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From  "Notes on the Poem(s) 'Poetry':  The Ingenuity of Moore's Poetic 'Place'"

Grace Schulman: Have you changed many of the poems for this edition [i.e., Complete Poems]?

Marianne Moore: Yes, I have changed them somewhat. Edwin Kennebeck, Mr. Kennebeck, said, "Marshall Best is going to fall dead when he sees 'Poetry' reduced to three lines."

G.S.: Three lines?

Marianne Moore: Yes.


I, too, dislike it: there are things that are  important beyond all this fiddle.

Then I prolonged it:

    Reading it, however, with a perfect con- tempt for it, one discovers in  it, after all, a place for the genuine.

But I said, "The rest of it seems to be padding."

Mr. Kennebeck said, "Oh no. But I think some people are going to complain if you leave the whole thing out." But then he said, "Well, I thought of this: How would it be if we had an appendix and put that in the back, together with the other things you have reduced to nothing?"

"Well," I said, "that's fine. Then it saves the serious reader from looking up these things as they were."

(Schulman 160-61)

. . . Moore's account of the final revision of "poetry" is so wry, in fact, that we are invited to take up the very task the version in the "Notes" allegedly "saves" us from as "serious readers": "looking up these things as they were." Given the complex textual history of the poem(s) "Poetry," however, it is more accurate to call this task, "looking up these things as they have been—variously." When we find that there are eleven texts of "Poetry" to consider, we are perhaps "charmed or exasperated to participate."

Moore's "place for the genuine," then, is as challenging a bibliographical locale as it is a thematic one. Part of the obligation of reviewing the printing history of "Poetry," therefore, is to consider the poetic function of Moore's "Notes" themselves. In its final form "Poetry" asks us not only to trace its textual variants, but to account for the transmutation of the famous "place for the genuine" entailed in the poem's presence in its own "appendix" as well. Here we might also consider how such formal complications have been naturalized by the poem's critics, and what these naturalizations themselves make manifest about the various vocabularies of the poem's criticism. Ultimately my interest is in establishing a reading of "Poetry" based on Hugh Kenner's observation that the last version of the poem is "a footnote to an excerpt from itself" (Kenner 1967, 1432-33). Such a reading would take page 36 and pages 266-68 in Complete Poems as its continuous text, and begin with the notion that the poem-as-notes recapitulates itself, invoking the history of the poem(s)'s own revision.

Our approach to "Poetry" should start with the recognition that Moore's "Notes" are themselves thematic enactments, counterparts to quotation, no less authoritative with respect to textual "place" than what we ordinarily conceive of as the poetic text proper. Moore makes this clear in both editions of Observations by poeticizing the book's index. The pertinent excerpt from Observations' first edition is this:

"piercing glances," 59  pigs, 96  plastic animal, 69, 101  Plato, 72, 101  playwrights, 70  Pliny, 109  POETRY, 30, 96  poetry and fastidiousness, 35  Poets of the Old Testament, 98  politics, 91, 108  Pompeii, 70  pomegranate, 92  pomegranet, 92 (O 117)

. . . A "footnote to an excerpt from itself"'—or excerpt from a footnote to itself—"Poetry" manages to insist cyclically upon the location of its text as a perplexing play of poetic "place " . . . .We might say finally that the omitted in Moore's poetics—from the page and from performance—is invitational, and might see such a thematization of omission as an ironic affirmation of the problematics of closure in poetic composition.

* * *

Critical responses to "Poetry," then, can be organized around what I'm calling Moore's thematization of omission. There are essentially two modes of response. One seems to be to read Moore's epigraph, as I've been arguing, as "Omissions are invitations"; the other, as "Omissions are catastrophes." M. L. Rosenthal and Anthony Hecht respond roughly according to the former; Hugh Kenner the latter; and George Nitchie and Bonnie Costello, the most sensitive readers of Moore's revisions, endeavor synthesis. All of the critics negotiate some form of recovery from Schulman's incredulous "Three lines?" (the poem's first critical response), and in doing so raise important questions for us about the stability of Moore's text as artifact. Moreover, the language of their commentary is itself of interest for the assumptions it makes manifest in metaphor. In Hugh Kenner's review, for example, the history of Moore's revisions of "Poetry" is metaphorized as a succession of poetically violent acts, a series of textual mutilations. He writes:

