Elizabeth W. Joyce: On "Poetry"

Moore used the poetic imagination to represent the transformative power of the arts over social tradition. Her original version of "Poetry," the one relegated to the "notes" section of her Complete Poems, presents not only her view of the operations of the imagination but that of twentieth-century American poets in general. As with Moore's abstraction through particulars, her investment in the power of the imagination in the arts is convincing proof of her denial of bourgeois conventions--there is no room for the imagination in a society based on pragmatic, materialistic lifestyles. Not only that, but the very fact that Moore reduced the overt presentation of this poem to a few lines in the body of this poetry collection illustrates her reluctance to admit her critique of the bourgeoisie and her reliance on the imagination to escape it.

By introducing this poem with "I, too, dislike it," Moore acknowledges the inherent triviality of poetry; it fulfills no "practical" function and, therefore, has no apparent role in culture. Her ironic tone in this line, however, negates its surface meaning and reinforces her belief in the power of the imagination to find a place for poetry in establishing meaning in culture.

Even though there is much poetry that she does not like, Moore admits thiat there is "in / it after all, a place for the genuine." To Moore, "the genuine" is the most essential attribute of good art. She treats it the way Wallace Stevens treats his notion of reality--as poetry's goal. Unlike Stevens, though, Moore does not believe that poetry is transcendental; its reason for existence is entrenched in its ability to capture a sincere response to life's experiences, those that accurately reflect the social context of the poet.

Moore believes that physical. responses and instincts are "important . . . because they are / useful," not because they can be explained in the abstract terms of poetic analysis and criticism. The "eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must" are human reactions to external stimulae. Moore wants poetry to function in the same way--rather than being so complex and difficult that it connects only to our intellect, it should stimulate us also through our physical senses. When poetry becomes too abstract, "as to become un-/intelligible," it loses its audience because "we / do not admire what / we cannot understand." The poem then lists animal behaviors that are as indecipherable as modern poetry: the upside-down bat, the rolling horse. Human behavior is equally difficult to comprehend: "the base- / ball fan, the statistician." But these behaviors are admirable: even activities that lack a pragmatic purpose are ""important" because they lend distinction to the variety found in nature and among human civilizations. Even the dullness of "'business documents and / / school-books’" are important to human existence, perhaps as a contrast to more exciting aspects of life. Despite our lack of comprehension of "phenomena," we must confront them repeatedly, following that human instinct to investigate and describe. Even though abstract poetry is obscure, Moore poses, it is worth our attention because it is no more difficult to understand than anything else around us: it remains a reflection of the changes in our culture. . . .

But, Moore says, there are dull things that really are useless, such as bad poetry, and it is bad poetry that makes her think at first that she "dislikes" the genre entirely. Poetry as a legitimate entity exists only when poets have learned to be "'literalists of the imagination’" and when they can create in their work "'imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’" These quotations, one from William Butler Yeats and the other unacknowledged but perhaps by Moore herself, are the key to Moore's poetics.

The Yeats quotation is from his discussion of Blake in Ideas of Good and Evil, in which he describes Blake as a "too literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature." By this, Yeats is criticizing, yet admiring, Blake for wanting poetry and the visual arts to depict symbols in their naked state, without the embellishment of style or technique. For Moore, the essential goal of poetry is to explain the poem's purpose while excluding the "trivial" or the "insolent," those irrelevant or self-destructive elements of much of failed poetry.

The idea of the "'imaginary gardens with real toads in them’" explains the force of imagination necessary for poets to avoid uselessness. They must, in order to be able to write authentic poetry, create a world in their minds that appears to be real. The toads, then, are the fabrications of the artist and are so highly refined by the artist's imagination that they have become tangible; the toads are the result of the artist's attempt to render the abstract into the concrete, Moore's own poetic goal, a goal that also allows her to draw directly into her poems the subversion that the abstraction serves to shield.

This goal is, however, as Moore acknowledges, unattainable. The effort to reach it is poetry's only hope. As long as the poet maintains this effort honestly. poetry is at least "interesting." Poetry is "raw" because it cannot have the polish of reality seamlessly constructed out of the imagination; it is "genuine," though, because the good poet tries with integrity to attain this reality. This passage presents the double nature of the imagination; it can create a visual image—the garden—but it can also create new phenomena in the form of abstractions—the formally "real" toads. A "’literalist of the imagination’" is bent on using the imagination exactly as it evidences itself in the interior nature of the artist. The poet who can make use of this faculty without distortion will be true to the forces and transcendental qualities of the imagination. The imagination, then, works to divorce the poet from stifling conventions, while the abstraction that the imagination induces masks that very social defection.

The ending of this poem, also reinforces the problem that Moore confronted in her work: the inescapable tension between codified social convention and the urge to modify that convention so that it is less irksome to the individual. Moore wants poetry to retain direct connections to her culture, to continue to be "genuine" (i.e., intelligible and reflective of her culture). But at the same time she cannot resist the gentle undercutting of that culture through the abstraction brought on by the imaginary.

The imaginary undermines bourgeois culture because it is no longer attached to the pragmatic; it is no longer materially useful. Yet, like the hair that rises for no practical purpose on the human nape, the imaginary seems to Moore to be one of those marvels of nature that should continue to exist merely to be understood. Even so, the imaginary, and its creation, the abstract, do have practical and political implications. As such, they are the earmarks of societal change, the disruption of bourgeois dogma that everything must have its use, and the movement away from the sheerly socially pragmatic toward the operations of the individual's interior. Moore's standard for pragmatism is itself abstract, in fact, and strives for the furtherance of life and the understanding of that life rather than the typical pragmatic stance that has interest only in the production of particular consequences.

From Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-garde. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Associated University Presses, Inc.

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.