Bonnie Costello: On "Poetry"

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

                                                                                unintelligible, 

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.

                                    the bat

        holding on upside down or in quest of something to

 

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a toll, 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.

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

    "literalists of

    the imagination"--above

        insolence and triviality and can present

 

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall 

                                                                                   we have 

    it.

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 

                                                                                                in 

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 University Press, 1981. Copyright © 1981 by Harvard University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Title Bonnie Costello: On "Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bonnie Costello Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 31 Oct 2015
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