After reading the poem, go to the Text History section to see other versions, one of which is only three lines long.
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. Hands that can grasp, eyes 5 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 10 do not admire what we cannot understand: the bat holding on upside down or in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base- 15 ball fan, the statistician- nor is it valid to discriminate against 'business documents andschool-books'; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, 20 nor till the poets among us can be 'literalists of the imagination-' above insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them,' shall we have 25 it. 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, you are interested in poetry.
The poems on this Web site are about all kinds of things: cruel dictators, unrequited love, war, religious redemption, fruit, and much else besides. But what does it mean when we say that a poem is "about" something? What happens when a poet tries to take something very small, like a toad, or something very large, like the First World War, and put it into a poem? A poem is just words, while the reality it tries to capture might be green, and it might be able to jump. This is the dilemma that Marianne Moore is getting at in "Poetry."
We could solve the problem by deciding that a poem is nothing else than what it means, but that certainly wouldn't satisfy Marianne Moore. She doesn't have much use for what she calls high-sounding interpretations. She gives us a list of some of the things she thinks are important, from baseball fans to business documents, but she doesn't say those things should be considered poetry, just because they matter. Her line comparing poems to imaginary gardens with real toads in them, is probably quoted more often than anything else she wrote, but I'm not sure what it really means. Or maybe I should say that I'm not sure it's supposed to mean anything. The title, "Poetry," seems to promise some kind of definition, but what the poem actually sets out to do is confuse logical distinctions. When she says "raw" on the one hand, and "genuine" on the other hand, for example, she's playing games with us, balancing apples against oranges. But play can be serious as well as fun. Her definitions aren't logical, but that's because poetry isn't completely logical either. "Poetry" is about fitting real stuff into a space made out of words. For Marianne Moore, that's what a poet has to do, even though it's impossible.
When "Poetry" was first published in Others (July 1919), it was slightly different than the later version we have used.
Click here to see the poem as it appeared in Others.
Later, Moore revised the poem drastically. For The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1935), the poem took this form:
I, too, dislike it. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Like her fellow modernists, Marianne Moore wanted to break with tradition and find new ways to write poetry. One of her strategies for bringing this about was to observe the world in all its mundane detail and then make poems out of the precise, surprising language she would invent to record her observations. She had always been interested in the animal world, and animals became one of her favorite ways of taking the world into her poems. She read about animals in the newspapers, in scientific periodicals, in old books of myth and legend- anywhere she could find the striking fact- and she kept it all. "The Arctic Ox (Or Goat)," for example, was based on an article which she read in the March 1958 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.
Click below to hear Moore discuss and read "The Arctic Ox."
Moore had been a student of biology at Bryn Mawr College, and the laboratory reports that she made there provided her with a model for the precise drawings with which she continued to record her observations of the living world in later life.
Click here to see a drawing of a jellyfish that Moore made in her biology notebook when she was a student at Bryn Mawr.
Moore's interest in animals was not confined to their possible usefulness as material for poetry; a letter to Fairfield Osborn, President of the New York Zoological Society, makes this clear. Click here to see her letter.
The Poet´s Life and Work
- John M. Slatin, from The Savage's Romance: The Poetry of Marianne Moore.
- Taffy Martin, from Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist.
- Bonnie Costello, "The 'Feminine' Language of Marianne Moore."