Charles Altieri: On "Poetry"

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 

discovers in 

    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 art—once we see that much of the force of the work depends on its refusing to be something else—we 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 art—its tilt, perhaps—demands 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 polish—in 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 poetry—the 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 it—getting 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 University Press.

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Title Charles Altieri: On "Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Charles Altieri Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 31 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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