Donald Hall: On "Poetry"

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 of1951. 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 Moore’s 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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Donald Hall: On "Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Donald Hall Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal
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