More Moore

By: Brett Cassette

The modernist poet Marianne Moore held a place of honor among her contemporaries, such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Moore is notable as the only woman in this distinguished quintet, yet she also holds another distinction. She’s the only one with a connection to Carlisle.

Moore was born in 1887 in Kirkwood, Miss., and lived on North Hanover Street from ages 8 to 28. Her personality was shaped by her years in Carlisle, says Jeff Wood ’85, owner of the Whistlestop Bookshop on High Street. 

Wood, who regularly lectures on Moore, explains, “All of her schooling, all of her religious education, which was important to her life, all of her artistic temperament, her first professional job, her professional training for a job—it all occurred in Carlisle. In an interview late in life Moore noted that her time in Carlisle had been more educational than her years in college [at Bryn Mawr].” 

Yet if Moore had a deep interest in Carlisle, the interest was certainly mutual. According to Jim Gerencser ’93, college archivist, there were people in the Dickinson community who wrote to Moore, especially around the time she was awarded her honorary doctorate of letters in 1952, and up until her death in 1972. These miscellaneous letters were collected in the 1980s and housed in the archives & special collection as part of its initial Moore collection. 

In March 2008, the archives purchased a new collection of Moore materials from David Schulson Autographs, with the hope that the resources will provide further biographical and historical background on Moore for interested faculty, students and alumni. 

The collection primarily contains correspondence to a friend of Moore’s, Marcia Chamberlain, about whom little is known. There are 45 letters from Moore to Chamberlain, nine to Grace Lyman Stammers, two telegrams, greeting cards, crossword puzzles, fragments from a diary with no clear author, a poem written by Moore’s friend Katherine Jones, spiritual quotations, newspaper clippings, photographs and other materials.

The diversity of such a collection can help a reader “to understand what kind of person [Moore] was, what kind of life she led, who she knew,” says Eleanor Mitchell, director of library services. “If you can take the figure down from the pedestal and humanize them, see what’s behind what they wrote, then that’s incredibly important to a student. You can see the paper she wrote on and find out what was important to her.”

Any biographical information on a poet as private as Moore is certainly important, says Claire Bowen, assistant professor of English. “There remains a huge information gap in what we know about Moore’s life,” she continues. “We know little of the day-to-dayness regarding Moore’s life versus how much we know about [T.S.] Eliot’s divorce for instance.”

Yet Bowen does not suggest that biographical information should supplant the work of the author herself. “Even for confessional poets, who are essentially just writing their lives, I don’t think that biographical information can ever say, ‘OK, now these poems are explained,’ ” Bowen adds. “To say that would be to do a disservice to the poem. If anything, it’s almost like the more you know about Moore’s life—her closeness with her mother, for example—the harder it is to access her poems.”

Critics, however, disagree about the importance of biographical information. Wood explains that “If biographical material can help you get at more of what’s going on in the author’s head, then you can understand the poetry more deeply. And by understanding Moore’s poetry more deeply, [you can better understand her influence on] poets writing today.”

Wood’s most convincing example reminds us that Moore’s time in Carlisle helped to shape her as an individual, as evidenced in her poetry and prose. He says that when describing Oxford, Moore called it “a town about the size of Carlisle.” Wood adds that “It can be very revealing to understand a writer’s baseline. It can explain how they view the world. You find out the basis by which people make their observations, and Moore’s basis was Carlisle and the Cumberland Valley.” 

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