The Poem

“An Octopus” is a long, meditative, free-verse poem of 193 lines of varying length. Though meditative, it is not a reflective poem but one of active processes. Like many of Marianne Moore’s poems, the title runs immediately into the first line of the poem, thereby limiting any sense of positioning the poem or preparing the reader. The reader confronts a series of shifting possibilities as suggested by the first sentence: “An Octopus/ of ice.” This incomplete opening sentence establishes a metaphoric comparison that will be explored—but not fully or completely—in the poem.

The poem is a continuous shifting of perspectives, not on a single subject, but on the movement of analogies. Thus, after the poem’s description of Mount Rainier and its surrounding ice fields as an octopus and its tentacles, it quickly compounds the activity of description with questions of travel, of perception, the difficulty of art, and the appropriation of nature as an aesthetic object.

“An Octopus” resists division into component parts of a whole argument; however, there are implicit shifts of focus. These shifts may be briefly outlined in the following manner: The first thirteen lines displace the reader because the metaphoric comparison of the mountain to the octopus is suspended. Lines 14 to 22 counterbalance the first section, for they become increasingly descriptive. At line 23, Moore self-reflexively shifts, stating: “Completing a circle,/ you have...

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Forms and Devices

“An Octopus” can be viewed as a collage; it contains citations from various sources, as indicated in the notes Moore provided to accompany the poem. These citations, set apart by quotation marks, introduce a sense of an assemblage of multiple perspectives or multiple voices other than the conventional lyrical “I.” The quotation marks also create a tension between the apparent author and the cited words. Nevertheless, the various citations are seamlessly incorporated into the flow of the poem’s descriptions. As a collage, the poem fits into a modernist aesthetic that sought to both create poems that were objects and to draw into poetry the daily and mundane and transform it into art.

“An Octopus” contains numerous examples of various tropes. Paradox is perhaps the striking trope outside of Moore’s use of images. Again, the opening line provides an example of what is prevalent throughout the poem: The octopus is of ice—though significantly Moore omits the verb “is” so as to draw the juxtaposition of living creature and a lifeless elemental into a new thing. What she views—or how she views the mountain—is highly mutable, for “its clearly defined pseudo-podia/ [are] made of glass that will bend—a much needed invention” (line 4). The metaphor of the glacier as an octopus is further complicated by the metaphoric comparison of it as having the “crushing rigor of the python” and then further shifting the comparison to...

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