ohmygoodness. How can I deal with a possible lesbian love poet, one who has literally rooms full of manuscripts and thousands of letters and slews of poems? It gets even harder when the poet has been an internationally recognized Pulitzer Prize winner, and crowned one of the most astonishing poets of the 20th century.
Most reviewers and critics get carried away with all those manuscripts and writings and letters, looking for answers in hard copy, looking for clues to her mind and poetry. I wanted to know what was happening in her heart. So I looked elsewhere.
First, let’s look at the basic facts surrounding Marianne Moore’s life:
- She never married;
- By all appearances she had no lovers, male or female;
- She lived with her mother her entire life (except for a brief time when she attended Bryn Mawr), even sharing the same bed through most of her adult life (no, I am not remotely suggesting a relationship with her mother);
- She was comfortable around lesbians, since her mother was indeed a lesbian and had her lover living with them until Marianne was about 12 years old;
- Her mother’s lover became Marianne Moore’s tutor in preparation for the tremendously competitive Bryn Mawr entrance exams;
- Her mother was an undisputed monster who controlled Marianne’s every thought and every action. She even killed a kitten that Marianne had become particularly fond of.
There’s more, but that’s the gist of it.
So what makes me think Marianne Moore might be a closeted lesbian? Well, first she would have to be closeted because her mother would never allow Marianne the freedom to love another. So whatever her inclination, it was hidden.
And it was hidden very well. The two — mother and daughter — along with her brother and mother’s lover, wrote literally thousands of letters to each other and devoted every moment of the day in each other’s company. Rarely, rarely was Marianne out of their sight.
But there is the poetry.
The Suggestive Lesbian Love Poetry of Marianne Moore
In all of Marianne’s poetry, and there is a substantial amount, I could only find one that suggested her feelings of love. Remember, she couldn’t let her mother know her true romantic feelings, so she had to write obtusely. The poem that caught my attention was this one:
You do not seem to realize that beauty is a liability rather than
an asset – that in view of the fact that spirit creates form
we are justified in supposing
that you must have brains. For you, a symbol of the
unit, stiff and sharp,
conscious of surpassing by dint of native superiority and
liking for everything
self-dependent, anything an
ambitious civilization might produce: for you, unaided, to
attempt through sheer
reserve, to confuse presumptions resulting from
observation, is idle. You cannot make us
think you a delightful happen-so. But rose, if you are
is not because your petals are the without-which-nothing
of pre-eminence. Would you not, minus
thorns, be a what-is-this, a mere
perculiarity? They are not proof against a worm, the
elements, or mildew;
but what about the predatory hand? What is brilliance
without co-ordination? Guarding the
infinitesimal pieces of your mind, compelling audience to
the remark that it is better to be forgotten than to be re-
membered too violently,
your thorns are the best part of you.
It is that last part in particular that caught my attention. The thorns are not all that great, and without them the rose would be just another flower. But the thorns do guard “…against the predatory hand”, and “… it is better to be forgotten than to be remembered too violently, your thorns are the best part of you.” That sounds so much like someone who has felt the terrible pangs of love, the thorns or romance, and who has taken those jabs as warnings to retreat.
With the hundreds and hundreds of poems that Marianne Moore wrote, there is so pitifully little that even remotely suggests love, and it is such a shame. As you can see in the photos above, she was a lovely young woman and should have enjoyed the pleasures of love. My guess is that she did enjoy them a bit at Bryn Mawr, but that is absolute speculation on my part — there is nothing in writing to suggest that.
For a more intriguing thought, we look to a contemporary of hers: Elizabeth Bishop.
Another Lesbian Poet Lover?
Marianne Moore had a keen eye for spotting great poets, and she became the mentor of several. One of them was Elizabeth Bishop, also an incredibly accomplished poet, and one who was known to be a lesbian. This would be a nice footnote in the biography of either, except that Elizabeth Bishop wrote a very uncharacteristic love poem titled “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”. It begins like this:
From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.
Eight flying stanzas beg Miss Marianne Moore to “please come flying”. It is a beautifully lyrical poem, quite out of character for the very reserved Elizabeth Bishop. I can only suspect that strong romantic feelings prompted such a poem. And Elizabeth Bishop could have simply titled this “To A Lover”, but she addressed it specifically to Marianne Moore.
I can only imagine what Marianne’s mother thought of this poem when she saw it, if indeed she ever did. If I were Marianne Moore, I think I would have hidden it behind 800 locks.
There is no evidence of a relationship between Marianne and Elizabeth. Perhaps it was just Elizabeth Bishop being smitten with the lovely Marianne. Perhaps not. We don’t know for sure.
Marianne Moore’s Later Years
Marianne’s mother passed away when Marianne was 60. Marianne Moore lived another 25 years, in solitude. She was an honored celebrity in the US, even tossing out the first ball at the Yankees game. But her poetry languished, not an uncommon circumstance for elder poets.
Some critics credit Marianne Moore’s mother with being the guiding light in her daughter’s poetic life. While the influence was no doubt there, I would so have loved to see the unencumbered Marianne Moore, one whose spirit flew to meet that of Elizabeth Bishop, one who found her love even at Bryn Mawr, one who wrote poetry of joy and lesbian love.