My late mother-in-law, a Boston Brahmin born 100 years ago, about the time of Marianne Moore’s first publication in Poetry magazine, used to respond to almost any book or movie recommendation with the anxious question: “Is it modern?” She meant, “Is there sex in it?” She’d lived most of her life in a now-vanished world in which married couples of her class slept in single beds, often in separate bedrooms. She just wasn’t interested.

Breaking the strict codes of Victorian prudery was on the agenda for some modernist writers — notably James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. But it may have been their least significant initiative, as Linda Leavell ably demonstrates in her comprehensive biography of Moore, the poet T.S. Eliot counted among the very few, along with Joyce and Ezra Pound, who could be relied upon to “write living English.” If readers found Moore’s poems hard to understand, William Carlos Williams argued in a glowing review of her first book, “Poems” (1921), it is because their “whole preconceived scheme of values has been ruined.” But it wasn’t moral values he was referring to when he exulted, “This is new!” He meant the geometrically patterned stanzas, unaccented rhymes, rigorous syllable counts, snippets of overheard conversation, and long stretches of precise description that caused Moore’s poems to glint “as light flashed from a very fine steel blade,” in the words of her sister modernist H.D.

Where did this rush of innovation come from? “No masters, no mystery,” Moore liked to say. “It was internal pressure.” Leavell has pored over Moore’s voluminous correspondence and found “no record of her sharing confidences with anyone.” She advises that “readers must look to the poems for the truest expression of her inner life.” Yet Leavell’s skillful interpretations of both poems and often cryptic family letters yield a remarkably clear and sympathetic analysis of the internal forces that brought Moore’s talents to the fore and made the crafting of poetry “the only outlet for her individuality and ambition.”

Although Moore never met her father, John Milton Moore, whose religious delusions sent him to an asylum shortly before her birth, she began the first line of an early poem, “Silence,” with the words “My father used to say” and concluded the imagined quotation: “the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence but restraint.” As if in defiance of paternal edict, the three Moores he left behind — Marianne; her older brother, Warner; and their mother, Mary — banded together by way of words, developing a private language of nicknames and literary allusions. All three, most especially Marianne and her mother, could be incessant talkers and expansive letter writers, even if disinclined to personal revelation.

Still, “our life sorrow,” as Mary Moore referred to her husband’s “affliction,” cast a long shadow, causing one of Warner’s first loves to reject his marriage proposal and reinforcing Mary’s need for the constant presence of a loving companion. During Marianne’s teenage years, this need was filled by a family friend, Mary Norcross, who, Leavell reveals, lived with the Moores at times as Mary’s romantic partner. Norcross, a Bryn Mawr graduate who worked briefly in its administration, helped Marianne apply to the college, where she began writing for the literary magazine. That was no easy matter at this most rigorous of women’s schools, where over a third of entering freshmen failed to graduate.

”Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore” by Linda Leavell. (FSG)

These would be the only years Marianne spent away from her mother, whose painful breakup with Norcross the year after Marianne’s graduation brought on depression and illness, and drew both Marianne and Warner, studying for the ministry, back into “the remarkable family life” that Mary required as sustenance. Already, the siblings had appointed themselves their mother’s “uncles,” rendering Marianne “he” in most family correspondence. But after a brief period in which Marianne and Mary installed themselves in Warner’s modest ministerial lodgings, Warner had finally had enough. “While I would count it nothing to die for you,” he wrote his mother, announcing his intention to marry and move away, “I have refused to live for you.”

It was Marianne — or Rat, as she was known in the family, after Kenneth Grahame’s companionable versifier in “The Wind in the Willows” — who gave herself to Mary, the home-loving Mole. The two lived together for 29 years, sharing a bed in cramped quarters in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn, living “like anchorites,” Marianne said, in service to each other: Mary’s health, Marianne’s work.

It is Leavell’s singular accomplishment to bring the complexities of this extraordinary life into full view, as Moore did with her own obscure subjects — the jerboa, pangolin and plumet basilisk. Leavell shows how the “celibate poet” who chastised William Carlos Williams for “lewdness” became, in Williams’s words, modernism’s “saint — if we had one — in whom we all instinctively felt our purpose come together to form a stream.” Rather than contract in so small a space, Moore expanded, editing the Dial for its last four years; publishing Joyce, Yeats and Pound; and winning popular acclaim in the 1950s with a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Moore strove to reach an audience beyond the modernist coterie, and did so with poems like “What Are Years?,” with its stirring last lines that carry new biographical weight in Leavell’s thoughtful account:

. . . He

sees deep and is glad, who

accedes to mortality

and despite imprisonment, rises

within himself as

the sea in a chasm, struggling to be

free and unable to be,

in its surrendering

finds its continuing.

Marshall is the author of “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.” She is at work on a biography of Elizabeth Bishop for the Amazon “Icons” series.

At noon Friday, poets Mary Jo Salter and Robyn Schiff will celebrate the 126th birthday of Marianne Moore by reading selections from her work at the Library of Congress. This event is free to the public. For information, call 202-707-5394.


The Life and Work of Marianne Moore

By Linda Leavell

Farrar Straus Giroux. 455 pp. $30