Many people think of Moore as the author of intricately descriptive accounts of animal life, but the impression is largely due to the order that her friend T.S. Eliot (acting in his capacity as an editor at Faber and Faber) devised for Moore’s 1935 Selected Poems, an order to which she adhered in every subsequent selection. Consequently, most readers’ experience of Moore begins with a group of long, descriptive poems written in the early 1930s (“The Steeple-Jack,” “The Jerboa,” “The Plumet Basilisk,” “The Frigate Pelican”), followed by “The Fish,” an arresting but finally atypical poem from Observations.
A fresh reading of Observations suggests that, while Moore’s descriptive powers are formidable, she is primarily a poet of argument, which is to say that she is most primarily a poet of syntax—the convolutions of her long, charismatic sentences seduce us into agreement long before we’ve had time to consider the substance of the argument at stake. Consider the final sentence, typed out as if it were prose, of “My Apish Cousins”; the sentence is a tirade against critics who make works of art seem intimidatingly obtuse:
They have imposed on us with their pale half fledged protestations, trembling about in inarticulate frenzy, saying it is not for us to understand art; finding it all so difficult, examining the thing as if it were inconceivably arcanic, as symmetrically frigid as if it had been carved out of chrysoprase or marble—strict with tension, malignant in its power over us and deeper than the sea when it proffers flattery in exchange for hemp, rye, flax, horses, platinum, timber, and fur.