April is National Poetry Month, and I'm sure there will be the usual hoopla: parades, costume balls, daily specials on QVC, discussions during the presidential debates . . . like the opening night and after-concert parties of many arts institutions, these are things that are in proximity to their art, but not the thing itself. So for the next thirty days of national poetry month I thought I would pull out a daily poem or two from the world's stock. As with concert-going, when the program contains both familiar and strange music, we might find ourselves paying attention again to something we took for granted, or find ourselves discovering a new pleasure.
What better place to start than with Marianne Moore's famous discussion of what poetry might be:
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
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.
– Marianne Moore
The version above is taken from The Poems of Marianne Moore, edited after the poet's death by Grace Schulman. (Blogger isn't allowing me to indent the poem correctly, but the line breaks are there.) Marianne Moore (1887 - 1972) was a compulsive reviser, and notoriously eviscerated much of her earlier work when she published The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore towards the end of her life. In that collection, which is prefaced with a stern warning that "Omissions are not accidents," everything after "a place for the genuine" is cut. In her endnotes, however, Moore offers the longer version, an ambiguous authorization which also seems like no accident.
Moore often quotes others in her work (or, to put it another way, used the modernist technique of collage), and so she remarks in the endnotes that the phrase in quotation marks about "business documents and school books" comes from Tolstoy's Diaries, and "literalists of the imagination" from Yeats. No source is given for the famous phrase "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" and in her endnotes Schulman points out that there were no quotation marks around the phrase in earlier versions of the poem (as can easily be seen in the recent collection Becoming Marianne Moore). No source has ever been identified for the phrase, so it is presumably Moore's own. Complicated textual histories and enigmas are not only for the ancient poets.
Poetry like pornography is something more easily felt than defined (a comparison that would have revolted the fastidious and rather prim Moore). Moore was part of the modernist generation attempting to discover alternatives to old forms and modes that had been broken by the increasing mechanization and political unrest and restless fighting of world increasingly felt as distinctively and separately "modern." Perhaps this attempt to refresh tradition is one reason she often used syllabic lines as an organizing principle, rather than the standard English-language alternations of stressed and unstressed syllables (though I will say it always bothers me when poets who use syllables break words across lines; it seems like cheating, though I'll admit "base-ball" sounds natural enough, in a nineteenth-century kind of way). Here she rejects the high-flown sentiments and misty aspirations often considered poetic and instead insists on the importance and beauty of utility and accurate observation (one of her earliest collections was called simply Observations), finding no distinction between "the poetic" and the scientific or mechanical. In her usual angular and witty way, she seems to suggest that poetry is more of a deep-seated yearning than an easily defined thing.