Jeanne Heuving: On "Poetry"

In "Poetry," Moore turns decisively away from the modes of contrariety and the fantastic, though the poem shares other characteristics of Moore's earlier adverse poetry. Moving between address and description, she begins with her best known (adverse) line, "I, too, dislike it," and attempts, but fails, to provide a definition of poetry that is not "entangled in the negative." The terms and examples Moore uses to define poetry proliferate in a relation of supplementarity rather than unity as can be seen in the displacement of "genuine" from the primary term to be investigated at the beginning of the poem to one of two terms--along with "raw material"--at the conclusion of the poem. Furthermore, Moore's implied audience changes from those who seem to have every right to dislike poetry to those who earn, through appropriate attention to poetry the honorific comment: "then you are interested in poetry." The beginning and ending of the poem are as follows:

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.

 

----------------------------

 

            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, then you are interested in poetry

In "Poetry" Moore is caught between two conflicting impulses: the need and desire to define poetry universally and generally--to "come / At the cause of the shouts"--and to engage irreducible particulars and expressions. While in her later collage poetry she allows whatever positive definition her poems provide to emerge in and through juxtaposed elements, here she is pulled in two directions at once, much like the bat in this poem, "holding on upside down or in quest of something to / eat." Notably, Moore does not attempt to define poetry from her position as maker but as audience--a position that enables her to establish her stance "elsewhere."

Most critics of this poem have noted that for Moore the genuine is an inexpressible quality--"a magnetism, an ardor, a refusal to be false"--which cannot be directly translated into art or the written word. Consequently, this poem is frequently interpreted as an attempt to realize the unrealizable. Establishing this struggle as indeed central to the poem, John Slatin has criticized "Poetry" as another example from Moore's early work in which she refuses "'to go in,' making instead a virtue of her own isolation." Slatin fails to consider that Moore's need to assert her autonomy may in fact be her need to assert her own difference from a poetic tradition and language which do not represent her. Moore cannot achieve the "genuine" in her poetry for she remains outside the centered vision of a masculinist "universal" poetics that would allow her the semblance of an unmediated "real." While Moore desperately wants to define this activity of poetry that she has given so much of her life to, each assertion is confounded by subsequent assertions, so that it is in fact quite difficult to tell what Moore is recommending as poetry or the genuine. Indeed, Moore writes her definition of poetry largely by spelling out the ways we do not have poetry, as she progressively abandons the definitions and examples she puts forth.

Not only is it difficult to tell what Moore is or is not recommending, but the perspective from which any one aspect of the poem can be considered frequently shifts. For example, after initially praising poetry as "a place for the genuine," Moore lists bodily reactions that seem to be the stimulus for, or the response to, or emblematic of, the genuine, or perhaps all three. Furthermore, as Slatin notes, these examples provide a provisional definition of the genuine even as they are in turn defined by it.

        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

                unintelligible

    the same thing may be said for all of us, that we

        do not admire what

        we cannot understand:

While grasping hands, dilating eyes, and rising hair are associated with the genuine as actions that occur spontaneously and cannot be controlled, they are also laden with associations of gothic fakery and disingenuousness. . . .

From Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Jeanne Heuving: On "Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jeanne Heuving Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 31 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore
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