The Burden of Return: The Gift in the Poetry of Marianne Moore
Dissertation in Literature
First supervisor: Prof. Ulla Haselstein
Second supervisor: Prof. Karl-Heinz Ickstadt
Third supervisor: Prof. Elisabeth Bischoff
This dissertation explores the role of gift exchange in the modernist poetics of Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972). The direction of the investigation is twofold: first, it explores the formal implications of the work’s involvement within a gift economy, in which the poems themselves may be regarded as gifts demanding reciprocation; second, it examines how Moore’s exchanges helped her position herself within her avant-garde social network. Based on close readings of poems alongside archive materials, the dissertation demonstrates how gift exchange contributed to every aspect of Moore’s poetics, from her formal assemblage technique to the generation of affective significance within her work. Within the context of her social network, text, poet, patron, and public are repositioned within a continuous system of exchange driven by the obligations to give, accept, and reciprocate gifts. The dissertation argues that Moore used, subverted, and refused these obligations in order to manage her relationships with her patrons and peers, and negotiate control over her literary autonomy.
Organized chronologically, each chapter highlights an aspect of the poet’s work that may be elucidated by the gift. Chapter 1 presents the methodology and theoretical framework of the project. Chapter 2 explores the role of the gift object in Moore’s poetics, based on close readings of poetry and descriptive prose she produced in response to presents, found texts, and museum artefacts. Chapter 3, focusing on Moore’s patrons Bryher, Scofield Thayer, and James and Hildegarde Watson, investigates Moore’s subversive relationship with patronage institutions between 1921 – 1929. Moore’s troubled mentorship of Elizabeth Bishop in the 1930s is the topic of Chapter 4, which demonstrates how the gift can model the tensions and antagonisms of influence. The final chapter explores what insights the gift can bring to the analysis of exchange between visual art and text, focusing on Moore’s lively correspondence with Joseph Cornell in the 1940s.
This dissertation argues that Marianne Moore’s work was produced and distributed within a gift economy, which, while she capably manipulated its attendant obligations to maintain her literary autonomy, inextricably connected form with the action of exchange in her poetics.