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Poem of the Week: Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”

Omissions are not accidents.

Marianne Moore

One of the most controversial discussions about Marianne Moore is her Complete Poems and specifically her poem titled “Poetry.” Published in 1967, this collection seemed anything but complete to those who had admired her work since it was first published in 1921. (It could be thought that this first publication titled Poems and published by H. D. in England without Moore’s knowledge would be more controversial.) Marianne Moore revised several of her well-known poems. “Poetry” sustained an extensive revision from its original thirty-one lines down to only three.

an admiring reader I feel that I have some rights in [this] matter. Her poems are partly mine, now, and I delight in them because they exhibit a mind of great fastidiousness, a delicate and cunning moral sensibility, a tact, a decorum, a rectitude, and finally and most movingly, a capacity for pure praise that has absolutely biblical awe in it. She (and Mr. Auden, too, as it will appear) however much I may wish to take exception to the changes they have made, have provided a field day for Ph.D. candidates for years to come, who can collate versions and come up with theories about why the changes were made.

Anthony Hecht as quoted by Poetry Foundation, referring to the revisions in Complete Poems.

Marianne Moore’s reasons for revising her work at this stage of her writing career is not completely clear. Perhaps like Elizabeth Bishop, who was her friend and mentee, she simply continued to refine her work. She could have been adjusting to the current age and wanted to present her work to the younger generation with wording they would understand and appreciate. Or it could also have been Marianne Moore’s method of breaking free from one of her most formidable influences–her mother.

Impersonation of her mother was, in part, the root of Moore’s genius. Moore wanted her readers to see her work as, to some extent, the stone-setting of her mother’s phrases in the pliant metal of her own lines. Her borrowings from her mother contribute to some of her most famous lines, including, perhaps, her most famous lines of all, from “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 that there

is in

it after all, a place for the genuine.

Elizabeth Bishop with lines from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” as quoted in The New Yorker.

It is a well-known fact that Marianne Moore and her mother lived together until Mary Moore’s death in 1947. Moore never married and was her mother’s constant companion and caregiver. But, a more recent biography Holding on Upside Down by Linda Leavell reveals more about the mother-daughter relationship.

To examine childhood with impunity is essential for many writers, even if they are not, on the face of it, especially autobiographical. Poets often make a sudden advance with the death of their parents, as though a curfew had suddenly been lifted; for some (Robert Lowell, say), it happens just at the moment the imagination has stalled. Moore wrote hardly a word before her sixtieth year without her mother by her side or in the next room, often acting as her editor. 

The New Yorker

Although I have not read the biography yet–and plan to within the year–the biography description implies that Marianne Moore’s poetry became a mode of survival. Perhaps incorporating her mother’s words into her work was one such method of sustaining approval.

Both “beyond all this fiddle” and “a perfect contempt for it” are Mrs. Moore’s phrases. When one realizes this, the poem, “agreeing” not with imputed public sentiment but with Mary Moore’s actual distaste for her daughter’s art, comes to seem rather sad.

The New Yorker

What I find disconcerting about the “Poetry” controversy is that people claim ownership of Moore’s poetry. As a fellow poet, I applaud Marianne Moore’s courage to revise her own work over time and recognize that we do change our perspectives. I empathize with her–as a recovering perfectionist and people-pleaser–that at some point poets must please themselves. Whether I read “Poetry” in its original or revised form, I think the important credo is one that Moore–who considered herself a “happy hack”–summarized in her precise, cohesive, witty style.

“Any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others.”

Marianne Moore

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Categories: poem of the week Poetry

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