In Observations (1924) revision destroyed several rhymes and deformed the grid severely. ln 1936 [sic] three words dropped out. In the 1961 Marianne Moore Reader all the words dropped out: this best-known of her poems was nowhere to be found. Now in the 1967 Complete Poems (so called) it reappears from the zero, but hardly: three lines atop an otherwise blank page. . . . (emphasis mine: 1967, 1432)

"At the back of the volume, however," Kenner continues, "we find a note, which reprints the entire 1936 [sic] text—the one scarred by all those revisions—and labels it 'original version'" (emphasis mine: 1432). Similarly, in A Homemade World, Kenner uses the following expressions to describe Moore's revisions of the poem as "drastic fits of rectitude": "a convulsive revision deprived"; "she also expelled"; "a new upheaval restored"; and "just about everything went down the tubes" in "the most calamitous revision of all" [1967] (107). Presumably, the degree of metaphorical "violence" in Kenner's history of "Poetry" measures his own affection for the poem's previous form(s). In any event, Kenner's most useful insights are free of anxious metaphorizations: "'Poetry,'" he asks, ". . . is it a text or a process? . . . Has a text ever before become a footnote to an excerpt from itself?" (1432). These questions are key. So too are his recognitions elsewhere that the enactment Moore's poems achieve "is even entwined with their printing history, a record of delicate, minute decisions"; that revision in Moore's work invokes itself as "tacit invitation" ("Meditation & Enactment" 161). Many "a familiar Moore poem," Kenner assures us in his review, "has metamorphosed through printing after printing like a clockwork Proteus" (1432). The price of such metamorphosis is for Kenner, finally, personal. "Looking at old friends in new revisions," Kenner writes, "one regrets the virtuosity new rigor has sacrificed" (1433). Kenner's metaphorical "violence, " now "sacrificial," may be read as a retributive form of affection for the previous products of a practice he nevertheless seems consistently capable of praising as "process."

In his review of Complete Poems, "Writers' Rights and Readers' Rights," Anthony Hecht shares Kenner's concern for "old friends in new revisions." Hecht figures the difficulty of our relation to Moore's revision of "Poetry" as itself one of "imaginative possession." Regularly slipping into Kenner's less affirmative idiom, however, Hecht concedes that while Moore "has occasionally added beautifully to a familiar and well-known poem, more often than not she has cut and trimmed in radical and merciless ways":

The famous poem "Poetry," for instance, is reduced to its first three lines. Fortunately, the full, original [sic] version is preserved in the notes. But not all the poems have been treated so kindly. . . . Personally, I wish Miss Moore had been more sparing of her work, and as an admiring reader I feel that I have some rights in the matter. Her poems are partly mine, now, and I delight in them because they exhibit a mind of great fastidiousness, a delicate and cunning moral sensibility, a tact, a decorum, a rectitude, and finally and most movingly, a capacity for pure praise that has absolutely biblical awe in it. . . . [H]owever much I may wish to take exception to the changes [she has] made, [she has] provided a field day for Ph.D. candidates for years to come, who can collate versions and come up with theories about why the changes were made. I suspect, for instance, that "Poetry" is Miss Moore's most widely anthologized poem, and she may feel that it has been studied and taught to death, and the present version may be her wry comment on this. (208-209)

One way of recouping "Poetry" as a possession of criticism, Hecht ironically suggests, is to imagine the poem's form as Moore's own "wry comment" on the invasiveness of criticism. This task is taken up, somewhat less self-consciously, by M. L. Rosenthal. His interest is in the poem's relation to the problematic of the "definitive" text as well as that of poetic inception. Noting that both Moore and Auden "have been incessant revisers and excluders of their earlier work, evading, in the time-honored and scholar-cursed way of poets, commitments to 'definitive texts'" (126), Rosenthal argues that the history of the work of these poets testifies "that the endings of most poems are really arbitrary sealings-off, and that poems are never, even when seemingly 'perfect,' quite the closed systems . . . they are usually taken to be" (127). Referring to what he calls Moore's "counterbalancing [of] the two versions" of "Poetry" in Complete Poems, Rosenthal suggests that the poet is "playing with the two versions in order to liberate herself from the chains of critical solemnity":

