Poetry (by Moore)
by Marianne Moore
Analysis: Form and Meter
Free Verse (With Baggage)
Officially, this version of "Poetry" is written in free verse: it has no regular meter or rhyme scheme. The first line contains five syllables, the second 19, and the last eleven. We have to wonder, how did Moore come up with these line breaks? The break between the second and third lines is particularly jarring: why break the second line at "in" and leave the solitary "it" hanging at the beginning of the third line? This instance of enjambment, where a phrase carries over the line break and into the next line, feels arbitrary and even a bit clumsy. The huge, weighty pause of a line break follows a pretty insignificant word, "in," and then we are forced to end a phrase, marked by the comma after "it," almost as soon as a new line begins.
It kind of feels like we're being jerked around. Is there any rhyme or reason to this? While you could argue that this line break leads the second and third lines to rhyme ("in" and "genuine"), the vast difference in line lengths masks the end-rhymes. If someone read this poem aloud to us, would we even identify "in" and "genuine" as rhyming words? What we hear more strongly is the repetition of "it" at the end of several phrases ("dislike it," "reading it," "contempt for it," "discovers in it") within the lines, and yet even these "its" occur at irregular intervals.
Therefore, we might say that "Poetry," in its current form, resists the ways poetry is typically organized and structured; it refuses to really rhyme or follow a metrical scheme. However, unlike other free verse poems that, from their very beginning, were written as free verse, "Poetry" is an example of highly structured verse turned free. When the three-line version was first published in 1967, Moore attached a much longer 29-line version as its endnote. This longer version is divided into five stanzas: Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 5 contain six lines each, and Stanza 3, the central stanza, contains five lines. With a few exceptions here and there, these stanzas basically follow the same pattern of how many syllables comprise each line: for example, the first line of each stanza has 19 syllables, the second line has 21 or 22 syllables (with the exception of Stanza 5), the third line has 10 to 12 syllables (with the exception of Stanza 3, which is missing this line), etc. If you decide to take a look at this longer version, try counting out the syllables yourself – any ideas about why the exceptions occur where they do?
Moore erases this entire syllabic structure through her revision of the poem, but we should consider the idea that this poem really achieves free verse through a long editing process, rather than having been spontaneously written in it. In other words, the free verse of Moore's poem is different from, say, Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Howl is written without a fixed poetic structure in order to imitate, and even enact, someone ranting on and on in anger and sadness. You're not going to be spouting out couplets in iambic pentameter when you're ticked off. Moore's poem, on the other hand, shows us how controlled free verse can be – the poem ends up without a fixed structure through the poet's constant tweaking and erasing.