A poet's work is never done

POET'S CORNER

Marianne Moore relentlessly revised, couldn't leave her verse alone

December 14, 2003|By Michael Collier | Michael Collier,Special to the Sun

When French poet Paul Valery said, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned," he was getting at a particular truth regarding the process of writing -- that it rarely ends with a sense of achievement and victory for the poet.

A poem can be thought of as the product of a truce in a war with perfection. One makes peace with the process by either declaring the poem a failure and burying it in a drawer or by sending it out into the world with the uncertain hope that it might be published.

If poets abandon their poems rather than finish them, it does not mean that they forget them. They often return to their orphaned verses, sometimes many years later, with the hope of improving them. The results are quite often misguided, and sometimes, as we will see in the three versions of Marianne Moore's "Poetry," extreme and bizarre.

Moore was one of America's greatest and most innovative and most-loved 20th-century poets. (Among other ventures, she was hired by the Ford Motor Co. to come up with the name of the car that was eventually called the Edsel.) She revised her poems frequently, one might say, compulsively -- cutting or adding stanzas, lines, words, and, in general, acting as if paint never dries.

Grace Schulman, the editor of the recently published The Poems of Marianne Moore (Viking, $40), tells us that Moore reprinted "Poetry" 27 times between its first appearance in 1919 and its last in 1967, and that there are at least six variants of the poem.

Readers familiar with its different versions almost always prefer the longest, which appeared in her 1951 Collected Poems. This version, with its inclusive list of particulars, supports her belief that "all ... phenomena are important" and as such makes it one of the most forceful and vivid manifestos about modern poetry.

We can only guess why Moore decided to decimate her poem. The revision is so violent that it almost suggests an act of revenge against her own notions about poetry, or against her readers. Or perhaps in old age she came to prefer epigrammatic compression.

Nevertheless, we can be grateful that all of the versions survive and that Schulman, a distinguished poet in her own right, has brought all of them together in an elegant and thoughtful edition that is certain to remind admirers of Moore's greatness, while introducing her to a new generation of poets and readers.

Three versions of "Poetry," including an early version and Moore's final three-line version, are reprinted here.

Michael Collier is poet laureate of Maryland. Poet's Corner appears monthly in the Arts & Society section.

"Poetry" is reprinted from The Poems of Marianne Moore (Viking, Oct. 2003) edited by Grace Schulman.

Poetry

I.

I, too, dislike it:

There are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.

The bat, upside down; the elephant pushing,

a tireless wolf under a tree,

The base-ball fan, the statistician--

"business documents and schoolbooks"--

These phenomena are pleasing,

but when they have been fashioned

Onto that which is unknowable,

we are not entertained.

It may be said of all of us

that we do not admire what we cannot understand;

enigmas are not poetry.

II.

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in

it after all, a place for the genuine.

Hands that can grasp, eyes

that can dilate, hair that can rise

if it must, these things are

important not because a

high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are

useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,

the same thing may be said for all of us, that we

do not admire what

we cannot understand: the bat

holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under

a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-

ball fan. The statistician--

nor is it valid

to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction

however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,

nor till the poets among us can be

"literalists of

the imagination"--above

insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have

it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,

the raw material of poetry in

all its rawness and

that which is on the other hand

genuine, you are interested in poetry.

III.

I, too, dislike it.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in

it, after all, a place for the genuine.

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