Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mr. Toad's Imaginary Garden

Okay, Guys:

Here’s a poem with explication that I put together months ago, left unfinished on my computer and completely forgot. Just ran across it today, and here it is:

by Marianne Moore

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 that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

Wow! Okay, we’ve got a defense of poetry here that begins by conceding the case to those who hate poetry. I don’t like it either, says the illustrious poet. There are things far more important than fiddling around with words. Even so, you have to admit that we should value our hands, eyes, and hair -- not for any esoteric reason that has to be explained in class, but because they’re useful. So, too, with poems. If they’re just imitations of other poems, they become incomprehensible, and if we can’t understand them, what use are they?

That business about "business documents and school-books," though... what’s that all about? Well, Moore is playing a more esoteric game here than she lets on. Under that aw-shucks folksiness, she’s engaged in a deep argument about poetry with her great predecessors. Tolstoy wrote in his diary, “Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies, I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books,” and Moore had been impressed by the passage. (How do I know all this? I read a footnote.) Moore’s reply: Let’s not deny the possibility that a business document or school-book might be poetry without actually looking at it.

Similarly, “the literalists of the imagination” came from something Yeats wrote about Blake. (Another footnote.) But let’s ignore that. Back to Ms Moore! She concludes with another backhand slap at “half poets” (they’re not even bad poets!) and concludes that what makes for good poetry is “real toads in imaginary gardens.” Within the artifice of the poem, the poet has to say something real.

Anybody here disagree with that? I didn’t think so.

Your assignment, class is to cut the poem down to three lines, for a total of no more than two dozen words. Can you do that? Well, don’t bother. Marianne Moore has already done it for you.
That poem tomorrow.

All best,


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