard to discern. Often Moore's borrowings from other authors are so extensive that it is fair to say that she is responding less to life than to a world experienced through encyclopedias, brochures and natural history magazines. Wordplay abounds ("the bell-boy with the buoy-ball"), as do catalogs of flora or fauna: "cat-tails, flags, blueberries and spiderwort,/ striped grass, lichens, sunflowers, asters, daisies -- / yellow and crab-claw ragged sailors with green bracts -- toad-plant,/ petunias, ferns; pink lilies, blue/ ones, tigers; poppies; black sweet peas."

What to make of such lines? Admittedly, there is precision here; but there is also a risk of not seeing the forest for the frangipani. Time and again, when addressing a theme larger than herself, Moore cuts it down to size. In "New York," she spurns the expansiveness of Whitman and Sandburg to focus on the city's role as a fur center -- a strategy that allows her to name several types of pelts. This tendency to miniaturize is particularly unfortunate in the Second World War poem "In Distrust of Merits," which glibly declares that "If these great patient/ dyings -- all these agonies/ and wound bearings and bloodshed -- / can teach us how to live, these/ dyings were not wasted."

In her best poems, by contrast, Moore displays not only a gift for description and a heartfelt desire to make a humanly significant point, but a sense of proportion and a degree of liberation from what Irving Howe called her "claustrophobic solipsism." "Four Quartz Crystal Clocks" uses data about "the world's exactest clocks" as the springboard for a moral consideration of punctuality. "The Paper Nautilus" works its way around beautifully to the observation that "love/ is the only fortress/ strong enough to trust to." And "The Student" cleverly ponders the American faith in universal higher education. There is life in these -- and many other -- lithe and elegant poems, which move among their materials in much the way that Fred Astaire moved around a dance floor. WHICH, alas, is more than can be said for Charles Molesworth. Though he makes useful observations about Moore's development and about such influences as M. Carey Thomas (president of Bryn Mawr during Moore's student days) and Alfred Stieglitz, Molesworth doesn't probe very deeply into the poet. Indeed, he announces in his introduction that he has no intention of probing, partly because he has not been allowed to quote from the Moore family correspondence. As he puts it: "I have chosen to limit my interpretations of her character by relying more on literary than on psychological questions. Hence most of my evidence focuses on the external facts of Moore's life." Having said this, Molesworth proceeds to paraphrase the Moore letters, earnestly including everything from the failure of Moore's cleaners to block her hat to an unaccepted invitation from Janet Flanner "to write on vegetable juice for the New Yorker." If the biography is superficial, one eventually surmises, it is less the fault of copyright prohibitions than of the author's native unreflectiveness.

The book's major handicap, however, is its prose. Molesworth, who has a genius for dodging le mot juste, describes Moore as a "user of 'health' food," speaks of her friend Louise Crane as "an important source of social occasions," and suggests that Moore may "have placed some of her own faith in herself as a poet by using the notion of selling her poems." Molesworth even mangles a sentence about Moore's diction: "Her impressively wide lexical range . . . was always addressed nimbly, and she practiced not only precise and exotic word choices, but also plain and even broadly comic ones as well." A master of the botched pretentious image, Molesworth writes that certain concerns "are everywhere present" in Moore's stories "like a bass note that contributes much to the continuance of the complex counterpoint of awareness." And so on. One need not be a Marianne Moore enthusiast to lament that so fastidious a writer should be the subject of so slovenly a book -- or to hope that a more poised and penetrating study of her singular writings and enigmatic life will materialize before too long.

Bruce Bawer is a poet and critic living in New York.