Marianne Moore’s “Octopus”


We had a lively discussion in class today about Marianne Moore’s "Octopus" and its relationship to (American) nature poems as well as religious ones. We seemed to be able to reach a consensus on awe, the mounting fear that the closing of the poem slides away from like a breaking cap of ice but doesn’t quite address. Perhaps Moore knew what Dickinson knew:

"No man saw awe, nor to his house
Admitted he a man
Though by his awful residence
Has human nature been

Not deeming of his dread abode
Till laboring to flee
A grasp on contemplation laid
Detained vitality." [poem 1733]

That would chime with our reflections on the language, details, citational strategies and over-investment in description in "Octopus." We hover on the edge, out of our subjectivity through the quotations and the cinematic technique of the point of view in the poem; we remain close and yet never infused with the object, the way we may run our hands over ice or water and yet never imbibe its impersonality. ‘Nature’ surrounds us yet remains impervious to us–totaliter aliter, like our sense of god [and yet not John Updike’s god, "that men do not invent," for that God can reach us]. In that sense only can I agree with Cary that we can never be one with nature. Our conceptions separate us from the thing we nest within. [And yes, we may take up Derrida on this later.]

Human cognition of the object’s [ice-cap, mountain, nature, anything we look at] presence and effect takes place both through intellect and affect; Moore demonstrates that the process cannot occur without both in tandem. We approach the mountain and the ice in words, through syntax and the structure of grammar, which is not the structure of the ice or the rock or the periwinkle, yet all that is available to us. [Trapped by Reason and language, are we, having known ourselves as the most exalted of things that live?]

What does this poem give us that a mountaineer or a hike cannot? In other words, what does a poem do that more material things do not or cannot? I think it bequeaths the sense of perspective–here, not a sudden window but a hunter’s sighting, learned from the eagle’s eye–a momentary amalagmation of the distance and the presence, the act of holding together for the duration/span of the time-space of the poem both the human experience of its magnitude and magnificence’s indifference to the human and the conception of it. At the end we still have what the mountaineer can tell us or the hike can give us as experience–a sense of stepping outside our selfhood and a reduction of the sunrays of the human ego, a sense of what may be beyond our light, this…thing that moves and does not care. Just as we, bound rags on a spindle, move and do not care.


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