"Poetry" is remarkable in that it demonstrates the ambiguity of textual authority—Marianne Moore revised the poem throughout her lifetime and supported concurrent publications of different versions. Without one authoritative text to ground any reading of the poem, "Poetry" becomes fluid, mutating over time to reflect Moore's poetic development. Critics count as many as 11 different texts of "Poetry" published between 1919 and 1981, but Bonnie Honigsblum notes four basic versions: a five-stanza version with near consistency of syllabic meter and rhyme; a 13-line version in free verse; a 15-line version with three stanzas, internal rhyme, and a roughly consistent syllabic meter; and a compressed three-line version with a revised five-stanza version attached as a footnote. This 32-line, five-stanza footnote, published in Moore's Collected Poems (1967), is the most frequently anthologized version of "Poetry."
Stylistically "Poetry" reads almost like prose, with Moore's typically long sentences, jagged line breaks, and plain diction. Moore characteristically integrates outside quotations into her poems—in "Poetry" she cites Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and William Butler Yeats. Her inventive juxtapositioning of quotations strengthens her own voice by calling attention to it within a context of external voices.
"Poetry" begins ironically as a poem that takes a derogatory stance towards poetry ("I, too, dislike it"). But poetry here remains ambiguous and undefined. Instead of offering the reader an objective explanation of what poetry is, Moore shifts her focus to the detailed physical effects brought about by reading poetry. She zooms in on particulars, noticing the sensations in her hands, eyes, and hair that indicate a reaction to good poetry. Natural imagery of inverted bats, hefty elephants, and wild horses followed closely by more mundane references to the practical world of business suggests that poetry may exist in the intersection between the practical and the imaginative. Poets are "literalists of the imagination," Moore writes. And if poetry can be found in the stuff of everyday life, Moore's opening indictment of poetry suddenly seems less ironic. The objection, it would seem, is to academic definitions that seek to generalize or intellectu-alize the particular experience of a strong poem.
Moore's development of her topic alters with alternate versions of "Poetry." The 1924 13-line poem concludes with "enigmas are not poetry," which suggests a plea for lucidity and exactness of language that Moore's own vague opening lines would seem to resist. However, the 1967 shorter three-line text concludes by tersely asserting that poetry is "a place for the genuine," yet offers no concrete definition of the "genuine," leaving the work of identifying it up to the reader. Moore's predilection for multiple variant texts virtually explodes the common notion of the unified authoritative text, and her process serves as a model for such 20th-century poets as Donald hall and Lyn hejinian, who likewise resist the limitations of textual closure. A text can be returned to again and again with each version in conversation with the others.
Was this article helpful?