Darlene Williams Erickson: On "The Fish"

Moore’s poem "The Fish," written in 1918, is widely anthologized. It is also alomost universally admired as a "beautiful" poem. However, at that point, critics rapidly part company. There are marked differences in interpretation given to this single poem. Moore made at least three major revisions of the text, and we have access to her original work notes on the piece from Chatham, so one can be fairly confident that she had some objective in mind and that she worked diligently toward that objective. Once again she was trying to be as clear as she could, given her natural reticence. In this poem particularly, one is reminded of Moore's own words in "Subject, Predicate, Object": "As for the hobgoblin obscurity, it need never entail compromise. It should mean that one may fail and start again, never mutilate a suspicious premise. The object is architecture, not demolition." What follows is the text as she prepared it for the 1924 edition of her poems called Observations. . . .

The poem does indeed have a haunting, almost eerie beauty. It takes the reader into an undersea world seldom actually experienced by human beings, at least not in 1918. All the action occurs in an ethereal, surrealistic kind of slow motion, a movement suggested both by the undulations of the sea world and by the rhythm of the lines themselves, which operate in a peculiar and repeated cycloid pattern. There are eight stanzas with syllabic lines of 1, 3, 8, 1, 6, 8 and an exact rhyme scheme of a a b c c d; the stanzas themselves are a carefully contrived repetition of waves of sound. But at that point, anything obvious falls apart, as good critics devise very different explanations of Moore's intent.

Wallace Stevens was among the first to recognize the poem’s accomplishments. In a 1935 review of Moore's Selected Poems, he wrote: "In ‘The Fish' for instance, the lines move waving to and fro under water with the rhythm of sea-fans. They are lines of exquisite propriety." Sensitive to the scrupulous craftsmanship of the poem, Stevens also applauds Moore's daring in managing to incorporate what might seem to be aesthetically inappropriate language (e.g., "external / marks of abuse") and diverse subjects ("defiant edifice") into a clearly effective representation of the sounds and sights of the sea. He demonstrates how Moore’s light rhyme, predictable rhythms, and visual word placement give pleasure to the reader.

Sue Renick deals with both interpretation and aesthetics when she suggests that the poem’s unity comes from a "central consciousness that identifies itself with the movement of the sea." She reads the poem as representative of the paradox of destruction and endurance. The movement of the sea has the power to destroy both small fish and, at the same time, the surprisingly vulnerable cliff. Yet that very movement also grants survival to both the fish and the cliff. And ironically, the powerful sea grows old in it; that is to say, the primeval sea actually grows old before the ever-enduring cliff. She senses in the structures of Moore’s lines an attempt to capture the throb of the ocean current and in the rhyme "the organic sound of the sea as it might be heard by fish."

Donald Hall agrees that the subject of the poem is probably the sea and its power and potential for injury, but he, like Stevens, prefers to stress aesthetics over meaning, arguing that the poem exhibits "some of the loveliest images in all poetry." He admits that he does not "fully understand the poem" and that he finds the last lines particularly moving, without being able to penetrate them.

Bonnie Costello comments that "The Fish" has been justly admired by critics for the precision of its images (William Pratt included it in his anthology The Imagist Poem), for its skillful ordering of sounds and syllables (which Hugh Kenner has discussed at length), and for its poignant theme of defiance and endurance (which Bernard Engel elaborates in a close reading). Costello maintains, as Stevens had long before, that our experience is sensuous long before it is intellectual or moral. She reads the shells as the fans, the piled up mussels as the ash heaps, and offers the additional insight that the predictable rhyme and rhythm of the verse offer stability in a world of flux.

Hugh Kenner, always fascinated by Moore’s poetics, finds the poem "primarily visible," a poem for the eye, one meticulously arranged on the page. He feels sure that the poem is "like a mosaic which has no point of beginning." He clearly understands Moore's fascination with the visual.

Laurence Stapleton argues against complexity in the poem, feeling sure that "The Fish" cannot be said to be complex in the usual sense of that word, "although it fuses image and idea with fine disregard for open statement." (She does not, however, offer to explicate the "uncomplicated stanzas.)

Grace Shulman sees "the sea, the sun, and rock set in opposition to one another, acting and acted upon as they are watched by an unobtrusive perceiver." The rays of the sun penetrate the sea and are fractures (i.e., refracted); the fish must wade, they cannot swim freely; the water "drives a wedge of iron through the iron edge of the cliff." "Only the rock, scarred though it is by the sea and by the other elements, does not deteriorate because it can survive ‘on what cannot revivie its youth.’"

