Monday, November 15, 2010

Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop go to the circus

On Anecdotal Evidence Patrick Kurp recently discovered some helpful advice on how to deal with out-of-control students in an article Marianne Moore wrote for Seventeen Magazine in 1963:
Example is needed, not counsel: but let me submit here these four precepts:

Feed imagination food that invigorates.

Whatever it is, do it with all your might.

Never do to another what you would not wish done to yourself.

Say to yourself, “I will be responsible.”

Put these principles to the test, and you will be inconvenienced by being overtrusted, overbefriended, overconsulted, half adopted, and have no leisure. Face that when you come to it.
The article features Moore’s typically eclectic menagerie of references: quotations from Confucius, filmmaker Jean Renoir, and Robert Frost, as well as “Mr. William Longendecker, an amateur of rhinoceros language,” and boxer Floyd Patterson, whose just published memoir Moore found “explicit, vivid, modest.”

Commenting on Kurp’s post, a reader wrote “I love The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore [which includes the Seventeen article]. I read it as one might read Scripture for several years in the early '90s. It is just that good.” Moore, whose birthday is today, has that effect on readers, whether they encounter her prose, her letters, or what Frank Kermode has called her highly praised “strange poetry.”
Above all there are the poems, so accurately written, and with such disciplined pleasure, yet so inexplicably and repeatedly revised. Anything could get into them, including all the chosen pleasures of her life, the ballgames and prize fights, the paintings and the exotic animals. To an extraordinary degree she did, though with great labour, exactly as she liked.
Her long life and her regimen of daily letter writing—she could write up to fifty letters a day—has made her correspondence, in editor Bonnie Costello’s words, “the largest and most broadly significant collection of any modern poet.” More than two hundred of those letters were sent to Elizabeth Bishop. When they first met, in 1934, Bishop was a twenty-three-year old Vassar student, Moore a forty-seven-year-old prize-winning poet. In “Efforts of Affection,” her remembrance of Moore, Bishop writes of their first meeting: “she began to talk. It seems to me Marianne talked to me steadily for the next thirty-five years.” As Kermode has observed, “Bishop is the poet closest to Moore in temperament, her rival as a letter-writer, and also as a devotee of the accurate.”

Edward Byrne has blogged about that first meeting, at the end of which Bishop invited Moore to go see the circus with her, not realizing that Moore always saw the circus. Two weeks later Moore greeted Bishop with “two huge brown paper bags” filled with stale brown bread for the elephants. Moore had a plot. Her cherished elephant-hair bracelet had lost a strand. Elephant hairs grow only on the tops of the heads of very young elephants. Bishop’s task: to distract the mother elephants with the bread while Moore used her “strong nail scissors” to “snip a few hairs from a baby’s head, to repair her bracelet.”
I stayed at one end of the line, putting slices of bread into the trunks of the older elephants, and Miss Moore went rapidly down to the other end, where the babies were. . . out of the corner of my eye I saw Miss Moore leaning forward over the rope on tiptoe, scissors in hand. Elephant hairs are tough; I thought she would never finish her hair-cutting. But she did, and triumphantly we handed out the rest of the bread and set off to see the other animals. She opened her bag and showed me three or four coarse, grayish hairs in a piece of Kleenex.
Of related interest:
  • Read the poem “Baseball and Writing,” in which Moore memorializes the line-up of the 1961 New York Yankees
  • In 1957 The New Yorker published the exchange of letters that resulted when the Ford Motor Company requested Moore’s help in naming the car that would become the Edsel (not one of her names)
  • Read Teri Tynes’s blog post about Marianne Moore’s days in Greenwich Village
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes thirty poems by Marianne Moore); Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (includes her memoir “Efforts of Affection,” an essay on Moore’s poetry, and several letters to Moore)

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