In her well-known poem, "Poetry," Miss Moore begins, "I too, dislike it." This line has been interpreted as ironic, as an attempt to disarm, or as evidence that she practices her art only half-seriously. Quite obviously, however, her reasoning is serious. She refers to a kind of poetry that is neither honest nor sincere but that has found fashionable approval by virtue of its very obscurity.
"Poetry" has had several incarnations. The last version, appearing in the Complete Poems of 1967, is four lines long, having been cut from a poem of thirty-eight lines that appeared in the Selected Poems of 1935 and the Collected Poems of 1951. This longer version, in turn, grew out of the original thirteen lines printed in Observations. The last revision was, I think, a mistake. For one thing, the poem of four lines is so brief that it invites misinterpretation. The words "dislike" and "contempt" overshadow the idea that poetry has also a place for the genuine and, without knowing the earlier versions, a reader might very well feel confused. What poetry is she referring to? All poetry? Some particular kind? It isn't clear in the short version. In this case the concision itself results in a kind of obscurity.
The middle version is the one I like best. The thirteen lines in Observations are thin by comparison to the longer poem of 1935. The Observations version makes clear that Miss Moore is denigrating a particular kind of modern poetry in which intellectualization has led to incomprehensibility, but it does not, as the longer version does, seek to define what poetry ought to be. The longer 1935 version does this. It defines poems poems using Miss Moores well-known phrase "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" and poets as "literalists of the imagination." Imagination is placed in opposition to intellection. The raw material for poetry abounds, it is everywhere, is anything, but it must be imaginatively grasped.
Imagination proceeds from a deeper source than intellection. When, in "Melanchthon," Miss Moore speaks of the "beautiful element of unreason" underlying the poet's tough hide, I think she is talking about the place where imagination grows. The "element" is genuine because it cannot be otherwise, its source mysterious, hidden under layers of the rational mind. Poetry, then, when it is genuine, is a collision of this private vision with the outside world. It is an imaginary garden full of real toads. This is thought that needs emphasis; I miss it in the four-line poem.
Perhaps Miss Moore felt that she was following her own advice on compression. One is reminded of the words "'compression is the first grace of style" that Miss Moore quotes from Democritus in her poem, "To a Snail." "Contractility is a virtue" she says. What we find valuable in style is "the principle that is hid. The snail, because of its particular physical attributes, has its own "'method of conclusions," its own "'knowledge of principles" just as the individual poet has a style determined by his own particularities determined especially by the hidden principle of his imagination. But in the final version of "Poetry" the virtue of compression has been carried too far. The hidden principle has been too well hidden.
From Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal. New York: Pegasus, 1970. Copyright © 1970 by Western Publishing Company.
Elizabeth W. Joyce
Moore used the poetic imagination to represent the transformative power of the arts over social tradition. Her original version of "Poetry," the one relegated to the "notes" section of her Complete Poems, presents not only her view of the operations of the imagination but that of twentieth-century American poets in general. As with Moore's abstraction through particulars, her investment in the power of the imagination in the arts is convincing proof of her denial of bourgeois conventions--there is no room for the imagination in a society based on pragmatic, materialistic lifestyles. Not only that, but the very fact that Moore reduced the overt presentation of this poem to a few lines in the body of this poetry collection illustrates her reluctance to admit her critique of the bourgeoisie and her reliance on the imagination to escape it.
By introducing this poem with "I, too, dislike it," Moore acknowledges the inherent triviality of poetry; it fulfills no "practical" function and, therefore, has no apparent role in culture. Her ironic tone in this line, however, negates its surface meaning and reinforces her belief in the power of the imagination to find a place for poetry in establishing meaning in culture.
Even though there is much poetry that she does not like, Moore admits thiat there is "in / it after all, a place for the genuine." To Moore, "the genuine" is the most essential attribute of good art. She treats it the way Wallace Stevens treats his notion of reality--as poetry's goal. Unlike Stevens, though, Moore does not believe that poetry is transcendental; its reason for existence is entrenched in its ability to capture a sincere response to life's experiences, those that accurately reflect the social context of the poet.
Moore believes that physical. responses and instincts are "important . . . because they are / useful," not because they can be explained in the abstract terms of poetic analysis and criticism. The "eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must" are human reactions to external stimulae. Moore wants poetry to function in the same way--rather than being so complex and difficult that it connects only to our intellect, it should stimulate us also through our physical senses. When poetry becomes too abstract, "as to become un-/intelligible," it loses its audience because "we / do not admire what / we cannot understand." The poem then lists animal behaviors that are as indecipherable as modern poetry: the upside-down bat, the rolling horse. Human behavior is equally difficult to comprehend: "the base- / ball fan, the statistician." But these behaviors are admirable: even activities that lack a pragmatic purpose are ""important" because they lend distinction to the variety found in nature and among human civilizations. Even the dullness of "'business documents and / / school-books" are important to human existence, perhaps as a contrast to more exciting aspects of life. Despite our lack of comprehension of "phenomena," we must confront them repeatedly, following that human instinct to investigate and describe. Even though abstract poetry is obscure, Moore poses, it is worth our attention because it is no more difficult to understand than anything else around us: it remains a reflection of the changes in our culture. . . .
But, Moore says, there are dull things that really are useless, such as bad poetry, and it is bad poetry that makes her think at first that she "dislikes" the genre entirely. Poetry as a legitimate entity exists only when poets have learned to be "'literalists of the imagination" and when they can create in their work "'imaginary gardens with real toads in them." These quotations, one from William Butler Yeats and the other unacknowledged but perhaps by Moore herself, are the key to Moore's poetics.
The Yeats quotation is from his discussion of Blake in Ideas of Good and Evil, in which he describes Blake as a "too literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature." By this, Yeats is criticizing, yet admiring, Blake for wanting poetry and the visual arts to depict symbols in their naked state, without the embellishment of style or technique. For Moore, the essential goal of poetry is to explain the poem's purpose while excluding the "trivial" or the "insolent," those irrelevant or self-destructive elements of much of failed poetry.
The idea of the "'imaginary gardens with real toads in them" explains the force of imagination necessary for poets to avoid uselessness. They must, in order to be able to write authentic poetry, create a world in their minds that appears to be real. The toads, then, are the fabrications of the artist and are so highly refined by the artist's imagination that they have become tangible; the toads are the result of the artist's attempt to render the abstract into the concrete, Moore's own poetic goal, a goal that also allows her to draw directly into her poems the subversion that the abstraction serves to shield.
This goal is, however, as Moore acknowledges, unattainable. The effort to reach it is poetry's only hope. As long as the poet maintains this effort honestly. poetry is at least "interesting." Poetry is "raw" because it cannot have the polish of reality seamlessly constructed out of the imagination; it is "genuine," though, because the good poet tries with integrity to attain this reality. This passage presents the double nature of the imagination; it can create a visual imagethe gardenbut it can also create new phenomena in the form of abstractionsthe formally "real" toads. A "literalist of the imagination" is bent on using the imagination exactly as it evidences itself in the interior nature of the artist. The poet who can make use of this faculty without distortion will be true to the forces and transcendental qualities of the imagination. The imagination, then, works to divorce the poet from stifling conventions, while the abstraction that the imagination induces masks that very social defection.
The ending of this poem, also reinforces the problem that Moore confronted in her work: the inescapable tension between codified social convention and the urge to modify that convention so that it is less irksome to the individual. Moore wants poetry to retain direct connections to her culture, to continue to be "genuine" (i.e., intelligible and reflective of her culture). But at the same time she cannot resist the gentle undercutting of that culture through the abstraction brought on by the imaginary.
The imaginary undermines bourgeois culture because it is no longer attached to the pragmatic; it is no longer materially useful. Yet, like the hair that rises for no practical purpose on the human nape, the imaginary seems to Moore to be one of those marvels of nature that should continue to exist merely to be understood. Even so, the imaginary, and its creation, the abstract, do have practical and political implications. As such, they are the earmarks of societal change, the disruption of bourgeois dogma that everything must have its use, and the movement away from the sheerly socially pragmatic toward the operations of the individual's interior. Moore's standard for pragmatism is itself abstract, in fact, and strives for the furtherance of life and the understanding of that life rather than the typical pragmatic stance that has interest only in the production of particular consequences.
From Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-garde. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Associated University Presses, Inc.
Notes On Disliking Poetry
At a time not long before writing "Poetry," MM copied onto notepaper, now in the Rosenbach Foundation, nine passages from The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (London, 1912). One passage set forth Butler's encounter with Silvio, a boy of ten or twelve who "knew a little English and was very fond of poetry." The selection in its original form on page 264 reads:
"And you shall read Longfellow much in England?"
"No," I replied, "I don't think we read him very much."
"But how is that? He is a very pretty poet."
"Oh yes, but I don't greatly like poetry myself."
"Why don't you like poetry?"
"You see, poetry resembles metaphysics, one does not mind one's own, but one does not like anyone elses."
MM copied the passage almost exactly, although she altered the first line, "And you shall read Longfellow much in England?" making it: "Silvio (on Wordsworth)."
On Raw Material
MM saved a clipping from The Spectator (London) for 10 May 1913. It is a review by "C" entitled "The Greek Anthology" concerning Ancient Gems in Modern Settings by G. B. Grundy. In it, "C" asks how it is that despite the artificial and commonplace matter in it, "The Anthology" still charms the student, the moralist, and the man of the world. He answers himself:
The reasons are not far to seek. In the first place, no productions of the Greek genius conform more wholly to the Aristotelian canon that poetry should be an imitation of the universal. Few of the poems in the Anthology depict any ephemeral phase or fashion of opinion, like the Euphuism of the sixteenth century. All appeal to emotions which endure for all time, and which, it has been aptly said, are the true raw material of poetry.
He goes on to explain that upon reading "The Anthology" the patriot will feel his blood stirred, the moralist will ponder the vanity of human wishes, and the man of the world will credit keen powers of observation.
This is "the raw material of poetry in / all its rawness" which one must demand to be "interested in poetry," according to MM's renowned "Poetry" of 1919.
From The Marianne Moore Newsletter Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1997.
"Poetry" makes the case for attribution of authority to traditionally "secondary" texts in its insistence that "business documents and schoolbooks" may be poetry. Throughout Moore's work her many quotations from secondary sources -- precisely the realm of "business documents and school-books" argue for the value of such sources by claiming her work's dependence on them for its (redefined) authority.
Along with the citation from Tolstoy, the two other phrases set in quotation marks in "Poetry" can be understood to remark on Moore's quotation technique. "[I]maginary gardens with real toads in them" (the original of this line has yet to be found) may be read as a metaphor for Moore's quotation-studded poetry, if the quotations, imported from the "real world" outside the poem, are understood as the toads and the poems in which they appear as the gardens. Likewise, the term "literalist of the imagination" seems a fair description of a poet such as Moore who includes literal borrowings in her poems rather than borrowings of a more figurative, allusive sort.
The argument of "Poetry" continues in the interplay between the poem and the notes. Moore provides notes to two borrowed phrases (each transformed slightly). Both of these phrases come not from "secondary" sources but from attempts by established literary authorities (Tolstoy and Yeats) to define the field of poetry, and both Moore borrows in order to disagree. Moore employs this turnabout technique frequently. Her attempt in arguing with these authorities is to claim authority for the unauthoritative, a complex move with the principal intent of maneuvering Moore into a position of authority. In the same gesture, it subverts the possibility of authority of the old sort by removing its basis in stable, familiar orders and by redefining authority as flux. This is not merely a cynical move, nor is it unfamiliar; in fact the move has an authority of its own, which Moore points to obliquely via her footnote to Yeats on Blake. In aligning herself with Blake against Yeats, Moore lines up on the devil's team; that is, the team of literary insurgency represented in Blake's cosmology by Miltons Satan. (Laurence Stapleton's suggestion to Holley that "imaginary gardens with real toads" may refer us to Milton's paradise, "the prototypical poetic garden ... in which Satan, embodying evil, sits 'Squat like a Toad, close at the ear of Eve" [PL, book 4, line 800], strengthens the link to Milton and, absent the view of Satan as evil, to Blake.) For Moore, as for Blake, established authority is by definition a fraud. As with money, the value of which is dependent on its circulation, in the model Moore presents here poetic authority maintains its cultural currency only when it too is in motion, from generation to generation, from poet to poet. But where money may move in limited circuits and maintain its strength, Moore's model specifically insists that the circuits of poetic authority be opened wide. Again, her refusal to rank kinds of poetic material applies by analogy to kinds of poets as well. And again, like Blake and Milton before him, Moore treads a fine line in struggling to open the gates to authority for herself through calling authority into question.
Another manifestation of the interrogation of authority in "Poetry" developed across Moore's revisions of it over the years. The poem was well known and well liked, in all its subversive playfulness. But its argument created problems for its poet. For if it was "genuine" on first publication, once it became well known, by its own lights it lost some of its genuineness. For later publications, Moore revised the poem substantially and managed in so doing to disperse some of the familiarity. Finally Moore cut the poem to three lines, and printed one of the longer versions in the endnotes. The short version reads:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading, it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine.