John Slatin, noticing the publication of "The Fish" beside "Reinforcements" in Observations, feels sure that "The Fish" is a war poem prompted by the assignment of Moore’s brother, Warner, a Navy chaplain, to the North Atlantic in 1917. Slatin builds a case for a horror poem wherein a "strange, ominously silent landscape filled with ruins" suggests that "we are moving in a sea of bodies" and recalling some terrible wartime disaster, or perhaps a tragedy symbolic of all disasters at sea. There is no cliff at all, but rather "the iron hull of a ship which looms clifflike above the surface." The concussion caused by a torpedo has sent the undersea world into a ghastly chaos,

        ... whereupon the stars

pink

rice grains, ink

        bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like

            green

            lilies and submarine

        toadstools, slide each on the other.

Margaret Holley argues that the poem's power is the water itself, with its colored delicacies and the verbs of motion, which

        ... drives a

        wedge

        of iron through the iron edge 

of the cliff.

Holley notes that while "we may allegorize the subject, the poet has refrained from doing so."

Which turn of the critical kaleidoscope is correct? Is there something valid in each of them? How can a poem be complex and not complex; meticulously crafted and yet a mosaic with no point of beginning; primarily about the power of the sea and about the observations of fish; a war poem and a beautiful portrait of peace; violent and terrifying and also serene and enobling; a communication about endurance and a portrait of despair; allegorical and literal? (One is reminded of the famous tale of the blind men and the elephant. Each has a sensitive hand on a part of the animal and is describing his perception accurately, but none can report the nature of the whole.)

In her paper on marianne Moore entitlted "The Machinery of Grace," Elizabeth Bradburn has suggested that too many of Mooore’s critics feel such satisfaction when they decode an enigmatic line or two in a poem that they gloss over other lines, even entire passages, reading them as somehow obvious to the reader when they are not obvious at all. (I think Schulman’s line "Only the rock, scarred though it is by the sea and by the other elements does not deteriorate because it can survive 'on what cannot revive its youth'" is in precisely that category. Schulman makes the assumption that the phrase "on what cannot revive / its youth" is somehow obvious to the reader, when, in fact, it is not at all. What is it that cannot revive its youth? The sea? Time? Endurance? Steadfastness? Faith?) Similar assumptions occur in the various interpretations of "The Fish" presented here. The critics’ readings are not necessarily incorrect or bad; they are merely partial.

Margaret Holley offers a useful idea when she suggests that many readers rush too quickly into allegorical readings of the poem, while Moore herself carefully refrains from doing so. The critical kaleidoscope must be turned with greater care. It may also be helpful to know that Moore was a great admirer of T.S. Eliot’s work as well as his personal friend; she frequently referred to him as a trout. In "English Literature since 1914" Moore wrote: "The sheen upon T.S. Eliot’s poems, the facile troutlike passage of his mind, through a multiplicity of foreign objects recalls the ‘Spic torrent’ in Wallace Stevens’s Pecksniffenia. Mr. Eliot does not mar his subject by overdoing it and he does not bring too heavy a touch to bear upon it. His nonchalance together with his power of implication make him one of the definite spirits of our time." (One recalls alos Moore’s 1916 poem "In This Age of Hard Trying Nonchalance Is Good." According to Lane's Concordance, Moore used the word "nonchalance" only once in her poetry, giving some support to the notion that Eliot's figure as a representative poet remained in Moore's mind.) I do not mean to suggest that this is a poem about T. S. Eliot, but it is important to remember that the poem is entitled "The Fish" and that Moore may well be associating the job of the poet with a "troutlike passage . . . through a multiplicity of . . . objects." And that is a good way to approach the text. It is essential to keep Moore's title and her subject, "fish," uppermost in mind as one moves toward assessing her meaning. Moore associates fish, like elephants and roses, with certain characteristics of the poet, or for that matter, of any artist.

At face value, the poem is about fish moving through the greenish black (black jade) sea and along the sea bottom. On the sea floor they find various objects, including a mussel shell, opening and shutting itself like an injured fan. Nothing in the darkened undersea world is entirely hidden because shafts of sunlight "split like spun / glass" move themselves like spotlights down to the ocean floor,

        . . . illuminating

the

turquoise sea

        of bodies.

