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The final version of "Poetry," a poem that began in Poems (1921) as thirty lines, became thirteen lines in Observations (1921), then thirty-eight lines in the Selected Poems of 1935 and the Collected Poems of 1951, is in the Complete Poems of 1967 four lines long.

I, too, dislike it,

            Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in

            it, after all, a place for the genuine.

The irony in this final version is so thick that it bristles. The speaker is, after all, a poet, and her means of making this statement is a poem. So the first line is if nothing else challenging. The result of the second sentence is to offer highest praise: if, in this contemptible art, poetry, there is still a place for the genuine, that genuine in that poem must be rare stuff indeed, Still, one asks when the poem is over: What is she doing with this "perfect contempt" in the first place? Especially since I am woefully bereft of that quality as I read her poem! Is she so superior? Or is she so humble? Or is she laughing at herself for being a poet? Or at me for believing her when she says she dislikes it? Or at me for not knowing I should dislike it? As a piece of rhetoric, the poem is also perfect, in its precision of vocabulary and placement, the movement from "I" to "too" to "dislike" to "reading" to "however" to "perfect contempt" to "discovers" to "after all" to "place" to "genuine" revealing argument and counterargument, process and conclusion, with an economy that is both dazzling and impenetrable.

The longest version begins with the shorter one quoted, plus a comment: "there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle." The remainder of the poem expands the idea. It contains a definition of poets as "literalists of the imagination" (a quotation from William Butler Yeats) and a definition of poems as "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" (a quotation from herself, from the earliest version of the poem!). It includes as well examples of some real toads, "Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must," and some discussion of what can turn such facts into poor verse: "When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible."

The longer versions of "Poetry" possess neither "unkempt diction" nor "lapses in logic." If anything, they are too explicit in their explanation of the opening mystery. "Excess is the common substitute for energy," writes Moore, and "Feeling at its deepest—as we all have reason to know—tends to be inarticulate. If it does manage to be articulate, it is likely to seem overcondensed, so that the author is resisted as being enigmatic or disobliging or arrogant." One reason for compression might very well have been that she felt the long versions to be too excessive. But I suspect yet another. A series of examples follows the remark "we / do not admire what / we cannot understand." These are bats, elephants, a wild horse, a tireless wolf, an immovable critic, the baseball fan, the statistician—all subjects of her own poetry. (Who is the "we," one wonders, in the light of the remark on feeling and poetry just quoted? Good readers or poor readers? Which is she?) The poem continues to observe that although these phenomena are important, they have been "dragged into prominence by half-poets." The result has not been poetry. True poets must be "above / innocence and triviality" in presenting such material, and in this way present the genuine (the pulled glass fish bottle, for example). The longer version is characteristically ambivalent about her status as true poet or half poet, but she may have found the inclusion at all of herself as poet to be too daring. In the short version, she overtly functions as reader, not writer, in the action of the poem. The subtlety of the short version is based upon our knowledge that she is nevertheless the author of the poem and we are readers, but all this is covertly expressed and therefore not liable to attack. The poem is well-described by another of her poems: "compressed; firmed by the thrust of the blast / till compact, like a bulwark against fate" ("Like a Bulwark").


From Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition. New York: Octagon Books, 1976.