Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
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.
What of the actual original version of “Poetry” (for here as elsewhere there are layers upon layers concealed within the palimpsest)? That appeared in Observations and was—in its thirteen lines—utterly different from both the final and the longer version. Nitchie calls it “notes towards a poem,” and R. P. Blackmur said of it, “The imaginary garden was there but there were no real toads in it.”
The poems are gemlike in their precision, but they have also been called, perhaps surprisingly, prosaic. The notes (complete with a “Note on the Notes”) are an important part of the book, and they can help to explain her method, containing as they do a number of hints as to the sources Moore plundered to come by her prosaic precision poetry. She clips stanzas almost whole from The New York Times. She appropriates the motto of the John Day Company; includes in her notes a drawing by a Spanish child age six; and cites a schoolboy translation of Caesar, Sir William Bell on glass that will bend, Edmund Burke on wolf’s wool, a lecture-film on Ceylon, a leaflet from the Bell Telephone Company, Mai-Mai Sze on Chinese painting, Oliver Goldsmith, and Sir Francis Bacon. To return, as Moore herself often does, to The New York Times, she finds there an advertisement for India paper, a quotation from Einstein (“Science is never finished”), accounts of baseball games, and much more. From this mad profusion, she pillages ruthlessly and cuts no less ruthlessly. It is among the proofs of her poetry that her precise cullings seem always (“glass that will bend” in “An Octopus,” “train supported by porcupines” in “Apparition of Splendor”) quintessentially Marianne Moore.
Her poems are prosaic, then, in large measure because she often incorporates actual shards of prose into her poems, making collages, and precise in large measure because of the elegance of the placement of those shards, so that she is the Kurt Schwitters of verbal collage, not some paster together of unconsidered trifles. Finally, they are poetry in large measure because her eye for telling detail compresses her prosaic coals to diamond. If her prose borrowings are “real toads”—and give her a taste, even when she is not quoting, for a language that conveys a “prose” sense of reality—her poems are certainly “imaginary gardens.”
“To a Chameleon” contains the lines “Fire laid upon/ an emerald . . ./ could not snap the spectrum up for food as you have done.” “Spectrum” is a scientific term, granted, and “snapping the spectrum up for food” sounds eminently this-worldly. Yet the chameleon is “really” changing color to match its environment—a specialized form of protective coloration, in biological terms. So “snap the spectrum up for food” is not the scientifically “real toad” one might at first take it for. It is a uniquely poetic revisioning of the chameleon’s color changing, phrased as if prosaic. What Moore has achieved here, as so often in her poems, is a sort of quantum tunneling between the prosaic and poetic, in which a higher energy level is attained.