Poetry (by Moore)
by Marianne Moore
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
- Okay, off we go, Shmoopers. Thanks to the catchy title here, we can be pretty sure that we're headed into a discussion of illegal fireworks—oh wait, we mean… poetry (way more fun, and way more legal). So, what about it?
- Well, our speaker is not having it. Aha, but what might "it" be? It's not clear yet, but one thing's for sure: "it" is not winning any popularity contests in the near future.
- How would we know? She (and we're just assuming that the speaker's a she at this point, since we have nothing else to go on yet) is agreeing about her dislike with… someone. Is it us? Do we hate "it," too? If "it" is lemon juice in our paper cuts, then yes. We dislike that to the max.
- But why all the dislike, speaker? As it turns out, there are tons more important things in the world than whatever this thing is.
- This stuff, she says, is just "fiddle." And she's not talking about that country violin that folks play in their jug bands, either. She's using a figurative expression to mean just a useless pile of odds and ends. Just go check out your school locker. See all that fiddle in there? Are you really going to need that broken Hello Kitty zipper pouch? Time to get cleaning, Shmoopers.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the genuine.
- We're starting to get more clarity on what "it" might be. It seems like "it" is something you'd be able to read. Given that, and given the pretty obvious title, we're going to conclude that our speaker is talking about… (wait for it) poetry. We know; Sherlock Holmes would be proud. So, our speaker is down on poetry. Yeah, incredibly hard for us to believe, too. Like you, we think that poetry is the best thing since sliced bread, and in some cases way better (we're looking at you, Wonderbread).
- Still, somehow our speaker can read it with "perfect contempt," a flawless kind of hatred that must mean she's just super-down on poetry… unless…
- We say "unless" because of that "however" in line 3. So, sure she's drinking mad Haterade about poetry, but it seems like there may be a saving grace.
- And it turns out that this saving grace is the fact that "one" (whoever that might be, usually just an abbreviation to mean "someone" or "anyone") can find "a place for the genuine" in poetry.
- Well, that sounds like a good thing to us. It's like a prize at the bottom of a cereal box, only instead of cereal we're reading poetry. And instead of a plastic doohickey, we find something real (genuine), not fake or useless.
- It's not clear what that might be, but it seems like maybe our speaker is not so full of dislike as we first thought. Let's read on for more on this genuine article…
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
- Nope—sorry. We're not talking about this genuine thing in poetry might be, but rather the effects it might have if and when you come across it.
- Let's see: we have grasping hands, dilating eyes (where the pupils grow wide), and rising hair. So, it's a pretty safe bet that this genuine thing is light socket into which you stick your finger. This experience sounds pretty electrifying if you ask us. And that seems to be a good thing. There are, it turns out, things in poetry that can affect you with as much force as an electric current—zap.
- Notice how the speaker focuses on the physical parts of a person to communicate this shocking experience. We call that technique in the poetry biz synecdoche, where the part (hands, eyes, hair) represents the whole (a person).
- Notice, too, that the "hair can rise / if it must" (7-8). This turn of phrase does a couple of things. First, it shows us that the speaker has a kind of wry sense of humor. We don't usually imagine hair being lazy—or having any kind of feelings at all, really—so to think of hair doing something only if it has to is a humorous bit of personification. Second: yes, the hair must stand on end. That's just how powerful and irresistible the effects of poetry can be.
- And that's important, Shmoopers, as the speaker tells us. It's "important not because"… because… welp, we won't be finding out in this stanza anyway.
- That's because the poem uses enjambment to carry this line through to the next. If you look for it, you'll notice that almost every line in this poem is enjambed, filled with little mini-cliffhangers of lines that draw us forward in the speaker's discussion. We can't wait to read on, to find out the rest of that thought.
- Before we do, though, we should just point out that the visual form of this poem on the page seems intentional (unless Marianne Moore had a really banged-up typewriter). Each line starts a little further in from the margin than the last, as if the speaker's thoughts are gaining momentum through the stanza.
- Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that.
high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
- So here we are in a new stanza, just trying to get some closure on that last enjambed line. Remember, the speaker's saying that poetry is not important just because… someone can come up with a high-falutin' interpretation. "High sounding" indicates that the interpretation would sound important, but really wouldn't be.
- Nope, our speaker tells us, that's not why poetry is important. Poetry—or, to be more specific, the genuine piece of poetry—is important because it's… "useful."
- Huh—we even admit, we didn't see that one coming, Shmoopers. After all, we love poetry to death and think it's totes amazing and all, but even we have to admit that it's not very good for changing a tire or for rating insurance carriers. While we love the idea of a Swiss-army poem that could be used for a knife, compass, corkscrew, and toothpick, we just don't see it happening any time soon. Our speaker seems to think otherwise, though.
[...] 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:
- Okay, it looks like we need to bust out some vocab phone-a-friends here to make it through this section. "Derivative" essentially means copying, or imitating, something or someone else. "Unintelligible" means difficult or impossible to understand. For example, if you were to put 20 marshmallows in your mouth and tried to read this poem out loud, you would be pretty unintelligible. (Health note: do not do this.)
- So, to recap this line: when poems (the "they" in line 10) are so imitative of other (probably more famous) poems that they don't even make sense, well then nobody likes 'em—not you, not me, and certainly not our speaker.
- It seems like she's a fan of originality and clarity in poems. Hey—us too. We also tend to agree with the notion that we can't admire anything that we can't get our heads around. (Sorry Quantum Physics, but that’s why you're off our Valentine's card list.)
[…] the bat
holding on upside down or in the quest of something to
- Hmm—now the speaker presents us with the image of a bat hanging upside down (and so we're thinking animals, not baseball).
- What gives with the Halloween critters all of a sudden? It seems like the speaker wants to connect this image with her point about trying to understand poetry. That connection is really suggested by the funniest of all punctuation marks: the colon (see we used one here, too). A colon introduces something, connecting what follows in the sentence to what comes before. Here, then, we get the lack of understanding poetry compared through a metaphor to our bat.
- In some way, perhaps, trying to understand bad poetry could be like trying to make sense of a bat that's hanging upside down—in other words, something that's foreign to our own, right side up experience.
- This bat also seems to be on some sort of quest, or important journey. It's looking for something to… to… drat that bat. We have to cross some more enjambment to get to the next stanza and find out what he's after.
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
- Ah, okay—the bat is after a snack. And it looks like he's got company. We have animals engaged in in all sorts of activities: pushing elephants, rolling horses, and a wolf doing… something, it's not clear what. Whatever the wolf is doing, though, he's doing it under a tree, and he's doing it tirelessly. What happened, did we stumble into a Nat Geo special or something?
- It's important to remember that all this animal imagery is just to elaborate on the original metaphor that tries to describe the difficulty of understanding a bad poem.
- To sum things up then: if you're trying to understand an unclear, imitative poem, you might as well be a bat flapping after a meal, an elephant shoving, a horse rolling around, or a wolf under a tree (probably pacing until something falls out so it can eat it).
- Other than being part of the wonder of Mother Nature, what do all these things have in common? And why would the speaker choose them to elaborate her metaphor?
- Well, all this stuff—when you think about it—is pretty dumb behavior. Bats are pretty much blind, so they're kind of groping for their meals when they flap around (we know, Discovery Channel fans, they have great echo-location—but go with us on this). Elephants pushing? Nothing spells big and dumb like that image. And have you ever seen a horse roll around on the ground? It's pretty funny to watch, and not at all a cool, sophisticated look for the horse.
- Meanwhile, the wolf is probably just walking around and around the tree since—you know—wolves can't climb trees. Waiting for a squirrel to take one false step on that branch for your dinner? Not the wolf's finest hour.
- So, this metaphor is all about how bad poetry can turn a reader into a dumb animal, behaving in a slightly ridiculous fashion. (The speaker's sense of humor comes through again here.)
- It's hard to feel excitement about poetry when you're essentially just rolling around in the dirt.
