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Poetry -- Marianne Moore

Four years and counting!
(Poem #1169) Poetry
 I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
       all this fiddle.
    Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
       discovers in
    it after all, a place for the genuine.
       Hands that can grasp, eyes
       that can dilate, hair that can rise
          if it must, these things are important not because a

 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: the bat
          holding on upside down or in quest of something to

 eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
       wolf under
    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. 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
      "literalists of
       the imagination"--above
          insolence and triviality and can present

 for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
       shall we have
    it. 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.
-- Marianne Moore
I was planning to run Dylan Thomas's "Notes on the Art of Poetry" as a fourth
anniversary poem, but, although I agreed with everything it had to say, it
didn't really *move* me. Moore's "Poetry", on the other hand, did, so here it

So, what is it about the poem that I so liked? I'm not sure - maybe I just
appreciate the exquisite poetry hiding under the matter-of-fact facade (to
say nothing of the rigid form (see the commentary on Poem #1043 for a
description of Moore's syllable counted verse) hidden under an illusion of
free verse), or because I like the penetrating originality of phrases like
'imaginary gardens with real toads in them'.

Oddly enough, I *agree* with Moore a lot less than I do with Thomas - in
particular, "these things are important...because they are useful" made me
twitch. Of course, that raises the question of how seriously to take the
poem (I mean, how seriously *should* one take a poem titled 'poetry' and
beginning "I too dislike it"?). I'm not really sure what Moore is trying to
say, in the end - indeed, at times she appears to be treading a fine line
between poetry and something perilously close to antipoetry.

The case for an assumed voice is all the more compelling in that it looks
like Moore is distinguishing not just between the genuine and the
*artificial* (or more closely, between genuine poetry and poetry that is
what I like to call capital-L Literature), but between the rough and the
finished. If in "Poetry's" distaste for the 'high-sounding interpretation'
it eschews artifice, it also seems to want craft to fall by the wayside -
between the "raw material of poetry" and the "genuine", there seems very
little room for the careful and precise shaping of words that - ironically -
today's poem is an excellent example of.

Contrast (our) Thomas's commentary on Poem #1043:
  Archibald MacLeish famously wrote:
     "A poem should not mean
      But be."
  I can think of no poet who so consistently fulfils MacLeish's dictum as
  Marianne Moore.

  Randall Jarrell talks of "her lack -- her wonderful lack -- of arbitrary
  intensity or violence, of sweep and overwhelmingness and size, of cant, of
  sociological significance". Her poems simply exist; they "cannot be
  suborned to any end but their own" [1]. They are elegant and precise;
  carefully constructed and meticulously detailed; and always, always,
  wonderfully rewarding.

and the paradox falls into clearer focus - today's poem seems to be all
about Meaning, but when you step back and take a look at it, it just Is.
And, as Thomas noted, few people do that better than Moore.


p.s. The poems-from-the-movies theme will be back tomorrow - think of this
as the intermission.

  There's an extensive set of comments on the poem and its extensive
  revision history here:

  Two things I liked were the argument that Moore was distinguishing between
  'poetry' and 'Poetry' (compare my earlier derogatory usage of Literature),
  and the following note:
    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.

- And for the discovery of today's poem, I'm indebted to the excellent
  collection of metapoems at

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Srinivasan Deepak said...

The poem does express itself in a beautiful manner. One that tells me
that I should look for rawness and genuineness in poetry like "imaginary
gardens with real toads in them". Otherwise - well I think one just
ends up with cotton candy like words strung together beautifully. Happy
fourth anniversary to the Minstrels!!!

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