By relegating the well-known longer version to the endnotes, Moore again brings into question this and any poem's claims to stability and authority. Even as she demotes the longer version, she re-creates it as a kind of guarantor, with an authority based in priority, that can lend some of its weight to the newer, shorter version to which she appends it. At the same time, she creates a sense of alienation for the reader, who does not know how to take a poem exiled to the notes, and this unfamiliarity allows for (though it does not ensure) the prerequisite genuineness.
From Quotation and Modern American Poetry: "Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads." Copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan Press.
In the poem entitled "Poetry" Moore's relative contrast between "half poets" and genuine poets runs parallel to a more fundamental opposition between the raw materials of poetry and the genuine. Moore pursues an explosive resolution ("imaginary gardens with real toads in them") which she knows to be ideal, offering "in the meantime" a list of ordinary objects in a formal setting which are also images of pursuit. The genuine thus takes on a double meaning, as stimulus and as response. "In the Days of Prismatic Color," Moore's modern paradise lost, and a poem rich with allusion, contrasts a haughty, advancing obscurity to a golden age of simplicity and clarity. But underlying this complaint against excesses of form is a more inclusive picture of our fall from original immanence into absence and illusion. At the end of the poem truth speaks defiantly against ephemeral form, but the voice of truth can only be presented, in the poem, as an echo of the poet. "The Monkeys" creates a similar ambiguity of voice which complicates a simple contrast between object and audience, and between genuine and fraudulent art. The play of perceiver and perceived, buyer and seller, occurs on many levels of "When I Buy Pictures"--its lists, its epigrammatic phrases, and its status in relation to its theme. The poem associates the genuine with humility, so that, paradoxically, to be genuine is to disclose one's sources. Once again Moore's sense of the immediacy and primacy of the genuine is complicated by her sense of the separate and secondary nature of art.
"Poetry," the most famous and the most direct poem addressing the question of the genuine in art, provides the best starting point for defining Moore's usage. Though critics have long taken this poem as a statement of Moore's poetic, few have really confronted its peculiar procedures and examples. Moore's brilliant solution, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," is often quoted, but the prestidigitation that produced it is rarely traced. In fact Moore never really does define poetry or the genuine, but through the labyrinths of ambivalence and ambiguity, skeptical restraints and imaginative leaps, she presents her conception of their relationship. She posits an ideal in which the genuine is absorbed into form, reference into poem, the real into the imaginary. In the meantime poetry turns out to be a magic trick that does not quite succeed, but which absorbs us in its dazzling sleight-of-hand, in which we think we glimpse the genuine before it turns into the poet once again.
Our initial question in reading "Poetry" is one of reference: what is the "it" of "I, too, dislike it. There are things that are important beyond all this fiddle"? Clearly "it" is poetry--but why does Moore avoid the noun? Is the poem a prescription for or a definition of poetry, or do these converge in Moore's mind? While she "dislikes" it at the beginning of the poem, by the end she has made it a distant ideal. Syntactically "this fiddle" could stand either in apposition to "poetry" (in the generic sense) or as a reference to the immediate poetic activity. Naturally both the general and the particular are complicated in this poem in which the speaker refuses to stand in one place, moving from "I, too" to the impersonal "one" in a defensive defense of poetry. We discover that there are three poetries referred to here: one that won't do at all, the pretentious and narcissistic products of "half poets"; one that is transcendent, ideal, and purely imaginary, that fuses the genuine with artifice; and finally, the poem at hand. The problem is to separate them.
Before we have even begun to consider this ambiguity others have arisen. The ambiguity of reference is related to the ambivalence of the poem, which declares, at the outset, a dislike of "it" but immediately begins to retract. "Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine." Is the contempt part and parcel of the discovery? Or is it erased by the discovery? One finds in "it" a "place for the genuine"--does one find the genuine itself or is it extraneous to the poem, imported in or substituted? "Place" could imply either an occasion or a space. Which does Moore intend? If the "it" so far is "fiddle," is the genuine part of the fiddle or a transcendence of it? Is Moore discovering the magnitude of uselessness or overcoming it? The early problem of defining poetry has slipped into the problem of defining the genuine, as imaginative intensity or the achieved presence of reality in form.
What immediately follows "the genuine" could stand in apposition to it, though this is not entirely clear: "Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must, . . ." Typically Moore speaks through concrete particulars. But what, precisely, do they say? That we should stick to sensory detail when writing, to "finite objects"? It is worth noticing that these images all belong to a specific realm of particulars: they are all physical manifestations (body language) of internal reactions. Is the genuine, then, the stimulus or the response? Is it "objectification" or "a portrait of the author's character intent upon the object, which is sincerity"? Moore shifts persepective. Given the details of grasping hands, dilating eyes, rising hair, we would tend to say "the genuine" was a matter of response, except for what follows: "these things are important not because a / high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are / useful." They are here seen as objects eliciting our response, "useful things," not responses. What is useful about them? A defense of poetry, even a definition, ought to answer the question. Instead Moore gives us more information about what is not appropriate:
When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that
we do not admire what
we cannot understand:
The word "derivative" linked with "unintelligible" implies a definition of the ideal poetry as original and lucid. Originally, in Others 5 (July 1919) and Poems (1921), this section ended in a period. Moore returns to the thread of the previous assertion, but the colon suspends our expectation, suggesting that the examples could illustrate the antecedent negative or the following positive observation.
holding on upside down or in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a toll, a tireless wolf
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and
school-books"; all these phenomena are important.
Moore has evaded all questions. Reduced, the argument runs: these things are useful because they are important; these things are important because they are useful--a mere tautology, but in poetry, if not in logic, something is accomplished. We do have the peculiar illusion of an answer, by virtue of the very struggle of getting to this point. An engagement is recorded. Here, it seemed, we have the genuine: real physical objects--elephants, horses, wolves, fleas, full of smell and feeling, not "discriminated" for their symbolic value but "objectively" interesting. And yet the list is far from a random sampling of the world's objects. Once again these "important" phenomena are all of one type: animate beings investigating other objects, "in quest" or pursuing things, though admittedly also objects of our own inquiry. They play both sides of an equation between subject and object, derivative and original. What is interesting about them is how they reflect our own acts of investigation--our curiosity depends on theirs. Is this the genuine, then: the act of finding? Moore's method of argument through the first two-thirds of the poem, as we have seen, is not to answer a question, or to resolve a duality, but to get at the question from ever-new vantages. We have on the one hand exploration, on the other hand discovery, joined by ambiguity.
Moore's next strategy in the poem is to condense distinctions into paradoxes, or abstract oxymorons. We shall "have it" she says, when we become "literalists of the imagination." Moore tells us in the notes that she condensed this phrase from an essay Yeats wrote on Blake:
The limitation of his view was from the very intensity of his vision; he was a too literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature; and because he believed that the figures seen by the mind's eye, when exalted by inspiration, were "external existences," symbols of divine essences, he hated every grace of style that might obscure their lineaments. Ideas of Good and Evil (A.H. Bullen, 1903), p. 182 [CP, 267-268]
From what Yeats poses as undesirable opposites, realists of the literal (or natural) and literal realists of the imaginative, Moore derives a new ideal posture. The extremes of nature and imagination come together. Grace and the literal are one. But is the distinction "resolved" in her phrase? She holds out its fulfillment as a prospect, but the phrase is still, to us, paradoxical. "Precision is a thing of the imagination" (not, one infers, of reality), she writes in "Feeling and Precision" (Predilections, 8).
One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result
is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall
The "literalist of the imagination," we infer, not only is "sincere" in his vision ("untempted by any grace of style that might obscure its lineaments"), but also is successful in rendering that vision supremely graceful. In him, the formal and the natural are copresent, even cooperative; he produces "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." What follows is a contradictory demand for "the raw material of poetry," language and its various ordering devices (surprisingly aligned with the garden), and the genuine, things as they are (aligned with real toads). We lack the means to bring them into the same ontological status.
In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.
Clear enough. But why toads? Why not "real roses" or "real princes"? Why must the oxymoron be double? A practical answer is that Moore feels an affinity for odd creatures. Indeed, her poems are full of them: her octopus, pangolin, jerboa, lizard, all "supreme in their abnormality," work against the curve of the general, the average. They are original and individual. The peculiar is linked in her mind with the particular. By their peculiarity they demonstrate the inclusiveness of the genuine, which will not discriminate against toads any more than against "business documents and school-books." The "poetic" ideally is a totally inclusive class. Moore "dislikes" poetry that statically congratulates itself on remaining within a class of what is "properly poetic." The wakeful mind is challenged to extend the class it can embrace. The genuine pressures decorum. Still, though the ideal objective viewer has no predilection for beauty but responds genuinely, we in fact do find toads "and the like" disconcerting, or if we do not, we know we are unusual in this. The norm of response to toads is, in life, not garden ease but hands that grasp, eyes that dilate, hair that rises, responses that also accompany the sublime.
Toads belong to a lexicon of symbols and have their own literary history, as rich as the history of the imaginary garden, even part of the same tradition. Together with other amphibians and reptiles (snakes, basilisks, chameleons) they often represent the power of the irrational in the midst of controlled elements. Their shocking, irregular appearance, their way of leaping out of camouflage, produces an effect of the uncanny, or gothic horror, in some versions of the sublime. Though "natural symbols," they are often cousins to the demonic or supernatural--the incubus, the satyr--as creatures outside the realm of human understanding. They are present in literature not as "things in themselves" but as challenges to the boundaries of beauty, decorum, human order.
We have not learned the method of Moore's "literalists of the imagination" who are at ease with toads. We have only their raw materials and their intentions. Indeed, their accomplishment seems to us miraculous, a matter of enchantment or alchemy--such as would turn princes into toads, and vice versa. It is hard to resist the conjecture that such suggestions of magical transformation were present in Moore's mind in a poem about poetry, about image-making. To the "literalists of the imagination" the toad is a prince again, welcome back into the decorum of the garden. Similarly, things and words, nature and spirit are for them all of the same order of being. But such an ideal belongs to an imaginary, Edenic garden. We, on earth, can create "conjuries that endure" (Predilections, 32), but they remain fictions. Our toads are conspicuous and vulgar, challenging the perimeters of formal beauty. It is the incongruity that stimulates us, not the perspective it ideally provides. In this realm of pseudomagic, of conjuring, what has happened to the genuine, which had been implying the mundane world, "things in themselves," "dry, hard, finite objects"? Freud suggests that the effect of the uncanny (heimlich) involved the strangeness of the familiar, as its etymology (both homely and strange) implies. Perhaps this same doubleness obtains in Moore's use of the genuine. As ordinary as toads are, we cannot find forms that can domesticate them. Indeed it is the very effort to frame them that makes them seem extraordinary.
Until the toad is a prince, the ideal "garden" is only imaginary. The toad is, in a sense, the emblem of failure, the rough edge of our attempt to bring the real world and the world of formal beauty together. It is also, because it confounds, an object of admiration (making our eyes "dilate"). That which is beyond language produces the effect of gusto, cousin to the sublime. But the toad is not an emblem of defeat. The point is not that we want to capture the toad in all his naturalness, the physical object itself as toad. Why should we? We have it aplentv in the world as it is. But "lit with piercing glances" (whether of reflected or radiated light Moore doesn't specify) the poeticized toad has the occasional look of a prince. It is "hair-raising" when you think about it, how we catch these transformations in transit but cannot complete the charm. We make mutations, gargoyles. We do read poetry, do become for moments "literalists of the imagination," but we cannot sustain our transformation. Sincerity, which started out as honest vision, becomes an expression of desire (not attainment), and the energy that accompanies that desire is "gusto." Moore's poems are "conjuries" that can make "real toads" appear in fictive gardens. But she always reveals what's up her sleeve, brings her images round to reveal the conjurer. She quotes, with approval, a saying of Kenneth Burke's: "The hypnotist has a way out and a way in" (Predilections, 8). Working against the beliefs of the literalist of the imagination, for whom poetry is presence, is the skeptic, for whom it is mere illusory "fiddle."
It is not surprising, given her view of poetry as a process of competing dualities, that Moore should have gone through many revisions, never fully settling on one. We have been looking at the form of the poem published in Collected Poems--the one most often anthologized. But it went through several forms.
An intermediate phase in the second edition of Observations displays a frustration with ambiguities and an attempt to silence them. Not only is the poem shortened, but the famous "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" is removed and in its place is the phrase "enigmas are not poetry" prefacing a reminder that poems should not be "fashioned into that which is unknowable." Moore's vacillation about whether the "mysteries" she celebrates are natural or rhetorical, important or self-indulgent, will be the subject of another chapter, but it is clear enough here that she is subjecting her art to some hard criticism. Still, as if to say that these abrupt moral dispensations were too easy a resolution of complexity, she returned with minor changes and deletions to the original version when she published Selected Poems. And as though to acknowledge that art and the genuine are not yet resolved into one, she returned to syllabic patterns after an excursion into free verse, attempts to simulate natural speech. But in 1967 she lashed out against herself again, printing only part of the first three lines of the poem in Complete Poems.
Moore seems to have struggled with the Horatian precept dulce et utile in revising "Poetry." What had at first been "important" was now only "pleasing." But a draft of this version in the Rosenbach archive suggests that her ambivalence carried over into the act of composition. After "enigmas are not poetry," which abruptly concludes the version printed in the 1925 edition of Observations, she wrote:
and not until the misled literalists of the imagination
present for inspection
imaginary gardens with real toads in them
shall we encounter its misrule.