Her "new" version of Poetry [CMP 36], then, in its relation to the previous "fixed" form [CMP 266-68], exists almost as a witticism. To my mind it dramatizes the insistent fact that many poems are comprised of what we might call a kernel and a context, and that often, in fact, the kernel does reside in the first line or lines. The amusing, and nevertheless real and serious implications of this fact—especially, what it suggests about the energizing center of a poem—have been thrust upon us by Miss Moore's decision, no matter what her specific intension [sic]. (127)

If we recall that after reciting the first line of "Poetry" in the Schulman interview, Moore says "Then I prolonged it"—we may well be able to corroborate Rosenthal's argument here. It's likely, if not surprising, that "I, too, dislike it" is the germinative kernel of "Poetry." (In his interview with Moore, Donald Hall asked: "How does a poem start for you?" She answered: " A felicitous phrase springs to mind—or a word or two, say—simultaneous with some thought or object of equal attraction. . . " [MMR 259]. ) Since duration seems to be significant on this "end" of the poem, it is interesting to find Moore's "Notes" concerned with it on the other: the heading "Original version" (1967) becomes, in the last textual variant of "Poetry," "Longer version" (1981).

While George Nitchie's work on Moore's revisions of "Poetry" is frequently flawed by textual inaccuracies ( e.g., he repeats R. P. Blackmur's conflation of the two editions of Observations [37; cf. Blackmur 73]), his conclusions resemble Bonnie Costello's for their accommodation of ambivalence in Moore's poetics (see Nitchie 91). "[I]n its successive versions," Nitchie writes, "Poetry" moves "between rigorously symmetrical artifact and quintessential statement"—then adds: "between prose that looks like verse and verse that looks like prose" (Nitchie 48). The "process" of "Poetry," then, should be traced along this "distinction" as well—another ambiguous boundary called up (twice) in the poem itself. In her reading at Harvard, in fact, Moore mentions that "In Lieu of the Lyre" struck her as "something that was neither prose nor verse, that might pass for both." This sort of double disclaimer which subversively affirms each of its postulates is crucial to the formal play of "Poetry" in Complete Poems. Costello writes:

The ambivalence in the two versions or "Poetry" is basic to Moore's aesthetic: poetry embodies a continual tension between the desire to concentrate all thought into a unity, into epigram, into implied vision (and silence), and the desire to make distinctions, to be explicit, to rind the right words (and perhaps simply to assert one's existence by saying more). (Costello 25-26)

That such desires are simultaneously satisfied in "Poetry" by way of elaborate formal irony, and that Moore's "ambivalence" seems ultimately to conflate multiple "boundaries" between and within the "poem" and "note," have both been underestimated. Moreover, whiteness in the poem, "implied vision (and silence),"—most of page 36 (CMP)—seems somehow to mediate the movement of the poem in Kenner's formulation: a nearly blank page bisects the poem as it moves as an excerpt from a footnote to itself, genuinely emptying it out as "place for the genuine" (emphasis mine ). To put this another way, we might say that the textual apparatus of "Poetry"—as one poem—is informed by the convergence of "contractility" as a "virtue" with the "power of the visible" as "the invisible." The multiplicity of intersections, blurred boundaries, in the poem are finally articulated in the "eloquence" of "silence." In this respect "Poetry" is infused with the "white light" of which Williams writes in his essay, "Marianne Moore" (1925). He stresses the poetic value of "the geometric principle of the intersection of loci":

[F]rom all angles lines converging and crossing establish points. The poet might carry it further and say in his imagination that apprehension perforates at places, through to understanding—as white is at the intersection of blue and green and yellow and red. It is this white light that is the background of all good work. (1969, 122)

