Patricia Willis was a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic when she approached the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia almost 20 years ago. "Do you have any Marianne Moore material?" she asked the curators. "Yes," she was told. "All of it."
And when they said all of it, they meant all of it. Moore was best known to the general public for her trademark tricorner hat, her fascination with baseball and her correspondence with the Ford Motor Co. over the naming of a new car model. (She liked Mongoose Civique or Resilient Bullet or Utopian Turtletop. Ford liked Edsel.) To Willis, she was one of the premier modernist poets, a woman whose demanding work was praised by her friends T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. And, as it turned out, Moore was also a lifelong collector -- as Willis calls her, "a pack rat."
The poet, who was born 100 years ago, had saved everything. Newspaper clippings. A tin of boot polish. Family correspondence. Books inscribed by her peers. Tiny notebooks filled over the decades with fragments of conversations. Seashells. Miniature lacquer boxes holding feathers picked up at the zoo. Photographs that intrigued and words arrayed in a fashion that appealed.
There were "shopping bags and boxes and cartons and chaos, wonderful chaos like grandmother's attic," remembers Willis, who eventually finished her dissertation and was hired by the Rosenbach to catalogue the material it had received from Moore between 1969 and her death in 1972 -- and which included the contents of the poet's Brooklyn apartment.
In celebration of the centennial of Moore's birth, Willis and the Rosenbach have collected 131 of those objects, along with the poems they became. The show, "Vision Into Verse: Marianne Moore and the Modernist Poem," is currently on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Libary, and will run until March 26.
"Moore's poetry is really made from her daily world," says Willis. A book she was reading about tigers found its way into verse, as did an inherited onyx and emerald brooch, a newspaper article about the birth of the pretzel and an ad for Penn Chemicals that explained "why pigs grow big in Missouri."
"The excitement was absolutely tremendous," Willis says of the years spent with Moore's collection. "Imagine being given the opportunity to be the discoverer of something you already love, and you don't know what is going to be there, and every day you open an envelope and something new falls out."
There was, for example, the letter Moore's mother wrote about her 9-year-old daughter: "She dotes on poetry to a horrible degree. I know we shall yet have a poetess in the family, and finish our days languishing in an attic (prior to the ages when posterity and future generations will be singing our praises)."
And there was a book including a verse by Ben Jonson, and another with an Elizabethan miniature, and a green and lavender brocade jacket, all of which became the poem "No Better than a 'Withered Daffodil.' " All are on display at the Folger, including the jacket, which Moore wore for special occasions and described as "that French brocade/ blaze green as though some lizard in the shade/ became exact ... "
In one case sits the baseball thrown to Moore by Frank Fernandez of her beloved Dodgers on April 10, 1968. It reads, "To Miss Moore. Best Wishes."
In another case: a letter Moore wrote in 1947 about a concert she heard in which the German pianist Walter Gieseking played Scarlatti, a typed manuscript of her poem "The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing" with a drawing at the bottom of a can of Kiwi Boot Polish (which sports a kiwi and the phrase "Thoroughly waterproof"), and an actual tin of dark tan Kiwi Boot Polish.
"This poem is a description of the amazingness of the human mind, but it's not as cerebral as it might be," says Willis.
The Mind is an Enchanting Thing
is an enchanted thing
like the glaze on a
subdivided by sun
till the nettings are legion.
Like Gieseking playing Scarlatti;
like the apteryx-awl
as a beak, or the
of haired feathers, the mind
feeling its way as though blind,
walks along with its eyes on the
In the catalogue, Willis writes that the poem starts with an "image for the mind's beauty and complexity," an image created by "the poet as field observer, holding a katydid wing up to the sun." The field observer is present in much of Moore's work; she had studied natural sciences at college and remained a devoted student of the animal world.
And as to the kiwi, it was chosen as the polish's logo because its feathers are waxy and waterproof. Willis adds that Moore's "splendid description of the kiwi suggests detailed knowledge of the kiwi's habits," which is not hard to believe about a poet who would replace lost hairs in her elephant hair bracelet by taking fellow-poet Elizabeth Bishop to the zoo, where she was required to distract the mother elephant with bread crumbs while Moore plucked a few hairs from the baby -- she knew only baby elephants grew the hair she needed.
"You can read these poems 30 times, and then the 31st time you see something new," says Willis. Especially when the poet herself shows the way through the scraps of paper and small drawings she left behind.
"The way she wrote a poem was to take these notebooks," says Willis, "and to start to make a draft, or a 'spill,' as some writers say, of phrases that caught her imagination. Then she would find two rhyming words, or maybe syllables, and would draw two circles around them and a connecting line between them."
After finishing the first stanza, which usually consisted of a single sentence holding two or three rhymed lines, Moore would begin the painstaking task of following the tortuous form she had created. Subsequent stanzas all had to have the same number of syllables in each line as the first, and the rhymes in the same position, while retaining the rhythm of speech rather than verse.
Several drafts would follow as she reworked the poem again and again, sometimes using colored pencils to circle syllables in order to keep track of the rhymes. This technique was so idiosyncratic, Willis says, that no later poet could possibly try it without sounding like a washed-out version of the original.
Last year, Willis edited the critically acclaimed "Collected Prose of Marianne Moore." Since she first went to the Rosenbach, she has lived with the poet. She knew from the start that Moore was someone with whom she could spend years. "She intrigued me because she was so difficult. You couldn't be satisfied by your reading on the 10th or 20th try. There was such depth to her and such complexity -- I didn't think she would wear out."
Willis met Moore only once, as a graduate student.
"She had had very serious strokes. She could barely speak. So we sang songs to her. But she was radiant -- a great conversationalist who couldn't speak was a tragic thing, but she was still radiant."
In the late '60s, ill, Moore decided to give her collection to the Rosenbach in a combination gift and sale. She had for years lived with her mother in genteel poverty, supported by her modest income and help from her brother. Now, she had more money -- friends sneaked gifts into her bank account -- but she feared the adversities of old age and knew that her papers and possessions could begin to protect her. For the last three years she was bedridden, and the money she made from the deal with the Rosenbach allowed her to be cared for in her own apartment. In addition to the archives, the Rosenbach also houses Moore's living room: the furniture arranged in the same positions, the drawers still filled with papers (now catalogued, but not disrupted) as they were during Moore's life, the presence of the poet still alive.
"Vision Into Verse" next travels to New York, where it will be in place for Moore's birthday on Nov. 15. "The centennial year has been very intense," Willis says. Last year she left the Rosenbach and the Moore collection for Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book Library, where she is curator of 20th-century literature. As she says, "I have a lot to learn about her friends."