[…] the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
- Now it's time to chat about to the poetry critics, who frankly aren't impressed in the face of this bad poetry. Using a simile, the speaker uses another horse, only this one's not rolling around on the ground being a horsey idiot. It's just twitching its skin to shrug off a flea—no big whoop.
- This critic is "immovable," and it seems like this bad poetry hardly even registers a blip against their stubborn, insistent force. It has just as much effect as a flea on a horse (i.e., zip, zero, zilch).
- Next, we're on to a baseball fan and a statistician. Don't forget, though, as we move from animals, to critics, and now to sports and stats, all of this is connected back up to line 13 by that powerful little colon (it's okay, go ahead and snicker—we forgive you). So, bad poetry metaphorically makes us dumb animals, fails to register with critics, and turns us into… sports fans?
- Now, before you throw down your giant foam "We're #1" finger and walk away feeling insulted by our speaker, let us put it another way. It's probably not an accident that the baseball fan is being put side by side in this poem with a statistician. In fact, baseball fans often have a lot in common with statisticians (in terms of tracking trends and performances on a mathematical basis). People who dive too deeply into numbers, though, run the risk of missing the bigger picture. If you're busy trying to track on-base percentages, or tallying any other kind of number, then you may not fully appreciate the actual human experience behind the numbers (the swing of the bat, the smell of the roast peanuts, the sight of chewing tobacco spit).
- And that, to circle back to line 13, is what bad poetry can do to you: make you miss the beautiful forest for the nitpicky trees.
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and
- In addition to her warnings about how dumb and misguided bad poetry can make us, this speaker does want to speak up for "business documents," though.
- We shouldn't hold any hard feelings against them, she says.
- Notice those quote marks? We wonder who she's quoting. Maybe it will help if we find out how this quote ends. Or we could just try sitting here and waiting for knowledge to be zapped into our brain from some divine source of inspiration…
- Feel anything, yet? Yeah, us neither. Let's read on, then, Shmoopers.
school-books"; all these phenomena are important.
- After some more enjambment, we learn that the speaker is quoting none other than Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. In full, Tolstoy wrote "Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books."
- Now, we know what you're thinking: "How did this speaker get a hold of Tolstoy's diary? That is really not cool." Well, put your minds at ease, gang. It wasn't like she crept into his bedroom and picked the heart-shaped lock. His diary was actually published.
- So, what's he on about here? He's trying to figure out the difference between poetry and prose. It seems like a pretty simple distinction, but when you really start to noodle it through, it can get confusing. What makes something poetry, anyway? Line breaks? Well, what about prose poetry? Does it have to have rhyme and rhythm? Well, what about free verse poetry? (Free verse, b.t.w., is what this poem is written in. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that.)
- All Tolstoy can figure at this point is what is definitely not poetry: "business documents and school-books" are out of the poetry club. Got it?
- Still, our speaker wants us to know that even these decidedly non-poetic writings can be important.
[…] One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,
- Perhaps your vocab alarms are going off again. Well, back away from the fire escape; we're here to help. "Distinction" just means difference and "prominence" is the condition of being noticeable or important.
- In these lines, the speaker is saying that, even if it's popular and well-known, the writing of "half poets" is not poetry. So… there.
- "Half poets"? We wonder if the speaker's talking about the top or the bottom half. Maybe it's the left or right side of the poets, instead. More than likely, though, she means the kind of people who write the "derivative […] unintelligible" kind of poetry that turn people in horsey-rollers and bean-counters—in other words: bad poets (10).
- To complete the thought begun back in line 17, the speaker is essentially saying, "Sure, non-poetry can be important, but if anything is brought forward by a poet without the chops to pull it off—even if it's at the top of the best seller list—it just ain't poetry. End of story."
- This speaker really gives it to us straight, doesn't she? (Check out "Speaker" to learn more about her.)
nor till the poets among us can be
insolence and triviality and can present
- Oo, yay—more quotes pop up for us. This one is from one William Butler Yeats. Yeats was originally describing William Blake, a poet whose work drew upon his experiences of what he believed to be divinely-gifted visions. He took these imaginative episodes and treated them as reality, putting them into his poems.
