Excluding the title, "Poetry" is only three lines long. Compared to other poems written around the same time, such as T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, Marianne Moore's poem is a piece of cake: it has no difficult words, obscure allusions, random foreign vocabulary, or grammatically twisted sentences. And it doesn't run on for pages and pages. When you read it, you find yourself thanking the high heavens for Moore's clarity, but you might also feel a bit tricked: Is that it? Is this really a poem?
Countless critics will tell you that this absolutely is a poem and, in fact, one of the most important poems of the 20th century. Countless critics will also tell you that if you had to pick just a handful of American poets to read, Marianne Moore should be one of them. And these aren't just the folks that produce your poetry textbooks, teach your literature classes, or write for this website – these critics include some great modernist poets themselves, such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., and W.H. Auden, all of whom were very public and very ardent fans of "Miss Moore."
Part of "Poetry's" fame arises from its unusual publishing history. It was first printed in 1919 in the journal Others. From that point on, Moore took to revising the poem again and again, so that four different versions of "Poetry" have circulated in print. (See Bonnie Honigsblum's essay, "Marianne Moore's Revisions of 'Poetry'" or Jeffrey D. Peterson's "Notes on the Poem(s) 'Poetry,'" both in Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet, for analyses of these varying versions.) Almost five decades after the first publication, the longest version, comprised of 29 lines, had already established itself as a canonical modernist poem when Moore took it to the cutting board again and hacked it down to three lines. Maybe even Moore thought this was a bit extreme, so she printed the revised poem with an endnote reproducing the longer version.
Now poetry students are left with the following dilemma: do we read the three-line "Poetry" on its own, or alongside the longer version? Where exactly does the poem end, if the poet attaches a longer version as an endnote? Can footnotes, endnotes, etc., be considered additional lines of a poem? In this sense, "Poetry" doesn't just give you one person's description of poetry – it makes you rethink what poetry is.
You're reading this site, so we can assume that you're either a lover of poetry or have a good reason for studying it. You probably assume this about us too. So let's be honest with each other: Don't you have moments when you read a poem, and you're like, "What? Seriously?"
These moments are more likely to happen with a 20th century poem, too. After all, Shakespeare's a genius, Alexander Pope has some clever rhymes, and Robert Browning writes about homicidal maniacs. But then you get to Ezra Pound's Cantos or, for contrast, William Carlos Williams's plum poem, and you think, "What am I supposed to do with this?"
Marianne Moore is a modernist poet who isn't afraid of admitting that modern poetry can sometimes be a little off-putting. The speaker of "Poetry" tells us that she doesn't like poetry, but she also wants to talk it out and figure out why one might keep going back to poems. Moore puts the reader's point of view into the poem and uses language that resembles the way everyday readers speak.
We might also think of "Poetry" as an intervention; Moore steps in and says, "Hey, Ezra, Bill, and the rest of you, let's consider what our readers are thinking. Maybe we should ask ourselves, 'Why should they care?'"