Here Moore changed the positive meaning that her phrase "literalists of the imagination" had borne in Others, but she was clearly turning against the pragmatic line this new poem was taking. She delightfully inverted values by neatly opposing "misled" and "misrule," celebrating poetry's recalcitrance, its rebellion against those whom she had called in the Others version "autocrats." Perhaps she was resisting the autocrat in herself.
The final, 1967 version of "Poetry" reduces it from its original thirty-eight-line movement of rhetorically persuasive point, example, counterpoint, to a bare expression of ambivalence:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
The two versions stand not as original and revision but as two alternative statements. In an interview after the publication of the Complete Poems Moore said her change arose from dislike of unnecessary verbal display in the early poem. And yet she did publish the original in the notes to Complete Poems, and in her work "notes" are an integral part of the whole. It was not her usual practice to include her variorum. If, as she says, "omissions are not accidents," the corollary may be "inclusions are intentional." The ambivalence in the two versions of "Poetry" is basic to Moore's aesthetic: poetry embodies a continual tension between the desire to concentrate all thought into a unity, into epigram, into implied vision (and silence), and the desire to make distinctions, to be explicit, to find the right words (and perhaps simply to assert one's existence by saying more). A line in the original published version of "Poetry" in Others reveals this temptation: "Case after case / could be cited did one wish it." Later Moore sees this wish as self-indulgent, claiming that the 1967 version contains all that the earlier version spells out. But could we divine the earlier version from its vestige? Language is not an instrument of precision, as Moore is the first to admit. Reducing the poem to three lines may be Moore's attempt to uncover the genuine, but a short poem is no more genuine than an expansive one.
Revision, whether within the text or between texts, is an essential part of Moore's aesthetic. It is motivated by an essential ambivalence about poetry's capacity to assert and form an elusive, multifaceted world. The imagination must continually catch itself in its complacencies and wipe away the smudge of accumulated thought. And the poem must have the same effect on the reader; it must elude his settled understanding. A passage in her reading diary (among many Moore copied from H. Festing Jones's Diversions in Sicily) expresses this need for constant renewal: "During the voyage through time the words of one's own language become barnacled over with associations so that we cannot see them in their naked purity as we see the words of a foreign tongue." Too rigid an ideal of sincerity will reduce the poet to silence, because literature is by its very nature insincere. "If one is afraid of it [literature], / the situation is irremediable." On the other hand, "if one approaches it familiarly, / what one says of it is worthless" (CP, 45). The effect of Moore's poems is always to make her subject (and her poem) unfamiliar, without allowing it to become alien.
It should be said that Moore is not an austere moralist in upholding the value of sincerity. The "difficulties" she encounters (and produces) are in fact the proper pleasure of art. While resolution may be held out as the ideal, paradox clearly has a delight of its own. Her alert discovery of nuance, her fastidious resistance to blunt closure, suggest not only a sincerity of attitude but a dislike of ending. Moore's sincerity, then, is the agent of gusto. Failure in terms of precision becomes success in terms of energy generated, by the genuine discovery of a world bigger than our words for it.
From Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981. Copyright © 1981 by Harvard UP. Reprinted by permission of the author.
In "Poetry," Moore turns decisively away from the modes of contrariety and the fantastic, though the poem shares other characteristics of Moore's earlier adverse poetry. Moving between address and description, she begins with her best known (adverse) line, "I, too, dislike it," and attempts, but fails, to provide a definition of poetry that is not "entangled in the negative." The terms and examples Moore uses to define poetry proliferate in a relation of supplementarity rather than unity as can be seen in the displacement of "genuine" from the primary term to be investigated at the beginning of the poem to one of two terms--along with "raw material"--at the conclusion of the poem. Furthermore, Moore's implied audience changes from those who seem to have every right to dislike poetry to those who earn, through appropriate attention to poetry the honorific comment: "then you are interested in poetry." The beginning and ending of the poem are as follows:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the genuine.
In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, then you are interested in poetry
In "Poetry" Moore is caught between two conflicting impulses: the need and desire to define poetry universally and generally--to "come / At the cause of the shouts"--and to engage irreducible particulars and expressions. While in her later collage poetry she allows whatever positive definition her poems provide to emerge in and through juxtaposed elements, here she is pulled in two directions at once, much like the bat in this poem, "holding on upside down or in quest of something to / eat." Notably, Moore does not attempt to define poetry from her position as maker but as audience--a position that enables her to establish her stance "elsewhere."
Most critics of this poem have noted that for Moore the genuine is an inexpressible quality--"a magnetism, an ardor, a refusal to be false"--which cannot be directly translated into art or the written word. Consequently, this poem is frequently interpreted as an attempt to realize the unrealizable. Establishing this struggle as indeed central to the poem, John Slatin has criticized "Poetry" as another example from Moore's early work in which she refuses "'to go in,' making instead a virtue of her own isolation." Slatin fails to consider that Moore's need to assert her autonomy may in fact be her need to assert her own difference from a poetic tradition and language which do not represent her. Moore cannot achieve the "genuine" in her poetry for she remains outside the centered vision of a masculinist "universal" poetics that would allow her the semblance of an unmediated "real." While Moore desperately wants to define this activity of poetry that she has given so much of her life to, each assertion is confounded by subsequent assertions, so that it is in fact quite difficult to tell what Moore is recommending as poetry or the genuine. Indeed, Moore writes her definition of poetry largely by spelling out the ways we do not have poetry, as she progressively abandons the definitions and examples she puts forth.
Not only is it difficult to tell what Moore is or is not recommending, but the perspective from which any one aspect of the poem can be considered frequently shifts. For example, after initially praising poetry as "a place for the genuine," Moore lists bodily reactions that seem to be the stimulus for, or the response to, or emblematic of, the genuine, or perhaps all three. Furthermore, as Slatin notes, these examples provide a provisional definition of the genuine even as they are in turn defined by it.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because
high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but
because they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand:
While grasping hands, dilating eyes, and rising hair are associated with the genuine as actions that occur spontaneously and cannot be controlled, they are also laden with associations of gothic fakery and disingenuousness. . . .
From Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State UP.
No Modernist poem makes better use of the resources of virtuality than Moore's final version of "Poetry":
I, too dislike it. . . .
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
This is not Shelley. Indeed it is not much of anything, until we find ways of locating where its poetry lies. But once we adapt the strategy necessary for noniconic artonce we see that much of the force of the work depends on its refusing to be something elsewe can begin to understand what its exclusions make present. First, we must ask why the poem refers to poetry only as "it." What other options are there, and how does this choice establish the possibility of gaining authority for specific claims about the "genuine" that the poem wants to make? Suppose something about the ontological status of artits tilt, perhapsdemands so indefinite a pronoun, just as Dante's Bertrand de Born does, when he stands facing the poet with his head in his hands. Perhaps it is only by treating poetry as so indefinite a category that one can see how its content depends on the specific processes of disclosure set in motion by a linguistic intricacy that puts relation in the place of substance.
These hypothesis are not wrong, but they are severely limited by the Romantic framework in which they are cast. Moore pushes against those limits by refusing to be content with the moment of negation that sets perpendicularity against reference. The force of the perpendicular must make possible a strange, yet evocative, positive characterization of that site. In this case, the main vehicle for fleshing out the content of the "genuine" is her note on the poem, which shows us what she cut from previous versions. For then we have a contrast to the "it," which motivates its strategic indefiniteness. Indeed, we have a complex set of virtual forces, leading both back, into Moore's past, and forward, into a more dynamic sense of how contempt and genuineness may be closely linked, mutually reinforcing states. Once we feel the pressure of all of these images that rush in to provide names for poetry, but actually displace it, we begin to understand that those indefinite pronouns both reflect highly intelligent choices and orient us toward the kind of negotiations necessary if poetry is to provide alternatives to those images. So long as one needs these supplemental metaphors to define poetry , one is condemned to the distance of attempting to explain the genuine -the site of perpendicularity and polishin terms of merely illustratory materials, which are thus necessarily only partial realizations of what they attempt to instantiate. Such images turn the positive into positivity, preparing metaphors for the dump that so fascinated her friend Stevens. But as we realize the failure of images, we also get a glimpse of the deepest efforts of poetrythe quest to find, within the transient, a sense of the genuine that is abstract enough to allow for a range of contents, and fluid enough to merge into the state of grace achieved by individual poems.
If we were to make generalizations about this sense of discovery, we would have to say that the point of the poem is to show that we must conceive the genuine in poetry in terms of forces, rather than of things or images. Poetry must be abstract in order to focus attention on the genuine concreteness of its processes that tend to be subsumed under the narcissistic substitutes imposed upon them when we create scenic contexts and thematic interpretations. But, as we make even that generalization, the deeper point of Moore's poem begins to become clear. Generalization itself must take the role of indefinite pronoun. Rather than explaining anything, it too becomes a means of tracking this sense of the genuine, which resides less in anything we say about the poem than in what we do, as we try to cut through the images to the mobile inventiveness that underlies them and gives them a "place."
Moore's poem, in other words, is not about the genuine so much as it is the literal action of attempting to locate "it" in the only way that the "it" can be given significant content. Rather than proliferating names for the pronoun, we must let it lead us to reflecting on the forces that it gathers within the poem. These comprise what can be genuine about poetry. At one pole, the poem shifts from images to the force that the authorial process embodies, as it works out what is involved in Moore's epigraph, "Omissions are not accidents. " Omissions are, or can be, an author's means of asserting control over the complex energies of negation that we have been observing at work. Omissions are not accidents because they are perhaps the only way of negotiating between the accidental and the essential. Thus they lead us to the complex framework of memories, needs, and cares that provides the background that poetry must rely on and bring into focus. The poet's powers of negation are her richest means of showing what motivates her quest and abides within it to prepare for the satisfactions that poetry's perpendicular presences afford. Such demonstration also calls attention to the other pole of readerly activity. The virtual background that the negations evoke is ultimately not abstract at all, since it takes specific form in the reader's own efforts to transform an initial befuddlement (not unlike contempt) into a momentary realization of all that the "it" comes to embody. Reading this poem engages us in precisely the process that the poem describes: Puzzled by the "it," we must recover what the early drafts offered and understand why that fails to define poetry. In its stead, we must put the realization that the genuine consists in this dialectical process, which establishes a "place" (in all of the senses of that term) where all readers can see what is shared in the effort to find something mediating between the "it" and its substitutes. To see what that entails is to demonstrate the capacity to achieve it.
This play of virtual forces and identifications is obviously not given a specific context. Yet it does serve the crucial role of indicating how thoroughly certain active forces in Moore's poems resonate in conjunction with qualities that some situations can mark as gendered. So now we must see how Moore focuses attention on those properties. The quickest and most general means for doing that is to shift from what Moore shares with noniconic painterly strategies to her departures from its characteristic concerns. Whereas the painters concentrated on rendering certain dynamic and irreducible balances that take form as essentially independent structures with which consciousness tries to align, Moore's virtual forces are irreducibly psychological and willful. The negation in "Poetry" is not so much a way of getting beyond the personal, as a way of getting within itgetting to forces of an individual will too wise to theatricalize the terms of caring, yet freed, by that wisdom, to relish that care as something approaching an absolute power. Indeed, in much of Moore's work, that care becomes so particular, so much a matter of polish wrought to its uttermost, by subtle winks and intricate shifts of imaginative position, that one must attend to its distinctively personal sources.
from Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism. Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge UP.
Jeffrey D. Peterson
"Notes on the Poem(s) 'Poetry': The Ingenuity of Moore's Poetic 'Place'"
Grace Schulman: Have you changed many of the poems for this edition [i.e., Complete Poems]?
Marianne Moore: Yes, I have changed them somewhat. Edwin Kennebeck, Mr. Kennebeck, said, "Marshall Best is going to fall dead when he sees 'Poetry' reduced to three lines."
G.S.: Three lines?
Marianne Moore: Yes.
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are
important beyond all this fiddle.
Then I prolonged it:
Reading it, however, with a perfect con-
tempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
But I said, "The rest of it seems to be padding."
Mr. Kennebeck said, "Oh no. But I think some people are going to complain if you leave the whole thing out." But then he said, "Well, I thought of this: How would it be if we had an appendix and put that in the back, together with the other things you have reduced to nothing?"
"Well," I said, "that's fine. Then it saves the serious reader from looking up these things as they were."
. . . Moore's account of the final revision of "poetry" is so wry, in fact, that we are invited to take up the very task the version in the "Notes" allegedly "saves" us from as "serious readers": "looking up these things as they were." Given the complex textual history of the poem(s) "Poetry," however, it is more accurate to call this task, "looking up these things as they have beenvariously." When we find that there are eleven texts of "Poetry" to consider, we are perhaps "charmed or exasperated to participate."
