Marianne Moore, Observations (New York: The Dial Press, 1924): 30-31. PS 3525 O5616 O28 1924 Robarts Library. [Reprint of Poems (London: The Egoist Press, 1921), with some additions]
I, too, dislike it.fiddle: "fussy trifling" (OED sb 6). Back to Line
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
A poem about poetry should look like a poem, but Marianne Moore writes cadenced prose. The metre, vocabulary, and syntax of "Poetry" belong to business correspondence or academic argumentation.
"Poetry" lacks end-rhymes and an accentual-syllabic metre. Her terminology includes polysyllabic terms, and little runs of unstressed single-syllable words, neither of which fit into conventionally iambic and trochaic feet. What can one make, metrically, of "interpretation" (- - - / -), "unintelligible" (- - / - - -), and "statistician" (- - / -), or "can be put upon them but because they are" (- - / - - - - - / - -)? Moore ends lines often with unstressed words (not just unstressed final syllables of words with a stress in them), that is, with determiners and auxiliary verbs: "not because a" (6), "because they are" (7), "business documents and" (17), and "among us can be" (20).
Besides having an abstract, almost Latinate diction, Moore avoids words associated with touchstone poems in the Romantic, Victorian, and Georgian periods. Love, the sea, birds, sickness, night and light, death and graveyards, remarkable landscapes and weather, children, and other conventional "poetic" topics never appear. Moore promisingly refers to "Hands ... eyes / ... hair" but quickly shifts to a bat, an elephant, a baseball fan, business documents, and toads. She often courts cliché: "things that are important" (1; cf. 6, 18), "the same thing may be said for" (9), "something to eat" (12-13), "One must make a distinction" 18), "the result is not" (19), "for inspection" (24), "In the meantime" (25), and "on one hand ... on the other hand" (25, 28).
Her syntax uses loose, wordy constructions, begging for an editor's knife. Five verse paragraphs have only five, sometimes long sentences. The third one (4-18) offers a zoo of clauses: four restrictive relatives (e.g., ".. that can grasp"), an "if" (6) and a "when" (8), a balanced "not because ... but because" pair (6-7), two nominal relatives (e.g., "what we cannot understand"), and non-finite present participial (12, 13, 14) and infinitive (8, 12-13, 17). They are linked by a semi-colon, two colons, and a dash. The clauses, individually, flaunt sign-posts like "however" (2, 19) and the abstract pronoun "one" (2, 18), and a ream of "to be" verbs (1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 16, 18, 19, 20, 29).
The title of the poem labels what follows, in one reading, as "poetry," but the first effect on a typical reader is estrangement, even bewilderment. Moore anticipates this probable response by opening with "I too, dislike it," but she also provides a key to why she is writing poetry, after all, characterizing it as "all this fiddle" (1). Certainly the prosy academic posing reads like `fussy trifling,' "high sounding interpretation" (7) -- what else but "high" does "a place for the genuine" sound like? -- and "insolence and triviality" (23), because Moore comes up arrogant in saying that she dislikes poetry, and her list of "phenomena" blends unrelated commonplace things, trivia. This her "fiddle," however, is also a musical instrument, one capable of sounds as various as Moore manages here, from soothing mellowness to a yelp. She uses, the attentive reader will discover, syllabic metre, a rhythm based on quantity rather than stress, just as a musical instrument does. The first line of each stanza has exactly 19 syllables. The fourth and fifth lines have five and eight, or eight and five syllables. Four of the five last lines have thirteen syllables. Here is the quantitative pattern she imposes:
|Stanza No.||Line 1||Line 2||Line 3||Line 4||Line 5||Line 6|
Moore's "music" truly echoes the poem's voice, alternately querlous ("I too, dislike it ... / ... with a perfect contempt"), passionate ("Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise"), sensible ("because they are / useful"), indignant ("nor is it valid / to discriminate against ..."), and a little pompous ("all these phenomena are important"). The star fiddler in "Poetry," the person who begins it all ("I too"), she talks directly to "you" (25, 29) and takes you, us, her reader(s), into her confidances: "the same thing may be said for all of us, that we / do not admire what / we cannot understand" (9-11). Where Moore thinks we may disagree, she resorts to the objective, "one discovers" and "One must make a distinction" (18), but at poem's close she speaks to us directly, having proved her case.
Her argument closes with a confidant's confidence: poetry is "raw material" -- "things" (1, 6) and "phenomena" (18), all of them "important" and understandable, not obscure (8-11) -- that is "genuine" (3, 29). Poetry has "in / it" (2-3) things we recognize and comprehend, from the bat to the statistician and the school-book. She associates the "genuine" with "useful" experiences (8), that is, with the "observations" that is the title of her first book of poems. Poets observe creatures, whether animals like the horse and the wolf, or people such as the critic and the baseball fan, and the things these creatures make, like business documents. The closer to life these observations are, the more that poets are "literalists" (depicting things as they are), the better the chance that we will "have / it" (24-25), that is, poetry.
And what then does "Poetry" observe? Is it not this particular poet, Moore herself? She gives her readers the thing "in / all its rawness," without make-up to prettify her: a poet describing something genuine. The list of creatures in the third stanza consists of the things that lead Moore's hands to "grasp," her eyes to "dilate," and her hair to stand on end. She writes poems about them, the raw material (for example, she was a noted basefall fan), and because she responds truly to them all, what she says is "genuine." And thus she too is a genuine article, the raw poet.
Moore's most famous phrase for poetry, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" (24), distinguishes the things about which poets write, the "real toads," from the artificial, human-made context for those things, the "imaginary gardens." Any garden represents a set of choices about how real things are assembled and displayed. The poet selects a structure, which is always an abstract artifice, a creature of the imagination. Moore's "imaginary garden" here is a five-stanza, five-sentence, syllabic form. Moore places in this garden structure at least one "real toad," herself.
Toads are not pretty creatures. They are miserable, ugly, untailed, poisonous, usually black, and downtrodden amphibians. We use them to characterize metaphorically almost "anything "hateful or loathsome," including so-called toadies (those who ingratiate themselves with authority in a fawning, hypocritical way) and the unremittingly persecuted ("the toad under a harrow"). Yet one Toad of Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows, published twelve years before "Poetry," was a madly adventuresome and irresponsible poet who penned "perhaps the most conceited song that any animal ever composed": "The world has held great Heroes." When Toad wanted to recite a poem for the banquet that closed his wild adventures, his friend Rat candidly said, "It's no good, Toady; you know well that your songs are all conceit and boasting and vanity." For this reason, Toad sang his last song by himself, "to the enraptured audience that his imagination so clearly saw," an audience that was not there at all. Grahame created a toad-poet with whom Marianne Moore, living in New York from 1915, and working as a secretary and private tutor at a girls' school about that time, would have been familiar. Mr. Toad would have stood out in the early 20th century as an unreal toad, a non-literalist "always mastered by his imagination," who resided in an imaginary hall fronted by a garden. Moore thought of "half-poets" as Mr. Toads who write egotistical observations of a world sought out by escapists like himself, that is, poems unuseful to anyone because they do not speak genuinely of the poet's own self and the things she perceives.Back to Line
Others 5 (July 1919): 5.