By Steven Cramer
Featured Image: Near the Ocean by Robert Swain Gifford 1879
Yes, it’s a classic; yes, it contains exquisitely stitched sound and sense—“He
hung a grunting weight, / battered and venerable / and homely”—and yes, of
course, it’s “not about a fish.” Bishop’s “The Fish” is the ultimate show/don’t
tell poem. It’s a two-page toolbox of nouny exactitude—naturalistic (boat,
hook, mouth, wallpaper, face, lip, thread); naturalistic-emblematic (roses, ice,
weed, oxygen, blood, bones, entrails, irises); and naturalistic-emblematic-ex-
otic (rosettes, swim-bladder, peony, isinglass, thwarts, gunnels). Diction like this
provoked Jarrell’s famous endorsement: “all her poems have written un-
derneath, I have seen it.” And the similes! “The coarse white flesh / packed
in like feathers” throws down the gauntlet to every aspiring poet: never settle
for anything less than the absolutely apt and absolutely surprising. Phrase by
phrase, can there be a better example of Jon Anderson’s Helpful Hint #31?—
“put something of interest in every line or sentence.”
Around 1995, I began to feel a kind of malaise as I added “The Fish” to
syllabi. I started to feel fraudulent when I puffed up my enthusiasm about it,
ungenerous when I challenged students who shrugged at it. I finally owned up
to myself that, inwardly, I shrugged too. It wasn’t the Bishopy matter-of-fact-
ness that bothered me: “I caught a tremendous fish . . . [a]nd I let the fish go.”
That’s the whole of the “plot.” Brilliant. No, what began to bug me had to
do with the poem’s—I can’t think of a better word for it—message, packaged
in its two least resonant passages: 1) the fish’s “beard of wisdom”; and 2) “I
stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat.” In both cases,
a reader might justly ask, “did you really see that?” Whether we’re meant
to ascribe “victory” to the “wise” fish, or more generally to the situation—a
creature-to-creature encounter inspiring an act of mercy—the soft-focus mor-
alizing is uncharacteristic of Bishop. It’s also uncharacteristic of her to float
an abstraction like “victory”; the word doesn’t really modify anything other than the
speaker’s feelings, which ring false, given the tough-mindedness of the
poem’s earlier face-off: “I looked into his eyes. They shifted a little, but not /
to return my stare.” The poem’s famous dénouement—“Rainbow, rainbow,
rainbow”—grabs our lapels and shouts epiphany! The rather obvious rhyme j
ingle, “rainbow / go,” glibly connects that epiphany to the release of the fish,
who “wins” by virtue of his virtue (from the Latin, virtus, manliness).
Don’t you sometimes wish (cf. James Wright’s “Northern Pike”) she just gutted
and cooked the thing?
I remember first reading Yehuda Amichai’s “A Pity. We Were Such a Good
Invention” in Strand and Simic’s indispensable anthology Another Republic—
your thighs off my hips.
as far as I’m concerned
they are all surgeons.
All of them.
They dismantled us
Each from the other.
As far as I’m concerned
they are all engineers. All of them.
A pity. We were such a good
and loving invention.
an airplane made from a man and wife.
wings and everything.
we hovered a little above the earth.
We even flew a little.
—and thinking, “pretty slight.” I was drawn more immediately to the incanta-
tory gravitas of other Amichai poems:
Out of three or four in a room
One is always standing at the window.
Forced to see the injustice among the thorns,
The fires on the hill.
I read that now and wonder if I preferred “Out of Three or Four in a Room” to
“A Pity” because the former sounded so much like the 1960-70 Contemporary
American Poetry I knew little other than. It’s still a haunting poem, but com-
pared to “Pity,” it now feels poemed up.
Over the years—perhaps as I realized more and more how much the social
world shapes or misshapes our most private relationships—I’ve come to see
what a profoundly understated political poem “A Pity” is. It’s hard to think of
another poem so intimate in address, yet so global in implication. In How to
Read a Poem, Edward Hirsch praises its seemingly modest, but actually fero-
cious, protest against “the ruthless efficiency of the intervening society.” I’m
also taken by the way the tone slides downward from confident defiance to a
childlike diffidence. It’s a strong poem about defeat. The last line used to seem
to me a touch cute; now it puts a lump in my throat: its urge to fly pulled earth-
ward, the poem leaves an afterimage of lovers disassembled and grounded.
The translation in Another Republic is by Assia Gutmann—Ted Hughes’s
second suicidal significant other, as most poetry people know. Hirsch com-
pares Gutmann’s translation to Chana Bloch’s and Stephen Mitchell’s probably
better-known version—which renders “surgeons” as “doctors”—and points
out how much of “their” dispassionate invasiveness gets lost with the more
neutral “doctors.” After a reading Amichai gave years ago, I asked him which
was more literally accurate. “Doctors,” he said. “‘Surgeons’ is so much better,”
I didn’t have the nerve to say.
I also recall an offhand remark he made during the reading: “put real
things in your poems,” a motto I pocketed like money. Taken literally—as
a recipe for poems underwritten by “I have seen it”—it’s naïve, of course.
Poems don’t see real things. In fact, both Jarrell’s endorsement of Bishop and
Amichai’s formula for authenticity act more like koans. I guess it is a bit of a
puzzle to lose faith in the quintessential “I have seen it” poem’s emblematizing,
but love more and more the “real things” poet for his small wonder of pure
invention. Who can really account for one’s changes of heart?
Stephen Cramer’s first book of poems, Shiva’s Drum, was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by University of Illinois Press. Bone Music, his sixth, won the Louise Bogan Award and was published by Trio House Press. He is the editor of Turn It Up! Music in Poetry from Jazz to Hip-Hop. His work has appeared in journals such as The American Poetry Review, African American Review, The Yale Review, and Harvard Review. An Assistant Poetry Editor at Green Mountains Review, he teaches writing and literature at the University of Vermont and lives with his wife and daughter in Burlington. His website can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in NOR Spring 2010.