Moore's "place for the genuine," then, is as challenging a bibliographical locale as it is a thematic one. Part of the obligation of reviewing the printing history of "Poetry," therefore, is to consider the poetic function of Moore's "Notes" themselves. In its final form "Poetry" asks us not only to trace its textual variants, but to account for the transmutation of the famous "place for the genuine" entailed in the poem's presence in its own "appendix" as well. Here we might also consider how such formal complications have been naturalized by the poem's critics, and what these naturalizations themselves make manifest about the various vocabularies of the poem's criticism. Ultimately my interest is in establishing a reading of "Poetry" based on Hugh Kenner's observation that the last version of the poem is "a footnote to an excerpt from itself" (Kenner 1967, 1432-33). Such a reading would take page 36 and pages 266-68 in Complete Poems as its continuous text, and begin with the notion that the poem-as-notes recapitulates itself, invoking the history of the poem(s)'s own revision.
Our approach to "Poetry" should start with the recognition that Moore's "Notes" are themselves thematic enactments, counterparts to quotation, no less authoritative with respect to textual "place" than what we ordinarily conceive of as the poetic text proper. Moore makes this clear in both editions of Observations by poeticizing the book's index. The pertinent excerpt from Observations' first edition is this:
"piercing glances," 59
plastic animal, 69, 101
Plato, 72, 101
POETRY, 30, 96
poetry and fastidiousness, 35
Poets of the Old Testament, 98
politics, 91, 108
pomegranet, 92 (O 117)
. . . A "footnote to an excerpt from itself"'or excerpt from a footnote to itself"Poetry" manages to insist cyclically upon the location of its text as a perplexing play of poetic "place " . . . .We might say finally that the omitted in Moore's poeticsfrom the page and from performanceis invitational, and might see such a thematization of omission as an ironic affirmation of the problematics of closure in poetic composition.
* * *
Critical responses to "Poetry," then, can be organized around what I'm calling Moore's thematization of omission. There are essentially two modes of response. One seems to be to read Moore's epigraph, as I've been arguing, as "Omissions are invitations"; the other, as "Omissions are catastrophes." M. L. Rosenthal and Anthony Hecht respond roughly according to the former; Hugh Kenner the latter; and George Nitchie and Bonnie Costello, the most sensitive readers of Moore's revisions, endeavor synthesis. All of the critics negotiate some form of recovery from Schulman's incredulous "Three lines?" (the poem's first critical response), and in doing so raise important questions for us about the stability of Moore's text as artifact. Moreover, the language of their commentary is itself of interest for the assumptions it makes manifest in metaphor. In Hugh Kenner's review, for example, the history of Moore's revisions of "Poetry" is metaphorized as a succession of poetically violent acts, a series of textual mutilations. He writes:
In Observations (1924) revision destroyed several rhymes and deformed the grid severely. ln 1936 [sic] three words dropped out. In the 1961 Marianne Moore Reader all the words dropped out: this best-known of her poems was nowhere to be found. Now in the 1967 Complete Poems (so called) it reappears from the zero, but hardly: three lines atop an otherwise blank page. . . . (emphasis mine: 1967, 1432)
"At the back of the volume, however," Kenner continues, "we find a note, which reprints the entire 1936 [sic] textthe one scarred by all those revisionsand labels it 'original version'" (emphasis mine: 1432). Similarly, in A Homemade World, Kenner uses the following expressions to describe Moore's revisions of the poem as "drastic fits of rectitude": "a convulsive revision deprived"; "she also expelled"; "a new upheaval restored"; and "just about everything went down the tubes" in "the most calamitous revision of all"  (107). Presumably, the degree of metaphorical "violence" in Kenner's history of "Poetry" measures his own affection for the poem's previous form(s). In any event, Kenner's most useful insights are free of anxious metaphorizations: "'Poetry,'" he asks, ". . . is it a text or a process? . . . Has a text ever before become a footnote to an excerpt from itself?" (1432). These questions are key. So too are his recognitions elsewhere that the enactment Moore's poems achieve "is even entwined with their printing history, a record of delicate, minute decisions"; that revision in Moore's work invokes itself as "tacit invitation" ("Meditation & Enactment" 161). Many "a familiar Moore poem," Kenner assures us in his review, "has metamorphosed through printing after printing like a clockwork Proteus" (1432). The price of such metamorphosis is for Kenner, finally, personal. "Looking at old friends in new revisions," Kenner writes, "one regrets the virtuosity new rigor has sacrificed" (1433). Kenner's metaphorical "violence, " now "sacrificial," may be read as a retributive form of affection for the previous products of a practice he nevertheless seems consistently capable of praising as "process."
In his review of Complete Poems, "Writers' Rights and Readers' Rights," Anthony Hecht shares Kenner's concern for "old friends in new revisions." Hecht figures the difficulty of our relation to Moore's revision of "Poetry" as itself one of "imaginative possession." Regularly slipping into Kenner's less affirmative idiom, however, Hecht concedes that while Moore "has occasionally added beautifully to a familiar and well-known poem, more often than not she has cut and trimmed in radical and merciless ways":
The famous poem "Poetry," for instance, is reduced to its first three lines. Fortunately, the full, original [sic] version is preserved in the notes. But not all the poems have been treated so kindly. . . . Personally, I wish Miss Moore had been more sparing of her work, and as an admiring reader I feel that I have some rights in the matter. Her poems are partly mine, now, and I delight in them because they exhibit a mind of great fastidiousness, a delicate and cunning moral sensibility, a tact, a decorum, a rectitude, and finally and most movingly, a capacity for pure praise that has absolutely biblical awe in it. . . . [H]owever much I may wish to take exception to the changes [she has] made, [she has] provided a field day for Ph.D. candidates for years to come, who can collate versions and come up with theories about why the changes were made. I suspect, for instance, that "Poetry" is Miss Moore's most widely anthologized poem, and she may feel that it has been studied and taught to death, and the present version may be her wry comment on this. (208-209)
One way of recouping "Poetry" as a possession of criticism, Hecht ironically suggests, is to imagine the poem's form as Moore's own "wry comment" on the invasiveness of criticism. This task is taken up, somewhat less self-consciously, by M. L. Rosenthal. His interest is in the poem's relation to the problematic of the "definitive" text as well as that of poetic inception. Noting that both Moore and Auden "have been incessant revisers and excluders of their earlier work, evading, in the time-honored and scholar-cursed way of poets, commitments to 'definitive texts'" (126), Rosenthal argues that the history of the work of these poets testifies "that the endings of most poems are really arbitrary sealings-off, and that poems are never, even when seemingly 'perfect,' quite the closed systems . . . they are usually taken to be" (127). Referring to what he calls Moore's "counterbalancing [of] the two versions" of "Poetry" in Complete Poems, Rosenthal suggests that the poet is "playing with the two versions in order to liberate herself from the chains of critical solemnity":
Her "new" version of Poetry [CMP 36], then, in its relation to the previous "fixed" form [CMP 266-68], exists almost as a witticism. To my mind it dramatizes the insistent fact that many poems are comprised of what we might call a kernel and a context, and that often, in fact, the kernel does reside in the first line or lines. The amusing, and nevertheless real and serious implications of this factespecially, what it suggests about the energizing center of a poemhave been thrust upon us by Miss Moore's decision, no matter what her specific intension [sic]. (127)
If we recall that after reciting the first line of "Poetry" in the Schulman interview, Moore says "Then I prolonged it"we may well be able to corroborate Rosenthal's argument here. It's likely, if not surprising, that "I, too, dislike it" is the germinative kernel of "Poetry." (In his interview with Moore, Donald Hall asked: "How does a poem start for you?" She answered: " A felicitous phrase springs to mindor a word or two, saysimultaneous with some thought or object of equal attraction. . . " [MMR 259]. ) Since duration seems to be significant on this "end" of the poem, it is interesting to find Moore's "Notes" concerned with it on the other: the heading "Original version" (1967) becomes, in the last textual variant of "Poetry," "Longer version" (1981).
While George Nitchie's work on Moore's revisions of "Poetry" is frequently flawed by textual inaccuracies ( e.g., he repeats R. P. Blackmur's conflation of the two editions of Observations [37; cf. Blackmur 73]), his conclusions resemble Bonnie Costello's for their accommodation of ambivalence in Moore's poetics (see Nitchie 91). "[I]n its successive versions," Nitchie writes, "Poetry" moves "between rigorously symmetrical artifact and quintessential statement"then adds: "between prose that looks like verse and verse that looks like prose" (Nitchie 48). The "process" of "Poetry," then, should be traced along this "distinction" as wellanother ambiguous boundary called up (twice) in the poem itself. In her reading at Harvard, in fact, Moore mentions that "In Lieu of the Lyre" struck her as "something that was neither prose nor verse, that might pass for both." This sort of double disclaimer which subversively affirms each of its postulates is crucial to the formal play of "Poetry" in Complete Poems. Costello writes:
The ambivalence in the two versions or "Poetry" is basic to Moore's aesthetic: poetry embodies a continual tension between the desire to concentrate all thought into a unity, into epigram, into implied vision (and silence), and the desire to make distinctions, to be explicit, to rind the right words (and perhaps simply to assert one's existence by saying more). (Costello 25-26)
That such desires are simultaneously satisfied in "Poetry" by way of elaborate formal irony, and that Moore's "ambivalence" seems ultimately to conflate multiple "boundaries" between and within the "poem" and "note," have both been underestimated. Moreover, whiteness in the poem, "implied vision (and silence),"most of page 36 (CMP)seems somehow to mediate the movement of the poem in Kenner's formulation: a nearly blank page bisects the poem as it moves as an excerpt from a footnote to itself, genuinely emptying it out as "place for the genuine" (emphasis mine ). To put this another way, we might say that the textual apparatus of "Poetry"as one poemis informed by the convergence of "contractility" as a "virtue" with the "power of the visible" as "the invisible." The multiplicity of intersections, blurred boundaries, in the poem are finally articulated in the "eloquence" of "silence." In this respect "Poetry" is infused with the "white light" of which Williams writes in his essay, "Marianne Moore" (1925). He stresses the poetic value of "the geometric principle of the intersection of loci":
[F]rom all angles lines converging and crossing establish points. The poet might carry it further and say in his imagination that apprehension perforates at places, through to understandingas white is at the intersection of blue and green and yellow and red. It is this white light that is the background of all good work. (1969, 122)
The correlative in the poem for the perforative force of the poem's punctuationthe mark of "white light" at its centeris the presence of Moore's "'real toads.'" By this I mean that the formal disturbance in "Poetry" ("Three lines?") is analogous to the intrusion of "'real toads'" upon the traditional poetic decorum of "'imaginary gardens.'" Such "perforation" in Moore's poem is complicated by the fact that "'imaginary gardens'" seem to contain their own disclaimer; that is, their reality as constructs in language seems to be signalled, paradoxically, by the word "imaginary" itself, making them consequently seem more "real." The presence of "'real toads,'" then, works somehow both to confirm the "reality" of such a "place" and deny it, calling into question the power of the word "real" to confer "reality." "Imaginary" is a wink to which "real" gives the nod. Moore's quotation marks, whether they indicate a "real" borrowing or not, finally heighten this ironic play of disclaimers by disclaiming the whole construction as poetically construed. If Moore's "apprehension perforates at places" in "Poetry," "through to understanding," it is an understanding of language per se. To refigure the poem's movement, then, we could say that "Poetry" seems to be"of silkworm / size or immense; at times invisible"Moore's textual dragon.
The critical perspectives I've outlined above point from various angles at the problematics of "Poetry" as Jonathan Culler represents them in Structuralist Poetics. What he says here seems readily applicable to the sort of complex formal naturalization "Poetry" (1967) seems to require:
Marianne Moore's "Poetry", with its famous "there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle", does not involve a rejection or exposure of genre conventions, especially since the "fiddle" is admirably manifested in her elaborate syllabic form; but it does shift the process of naturalization onto another level by forcing us to consider, if we are to make the poem intelligible, the relation between the meaning of statements such as "I, too, dislike it" in ordinary discourse and their transmutation by the poetic context.
The best way to explain this level of vraisemblance and naturalization may be to say that citing or opposing conventions of genre brings about a change in the mode of reading. We are forced to cast our net wider so as to include more than this level of vraisemblance and intelligibility and must allow the dialectical opposition which the text presents to result in a synthesis at a higher level where the grounds of intelligibility are different. . . . In reading many modern texts this level of vraisemblance and naturalization becomes the most important, and in this sense it has the advantage of being less reductive than others, for it need not resolve a difficulty but can recognize that what requires interpretation is the existence of a difficulty more than the difficulty itself. (151)
The dialectical opposition which the text presents has been delineated carefully by Costello, and the synthesis, "where the grounds of intelligibility are different," seems to have been hit upon by Kenner. The delicacy of Kenner's formulation, then, is that it enables us to cast Costello's net even wider: to eschew privileging one "version" of "Poetry" over another in Complete Poems; to appreciate the play of the poem as "footnote to an excerpt from itself" (or vice versa); to construe the formal effect of the poem as a unitary, if not stationary, phenomenon. "'[F]ond of that precision which creates movement,'" Moore foregrounds in "Poetry" the poem's own verbal "bud."' To restate the dynamics of "Poetry" from this perspectiveas a "small (or large) machine made of words"we might allow Moore her own summary. In her review of Eliot's "Marina," "A Machinery of Satisfaction," Moore writes:
What matters here is that we have, for both author and reader, a machinery of satisfaction that is powerfully affecting, intrinsically and by association. The method is a main part of the pleasure: lean cartography; reiteration with compactness; . . . the conjoining of opposites to produce irony; a counterfeiting verbally of the systole, diastole, of sensationof what the eye sees and the mind feels; the movement within the movement of differentiated kindred sounds. . . . (338)
What remains now to be traced are the poem's systoles and diastoles in revision, the historical movements of the poem evinced by its last appearance, and the "differentiated kindred" likenesses within the poem synonymous with its form (TM 48).
