Poet's Pick April 19
Marianne Moore:
"The Fish"

Selected by Blas Falconer
National Poetry Month 2013

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Blas Falconer's Poetry Month Pick, April 19, 2013

"The Fish"
by Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

through black jade.
       Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
       adjusting the ash-heaps;
              opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
       The barnacles which encrust the side
       of the wave, cannot hide
              there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
       glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
       into the crevices—
              in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
       of bodies. The water drives a wedge
       of iron through the iron edge
              of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
       bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
       lilies, and submarine
              toadstools, slide each on the other.

       marks of abuse are present on this
       defiant edifice—
              all the physical features of
       of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
       hatchet strokes, these things stand
              out on it; the chasm-side is

       evidence has proved that it can live
       on what can not revive
              its youth. The sea grows old in it.



* Blas Falconer Comments:
Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” first appeared in a 1918 issue of The Egoist, and she published at least two other versions of the poem, revising its structure, over the years. The final form, seen here—with its irregular syllabic lines, indented and seemingly arbitrary—is characteristic of Moore’s work.  In spite of its title, the poem doesn’t focus on fish as much as it does on the wall and the life illuminated on one side: the mussel shells, the barnacles, the stars, the jellyfish, the crabs, the lilies, the toadstools. It lists the evidence of abuse, both manmade and natural. And it ends with a statement on how the wall lives, and the wall’s relationship to the sea.

Although “The Fish” is widely praised, interpretations vary greatly. In Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore, Darlene Williams Erickson summarizes much of the poem’s critical history. Among the various explications, Wallace Stevens notes how the lines move like waves, Sue Renick reads the cliff as a symbol of endurance, and John Slatin understands “The Fish” as a war poem with its destructive forces, its “sea of bodies,” its “ash-heaps.” Donald Hall is moved by the poem, though he doesn’t fully understand it. The various readings reflect just how rich and open ended “The Fish” is.

Because my students are often drawn to more accessible narratives, when I first taught this poem, I wondered how receptive the class would be. But as we discussed the voice, the music, the form of “The Fish,” students became open and alive to the work. We debated possible meanings, arguing over pronoun references. We marveled at the series of oppositions—the title and the subject matter, the rhyme scheme (a a b b c) and the pervasive enjambment, the direct voice and the ambiguity, even the varying line lengths—that repeatedly thwarted our expectations, demanding our attention.

We noted that the pronounced devices create drama in the imagined underwater world but also acknowledged that the poem, as Hall reminds us, has heart. Richard Howard once said,

[“The Fish”] is a program for survival, and [Moore] is very explicit about the ruins of experience. ‘The chasm-side is dead,’ she says, at 28. And I feel that this is a very profound and prophetic poem about the damages of a lifetime, and the understood and acknowledged and accepted scars of experience.

This reading resonates most powerfully with me. Moore famously wrote that poetry can present “imaginary gardens with real frogs in them.” I think that “The Fish” is a great example of this. And this is what brings me back to the poem again and again.

About Blas Falconer:
Blas Falconer is the author of The Foundling Wheel (Four Way Books 2012) and A Question of Gravity and Light (University of Arizona Press 2007). The recipient of an NEA Fellowship, the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange, and a Tennessee Individual Artist Grant, his poems have been featured by Poets and Writers, The Poetry Foundation, and Poetry Society of America. A coeditor of Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois University Press 2010) and The Other Latino: Writing Against a Singular Identity (University of Arizona Press 2011), he is a lecturer at the University of Southern California and teaches in the low-residency MFA at Murray State University.

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