- It may seem like an oxymoron to say that somebody might be able to approach their imagination—something which by definition has no necessary connection to reality—in a literal, real way. All the same, it seems like this kind of thinking is exactly what the speaker is calling for. This vision would be not be rude ("above / insolence") or meaningless (trivial). What's more it could present… ah, another cliffhanger. Let's roll down to the next stanza to finish this thought.
for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have
- Woah—what's being presented by these visionary poets that the speaker is calling for are made-up gardens with actual toads. Come again?
- This idea is in keeping with being a "literalist of the imagination." The image of "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" combines the values of imagination with the real world. It's not all made-up nonsense with no actual connection to the real world. At the same time, it's not just practical "school-books" without any presence of poetic imagination (19). The speaker's got a sweet spot in mind (and we have to admit, these gardens do seem like pretty sweet spots), one that connects the poet's artistic vision to the real world.
- The phrase itself really seems appropriate in getting this notion across. We totally see how the imagination might produce a delicate, beautiful garden, where harsh, cold reality will toss a few toads into the mix. It takes both to make poetry work, according to the speaker.
- Notice, too, that we've got our third quote here. Who's the speaker quoting now? Well, it's not actually clear, but most folks assume that the person being quoted is… Marianne Moore herself. She herself is credited with this turn of phrase, and it seems like the use of quotation marks are more tongue-in-cheek (there's that humor again) than serious citation.
- (We don't know about you, Shmoopers, but we love to quote ourselves. We walk around all day just adding air quotes to everything we say. People seem to really enjoy it.)
- Finally, this imagination-reality combo is what's being presented (to the reader we assume) for inspection. And, if we have both elements present, then we'll have… "it."
- Now, what was "it" again? Oh, right—the speaker's talking about poetry, but not just any poetry: good poetry, pure poetry, real poetry, and not that awful stuff that makes people roll on the ground or hang upside down.
[…] In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness
- And so, it seems, we're getting some final instructions from the speaker. We need to make a demand. Well, it's about time, in our opinion. Most folks are busy telling us to stop making demands, but here we're being downright encouraged to do just that. So, we're all ears, speaker: what should we demand?
- It looks like a couple things are in order. Firstly, we should ask for the "raw material of poetry in / all its rawness" (28-29). Wow, so this stuff has to be really raw. Undercooked just won't get it done.
- And just what is this "raw material"? Think about it for a hot second: without imagination, there would be no poetry. Just try to write a poem without using your imagination—we dare you. What you'll end up with is a business document, not a poem. (At least, that's what our speaker would argue.)
- So, "on the one hand" (and the speaker is being figurative here; she's not literally asking us to put something in our hand), we readers need to demand from poets that they use their imagination.
- Got it? Good. Our letter writing campaign will start tomorrow.
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.
- Usually when you see "on the one hand," you can pretty much bet your sweet bippy that there'll soon be something on the other hand, coming soon. (B.t.w., don't ask us what a bippy is—we're not the gambling type.)
- In these lines, what's on the other hand is "that which is […] / genuine" (30-31). Hey—does that remind you of anything?
- Why, yes, Shmoopers, you're right. It does indeed echo the first stanza's description: "a place for the genuine" (5). Not only does poetry need imagination, but it must also be real. We should demand both and not be satisfied with one or the other.
- And if you do that, then… good news: you are interested in poetry.
- Wow, it seems like this speaker is pretty good at a few things: a) defining what good poetry is, b) defining what good poetry isn't, and c) telling us whether or not we're interested in poetry in the first place. Thanks for the info, Helpy Helperton.
- We can't stay grouchy at her for too long, though. After all, this speaker is making a lot of sense in her call for poetry that is both imaginative and connected to reality at the same time. We totally see how flying off too far in either direction could be disastrous for the poet and their work.
- Ultimately, then, good poetry for our speaker seems to work like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup—mix the chocolate of imagination with the peanut butter of reality and there you have it: poe-liciousness.