* * *
Refuting Craig Abbott's use of "Poetry" to exemplify his "System of Bibliographical Reference Numbering," Patricia Willis and Clive Driver published "Bibliographical Numbering and Marianne Moore" (1976), setting forth for the first time a comprehensive account of the poem's printing history. Since then Macmillan and Viking have published a new edition of Complete Poems (1981), delivering what is likely to be the poem's last variant (in which "Original" becomes "Longer" in Moore's "Notes"). Since their article excluded contributions to anthologies, Willis' and Driver's work overlooked one important version of the poem. This variant appeared in Harriet Monroe's The New Poetry (1932), and was reprinted in Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry (1948)a book Moore wrote "exhilarated [her] when it came out" (MMR 185). This, then, is a revised checklist of the poem's distinct appearances, heavily indebted to Willis and Driver:
|Publication||Date||Number of Stanzas : Lines|
|A.||Others, 5, No.6||
|5 : 30|
|B.||Others for 1919||1920||5 : 30|
(Reverts to 1919)
|1921||5 : 30|
|D.||Observations||December 1924||5 : 29|
|E.||Observations||March 1925||1 : 13|
|F.||The New Poetry||1932||3 : 15|
|G.||Selected Poems (Macmillan)
(Reverts to 1924)
|1935||5 : 29|
|H.||Selected Poems (Faber)
(Reverts to 1924)
|1935||5 : 29|
|I.||Collected Poems||1951||5 : 29|
|1967||115 : 32|
|1981||115 : 32|
Two features of Willis' and Driver's article are especially important for our present purposes: first, it takes "note" and "poem" together as the work's text; and second, it indicates which versions are reversions in Moore's revision of "Poetry." (Reversions are noted above in parentheses.) We see, for example, that the final form of "Poetry" stands closest to the first and second editions of Observationspublished three months apartfor their juxtaposition of "antipathetic" versions of the poem; that, as books, Observations and Complete Poems not only satisfy contrary revisionary impulses for Moore but also figure one another as stanzaic reversals: 5/1; 1/5 (cf. Ranta). It's tempting, therefore, to think of the appearance of "Poetry" in Complete Poems as a sort of formal pun on the poem's presence(s) in Observations. The value of the 1932 version, rarely discussed or reprinted by Moore's critics, is that it mediates between the single-stanza version of 1925 and the five-stanza version of 1935. According to the metaphor of Moore's "machinery of satisfaction," the 1932 version represents a sort of diastolic median, an intermediate stage of dilation following the "contraction" of 1925. Further, the 1935 version which follows these two is a reversion; Selected Poems takes its text, with revisions (e.g., inverted commas replace Moore's quotation marks), from the first edition of Observations (1924). The pattern of the poem's reversions in revision is an insistent figure of the text's return to itself, and the poem's "final" form, as we have seen, is a radical enactment of this movement.
Willis and Driver also help us to trace the poem's historical play in polemic. W. C. Williams edited the last issue of Others (July 1919), and "Poetry" follows his caustic introduction directly. Williams writes:
There is nothing now to despise but vermine: Others.
Others has come to an end. I object to bringing out another issue after this one. Others is not enough. It has grown inevitably to be a lie like everything else that has been a truth at one time. (Gloria 3)
Consummated by Williams' vitriolic "Belly Music," in which the only literary magazine spared condemnation is The Little Review, the polemical tone of the issue establishes a specific context for Moore's "I, too, dislike it" often overlooked. In her prose analogue to "Poetry," "Subject, Predicate, Object" (1948), Moore restates what the "I" ( as "we") specifically "dislikes" nearly forty years later:
Of poetry, I once said: "I, too, dislike it"; and say it again of anything mannered, dictatorial. disparaging, or calculated to reduce to the ranks what offends one. (TM 47)
Entailing revision itself in a "liking for poetry," Moore con- cludes:
As for the hobgoblin obscurity, it need never entail compromise. It should mean that one may fail and start again, never mutilate an auspicious premise. The objective is architecture, not demolition; grudges flower less well than gratitudes. To shape, to shear, compress, and delineate; to "add a hue to the spectrum of another's mind" as Mark Van Doren has enhanced the poems of Thomas Hardy, should make it difficult for anyone to dislike poetry! (TM 48)
The "auspicious premise" of "Poetry" is manifest in Others (1919), and its shape, shearing, compression, and delineation in the poem are, in fact, ultimately metaphorized as forms of "mutilation" and "demolition" by Hugh Kenner. If the history of the poem(s) "Poetry" "add[s] a hue to the spectrum of another's mind," then, it might be: that in revision Moore's critical "objective is architecture"of multiply "enhanced" habitations.
It is of interest too, finally, that the poem as "modernist manifesto" seems to "internalize" its history of polemical tensions, invoking its own record of revision, while revivifying the same problematics "externally" (Ward 196). I mean this: that the images of alarm in "Poetry" (Ward 196; Costello 16)"Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must"realize themselves in Schulman's "Three lines?" as the principal irony of the poem's liminal play. Figuring itself with one of its own figures, "Poetry" too "can dilate""if it must"; and it does so cyclically in its own "Notes." (Here we might imagine Moore having Yogi Berra say, fielding a "footnote to an excerpt from itself": "It's never over until it's never over.") Further, since the critic is figured"immovable"alongside "differentiated kindred," who all seem to effect some version or another of the same agonistic movement, we might ask ourselves, How is our interpretive mobility complicated by our figuration "within" the poem itself? We assume, as Eliot did, that "the detail always has its service to perform to the whole"; that "The similes are there for use" (x); that something can be made of them; and, while it disclaims "high-sounding interpretation," the text signals that such "things" are "useful" (emphasis mine). But interpretive construal of "them" entails, at every step, our discovery that "we" ourselves are being construed by the poem. We "twitch" our equine skin in some versions and "twinkle" it in others; in some feeling a "fly," in others a "flea." Moore suspends us, "immovable," between figures for our activity and the figures it confronts. It is tempting to dwell on the infectiousness of such a hermeneutical conundrum, but let us return more directly to the poem's ineluctable raw material: silence.
a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
inhabits it, your arm
approaches and it opens
and it closes; you had meant
to catch it and it quivers;
you abandon your intent.
--"A Jelly-Fish," Marianne Moore (CMP 180)
Abbott, Craig S. Marianne Moore: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977. 150-51.
---. "A System of Bibliographical Reference Numbering." PBSA 69 (January-March 1975): 73-74.
Bishop. Elizabeth. "Miss Moore and Edgar Allan Poe." Quarterly Review of Literature 4, No.2 (1948): 133.
Blackmur, R. P. "The Method of Marianne Moore." In Charles Tomlinson, Ed., Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall. 1969.66-86.
Burke, Kenneth. "Motives and Motifs in the Poetry of Marianne Moore." In Charles Tomlinson, Ed.. Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs. NJ.: Prentice-Hall. 1969. 89-107.
Burns, Gerald. "Poets and Anthologies." Southwest Review, 53 (Summer 1968).
Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Eliot, T. S. "Introduction." Selected Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
Gould. Jean. American Women Poets. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1980.
Hamburger, Michael. The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the 1960s. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.
Havarias, Stratis, Ed. The Poet's Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Kenner, Hugh. "Artemis and Harlequin." National Review 19 (26 December 1967): 1432- 33.
---. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. New York: Knopf, 1975.
---. "Meditation and Enactment." In Charles Tomlinson. Ed., Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall, 1969.159-64.
Lourdeaux. Stanley. "Toads in Gardens for Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams." Modern Philology 80 (November 1982): 166-67.
Moore, Marianne. The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Macmillan/Viking, 1981. (CMP)
---."A Machinery of Satisfaction." Poetry 30 (September 1931): 337-39.
---. A Marianne Moore Reader. New York: Viking, 1961.
---. Observations. New York: The Dial Press, 1924 (O) and 1925. (O, 1925)
---. Predilections. New York: Viking, 1955. (PR)
---. Tell Me, Tell Me. New York: Viking. 1966. (TM)
Nitchie, George. Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
Ranta, Jerrald. "Palindromes, Poems, and Geometric Form." Visible Language 10 (Spring 1976): 157-72.
Rosenthal, M. L. "Comment: Poets and Critics and Poet-Critics." Poetry 114 (May 1969): 126.
Schulman, Grace. "Conversation with Marianne Moore." Quarterly Review of Literature, Vol. 16, Nos. 1-2 (1969): 154-71.
Steinman, Lisa. "Modern America, Modernism, and Marianne Moore." Twentieth Century Literature 30 (Summer/Fal11984): 154-71.
Thayer, Scofield. "Comment." The Dial 78 (April 1925): 354-56.
Ward, Alfred. American Literature 1880-1930. London: Methuen & Co., 1932.
Williams, William Carlos. "Gloria." Others 5 (July 1919): 3.
---. Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1969.
---. The Wedge. Cummington, MA: Cummington Press, 1944.
Willis, Patricia C., and Clive E. Driver. "Bibliographical Numbering and Marianne Moore:" PBSA 70 (April-June 1976): 261-63.
Excerpted from a longer essay. From Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. Copyright © 1990 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
"Marianne Moore's Revisions of 'Poetry'"
Although Marianne Moore's "Poetry" has for its subject a universal topic treated in general terms, an examination of the poet's many revisions and her reasons for them suggests that she became susceptible to a variety of influences while writing and revising this major poem in her canon. If we examine revised versions of "Poetry" in light of their appearances in certain of her volumes or in anthologies edited by valued colleagues, we can see that she usually revised for a new edition of her poetry and that she sometimes revised even for the occasion of a special printing. In the course of revising this poem, she admitted multiple influences: her family, a like-minded coterie, her editors, even her critics. Occasionally, a trend in publishing or writing also resulted in a revision. For our purposes, we could turn to David Daiches's theory of modem fiction to account for the multitude of forces to which she seemed to respond:
If we know just what it is in the civilization of his time that led the author to adopt the attitude he did, to shape the work the way he did, to tell this story in this way and no other, then we understand what we may call the logic of the work; we can see what its real principal of unity is; we can see the work as a whole and be sure of seeing the right whole. (216)
To see the "right whole" in the case of this poem, we must first assemble all the versions. Then we must examine the chronology of changes and consider the individuals whose influence propelled this chronology and the movements to which they belonged. This process will shed light on critical problems that have concerned scholars and will reveal a modernist application that underlies Moore's method of revision.
The variorum text appended here sets forth the four basic versions of "Poetry" (listed in order of their first publications): a version with five stanzas of six long, divided lines (roughly 19, 19, 11, 5, 8, and 13 syllables, stanzas three and five being less regular), almost rhymed (printed fifty-seven times and once as a note to the three-line version, during Moore's lifetime ), hereinafter called the five-stanza version; a thirteen-line version in free verse without stanzas (printed once), hereinafter called the thirteen-line version; a fifteen-line version with three stanzas of five long, divided lines (roughly 8, 14, 11, 19, and 16 syllables), with internal rhyme (printed five times in anthologies compiled by foremost poet-editors), hereinafter called the three-stanza version; and a three-line version to which she appended a revision of the five-stanza version in a footnote (printed ten times), hereinafter called the three-line version.
The notes to the poem were printed twenty-four times in a shortened version slightly modified and expanded in The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967) to include the five-stanza version, where the notes to this version become notes on a note, referring to lines no longer part of the three-line version of "Poetry."
The thirteen-line, three-stanza, and three-line versions were printed less often than the five-stanza version: in the case of the three-line version, only ten times; in the case of the thirteen-line version, only once; and in the case of the three- stanza version, only five times, in all of these versions and their printings with only two unauthorized changes. Moore revised the five-stanza version, however, right up until its placement in the notes to the three-line version; that is, she continued to revise this longer version over a span of nearly fifty years (ca. 1919-67). The same may be said for the poem as a whole in all of its versions and, beginning in 1924, for the notes to the five-stanza version as well.
Though many of the revisions that bring about new versions appear to be self-explanatory, the reasons for them are not. The five-stanza version in syllabic stanzas gives way to an experiment in free verse, which Moore also abandoned ultimately. The drafts of the thirteen-line version of "Poetry" show that she worked over them considerably, first by trimming four lines from the end:
and not until the misled literalist of the imagination
presents for our inspection,
imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
shall we encounter its misrule.
One of the most famous lines from "Poetry," "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," was in the course of revision dropped from an but the five-stanza version of the poem. Below the excision of the four lines above, Moore wrote, "we shall have nothing of the kind" ( see TMS A ), probably introducing a line to replace the four excised lines. In a later revision of the thirteen-line version, she trimmed phrases, changing "more important than" to "important beyond" and dropping "or trivial, or glib" after "but when they have been fashioned / into that which is unknowable" (TMS B).
