Sunday Poetry: Poetry, by Marianne Moore


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
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: 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-
ball fan, the statistician–
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,
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
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.

– by Marianne Moore

What do you think of Marianne Moore’s defense of poetry? I, personally, like the argument, though I hesitate to call the poem itself a good example of poetry. It reminds me of a tedious professor lecturing in a hall – well informed, and certainly meaningful, but the good stuff is in the quotations, not the narrative.

The poem appears to be almost unstructured, but it is, in fact, a fairly tightly worked example of syllabic structure. For example, each stanza’s first line has 19 syllables, and all but one of the stanzas ends with a 13 syllable line. So she paid attention to what she was doing.

But what good does any of that do us? You don’t get a rhythm reading this poem – you don’t get rocked along with iambic pentameter, kicked by rhythmic feet or treated to clever rhymes. Instead, all you really get is the satisfaction of knowing that the poet was at least paying attention to something, even if it doesn’t make any difference to your level of satisfaction. Kind of like having drinking cheap wine from fine crystal, the artistry is superfluous and wasted.

Ultimately, I like the poem. By playing academic syllabic games with poetry, she embodies the tension between great poetry and those who strive to understand it. She knows the way it ought to be – “imaginary gardens with real toads”, but she cannot quite get to the point of producing poetry herself. Like her, there are times I dislike poetry, but I remain interested in it.

5 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: Poetry, by Marianne Moore”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Does anyone really care about this schlock.

  2. Dan says:


  3. Anonymous says:

    I look forward to Sunday poetry every week – I either pick up a well-selected new poem, or I gain insight on a familiar one. I love this feature.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Confidentiality indeed.

    How irritating that someone tried to pay attention was the message.

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