What Are Years?
What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt --
dumbly calling, deafly listening -- that
in misfortune, even death,
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.
-- Marianne Moore
Marianne Moore was famous for her three-cornered hat and her love of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and if she's famous at all today, it's probably for her poem about poetry called "Poetry," which is in almost every anthology used in introduction-to-poetry courses. It's the one with the line about "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." So people were shocked when the 1967 edition of The Collected Poems of Marianne Moore was published and she had revised "Poetry" to read as follows, in its entirety:
I, too, dislike it.Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers init, after all, a place for the genuine.
I suspect a lot of poets would like to cut the hell out of their anthology pieces, especially if they're always being asked "What did you mean by ...?"
I find a lot of Moore's poems a little too arch and clever, but there are three or four that I really cherish. Her poem "Peter" is one of the few poems about a cat to rival Christopher Smart's. "What Are Years?" is often read as a simple inspirational poem of the "stand up straight, wash your hands, eat your vegetables" variety. And to some extent it is just that. But there's real emotional anguish leading to the recognition that "satisfaction is a / lowly thing" that comes only to the humble. She has found in it a place for the genuine: She knows why the caged bird sings.