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1960s Brooklyn: Dining with Marianne Moore
For their recent Mentors feature, the Los Angeles Review of Books has Jeffrey Kindley writing about the brief time he spent conversing with Marianne Moore, when the poet was in her 70s. It’s a great read. Par exemple:
In August of 1963, shortly before I left Portland to go to Columbia, I sent Marianne Moore six poems I had written and a note saying that I would like to meet her. She quickly responded (“since he who gives quickly gives twice/in nothing so much as in a letter,” as she had written in her poem “Bowls”) saying that she liked the poems and noting that they were beautifully typed. But she was “beleaguered”: “in fact to show you that it is true,” she said, she would “enclose my ‘offensive card’! — with 2 misprints in it — let it go in despair … But I shall see you sometime, that I shall.”
Her “offensive card” read:
MARIANNE MOORE IS RELUCTANT TO SAY THAT SHE CAN NOT DO ANY OF THESE THINGS:
RECOMMEND EDITORS FAVORABLE TO VERSE BY CHILDREN OR WORK BEQUEATHD [sic] FOR PUBLICATION;
PROVIDE DATA FOR THESES, LECTURES, SCHOOL ASSIGNMENTS, MEMOIRS;
DOES NOT PROVIDE COLLECTORS OF AUTOGRAPHS WITH CARD, STAMP OR ENVELOPE;
DOES NOT READ BOOKS WITH A VIEW TO COMMENTING;
ASKS FRIENDS WHO ARE MEMBERS OF UNIVERSITY OR OTHER FACULTIES NOT TO SUGGEST HER TO THEIR STUDENTS OR TO VISITING SCHOLARS AS AVAILABLE FOR CONSULATION [sic].
She had corrected the “bequeathd” and “consulation” errors in pen.
I flew off from Portland to New York in September — my first plane ride ever — thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”:
Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
Shortly after I arrived at Columbia I sent her another poem. She replied immediately saying she liked it and offering a few editorial suggestions. She added: “I hope you have a modest, unegotistical instructor — if you are studying English. If not, do not repine, you can surmount it. When I entered college, I thought ‘someone will have to read what I write.’ This was written on the margin of what I submitted: ‘I suppose you have an idea, if one could find out what it is.’”
I wrote back resisting her suggestions (!) and asserting that poetry at Columbia was under the highly questionable influence of Kenneth Koch, whose parody of Robert Frost, “Mending Sump,” had put me off. I can’t say now how I presumed to know so much about Columbia’s poetic ethos 10 days after I arrived on campus; almost 50 years later it seems clear to me that I was an opinionated little prig. “Perhaps Mr. Ginsberg’s Alma Mater is not the right place for me,” I sniffed.
Miss Moore replied about the poem: “Leave the wording exactly as you had it. When a thing re-asserts itself, you are not likely to think of an improvement you can trust.” As for Kenneth Koch: “The parody shouldn’t have been hazarded and he shouldn’t be judged by it. He has been very generous to me, helped me on television. Mr. Ginsberg’s alma mater … I must say, I worried about this; but you have yourself and as the Apostle Paul said, it [sic] you surmount tribulation you are so much the stronger! It’s too soon to tell.”
The author kept “every letter, note, postcard, and picture we exchanged for the next eight years, until she died in 1972,” when he gave the correspondence to the Marianne Moore collection, held at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. What’s lovely about the essay is the disciplined recollection of Kindley’s dinner out with Moore:
We talked about Baudelaire because I was studying his poetry at Columbia. What did I think of Baudelaire the man? she asked. Better versed in the poems than the poet, I didn’t know what to say. “Well, I’ll say what I think of him,” she ventured. “Never has preoccupation with one’s own sorrows and inadequacies been carried quite so far. He has some marvelous effects, but their context all but destroys them.” Exit Monsieur Baudelaire from our conversation.
Before we left for dinner Miss Moore gave me a tour of her apartment, pointing out photos of her mother and brother, Warner, a William Blake print, animal curios — pangolins, jerboas, arctic oxen, elephants — and books, books, books. She pointed out two piles of books she’d recently received: “Good ones,” she declared, pointing to a short stack, and “bad ones” — indicating a towering pile by the front door (bound, I later learned, for delivery to the Strand bookstore).
She put on her signature tricorn hat and cape and we walked down tree-canopied Cumberland Street [in Fort Greene, Brooklyn] past the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, which she attended regularly, to the restaurant she had chosen. We arrived promptly at 5, in time to get “certain items.”
The waitress greeted her with “Hi there, sweetie, how ya doin’?” This was an abrupt switch from the discussion of Lionel Trilling — “I must say, that man shouldn’t attempt to criticize poetry, ever” — which we had been sharing on our walk. The waitress had a patronizing air; her “Take your time, sweetheart” and “Can I help you, honey?” implied that she had little patience with the elderly. Miss Moore rose above it and looked at me with a smile which said, “You and I know who I am, don’t we?” Nothing supercilious. Nothing haughty. We knew who she was.
She was also writing a piece about Frost conjoined with a review of Reuben Brower’s new book on him, Constellations of Intention. She had just published “an embarrassment” in Harper’s Bazaar on beasts and jewels (“appallingly tortured prose”) and was repeatedly asked to write her memoirs — “a gigantic task — where to begin?” She had no new books coming out except a reissue of her translation of The Fables of La Fontaine in paperback.
She commented on a raft of other poets, some in the flow of conversation, some at my prompting. Her judgments were often balanced….When making “pronouncements” she had a way of tilting her head back a bit and lifting her right hand in the air, fingers curved, almost as if she were preparing to play the piano.
Read the entire essay here.