In The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, Moore’s best-known poem, “Poetry,” has been pared down to three lines: “I, too, dislike it./ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in/ it, after all, a place for the genuine.” This in itself is an amazing feat, for in earlier published versions, this poem ran twenty-nine lines (thirty if one counts the title) and included bats, elephants, horses, a wolf, a tree, and a critic, a call for poets to be “literalists of/ the imagination” (W. B. Yeats’s original phrase as applied to William Blake was that he was “a too literal realist of imagination”), and that famous comment about “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” “Omissions,” Moore tells us in the epigraph to this edition, “are not accidents.”
Opinions are divided on the final version of “Poetry.” Nitchie found nothing to be said for it: “Neither an imaginary garden nor a real toad, it manages to be at once arrogant, commonplace, condescending, and pseudo-ingenuous.” He hankers after its “brilliant predecessor.” Yet the poet herself clearly preferred it. Her act or gesture can be construed as one of pruning, of returning to the bare essentials: She disliked the earlier version, but found in it three lines of the genuine.
In any case, The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore is itself a work of Moore’s craft, and manifestly not complete in the sense of giving the reader access to her poetic oeuvre. That oeuvre must remain a palimpsest, collection layered upon collection, revision upon revision, until the variorum edition appears. “Poetry” and the many other poems that Moore revised can still be found in their earlier incarnations if one consults her earlier collections. Thus the earlier text of “Poetry” is not lost, for it is part of literary memory—indeed, it is even contained in this edition, in a footnote, variously labeled “original version” (1967) and “longer version” (1981). Inclusions are presumably not accidents, either....
(The entire section is 841 words.)