The correlative in the poem for the perforative force of the poem's punctuation—the mark of "white light" at its center—is the presence of Moore's "'real toads.'" By this I mean that the formal disturbance in "Poetry" ("Three lines?") is analogous to the intrusion of "'real toads'" upon the traditional poetic decorum of "'imaginary gardens.'" Such "perforation" in Moore's poem is complicated by the fact that "'imaginary gardens'" seem to contain their own disclaimer; that is, their reality as constructs in language seems to be signalled, paradoxically, by the word "imaginary" itself, making them consequently seem more "real." The presence of "'real toads,'" then, works somehow both to confirm the "reality" of such a "place" and deny it, calling into question the power of the word "real" to confer "reality." "Imaginary" is a wink to which "real" gives the nod. Moore's quotation marks, whether they indicate a "real" borrowing or not, finally heighten this ironic play of disclaimers by disclaiming the whole construction as poetically construed. If Moore's "apprehension perforates at places" in "Poetry," "through to understanding," it is an understanding of language per se. To refigure the poem's movement, then, we could say that "Poetry" seems to be—"of silkworm / size or immense; at times invisible"—Moore's textual dragon.

The critical perspectives I've outlined above point from various angles at the problematics of "Poetry" as Jonathan Culler represents them in Structuralist Poetics. What he says here seems readily applicable to the sort of complex formal naturalization "Poetry" (1967) seems to require:

Marianne Moore's "Poetry", with its famous "there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle", does not involve a rejection or exposure of genre conventions, especially since the "fiddle" is admirably manifested in her elaborate syllabic form; but it does shift the process of naturalization onto another level by forcing us to consider, if we are to make the poem intelligible, the relation between the meaning of statements such as "I, too, dislike it" in ordinary discourse and their transmutation by the poetic context.      The best way to explain this level of vraisemblance and naturalization may be to say that citing or opposing conventions of genre brings about a change in the mode of reading. We are forced to cast our net wider so as to include more than this level of vraisemblance and intelligibility and must allow the dialectical opposition which the text presents to result in a synthesis at a higher level where the grounds of intelligibility are different. . . . In reading many modern texts this level of vraisemblance and naturalization becomes the most important, and in this sense it has the advantage of being less reductive than others, for it need not resolve a difficulty but can recognize that what requires interpretation is the existence of a difficulty more than the difficulty itself. (151)

The dialectical opposition which the text presents has been delineated carefully by Costello, and the synthesis, "where the grounds of intelligibility are different," seems to have been hit upon by Kenner. The delicacy of Kenner's formulation, then, is that it enables us to cast Costello's net even wider: to eschew privileging one "version" of "Poetry" over another in Complete Poems; to appreciate the play of the poem as "footnote to an excerpt from itself" (or vice versa); to construe the formal effect of the poem as a unitary, if not stationary, phenomenon. "'[F]ond of that precision which creates movement,'" Moore foregrounds in "Poetry" the poem's own verbal "bud."' To restate the dynamics of "Poetry" from this perspective—as a "small (or large) machine made of words"—we might allow Moore her own summary. In her review of Eliot's "Marina," "A Machinery of Satisfaction," Moore writes:

What matters here is that we have, for both author and reader, a machinery of satisfaction that is powerfully affecting, intrinsically and by association. The method is a main part of the pleasure: lean cartography; reiteration with compactness; . . . the conjoining of opposites to produce irony; a counterfeiting verbally of the systole, diastole, of sensation—of what the eye sees and the mind feels; the movement within the movement of differentiated kindred sounds. . . . (338)

What remains now to be traced are the poem's systoles and diastoles in revision, the historical movements of the poem evinced by its last appearance, and the "differentiated kindred" likenesses within the poem synonymous with its form (TM48).