The finished, free-verse version of "Poetry" that resulted from these revisions should be viewed in the context of a letter to Pound, dated 9 January 1919. In it, she stated her preference for poems in syllabic stanzas and observed that this was often the form in which she first conceived them.
Any verse that I have written, has been an arrangement of stanzas, each stanza being an exact duplicate of every other stanza. I have occasionally been at pains to make an arrangement of lines and rhymes that I liked, repeat itself, but the form of the original stanza of anything I have written has been a matter of expediency, hit upon as being approximately suitable to the subject. ( qtd. in Tomlinson)
A passage recorded in her conversation notebooks from the period when she was writing the first, five-stanza version of the poem as it appears in Others indicates that she herself may have felt an aversion to free verseor else she only observed the presence of this sentiment in the intellectual climate.
I think he's narrow minded He likes nothing but free verse(well- I've never written free verse and dont know how to write it and they've been very kind to me) Well they think it's free verse and that's all the same to them. (1250/23, 35 Rosenbach)
In any event, Moore must have been dissatisfied with the thirteen-line version of "Poetry," as she returned to syllabic stanzas for the poem's next authorized appearance in an anthology, this time in three, five-line stanzas, a version that appeared in Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson's The New Poetry (1932, 1934, 1935) and Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry (1948, 1952). In 1929, Conrad Aiken, an acquaintance of Moore's and a contributor to the Dial during her editorship (1925-29), chose the earlier, five-stanza version written in syllabic stanzas. As by that time Moore was bringing her years as editor of the Dial to a close, she could not have failed to know of this anthologization, for which she probably gave permission, although proof of her authorization is unavailable.
That the problems with the thirteen-line version may have been internal is born out by Moore's rapid dismissal of this version and by its lack of critical acceptance, even by her peers and critics. R. P. Blackmur calls this free-verse version of "Poetry" "a half-shrewd, half-pointless conceit against the willfully obscure" (141-71), a point with which George Nitchie, with more deference, nevertheless concurs (37).
But her disenchantment was not with the thirteen-line, free-verse version alone. The thirteen-line "Poetry," a free-verse experiment written for Observations (1925), represents one of the last times Moore resorted to the strategy of converting poetry drafted in syllabic stanzas into free verse. Many similar revisions took place before she accepted her editorial post on the Dial. From that vantage point, she must have gained the courage of her "conviction," the preference for syllabic stanzas, which she had expressed as early as 1919 in the letter to Pound. She was capable of writing to her satisfaction in free verse, as other free-verse experiments from this period demonstrate, in particular "A Grave" and "When I Buy Pictures." Several typed and autograph manuscripts show the origins of each of these famous free verse poems. Moore drafted them originally (and even published one) in syllabic stanzas. The decision to revise "Poetry," returning it to its original form in syllabic stanzas, was less the result of Moore's failure to write satisfactorily in free verse than the result of her preference for poetry in syllabic stanzas.
For an understanding of Moore's method of revision, "Poetry" is a litmus test. A poetic manifesto of sorts, it returns to a syllabic form and takes on a somewhat strident tone for its first appearance after February 1931, an important date because it marks the publication of the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine. This issue joined the directions of two powerful poet-editorsHarriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, and Louis Zukofsky, guest editor of the issueboth of whom later selected (or received from Moore herself) the three-stanza version of "Poetry" for their anthologies, Monroe's The New Poetry (1932, 1934, 1935) and Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry (1948, 1952). The Objectivist issue of Monroe's Poetry may have prompted Moore to revise her poem "Poetry" once again because in it Zukofsky had singled out Moore's poetry as among the "works absolutely necessary to students of poetry" (37).
Whatever the case, the three-stanza version of "Poetry" represents a new direction for the poem, especially in light of the previous, thirteen-line version in free verse printed in the second edition of Observations (1925). The thirteen-line version contained certain abstractions"unknowable," "what we cannot understand," and "enigmas"that were loosely joined to images of "the bat," "the elephant," and "the wolf," strung out at the poem's beginning without connectives or explanation, forming an almost Whitmanesque catalogue. By contrast, the three-stanza version joined these images with a preceding colon and tied them together with a concluding dash, forming one of Moore's idiosyncratic "miscellanies." As Louis Bogan noted, Moore had a "seventeenth-century passion for miscellany" (151). In 1927, Moore put it,
Academic feeling, or prejudice possibly, in favor of continuity and completion . . . is opposed to miscellanyto music programs, composite picture exhibitions, newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Any zoo, aquarium, library, garden or volume of letters, however, is an anthology and certain of these selected findings are highly satisfactory. . . . The selective nomenclaturethe chameleon's eye as we might call it soof the connoisseur, expresses a genius for difference. (Bogan 151)
Not only are these elements bound together in a miscellany in the three-stanza version, the meaning of this grouping intensifies as it develops from a less structured catalogue into a more highly structured miscellany. In the thirteen-line version, "these phenomena are pleasing," but in the three-stanza version, "these phenomena are important." The three-stanza version is much more intent upon making its point than the thirteen-line version in free verse. Not surprisingly, therefore, an Objectivist credo erases the "enigmas" of the thirteen-line version, and in the three-stanza version this credo rather stridently amplifies what had once been Moore's discreetly discursive tone. The three- stanza version of "Poetry" asserts,
are important; but dragged into conscious oddity by
half poets, the result is not poetry.
This we know. (TMS C)
Apparently, Moore retained an attachment to the three-stanza version in syllabic stanzas, even after 1935 when she returned to revising the longer five-stanza version in syllabic verse (her first version, dating from 1919). In "Brooklyn from Clinton Hill," an essay (first published in Vogue in 1960) that Moore included in A Marianne Moore Reader (1961), she referred enthusiastically to Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry, first published in 1948:
Louis Zukofskys anthology, A Test of Poetry, exhilarated me when it came out. It wears well and in his courses for engineers at the Polytechnic Institute on Livingstone Street not far from the Packer Institute, Mr. Zukofsky expertly presents poetry, composition, and American literature. (A Marianne Moore Reader 185)
Despite her liking for this anthology, the three-stanza version of "Poetry" was probably little more than Moore's vociferous transition to yet another revision of the five-stanza version of the poem.
When she sent a typed manuscript of her poems for Selected Poems (1935) to T. S. Eliot at his request as an editor for Faber and Faber publishers, it must have included the revised, five-stanza version that borrowed from both the three-stanza version of "Poetry" and the original form in five, six-line stanzas. The typed manuscript Moore sent T. S. Eliot is not available. From the order of the poems in Selected Poems, how-ever, we may assume that even in the earliest manuscripts she must have sent him a version of "Poetry" written in syllabic stanzas, because in Eliot's ordering of the poems "Poetry" is included among others written in that form. Eliot's letter to Moore (20 June 1934) indicates as much:
I take it that the order which you give them which is the same as in "Observations" (a title, by the way, to which you have better claim than I) is the order of composition. The fact that your omissions are chiefly of the first numbers of that book lends colour to my assumption. If the chronological order were retained I think dates ought to be given. But I am inclined to re-shuffle, which is more or less arbitrary in that it could be varied considerably without damage; and I enclose a tentative list for your approval.
I want to start with the new poems hitherto uncollected, and shove some of the slighter pieces towards the end. At your simplest, you baffle those who love "simple" poetry; and so one might as well put on difficult stuff at once, and only bid for the readers who are willing and accustomed to take a little trouble over poetry. I think this will pay better; and will excite the booksellers more.
Whether Moore first sent the three- or five-stanza version is not clear. Since it is the five-stanza version that ultimately appeared in Selected Poems (1935), we can assume that Eliot probably worked with it from the very beginning, particularly in view of its place in the volume. What is apparent is that, as she usually did for each new appearance of a poem in a collection of her poetry, Moore revised "Poetry," this time with a goal in mind, a goal set by the direction she took when preparing the three-stanza version that appeared shortly after publication of the Objectivist issue of Poetry.
To create the five-stanza version of "Poetry" published in Selected Poems, Moore revised an earlier, five-stanza version (Observations ), introducing several significant changes. She smoothed out the structure of pauses to achieve a more conversational (and a less dogmatic) tone by adding a comma after "I" in line one: "I, too, dislike it"; and adding a period after "useful" in the second line of the second stanza, breaking up a long periodic sentence:
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but be-
cause they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible. . . .
Former printings had shown a semicolon where the period appears after "useful" (see the variorum text of "Poetry" from Collected Poems, fourteenth impression ).
In his capacity as editor for Faber and Faber, Eliot changed double to single quotes to conform to British standards of punctuation. As in the case of Eliot's remark about the booksellers' tastes, these revisions sanctioned by Moorea change in the order of poems and altered punctuationhave more to do with the social and institutional demands of modern publishing than with the aesthetic demands of the author, yet both changes bring about revisions with aesthetic implications. For example, Moore began all of her subsequent major collections with this order from 1935 on, and the single quotation marks suggest that these are quotations inside a form of direct discourse. In regard to the poem itself, however, these changes in punctuation were usually subject to the tastes of the times throughout Moore's lifetime.
The more conversational tone punctuation changes conveyed was, however, also secured by other changes that Moore included in her 1935 revisions. She changed "one discovers that there is in it" to "one discovers in it"; and "on one hand" to the more colloquial and better balanced "on the one hand." With these changes, some of the strict prosody of the 1924 version gave way to a more idiomatic tone. By means of subtle changes in punctuation and syntax Moore soft peddles some of the heightened emphasis that supported didactic assertions in the three-stanza version (for example, "This we know"), and in the new five-stanza version, she makes her point with more of her characteristic reticence. In descriptive terms, the new version shows rather than tells its point, a method very characteristic of Moore's technique. In doing so, the poem takes on one of the most salient characteristics of Moore's mature poetry, a lightness of touch and a conversational tone, which she is able to achieve without sacrificing depth or sincerity.
This version met its mark with reviewers. Peter Monro Jack said of "Poetry" in an article in the New York Times Book Review,
Miss Moore is perfectly in the American tradition when she continues, ". . . these things are important / not because a / high- sounding interpretation can / be put upon them but be- / cause / they are useful." . . . When we say "the American tradition" we mean in the way it has cut into the English tradition of the singing lyric and the sacred eloquence of blank verse. Ezra Pound in his way, Eliot, Cummings and Marianne Moore in their ways have helped in this new pragmatism of poetry. (2)
It was this five-stanza version that Moore chose to revise thereafter, and it was this version that attracted the attention of more anthologists than any other. Nevertheless, after its appearance in Collected Poems, she dropped the poem altogether from A Marianne Moore Reader in 1961, only to restore it in revised form in The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore published in 1967.
In this case, she took a very successful version of "Poetry," cut it to its first three lines, and put the longer, successful version in the notes, along with notes to the five-stanza version that were then relegated to the role of being notes on a note to the three-line version of the poem. If prior revisions were made to please a coterie committed to free verse or to a poetic dogma, or to please an editor such as T. S. Eliot, this one was probably made by Moore for herself alone, though not without a larger audience in mind.
Indeed, the final revision with its dramatic about facecutting what was virtually an institution by 1967 and then almost nostalgically, or in a parody of nostalgia, restoring itputs the earlier revisions of "Poetry" in perspective, particularly that version made for T. S. Eliot's edition of her Selected Poems in 1935. Her revisions suggest that the five-stanza version was restored not so much to please Eliot or a coterie as to sound like those she considered to be her contemporaries and her equals.
If we are to believe the message written between the lines of the conversation notebooks, there was a "coterie." As Williams said, "She was our saint" (146), and Kreymborg said of her, "She talked as she wrote and wrote as she talked" (239). No doubt she collected material for her conversation notebooks in the company of the Others group including Kreymborg, Williams, and others (Hoffman 153). Excerpts from the conversation notebook dating from the period when she was writing "Poetry," 1915-19, convey the flavor of conversation at such literary gatherings:
Dr. Williams If you don't understand the improvisation read the
explanation If you don't understand the explanation go
back to the improvisation and so on (1250/23, 69 Rosenbach)
to form an independent opinion I do not
exaggerate wait a moment You interfere (making
a bow)"Miss Moore" I do not jestI have never
found anything of yours which I had trouble
to discover something which had in it to me,
meaning I might not have read into t[he] words
t[he] meaning wh[ich] was intended that I sh[oul]d
there to me then was meaning to find
Let me tell you about Miss Monroe, Miss M
is no more a judge of poetry than . . .
not poetry than that andiron
It is so long since they have known
what a truth looked like that if they
were to stumble on it
accident they w[ou]ld not recognize
She had included in the list every poet of
importance in America except myselfand
incidentally yourself. I had not the personality
to interest DM. . . . Mr. Wolf
is not a year for art. astute impudent,
cool, collected Mr. Bodheim they want it
(Poetry) to be more lyrical, conventional
inspiring helpful educational pleasant and
To try to put y[ou]r things in
Poetry is like putting new wine in old bottles.
I came away so loaded down w[ith] ideas
I c[ou]ld hardly keep the sidewalk.
