Elizabeth Gregory: On "Poetry"

"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 Milton’s 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:

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.

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.

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