* * *

Refuting Craig Abbott's use of "Poetry" to exemplify his "System of Bibliographical Reference Numbering," Patricia Willis and Clive Driver published "Bibliographical Numbering and Marianne Moore" (1976), setting forth for the first time a comprehensive account of the poem's printing history. Since then Macmillan and Viking have published a new edition of Complete Poems (1981), delivering what is likely to be the poem's last variant (in which "Original" becomes "Longer" in Moore's "Notes"). Since their article excluded contributions to anthologies, Willis' and Driver's work overlooked one important version of the poem. This variant appeared in Harriet Monroe's The New Poetry (1932), and was reprinted in Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry (1948)—a book Moore wrote "exhilarated [her] when it came out" (MMR 185). This, then, is a revised checklist of the poem's distinct appearances, heavily indebted to Willis and Driver:




Number of Stanzas : Lines


Others, 5, No.6

July 1919

5 : 30


Others for 1919


5 : 30


Poems     (Reverts to 1919)


5 : 30



December 1924

5 : 29



March 1925

1 : 13


The New Poetry


3 : 15


Selected Poems (Macmillan)      (Reverts to 1924)


5 : 29


Selected Poems (Faber)      (Reverts to 1924)


5 : 29


Collected Poems


5 : 29


Complete Poems      (Subverts 1951)


115 : 32


Complete Poems       (Subverts 1951)


115 : 32

Two features of Willis' and Driver's article are especially important for our present purposes: first, it takes "note" and "poem" together as the work's text; and second, it indicates which versions are reversions in Moore's revision of "Poetry." (Reversions are noted above in parentheses.) We see, for example, that the final form of "Poetry" stands closest to the first and second editions of Observations—published three months apart—for their juxtaposition of "antipathetic" versions of the poem; that, as books, Observations and Complete Poems not only satisfy contrary revisionary impulses for Moore but also figure one another as stanzaic reversals: 5/1; 1/5 (cf. Ranta). It's tempting, therefore, to think of the appearance of "Poetry" in Complete Poems as a sort of formal pun on the poem's presence(s) in Observations. The value of the 1932 version, rarely discussed or reprinted by Moore's critics, is that it mediates between the single-stanza version of 1925 and the five-stanza version of 1935. According to the metaphor of Moore's "machinery of satisfaction," the 1932 version represents a sort of diastolic median, an intermediate stage of dilation following the "contraction" of 1925. Further, the 1935 version which follows these two is a reversion; Selected Poems takes its text, with revisions (e.g., inverted commas replace Moore's quotation marks), from the first edition of Observations (1924). The pattern of the poem's reversions in revision is an insistent figure of the text's return to itself, and the poem's "final" form, as we have seen, is a radical enactment of this movement.

Willis and Driver also help us to trace the poem's historical play in polemic. W. C. Williams edited the last issue of Others (July 1919), and "Poetry" follows his caustic introduction directly. Williams writes:

There is nothing now to despise but vermine: Others.      Others has come to an end. I object to bringing out another issue after this one. Others is not enough. It has grown inevitably to be a lie like everything else that has been a truth at one time. (Gloria 3)

Consummated by Williams' vitriolic "Belly Music," in which the only literary magazine spared condemnation is The Little Review, the polemical tone of the issue establishes a specific context for Moore's "I, too, dislike it" often overlooked. In her prose analogue to "Poetry," "Subject, Predicate, Object" (1948), Moore restates what the "I" ( as "we") specifically "dislikes" nearly forty years later:

Of poetry, I once said: "I, too, dislike it"; and say it again of anything mannered, dictatorial. disparaging, or calculated to reduce to the ranks what offends one. (TM 47)

Entailing revision itself in a "liking for poetry," Moore con- cludes:

As for the hobgoblin obscurity, it need never entail compromise. It should mean that one may fail and start again, never mutilate an auspicious premise. The objective is architecture, not demolition; grudges flower less well than gratitudes. To shape, to shear, compress, and delineate; to "add a hue to the spectrum of another's mind" as Mark Van Doren has enhanced the poems of Thomas Hardy, should make it difficult for anyone to dislike poetry! (TM 48)

The "auspicious premise" of "Poetry" is manifest in Others (1919), and its shape, shearing, compression, and delineation in the poem are, in fact, ultimately metaphorized as forms of "mutilation" and "demolition" by Hugh Kenner. If the history of the poem(s) "Poetry" "add[s] a hue to the spectrum of another's mind," then, it might be: that in revision Moore's critical "objective is architecture"—of multiply "enhanced" habitations.

