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Friday, February 25, 2011

Number 79: Marianne Moore "Poetry"


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
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.

-- Marianne Moore

Hap Notes: Since I mentioned this poem yesterday, I felt it might be good to see the whole thing today.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972), in addition to lots of other distinctive things, liked a good hat. She wore a little tricorn hat and a cape when she was the toast of New York. She loved sports, wrote the liner notes for Muhammed Ali's spoken word album, enjoyed watching boxing matches and was a great baseball fan. One of her prized possessions was a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle. She threw out the first pitch for the 1968 season at Yankee Stadium. She recognized Christy Mathewson's pitching at the first ballgame she ever attended, just from reading his book on the subject. She even wrote a poem "Baseball and Writing."

She was born and raised in Kirkwood, Missouri (it's pretty close to St. Louis) and was brought up by her grandparents and her mother as her father had left before she had even been born (he had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in the east.) She graduated from Bryn Mawr and started publishing poetry in 1915. She was the editor of the literary journal The Dial for a few years and was instrumental in the careers of Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsburg and John Ashberry, just to name a few.

Moore's Collected Poems (1951) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. She was great friends with Wallace Stevens. They were both fairly conservative Republicans. (Which today means they were centrist Democrats. The Republican party has strayed a long way from its original principles in the last 40 years.) Moore never married. She lived with her mom until 1947 (when her mom passed away.)

This particular poem, "Poetry" is one of her most famous and anthologized. She tinkered with it off and on her whole life. At one point the poem was just the first two sentences, Moore claiming the rest was just "padding." Obviously the poet does not dislike poetry however she does make a scattered case for the poetry she does like and the poetry she does not. What it boils down to is that she hates affected obtuseness and wants a poem to be genuine.

It's interesting to note that when she compiled a list of what she felt were the greatest literary works, she chose Keats and Byron and even Ogden Nash but not Shelley. If you want to see what she listed visit here: Her handwriting, also on the website, is pretty and familiar as old school Palmer Method (with maybe a little Spencerian. Don't know what I'm talking about? It's the way many of us were taught cursive writing in school, that's all.)

Moore was a well read, clever, crisply turned out woman who was a marvel with her use and appreciation of words. In interviews she is tart and a little like a bemused educated sprite. She was one of those people who spoke in well ordered whole sentences.

Here's a good Moore quote: "It never occurred to me that what I wrote was something to define. I am governed by the pull of the sentence as the pull of a fabric is governed by gravity. I like the end-stopped line and dislike the reversed order of words; like symmetry."

You can find more Moore here:

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