(1250/23, 57 Rosenbach)
Her mastery of the conversational tone, one of the most striking attributes of much of her poetry (Shankar 147), an effect she notes frequently in others (see her essay on Abraham Lincoln, for example [Predilections 197-204]), is one of the most forceful organizing factors of the poem "Poetry." Which is to say, that her response to her audience may have been as much to copy its diction as to please itor perhaps she knew that to do the first was to accomplish both at the same time. That she listened critically is evident in her prose in such works as " 'New' Poetry since 1912" published in the Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1926 (172-79) and in the unpublished essay "English Literature since 1914," an essay written for a contest held by The Athenaeum in spring of 1920. Mailed 9 April 1920, the manuscript probably did not arrive in time to meet the 19 April deadline. A transcript of a carbon of it was printed in the Marianne Moore Newsletter, "not as finished work but as documentation of MM's interests at the beginning of her career as a critic" ("MM Surveys English Literature" 13). Such essays make it abundantly clear that though she declined to mention herself in these contexts (on 13 June 1926, she wrote Braithwaite: "You suggest my name also, but would be willing should you not, that I make no comment upon myself?"), she understood her place in the social and literary circles she frequented. To these groups she may have owed in part the esoteric, witty conversational tone of "Poetry," though these influences were always indirect.
A like-minded coterie and the poet-editors who, like herself, were all caught up in a particular literary climateall must have influenced the evolution of the poem's form. In the light of a preference for free verse in the late teens and early twenties, she converted it (and other poems written originally in syllabic stanzas) into free verse. After her term as editor of The Dial (roughly 1925-29), once she knew that her syllabic stanzas were acceptable, she began to focus on the content of the poem, perhaps counting herself among those who sought to convey beliefs and images via rather self-conscious forms, such as Zukofsky and other objectivists. In 1935, the return to the earlier, five-stanza version in syllabic verse took place under the editorship of T. S. Eliot, who advised discreetly at a very great distance. If these revisions suggest her changing rolesfirst as discovered poet, then as a colleague among poets, then as an editor, then as a major poet in her own rightthe last revision of "Poetry" suggests her final status, achieved over a period of fifty years, as a major modernist.
Even prior to the revision of 1967, some had embraced the five-stanza version of "Poetry" as a modernist document. In The Influence of Ezra Pound, K. L. Goodwin, claiming that "her natural predilection for precise, objective description found convenient theoretical justification in Imagism, which she has practised assiduously throughout her career," declares that in "Poetry" Moore states that "poetry must be made up . . . of what is 'genuine', of 'raw material . . . in all its rawness'." Goodwin asserts that Moore distinguishes between a symbolic and an imagistic use of this material in the same way that Pound does in his article "Vorticism" (157-58). In the same vein, Jean Garrigue called "Poetry" one of the nine poems in which Moore is both "poet and critic, writing incidentally about literature in general or poetry in particular" (204). Not only is this a modernist subject, it is also a modernist treatment, in Garrigue's view establishing "a new touchstone," which "is not the old and famous beautiful and true" but the "genuine" which is, then, the "useful" (Garrigue qtd. in Unger 204). Garrigue concludes:
Seemingly straightforward, it is oblique when you look into it and complex in terms of what's left out as well as what's put in. And with its iconoclastic and reformist frankness it is upsetting a good many applecarts.
What could be more modernist?
Moore herself supplied the answer when she revised "Poetry" once again in 1967 for the first edition of her Complete Poems. She cut the poem to all but its first three lines and put a new revision of the five-stanza version in a note, retaining the notes that had come to append the five-stanza version, which became notes on a note to the three-line version of 1967. In one stroke, she transformed the poem, in one sense revealing the skeleton that had been there since 1919. As a self-conscious moderniststubbornly resisting postmodernismshe reverted to an Imagist technique, perhaps grown overly familiar by the 1960s, revealing the image-within-the-image, and she deployed a modernist device, appending footnotes, a method that both Pound and Eliot had explored. In this context, her drastic revisions of 1967 seem at worst playful and at best an insightful homage to a mellowing tradition, all too susceptible of parody. What saves the 1967 revision of "Poetry" in this respect is its conscious, even self-conscious, regard for its sourcesthat revision of the original, five-stanza version, imbedded in a footnote.
In an important sense, the three-line version of "Poetry" with its elaborate, perhaps even ridiculous note, is Moore's precursor to this variorum text of the poem. Besides confirming the relationships among various versions of "Poetry" suggested by Moore's revision of it for the 1967 printing of Complete Poems, this variorum text of "Poetry" highlights what might be called the spirit or core of the poem, whatever remained intact throughout the revisionary process. It establishes that certain parts of "Poetry" never changed (if we consider the notes to the 1967 revision part of the poem): the title and the final word, "poetry"; the opening disclaimer, "I too dislike it"; a miscellany of "phenomena"; the importance of the "genuine"; and the rhetorical device of a speaker addressing an audience, an "I" and a "you," in the case of the three-stanza version the "you" suggested only by the locution "I too" and later, "we know." These elements afford a central unit to which Moore added an assortment of related pieces. But this dressing and undressing of the mannequin, so to speak, was a conscious technique rather than the attention-seeking gesture some critics have made it out to be. On the contrary, the revisions of the poem as evidenced in the variorum text appended here prove a case for "Poetry" as Moore's personal expression of her views of modernism in poetry and her own modernist method.
The revisions and what remains intact throughout the revisionary process also explain why several critical approaches, based on different versions of "Poetry," nevertheless still pertain. Blackmur's case (141-71) still has some validity even though it was based on what he had seen in 1935, apparently a revision of the five-stanza version. Frankenberg's reading of 1948 (173-77) still makes sense, though he would deny that Moore advocated modernism in "Poetry," and he does not refer to the three-stanza version of the poem also published in 1948 in Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry. Proposed in 1981, Costello's centrifugal model for Moore's creative processthe spinning out of new lines from a central core of meaning, an ongoing creative processexpresses only one view of the phenomena, from the outside looking in (228). The reader of the variorum text is at the inside, looking out, like a visitor to the Musee Pablo Picasso in Paris, gazing at various states of David et Betsabee, a series of lithographs after a painting [dated 1526] by Lucas Cranach, the Picasso series dated 1947-49. Like the various states of Picasso's lithograph hanging side by side, the four versions of Moore's "Poetry" appear in the variorum text, a kind of literary museum. She never was particularly concerned to replace an early version with a new one, and in fact seems to have been quite content to allow concurrent publication of different versions. In 1934, she allowed the three-stanza version to appear in The New Poetry, although at the time she was probably at work on her revision of the five-stanza version for Selected Poems. After this five-stanza version was published in Selected Poems in 1935, the three-stanza version appeared twice more, even in a new anthology for which we may assume Moore gave permission herself since she speaks of it so fondly in 1960 in her essay, "Brooklyn from Clinton Hill" (Moore 1961). The three- stanza version of "Poetry" appeared twice (in 1948 and 1952 in Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry) after the new five-stanza version of 1935, with the second printing of the five-stanza version, revised yet again, included in Collected Poems, first published in 1951. This revision of the five-stanza version appeared twice in later impressions of Collected Poems (1968 and 1975), the first of these printings appearing prior to Moore's death but subsequent to the first publication of the three-line version of "Poetry" written for the Complete Poems (1967).
"Poetry" in its many versions is also like the Picasso lithograph series of David et Bethsabee in that just as Picasso reflects upon the subject of staring in his depiction of the biblical story, Moore reflects upon the subject of poetry itself within a poem. This self-reflexive preoccupation is not exclusively the province of modern artists and authors, as Picasso's source of inspiration suggests (his lithographs are after a picture by the German Renaissance painter and engraver Lucas Cranach ), but it certainly found a place in modernism. In her essay "Subject, Predicate, Object," Moore insisted, "Form is synonymous with content" (7). The self-reflexive technique is a familiar method of all modernists, practitioners of a genre that comments upon its own conventions as a way of extending meaning beyond the scope of the literal content of a work.
We are forced to cast our net wider so as to include more than the third level of vraisemblance and intelligibility and must allow the dialectical opposition which the text presents to result in a synthesis at a higher level where the grounds of intelligibility are different. We read the poem or novel as a statement about poems or novels (since it has, by its opposition, adumbrated that theme). To interpret it is to see how its various types of content or devices make a statement about the imaginative ordering of the world that takes place in literature. (Culler 151)
In the long form of the poem, she uses the word "poetry" only twice and enlists a procession of anti-poetical substitutes to make, almost invariably, the same point, one she underscores in her final revision of the poem by cutting its size to three lines. In an interview after the publication of Complete Poems, Moore said that this revision arose from dislike of unnecessary verbal display in the early poems (Costello 25). But as Costello points out:
The two versions [the three-line version and the five-stanza version in its note] stand not as original and revision but as two alternative statements. . . . It was not her usual practice to include her variorum. If, as she says, "omissions are not accidents," the corollary may be "inclusions are intentional." (25)
She abandoned neither version, though she carefully distinguished between them.
The Imagist technique as defined by Goodwin is particularly evident in light of the printing history of the poem, which shows a gradual revelation of the core of the poem, the image-within-the-image (159). In "A Grave," the poem's core turns up in the process of composition, long-lined drafts yielding at one point to an autograph manuscript of two lines, later transformed to the line selected by Goodwin as the core of the poem, a line linking "A Grave" to its partner "When I Buy Pictures": "the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave." The core image shows up in "The Steeple-Jack," "The Student," and "The Hero," where the last lines take on this function. Moore seems to have gradually substituted inductive for deductive argument, a trend evident even in "Poetry's" last revision, which turned it into a three-line aphorism upon its own evolution.
Not only do Moore's exclusions result in a kind of modernist ideogram, her inclusions too are modern. Like William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, Moore advocated a place for all types of experience in "Poetry," carrying this belief to the same extreme as had Pound and Eliot. The notes to the poem constitute another modernist inclusion, as do those of T . S. Eliot (Goodwin 162-63). She approached this task, however, with ambivalence, expressing her misgivings about the notes in Observations in letters to T. S. Eliot:
Here are the notes which pertain to the material recently sent you. They could be reduced further, or omitted if that would be best, and I would say this with respect to the notes on recent work given Mr. Morley. Despite the extreme amount of conscience I seem to have shown, in preparing the 1924 book I think I was erratic, or somnambulistic; it looks to me, that is to say, as if I had "quoted" things that were my own, and as if I had taken from you the titles, Observations, and Picking and Choosing; (16 May 1934, Rosenbach)
and to her brother:
Everything is very cheerful and convenient except that I am irked greatly by having to type the notes for my poems. They seem jejune & careless in some ways & this is a bugbear for me but soon it will be out of my paw. (16 May 1934, Rosenbach)
Though she reveals two sources for "Poetry" in the notes to the five-stanza version, she chose not to document at least eight other sources. In her notes, Moore gives the sources for the phrases "business documents and school-books" and "literalists of the imagination" (see the appended variorum text). Yet the sources she left out of her notes are no less significant.
For example, the famous opening phrase, "I, too, dislike it" appears in notes Moore copied from The Notebooks of Samuel Butler (London, 1912) not long before she wrote "Poetry." The passage sets forth Butler's encounter with Silvio, a young boy who "knew a little English and was very fond of poetry." Moore altered the first line to read "Silvio (on Wordsworth)" in her transcription of this passage:
"And you shall read Longfellow much in England?"
"No," I replied, "1 don't think we read him very much."
"But how is that? He is a very pretty poet."
"Oh yes, but I don't greatly like poetry myself."
"Why don't you like poetry?"
"You see, poetry resembles metaphysics, one does not
mind one's own, but one does not like anyone else's."
("On Disliking Poetry" 10)
The source gives the poem's opening phrase a new dimension, for it applies to the would-be poets as well as to those who simply "dislike it," another suggestion of the way the poem is designed to speak to a group of Moore's like-minded literary friends.
She took another phrase from a clipping from the Spectator (London) for 10 May 1913 in which we find the source for the phrase "the raw material of poetry / in all its rawness." The clipping is of a review by "C" of a work entitled Ancient Gems in Modem Settings by G. B. Grundy. It is an edition of the Greek Anthology. "C" asks how it is that despite the artificial and commonplace matter of the writings, they still charm discerning readers:
The reasons are not far to seek. In the first place, no productions of the Greek genius conform more wholly to the Aristotelian canon that poetry should be an imitation of the universal. Few of the poems in the Anthology depict any ephemeral phase or fashion of opinion, like the Euphuism of the sixteenth century. All appeal to emotions which endure for all time, and which, it has been aptly said, are the true raw material of poetry. ("On Raw Material" 10-11)
The phrase seems to have informed the content of the poem: there is nothing arcane about the content of the poem in any of its forms, even though the poem speaks to a varied, and in part a very sophisticated, audience.
That Moore neglected to cite a particular source did not mean that she was unaware of her indebtedness or of the phrase for which she was indebted. This is demonstrated in a letter she wrote 18 May 1950 to college student Thomas P. Murphy, who had asked her to explain what she meant by "the genuine" and how she felt about free verse, the rules for which he thought the poem "Poetry" set forth:
I meant by the genuine, a core of value-expressed in whatever way the writer can best express it. Like you, I prefer rhyme to free verse; I like a tune and I feel that one should be as clear as one's natural reticence allows one to be. The maximum efficiency of expression in poetry, should be at least as great as it could be in prose; certainly, one should be natural. The reversed order of words seems to me poetic suicide. We put up with it often for the sake of some preponderant virtue but it is always disaffectingto meexcept as an archaic effect sustained with an artistry as exacting as the opposite effect could be sustained. ("The Genuine in 'Poetry'" 14-15)
At the end of the letter, she reiterates, stating that the poem is "expressed in whatever way the writer can best express it." That she should define the "genuine" as the "core of value" is also significant, particularly in light of the poem's revisions, since the final, three-line version ends on the word "genuine" and contains the "core of value" of the poem in its longer version, what has been called the ideogram of the poem, the image-within-image (Goodwin 159). Thoughts such as these expressed in 1950 may have led to the dramatic revision of 1967, which drastically altered the entire poem.
