Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop were two of the most important figures in Twentieth century poetry. They were also enduring friends. This is the story of their first meeting and the role the circus played in their friendship. Elizabeth Bishop was a student at Vassar at the time. She had expressed her admiration of Moore’s poetry to the school librarian, who happened to be a friend of Moore’s. The librarian arranged a meeting outside the New York public library. The details of that meeting were recounted by Elizabeth Bishop in Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore, which is excerpted below.
I was very frightened, but I put on my new spring suit and took the train to New York. I had never seen a picture of Miss Moore: all I knew was that she had red hair and usually wore a wide-brimmed hat. I expected the hair to be bright red and for her to be tall and intimidating. I was right on time, even a bit early, but she was there before me (no matter how early one arrived, Marianne was always there first) and, I saw at once, not very tall and not in the least bit intimidating. She was forty-seven, an age that seemed old to me then, and her hair was mixed with white to a faint rust pink, and her rust-pink eyebrows were frosted with white. The large black flat hat was as I’d expected it to be. She wore a blue tweed suit that day and, as she usually did then, a man’s “polo shirt,” as they were called, with a black bow at the neck. The effect was quaint, vaguely Bryn Mawr 1909, but stylish at the same time. I sat down and she began to talk.
It seems to me that Marianne talked to me steadily for the next thirty-five years, but of course that is nonsensical. I was living far from New York many of those years and saw her at long intervals. She must have been one of the world’s greatest talkers: entertaining, enlightening, fascinating, and memorable; her talk, like her poetry, was quite different from anyone else’s in the world. I don’t know what she talked about at that first meeting; I wish I had kept a diary. Happily ignorant of the poor Vassar girls before me who hadn’t passed muster, I began to feel less nervous and even spoke some myself. I had what may have been an inspiration, I don’t know—at any rate, I attribute my great good fortune in having known Marianne as a friend in part to it. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was making a spring visit to New York and I asked Miss Moore (we called each other “Miss” for over two years) if she would care to go to the circus with me the Saturday after next. I didn’t know that she always went to the circus, wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and when she accepted, I went back to Poughkeepsie in the grimy day coach extremely happy. (Elizabeth Bishop: The Collected Prose, Elizabeth Bishop, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1984, pp. 124,125)
The memoir goes on to describe the trip to the circus. It would be the first of many for the pair. They were both lifelong circus devotees. As for so many of their generations, a trip to the circus was a part of life every year.