The phrase "split like spun / glass" is so similar to "split like a glass against a wall" in this "precipitate of dazzling impressions" (in "Novices") as to invite comparison. Many critics have pointed out Moore's use of the sea as a metaphor for facing innermost terror. In "The Fish," she is doing precisely that, placing herself--and analogously, her readers--directly into a grave where both she and they must wrestle with life's deepest fears. Yet on the very edge of terror one also encounters life's heights, for even the deepest sea is lit by the

sun

split like spun

        glass

The light is refracted but still moving "with spotlight swift- / ness." Even in the depths, the light is always there, illuminating the frightening darkness and making it appear surprisingly beautiful, comprehensible, and safe. All that is foreign and alarming--barnacles, crevices, the turquoise sea of bodies, the eerie sea creatures (all characters from childhood nightmares and even adult dreams)--are clarified and identified for what they are: merely mussel shells, jellyfish, and crabs. And regardless of what damage the sea is capable of doing to the earth, it cannot totally destroy the cliff, the permanence of land. It can wreak terrible--and oddly beautiful--damage to the civilizations that earth has nurtured, damage identified by lack of cornices, dynamite grooves, burns, and hatchet strokes. The destruction can be so dreadful that "the chasm side is / dead." But the cliff--solidity, earth--

. . . can

        live

        on what cannot revive

its youth.

It does endure. And "fish" can observe that.

Whether the forms at the bottom of the sea are Slatin's human bodies or merely the multiplicity of objects on the ocean floor, the fish "see" them there in the muted turquoise gloom. Because the way is lit by rays of sunlight, the fish glimpse "pink / rice grains" (sea anemones?), jellyfish that are "ink / bespattered," (suggesting perhaps that they appear to be inked over with shadows, or more probably that their air bladders are marked by a curious purple inklike dye), crabs like green lilies, moving eerily in the murky water, and sea toadstools, all giving the impression of oozing against one another and undulating onto each other in the sea currents.

Although the water may seem an amorphous and disarmingly innocuous commodity, once one actually "wades through black jade," one discovers that it is still powerful;; it drives an iron wedge "through the iron wedge / of the cliff." Through the power of natural persistence, the apparently formless and harmless water eventually erodes its way even through the rocks of a cliff, the edifice characterized by its "iron edge." The cliff has seen and has weathered great adversity, all the external "marks of abuse" that humans and nature can provide. Yet the great rock persists; it lives in the sea, that which "cannot revive its youth." The sea can slowly provide destruction, erosion, but it cannot reverse the process and make the cliff young and unmarked again. And yet the sea grows old in it—while at the same time the rock continues to be battered by the power of the sea. The two are locked in a mutually nurturing and mutually destructive embrace.

If one keeps the poem "underwater," these are the images one sees. Moore demands no more. But it is obvious that critics instinctively move toward possible layers of meaning, and then the kaleidoscope begins its turn. One can use the data of the poem to argue convincingly, as Renick has, for a statement about the paradox of destruction and endurance. The movements of the sea--perhaps of human history, or perhaps of time--both grant life and destroy it at the same instant. As Costello has suggested, the very structure of the poem, the predictable rhymes and rhythms, themselves marking "time" in another sense, offer stability in a world of flux. And Schulman's notion that there is a resistance in all of life against which all must push, fracture, wade, and drive (the sea against the cliff, the cliff against the sea) contributes further to understanding the poem's intuition about the importance of struggle. And even Slatin's mental leap to an undersea world of destruction may work as well. Certainly Moore's own treatment of the sea in "A Grave" offers mute testimony to the possibility of his reading (note there "the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave" and "men lower nets, unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a grave").

Once again, Moore seems to lead her readers to ambiguity. Like the abstract painter, she demands that her audience participate in the lines, turning them slowly until meaning takes shape within the parameters of her images. In the poem entitled "Charity Overcoming Envy" (1963), Moore addresses her own design, using again the metaphor of the poet as elephant.

The elephant, at no time borne down by self-pity,

    convinces the victim

that Destiny is not devising a plot.

 

The problem is mastered—insupportably

Tiring when it was impending.

Deliverance accounts for what sounds like an axiom,

 

    The Gordian knot need not be cut.

It is not the poet’s business to "devise a plot." And as eager as the reader may be to be delivered by something that "sounds like an axiom," that is also not the poet’s concern. What does begin to emerge is a poem that is indeed beautiful, that does give pleasure; it appeals to the sensual before the intellectual and the moral. It is a poem that is visual, both as it appears on the page and in the images it evokes. Its sounds and rhythms capture the life force of the sea. Through the poet's power to strike "piercing glances into the life of things," one is offered some momentary insight into the fragile tension of life, caught always between endurance and destruction, but life which is real and precious nonetheless. The poet's power to swim with "troutlike passage . . . through a multiplicity of . . . objects" offers an illumination of propriety, accuracy, beauty, and insight into the fragile tension and rhythms of existence.

From Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Alabama Press.

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Title Darlene Williams Erickson: On "The Fish" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Darlene Williams Erickson Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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