Marianne Moore: Poetry

March 28, 2010

Tolstoy’s Diary and “Poetry”

Filed under: Marianne Moore,Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 4:31 pm
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Leo Tolstoy, 1851 (P. 76)

“Business documents and school books” famously quoted in “Poetry,” from The Diaries of Leo Tolstoy, translated by C. J. Hogarth (New York: Dutton, 1917) appear in Moore’s 1916-1921 reading notebook. She noted the following passages from the Diaries, transcribing only the words printed here in bold type.

Lamartine says that writers neglect the composition of popular literature; that the greatest number of readers is to be found among the masses; and that writers write only for the circle in which they themselves move, despite the fact that the masses, which comprise persons hungering for enlightenment, have no literature of their own, and never will have until writers shall begin to write also for the people. This does not refer to books written with the aim of finding many readers: such works are not compositions, but mere products of the literary cult. What is meant is educational and erudite works which do not come within the province of poetry.
(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.) To be good, literary compositions must always be, as Gogol said of his Farewell Tale, “sung from my soul,” sung from the soul of the author. (Pp. 44-45)

Only now have I come to understand that it is deceptive to feel sure of one’s actions in the future, and that men may rely upon themselves only in so far as they have had previous experience, and that that reliance annuls their very strength, and that one should regard no occasion as too insignificant to apply the whole of one’s strength to it. (P. 124)

Vanity is an unintelligible passion—one of those evils, such as involuntary diseases, hunger, locusts, and war, with which Providence is wont to punish humanity. The sources of it lie beyond discovery; but the causes which develop it are inactivity, luxury, and absence of cares and privations. (P. 129)

I should frame my testament approximately thus (unless in the meanwhile I should write another one,) it would run precisely as follows:
I desire to be buried wheresoever I may die, and in the cheapest possible burial ground (if my death should occur in a town), and in the cheapest possible coffin, such as is used for paupers. And I desire no flowers or wreaths to be laid upon me, and no speeches to be recited. And, if possible, let there be neither priest nor requiem. (P. 236)

3 Comments »

  1. […] or its effects, and they may indeed be accurate, but are NOT a definition. Hirsch also refers Tolstoy’s diary entry, in which he debates the schoolbook definition of Poetry. I used to believe Tolstoy agreed that […]

    Pingback by Poetry Lives in the Land of Verse | TheGuern — June 3, 2018 @ 2:27 pm |Reply

  2. […] 1. (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.) — from diary of Tolstoy […]

    Pingback by Poetry | Daily-Inspiration — November 15, 2017 @ 7:55 am |Reply

  3. In 1959 she wrote a review of Bryher’s Gate to the Sea, in which she quotes a phrase by P. Valery, “poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking” (CP 523).

    It’s not clear if this settled the distinction for her. In Watt, Beckett describes modes of walking that are rather dance-like.

    Perhaps the distinction between dancing and walking isn’t that clear, either.

    One could say that one is “pedestrian.” But categories are susceptible to collapse on careful investigation that are first thought to be airtight.

    Comment by Kirby Olson — March 28, 2010 @ 2:02 pm |Reply


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