Other concealed sources for phrases in the poem were Moore's conversation notebooks and, by extension, her conversations with fellow poets, friends, and her family. In the notebooks, we find verbatim a phrase from a line that was eventually dropped from the later versions of the poem, "we are not daft about the meaning" (1250/23, 40 Rosenbach: "Alfred Oct. 12, 1916 I am not daft about the meaning"). The notebooks also contain phrases that were retained, at least in the longer versions: "hands that can grasp" ( 1250/24, 35 Rosenbach) and "we do not admire what / we cannot understand" ( 1250/24, 30 Rosenbach). Since Moore occasionally cites a conversation in her notes, why doesn't she cite these? The same might be said about sources embedded in her reading notebooks and lifted from obscure places. It is true that she never claimed precision for her notes and seems to have supplied them under duress. Whether published or suppressed, they are very unlike Pound's or Eliot's, and bear the imprint of Moore's own eclectic tastes and idiosyncratic style. It is not surprising, then, that the notes constitute her most emphatic send upand demonstrationof modernist technique.
In her note to the poem "Poetry," she emphasizes the place for the five-stanza version; it belongs in the place for those things that came before the finished poem, its sources. By giving the note an archival function, she allowed it to become a cue to her readers, telling them how to react to her latest venture into unconventionality. In this light, the revision and its appended note are hardly frivolous. For Moore, this change was loaded with meanings, and the note tells us that she intended the revision to have meaning for readers as well, and not just shock value.
Blackmur, R. P. 'The Method of Marianne Moore." The Double Agent: Essays in Craft and Elucidatio. New York: Arrow Editions, 1935.
Bogan, Louise. "American Timeless." Quarterly Review of Literature 4 (1948): 151.
Braithwaite Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.
Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.
Daiches, David. The Novel and the Modem World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939.
Dial Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Frankenberg, Lloyd. "The Imaginary Garden." Quarterly Review of Literature 4 (1948): 173-77.
Garrigue, Jean. "Marianne Moore." American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Ed. Leonard Unger. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974.
Goodwin, K. L. The Influence of Ezra Pound. London: Oxford UP, 1966.
Hoffman, Frederick J., Charles Allen, and Carolyn F. Ulrich. The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography. Princeton: Princeton UP , 1946.
Jack, Peter Monro. "A Book of Selected Poems by Marianne Moore." Rev. of Selected Poems by Marianne Moore. New York Times Book Review, 28 Apri11935: 2.
Kreymborg. Alfred. Troubadour: An Autobiography. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925.
Marianne Moore Papers, Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia.
"MM Surveys English Literature, 1914-1920." The Marianne Moore Newsletter 4 (Fall 1980): 13.
Moore, Marianne. "Brooklyn from Clinton Hill." Vogue, 1 August 1960, p. 82, as quoted in A Marianne Moore Reader. New York: Viking, 1961, p. 185.
---. "'New' Poetry since 1912." Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1926. Ed. William Stanley Braithwaite. Boston: B. J. Brimmer, 1926.172-79.
---. Predilections. New York: Viking, 1955.
---. "Subject, Predicate, Object." Christian Science Monitor, 24 December 1958: 7.
Nitchie, George. Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1969.
Shankar, D. A. "The Poetry of Marianne Moore." The Literary Criterion 5 (Winter 1962): 147.
Tomlinson, Charles, ed. Marianne Moore. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: Random House, 1951.
[Willis, Patricia C.] "On Disliking Poetry." The Marianne Moore Newsletter. 1 (Fall 1977): 10.
---. "The Genuine in 'Poetry': A Letter from Marianne Moore." The Marianne Moore Newsletter 5 (Fall 1981): 14-15.
---."On Raw Material." The Marianne Moore Newsletter. 1 (Fall 1977): 10-11.
Zukofsky, Louis. "Program: 'Objectivists' 1931." Poetry 37 (February 1931): 26.
[Ed. Note: See the original essay for a 16-page variorum edition of the various versions of Moore's "Poetry" and an extensive publication history.]
From Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. Copyright © 1990 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
E. R. Gregory
In her most famous version of "Poetry," Marianne Moore engaged in a delicate balancing act between acknowledging poets' dependence on the past, demonstrated by the quotations she worked into her text, and recognizing that genuine poets must somehow make their materials new, as she herself does in questioning or contradicting Tolstoy and Yeats. Her method is subtle, demanding, for example, that readers fully consider both the denotation and connotation of "derivative" before integrating its meaning into the poem.
... When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible the same thing may be said for all of us, that we do not admire what we cannot understand....(1)
Charles Molesworth has taken "they" as referring to the "high-sounding interpretation" that can be put on the items mentioned in the preceding sentence as "genuine."(2) More likely, however, being plural, the word refers to the items themselves: "Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must...." These items become derivative when they are copied or adapted by others, a process that, denotatively speaking, can be good, bad, or indifferent. Connotatively, however, outside of specialized usage in fields such as chemistry, law, and linguistics, the bias in English is against the derivative, a fact that Moore counts on in her glance at the derivative process in writing poetry. A close look at synonyms is instructive. Chambers Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms (1989 ed.), for example, lists the following: acquired, borrowed, copied, cribbed, derived, hackneyed, imitative, obtained, plagiarised, secondary, second-hand, transmitted, trite, unoriginal. Some of the words, such as acquired and transmitted are neutral, but note how many of them are pejorative in their connotation: cribbed, hackneyed, plagiarised, trite, unoriginal. Note, too, how the rest are susceptible of pejorative connotation in some contexts: copied, imitative, secondary, second-hand.
Moore's careful use of both denotation and connotation suggests, then, that after a certain point ("when they become so derivative") the very act of deriving one's work guarantees that it will be second-rate as well as secondhand; but although most readers can understand her linking of the derivative process with the generally mediocre, some may question her specific linkage of it to the unintelligible. Do we really not admire the hackneyed and the trite because we do not understand it, or because we understand it only too well? Is an unoriginal versifier such as Helen Steiner Rice really less intelligible and less admired than a genuine poet like Moore herself, who is allusive, complex, and problematic? Sales figures would suggest the reverse.
"Poetry," however, affirms that poetasters give only the illusion of intelligibility. Their formulae and cliches encourage their readers to believe that greeting card verse provides a road map to life, love, and death that is both familiar and reliable; but if their readers ever take a good, hard look at the rich, treacherous chaos that surrounds them, they find that that road map simply does not fit the country to which it purports to be a guide. It is too "removed from the actuality of the experience" to be intelligible.(3) Small wonder that some readers at least end by not admiring what they cannot understand. Original poets, on the other hand, may disturb and perplex us; but their direct rendering of "hands that can grasp," etc., makes those materials intelligible in a way that excessively derivative writers, whose work filters out the "genuine," do not.
Up to a point Moore admits the use of older poets as an aid in writing the ideal poetry that is "original and lucid."(4) For her, the great divide between the acceptably and the excessively derivative is whether the poet truly adapts her source or merely copies it. Thus, she takes a criticism that Yeats had leveled at Blake, namely, that he was "too literal a realist of imagination" and reverses it, stating that we cannot have genuine poetry
till the poets among us can be "literalists of the imagination"--above insolence and triviality....
Her challenge to Yeats exemplifies a use of the past that goes beyond mere repetition to create insight, a use that reflects the critical stance that she took in her prose. Commenting on Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, for example, she wrote that "we cannot ever be wholly original ... Our best and newest thoughts ... have been known to past ages." She added, however, a significant caveat: "an indebted thing does not interest us unless there is originality underneath it."(5) She gives no pat prescriptions as to how artists are to use the past without becoming unduly derivative. But her own practice seems the safest guide to what she meant, with "Poetry" itself, addressing a topic older than Horace, yet unmistakably twentieth-century in language and spirit, as brilliant an example of the genuine and the intelligible as we could wish
1. Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (New York: Macmillan, 1967) 267.
2. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life (New York: Atheneum, 1990) 158-59.
3. Bernard F. Engel, Marianne Moore, rev. ed., Twayne's United States Authors Series, 1989, 41.
4. Bonnie Costello, Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1981) 20.
5. Complete Prose (New York: Viking, 1986) 328.
from The Explicator 52.1 (Fall 1993)
The final version of "Poetry," a poem that began in Poems (1921) as thirty lines, became thirteen lines in Observations (1921), then thirty-eight lines in the Selected Poems of 1935 and the Collected Poems of 1951, is in the Complete Poems of 1967 four lines long.
I, too, dislike it,
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
The irony in this final version is so thick that it bristles. The speaker is, after all, a poet, and her means of making this statement is a poem. So the first line is if nothing else challenging. The result of the second sentence is to offer highest praise: if, in this contemptible art, poetry, there is still a place for the genuine, that genuine in that poem must be rare stuff indeed, Still, one asks when the poem is over: What is she doing with this "perfect contempt" in the first place? Especially since I am woefully bereft of that quality as I read her poem! Is she so superior? Or is she so humble? Or is she laughing at herself for being a poet? Or at me for believing her when she says she dislikes it? Or at me for not knowing I should dislike it? As a piece of rhetoric, the poem is also perfect, in its precision of vocabulary and placement, the movement from "I" to "too" to "dislike" to "reading" to "however" to "perfect contempt" to "discovers" to "after all" to "place" to "genuine" revealing argument and counterargument, process and conclusion, with an economy that is both dazzling and impenetrable.
The longest version begins with the shorter one quoted, plus a comment: "there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle." The remainder of the poem expands the idea. It contains a definition of poets as "literalists of the imagination" (a quotation from William Butler Yeats) and a definition of poems as "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" (a quotation from herself, from the earliest version of the poem!). It includes as well examples of some real toads, "Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must," and some discussion of what can turn such facts into poor verse: "When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible."
The longer versions of "Poetry" possess neither "unkempt diction" nor "lapses in logic." If anything, they are too explicit in their explanation of the opening mystery. "Excess is the common substitute for energy," writes Moore, and "Feeling at its deepest—as we all have reason to know—tends to be inarticulate. If it does manage to be articulate, it is likely to seem overcondensed, so that the author is resisted as being enigmatic or disobliging or arrogant." One reason for compression might very well have been that she felt the long versions to be too excessive. But I suspect yet another. A series of examples follows the remark "we / do not admire what / we cannot understand." These are bats, elephants, a wild horse, a tireless wolf, an immovable critic, the baseball fan, the statistician—all subjects of her own poetry. (Who is the "we," one wonders, in the light of the remark on feeling and poetry just quoted? Good readers or poor readers? Which is she?) The poem continues to observe that although these phenomena are important, they have been "dragged into prominence by half-poets." The result has not been poetry. True poets must be "above / innocence and triviality" in presenting such material, and in this way present the genuine (the pulled glass fish bottle, for example). The longer version is characteristically ambivalent about her status as true poet or half poet, but she may have found the inclusion at all of herself as poet to be too daring. In the short version, she overtly functions as reader, not writer, in the action of the poem. The subtlety of the short version is based upon our knowledge that she is nevertheless the author of the poem and we are readers, but all this is covertly expressed and therefore not liable to attack. The poem is well-described by another of her poems: "compressed; firmed by the thrust of the blast / till compact, like a bulwark against fate" ("Like a Bulwark").
from Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition. New York: Octagon Books, 1976.
Stacy Carson Hubbard
In 1935 Marianne Moore published a 29-line poem entitled "Poetry" (a slightly shortened version of a poem originally published in 1919) which included a detailed list of "important" and "genuine" phenomena worthy of being given a "place" within poetry. Also in 1935, Moore published a 3-line version of the "same" poem, which I quote in its entirety:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine. (Selected 266-67)
By the appearance of The Complete Poems of 1967, the (earlier) long poem had become an endnote to the (later) short poem. The long poem, with its famous definition of poems as "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," together with its revisions, thus ends up enacting rather than prescribing the processes of selection, exclusion and inclusion by which poetry is constituted as a site or an enclosure for what is "real." All the messy details of "elephants pushing," "wild horse[s] taking a roll," "business documents and schoolbooks" which filled up the long version of "Poetry" are exiled from the homiletic simplicity of the condensed "Poetry." Yet the long version finds a new "place" as an addendum to its successor, setting into playa complex and paradoxical dialog between original and supplement, essence and detail, aphorism and description, restraint and excess, inside and outside—a dialog for which Moore's favorite staging ground throughout her poetry is the "imaginary garden" of Eden. What goes inside and what stays outside of "Poetry" raises the larger question of what—and who—belongs inside and outside of Poetry.
from "The Many-Armed Embrace: Collection, Quotation, and Mediation in Marianne Moore's Poetry." SAGETRIEB 12.2
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