“Poetry,” a poem Moore reworked several times, states her aesthetic beliefs. She published the first version in 1919, but in 1925 she stripped it from thirty lines to thirteen to comply with her principles of clarity and precision. In the Selected Poems of 1935, she returned it to the original. Then, in 1967, after she repudiated the syllabic verse she used in much of her poetry, she reduced it to the three lines that appear in The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore published that same year. (The original version appears in the “Notes” of that book.)
The poem is best known for the shocking first line, in which Moore states that she dislikes poetry. The remaining two lines of the 1967 version present some problems because she does not exemplify the word “genuine” after stating that there is “a place for the genuine” in poetry. In the original version, however, Moore illustrates precisely what poetry she repudiates and what poetry she admires.
Moore dislikes poetry that she calls “fiddle”—poetry written about stereotypical poetic subjects, such as nature, in high-sounding tones. Such works become so abstract, she says, that they cannot be understood. Poets who write this way, the “half-poets,” take standard opinions as truth, then embroider them with pretty or overly intellectual language. The result is that truth, the “genuine,” if it is there at all, becomes obscure.
What she admires and what she attempts in her own poems is, first, the presentation of objects for themselves. Things such as hands, eyes, and hair are honest subjects because they are useful things. She also develops images of things such as elephants pushing, horses rolling, and baseball fans cheering. Readers understand these subjects because they have experienced them. She renders her subjects accurately and precisely and then enhances them with the poetic imagination. The imagination rearranges the details, giving an aesthetic order so that the universal truths can emerge. Where the imaginative concept and the object rendered coincide lies pure realism of ideas.
If the rendering is precise and the imagination alive, readers will comprehend the truths and admire the poem because they understand it. A poet who writes this way is a “literalist of the imagination,” a phrase Moore borrowed from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. This poet will rise above trivial things to present true poetry, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Only those demanding raw material such as toads will even aspire to real poetry; only those with imagination will transform this raw material into truth.
This longer version follows Moore’s common pattern. After the blunt opening, “I, too, dislike it,” the beginning is casual in pace. To illustrate the abstract topic, she details specific images of people and nature. The poem reaches a climax in the next-to-last sentence. She ends offhandedly with a direct comment to summarize: If readers will not settle for less than the process she describes, then they are interested in real poetry.
Moore sets high standards, ones that she herself constantly sought through the revision process. Considering her emphasis on precise rendering of raw material before the poet synthesizes it by imagination, it is perhaps surprising that she so trimmed “Poetry” for the 1967 collection.