Themes and Meanings

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Among Moore’s concerns in “An Octopus” is the view that writing is a phenomenon or an otherness analogous to the mountain. The reader’s approach to the poem would entail similar dilemmas to that of viewing the mountain. Moore explores to what extent one can avoid objectifying an object—that is, turning away from its complexities and changing it into something identifiable. The demand for identity must be resisted, Moore implies through the poem’s use of paradox, shifting perspectives, citations, and other devices. To resist identity, however, is not to give up “Relentless accuracy.” The unresolved and incomplete quality of the poem suggests that neither the mountain nor the poem can be seen fully. Moore does not consider this as failure, but rather a sign of the necessity for a relentless pursuit of accuracy as well as a demand for active curiosity.

“An Octopus” exemplifies Moore’s genius as an observer and a collector of observations. The naturalist’s desire for details is demonstrated with her use of citations about the environment of the mountain. Yet, importantly, Moore does not settle for simply a descriptive poem. Like her protégé, the poet Elizabeth Bishop, Moore was concerned with such metaphysical and aesthetic issues as uncertainty, provisionality, voice, the definition of self, and the processes of seeing. “An Octopus” explores each of these concerns while offering a meditation on writing. Moore offers a continually shifting range of emotions in her descriptions of the mountain; the poem suggests the capacity writing has to contain these emotions while simultaneously not limiting them or fusing them into a unity. The analogy of the octopus never becomes symbolic, an identity, or a solitary truth. Moore, instead, assembles possibilities, all of which accumulate but never reach a summation.

The resistance to completion occurs in various ways. It should be noted that the poem underwent several substantial revisions after its original publication in The Dial magazine. In Moore’s view, the poem as object was never a static piece, but always a process. And certainly a poem such as “An Octopus,” concerned as it is with observation and description, questions the possibility of a full vision of an object. Perception hinges upon the position of the observer; in “An Octopus” the observer is essentially a tourist and not a native of the place. Notably about America’s western landscape, “An Octopus” questions the definition of self and of an American or native self. Like the painter Georgia O’Keeffe or the poet William Carlos Williams, Moore was not an expatriate. Like Williams or O’Keeffe, Moore develops an idiosyncratic vision and reveals peculiarly American idioms. The self, construed as both personal and social, is portrayed as always in process, always appropriating perspectives and shedding them. Neither the self nor the object perceived can be captured in completeness or static essence.

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