Leavell concedes that Moore’s new poems still demanded what Pound called “mental attention,” but “that attention is now rewarded with a meaning closer to what readers expect from poetry.” In 1943 Moore published “In Distrust of Merits,” a war poem whose heightened emotion and sincere use of “O”s garnered both admiration and condemnation. Helen Vendler simply called it a “bad poem” that was “monotonously anthologized because of its concurrence with popular sentiment.” W.H. Auden, however, anointed it “the best of them all” and wrote about Nevertheless, the collection in which “In Distrust of Merits” appeared,” for the New York Times Book Review, confessing the difficulty he had with her earlier work. He wanted to “assure” new readers that they, too, could learn to love her poetry as much as he did. Within three months, Nevertheless went into a third printing. A friend of Moore’s sent her a note detailing the difficulties he had finding copies of her book. “Congratulations on being a best-seller,” he wrote. “After all, it’s one of the goals.”
If this sentiment makes you shudder with Hilton Kramer–like revulsion, then you might want to cover your eyes for what comes next. Over the next three decades, Moore became famous—mainstream, pop-culture famous—with not only a National Book Award and a Pulitzer but also five-page spread in Sports Illustrated and a photo shoot with Cecil Beaton in Vogue. She started writing poems more quickly—bright, witty poems that were conspicuously removed from the unsettling depths of her earlier work. A pharmaceutical company paid her $500 to write a poem about one of its medicines for a company newsletter. Ladies’ Home Journal published a poem she had written for a Phi Beta Kappa event. Not long before she threw out that first pitch at Yankee Stadium in 1968, she appeared with Dionne Warwick and Sidney Poitier on The Tonight Show. Poitier even read a few lines from “In Distrust of Merits”: “The world’s an orphan’s home. Shall/ we never have peace without sorrow?”
Leavell records all of this with a biographer’s fascination and empathy for her subject, even if she herself seems somewhat alarmed by the promiscuity with which the elderly Marianne disbursed her poetic gifts. But such fame, it must be said, did attract an audience for some of Moore’s more idiosyncratic interests. For years, she had been trying to find a publisher for her translation of La Fontaine’s Fables, which she eventually did, in 1951. When the book was finally published in 1954, Leavell writes, “Moore’s celebrity status created a market for her Fables that no publisher could have imagined when she began the project a decade earlier.” The book went into several printings, and demand stayed strong for years, prompting her publishers to issue a paperback edition in 1964.
Moore’s later poems may not have achieved the kind of compressed intensity of her earlier work, but was this the corrupting influence of fame and fortune? Or was it simply a case of a poet getting older, changing her method and changing her mind? In the end, Leavell herself seems ambivalent; she can’t exactly countenance some of Moore’s more downmarket bids for attention (the poet appeared with Mickey Spillane in Braniff Airways’ “When you got it, flaunt it” campaign), but neither can she bring herself to condemn Moore for deriving a good deal of pleasure from “feeling needed” in her later years. Besides, Leavell notes with some asperity that Moore was soon eclipsed by a younger generation of women poets that included Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich, which leads Leavell to write, with a straight face, that Moore “deserves to be more widely known.” This line struck me for its mix of honesty and absurdity. Such is the fickle food of fame—always too much and never enough.
Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.