The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” one of her earliest lyrics, is written in free verse. It is so subtle in its arrangement on the page as to seem almost fragmentary, a quality frequently found among Imagist poets of the early twentieth century. The Imagist movement, by which she was much influenced, proposed in their manifesto to discard the shopworn and hackneyed diction of the previous generation. They intended to free poetry from the strictures of metrical patterns so as to approximate more closely the rhythms of colloquial speech.

Moore begins her poem with an astonishing confession for a poet: She says about poetry that “I, too, dislike it.” The assumption is that most people do not like poetry simply because it has ceased to reflect the world they know or the speech they use. She hints slyly that the writing of poetry is only fiddling, thus voicing the frustration of many poets who take pains in the search for the mot juste, the “right word,” to express their feelings, impressions, and ideas.

Having nothing but “contempt” for “all of this fiddle,” and questioning the value of the whole process, she can still maintain that poetry is valid, but only insofar as it is “genuine.” As long as a poem is a mirror of reality and is exact in its detail, as opposed to presenting idealized preconceptions, there is much to be said for poetry. Moore would insist on the real “hands that can grasp,” as opposed to the...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Certainly one of the most notable aspects of “Poetry” is the sense of liberation of thought and expression that the free-verse form allows. The natural, colloquial diction, almost intimate and companionable, encourages trust as Moore leads the reader into territories in which the familiar is viewed in an uncommon way, and the unfamiliar (that is, to the topography of poetry) is viewed with all the precision of a scientist’s eye.

Her own surprise at the riches that her careful observation brings to her is conveyed by her images, which are vigorous in detail, and her sound devices, which are traditional though barely perceptible in the context of her free-verse.

She is particularly skillful in her use of the internal rhyme. Rhyme, as used in “Hands that can grasp, eyes/ that can dilate, hair that can rise,” holds together the poetic line internally, although it scarcely presents a familiar poetic image. She uses a half-rhyme as well on several occasions, most notably when she observes that we “do not admire what/ we cannot understand: the bat” (“what” is half-rhymed with “bat”). Far from being accidental, the half-rhyme indicates how tenuous the relationship of humans to bats is.

She links much of her world of nature in a curious and exciting way by this use of sound. Images of another sort appear which, although strange and startling in themselves, are given an added vividness by the sound used in describing...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Literature and Art of the 1920s
In 1919, when the first version of “Poetry” was published in the journal Others,...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

“Poetry” is constructed in syllabic verse, which is a sub-category of free verse. Free verse means that the poem does not follow a...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1920s: The Roaring Twenties in America was a time of prosperity and pleasure seeking, as people sought to recover from the changes...

(The entire section is 202 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Work in pairs: One person play the role of Moore and the other person play the role of a critic interviewing Moore about the meaning of her...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

Moore reads her poems on Caedmon Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry, released by Caedmon/HarperAudio. Their address is...

(The entire section is 109 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

T. S. Eliot published his first collection of verse, Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917. Eliot was the major poetic voice in...

(The entire section is 122 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Birkerts, Sven, “Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’: She Disliked It, She Did,” in The Electric Life: Essays on...

(The entire section is 307 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Hadas, Pamela White. Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1977.

Joyce, Elisabeth W. Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-Garde. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Miller, Christine. Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

Stamy, Cynthia. Marianne Moore and China: Orientalism and a Writing of America. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Stapleton, Laurence. Marianne Moore: The Poet’s Advance. 1978. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Tomlinson, Charles, ed. Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Willis, Patricia C., ed. Marianne Moore. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999.