Monkeying around.

During my happy days working in the arts department of the Village Voice, I discovered this previously unknown letter by Marianne Moore in one of the paper’s earliest issues:

To the Jasmine's Kitten contest editor:

Dear Madam:

I think I should have him because I think her [sic] would like to have me. But if I win him, please give him to Mr. Balaban, or his sister, since I have not a yard, a tree, or a fence.

Marianne Moore
Cumberland Street, Brooklyn

Fully comprehending the letter's timelessness, I failed to take down the date, though it must have fallen between 1955, when the Voice was founded, and 1966, when Moore left Cumberland Street. I did record that the ever-quirky Voice editors were holding a kitten contest, and that “Mr. Balaban” was a writer for the paper.

Such a rich missive deserves scholarly attention. Dr. Patricia Willis--Moore expert and a former curator at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library--wrote: “I suspect someone rather fancied getting her name in the paper. By the late 50s, she was becoming New York's pet poet--witness large photo shoots for Life and Look.” The 1953 Life article, called Life Goes on a Zoo Tour with a Famous Poet,” opines that “more than almost anything Miss Moore loves animals.” Photos show her feeding swans, cradling monkeys, and maintaining an admirable calm while an elephant unfurls his trunk above her head.

But what of Moore and cats? Her 1920 poem "Peter" reveals a complex fondness for felines, comparing a neighbor's cat to seaweed, eels, and mice. (One thinks--I do, anyway--of Christopher Smart's  "For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey," a triumph among cat poems.)

Willis added, “There is a cat in a jingle she wrote on commission for the Lead Pencil Manufacturers Association in honor of Pencil Week, 1967.

Velvet mat
is my cat.

Beaver fur
makes my hat.

Our best pencils
write like that.

"It makes my skin crawl and I made sure it didn't go into any of her published works. The first stanza is from the second verse of a childrens' singing game, 'Widdy-Widdy-Wucky.'"

Originally Published: December 2nd, 2009

Abigail Deutsch, the winner of Poetry magazine's 2010 Editors Prize for Reviewing, lives in New York. Her criticism appears in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, n+1, Bookforum, and other publications.

  1. December 2, 2009
     Don Share

    Further data. In 1936, Moore twice wrote to Elizabeth Bishop about a new kitten Bishop had, named "Minnow" (though Bishop regretted not naming it "Pterry"); each time Moore called the cat a "masterpiece."\r

    See also Moore's poem, "Reminiscent of a Wave at the Curl," an odd X-mas poem, which is about wars and cat-fights:\r

    "cat-power matching momentum,\r
    each kitten having capsized the other..."\r

    It ends:\r

    "'Sir Francis Bacon defined it:\r
    "Foreign war is like the heat of exercise;\r
    civil war is like the heat of a fever."'\r

    Not at all. The expert would say,\r
    'Rather hard on the fur.'"\r

    Then there's her version of a fable by Jean de La Fontaine, "The Cat and the Mouse." \r

    My own faves are the bird-scaring cat in "Bird-Witted" and the self-reliant one in her famous poem "Silence" ("'Superior people never make long visits.'").

  2. December 2, 2009
     Tony O

    Hey Abbie,\r

    Here's the letter. It's dated July 24, 1957...\r

  3. December 2, 2009

    Will there every be another poet like Marianne Moore? Funny and serious and popular?

  4. December 2, 2009
     Abigail Deutsch

    Wonderful--thanks, Tony!

  5. December 4, 2009
     Howard Partch

    I always loved Elizabeth Bishop's "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore." What a great day a New York City can make!

  6. December 6, 2009

    Well, I am not sure. I can't help but suspect that Miss Moore probably disapproved of poetry's most famous cat, that perfect slut and reincarnation of Cleopatra, Mehitabel. And in a way similar to how she felt the involuntary need to correct Elizabeth Bishop's behavior. Toujours gai. Toujours gai.\r


  7. December 9, 2009
     Joelle Biele

    Thanks so much for for this! I LOVE that she wrote in--