It is of interest too, finally, that the poem as "modernist manifesto" seems to "internalize" its history of polemical tensions, invoking its own record of revision, while revivifying the same problematics "externally" (Ward 196). I mean this: that the images of alarm in "Poetry" (Ward 196; Costello 16)—"Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must"—realize themselves in Schulman's "Three lines?" as the principal irony of the poem's liminal play. Figuring itself with one of its own figures, "Poetry" too "can dilate"—"if it must"; and it does so cyclically in its own "Notes." (Here we might imagine Moore having Yogi Berra say, fielding a "footnote to an excerpt from itself": "It's never over until it's never over.") Further, since the critic is figured—"immovable"—alongside "differentiated kindred," who all seem to effect some version or another of the same agonistic movement, we might ask ourselves, How is our interpretive mobility complicated by our figuration "within" the poem itself? We assume, as Eliot did, that "the detail always has its service to perform to the whole"; that "The similes are there for use" (x); that something can be made of them; and, while it disclaims "high-sounding interpretation," the text signals that such "things" are "useful" (emphasis mine). But interpretive construal of "them" entails, at every step, our discovery that "we" ourselves are being construed by the poem. We "twitch" our equine skin in some versions and "twinkle" it in others; in some feeling a "fly," in others a "flea." Moore suspends us, "immovable," between figures for our activity and the figures it confronts. It is tempting to dwell on the infectiousness of such a hermeneutical conundrum, but let us return more directly to the poem's ineluctable raw material: silence.


Visible, invisible,      a fluctuating charm  an amber-tinctured amethyst      inhabits it, your arm  approaches and it opens      and it closes; you had meant  to catch it and it quivers;      you abandon your intent.

--"A Jelly-Fish," Marianne Moore (CMP 180)


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---. "A System of Bibliographical Reference Numbering." PBSA 69 (January-March 1975): 73-74.

Bishop. Elizabeth. "Miss Moore and Edgar Allan Poe." Quarterly Review of Literature 4, No.2 (1948): 133.

Blackmur, R. P. "The Method of Marianne Moore." In Charles Tomlinson, Ed., Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall. 1969.66-86.

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---. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writer’s. New York: Knopf, 1975.

---. "Meditation and Enactment." In Charles Tomlinson. Ed., Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall, 1969.159-64.

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Moore, Marianne. The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Macmillan/Viking, 1981. (CMP)

---."A Machinery of Satisfaction." Poetry 30 (September 1931): 337-39.

---. A Marianne Moore Reader. New York: Viking, 1961.

---. Observations. New York: The Dial Press, 1924 (O) and 1925. (O, 1925)

---. Predilections. New York: Viking, 1955. (PR)

---. Tell Me, Tell Me. New York: Viking. 1966. (TM)

Nitchie, George. Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Ranta, Jerrald. "Palindromes, Poems, and Geometric Form." Visible Language 10 (Spring 1976): 157-72.

Rosenthal, M. L. "Comment: Poets and Critics and Poet-Critics." Poetry 114 (May 1969): 126.

Schulman, Grace. "Conversation with Marianne Moore." Quarterly Review of Literature, Vol. 16, Nos. 1-2 (1969): 154-71.

Steinman, Lisa. "Modern America, Modernism, and Marianne Moore." Twentieth Century Literature 30 (Summer/Fal11984): 154-71.

Thayer, Scofield. "Comment." The Dial 78 (April 1925): 354-56.

Ward, Alfred. American Literature 1880-1930. London: Methuen & Co., 1932.

Williams, William Carlos. "Gloria." Others 5 (July 1919): 3.

---. Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1969.

---. The Wedge. Cummington, MA: Cummington Press, 1944.

Willis, Patricia C., and Clive E. Driver. "Bibliographical Numbering and Marianne Moore:" PBSA 70 (April-June 1976): 261-63.

Excerpted from a longer essay. From Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. Copyright © 1990 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.