A Fish and a Pity

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-exotic (rosettes, swim-bladder, peony, isinglass, thwarts, gunnels). Diction like this provoked Jarrell’s famous endorsement: “all her poems have written underneath, 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-factness 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  moralizing 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 jingle, “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

They amputated
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 incantatory 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 compared 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 ferocious, 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 earthward, 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 compares 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?


Steven Cramer’s sixth poetry collection is Listen(MadHat Press, 2020).  His previous collections are The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (Galileo, 1987), The World Book (Copper Beech, 1992),  Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (Lumen Editions, 1997), Goodbye to the Orchard (Sarabande, 2004), and Clangings (Sarabande, 2012).  Goodbye to the Orchard won the Sheila Motton Prize from the New England Poetry Club and was named an Honor Book in Poetry by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Field, Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry and other journals.   Recipient of two grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, he founded and now teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University.  Website: https://www.stevencramer.com

Originally appeared in NOR 7

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