“imaginary gardens with real toads in them”

Picking up from last month’s blog about poetics I want to continue with this theme by focusing on the great American poet – Marianne Moore and her thoughts about what poetry should be. She says that poets must be “literalists of the imagination” who strive in their work to present to the world “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”. In the discussion of Moore’s poem “Poetry” from which these quotes are taken, Elisabeth W. Joyce in her book “Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-garde” says Moore means that the so-called “real toad” though an abstraction should not be too abstract or “so derivative as to become unintelligible” since “we do not admire what we cannot understand”.

I find that a good deal of post-modern poetry, especially that influenced by poets such as Gertrud Stein, are merely clever exercises in semiotics. Much of it is difficult to understand without special training in the techniques employed. Poetry of the “language school” I think falls in this category. Sometimes derivation works as in “How the Starling Came to America: a glosa for P.K. Page” by the Canadian poet Medrie Purdham which incorporates four lines from the P.K. Page glosa “Invisible Presences Fill The air” to conceive another wonderful glosa. A glosa, of course, requires that the poet use four lines from another poet’s work as an epigraph, and then to use each of those four lines as final lines of four new stanzas. It was Page who popularized this form in contemporary Canadian poetry. But I digress.

Moore teaches us that poetry should not be so complex or difficult that it connects only to our intellect. It should stimulate us through our physical senses. Page does this quite well, a good example being her wonderful poem “After Rain“. Moore also suggests that we should try to exclude the trivial and the insolent – these irrelevant and self-destructive elements you see in much failed poetry. Poets should also strive to be “genuine” (intelligible and reflective of our culture) through investment in imagination in the arts to escape from the world of the bourgeoisie with its pragmatic, materialistic lifestyles.

Moore finally in the concluding lines of “Poetry” suggests that poetry should have a certain rawness. “if you demand on the one hand, in defiance / of their opinion— / the raw material of poetry in / all its rawness, and / that which is on the other hand, / genuine, then you are interested in poetry”. I try to make the same point in one of my own poems titled “Epistle 2 – Carnivora” as follows:

Klaberjass and gin rummy,
feed the starving beast some yummy:
Raw meat, bloody meat.
Fred the lion’s got to eat – raw meat.

Jack the keeper is a joker.
All he does is play bad poker
While the poor lion in his cage
must live on snowy saxifrage

of bad poems, insipid poems.
Fred ain’t nothing but skin and bones.
Red meat is what he needs;
something on the page that bleeds;

something on the page that moves,
something with bewildering hooves.
Good poetry is a moveable feast,
a belly full of wildebeest.

Many other poets, as last month’s blog suggests, have had much to say about what constitutes “real” poetry. I’ll include a few lines from American poet and writer Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”. “A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit, / Dumb / As old medallions to the thumb, / Silent as the sleeve-worn stone / Of casement ledges where the moss has grown— / A poem should be wordless / As the flight of birds“. In the last stanza of this wonderful three-stanza poem, he sums up his idea of what he thinks real poetry is: “A poem should be equal to: / Not true. / For all the history of grief / An empty doorway and a maple leaf. / For love / The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea— / A poem should not mean / But be.”

This is not just a matter of style as where the great symbolist poet Paul Verlaine in “Art poétique” says that music in poetry must be paramount and that the best song is the hazy song where vagueness and precision join “For we must have Nuance still / Not Color – nothing but nuance! / Ah! Only nuance can betroth / Dream to dream and flute to horn!” This is great advice for any poet but we’re talking about substance, about reality. As in life there’s nothing better than to be yourself; to eschew affectation that tries to make a good impression.

Instead, we should try to make poetry that is genuine and authentic. It is no accident that simple tangible objects such as bread, supper, and a cup are used to represent such a momentous abstract thing for the human race as the meaning of the crucifixion. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me. ”In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” Luke 22:19-20. The incarnate Word and progenitor of all language used ordinary objects as symbols and parables from everyday life to illustrate profound truths. Good poets would be wise to follow his example.

Rod Stone

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