This Defiant Edifice: On Marianne Moore’s “The Fish”

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Marianne Moore’s masterpiece “The Fish” is that rare poem that enters the mind through the front door and the back door at the same time. There’s not another poem that has its cake and eats it too like “The Fish” does. It luxuriates in its absence of the human. The poem happens where human life cannot but where life is abundant: the ever-mysterious, hooded ocean. It moves like a poem governed by the natural laws of gravity and motion instead of one mastered by laws of the mind that tell you not to use “an” by itself as a line of poetry. The syllabic stanzas—one, three, nine, six, and eight syllables per line per stanza—are the organizing principle of the poem’s movement, making all words and possible meaning compliant to its will like flotsam that moves where the wave moves. The poem becomes, the further you dive into it, a type of subaquatic found poem written by the sea itself.

And yet who enforces the regularity of the jagged syllabic stanzas? Is the syllabic nature of the poem a victory of nature breaking words or the victory of a poet who makes the poem this way? Who left the hatchet marks and dynamite grooves described briefly late in the poem? “The Fish” is a paean to an uninterrupted natural world that has been interrupted at every step along the way. Is the word “ac- / cident” broken to fit the syllabic pattern indicative of the poem’s indifference to the human convention of language? Or, is it obvious evidence that human hand has made these stanzas? Note that “marks of abuse”, “lack,” and destruction appear in the poem when it turns to take in the trace of human acts where we find “the chasm-side is / dead.” The poem, for all of its imaginative and sonic wonder, regards itself as normal while the scars of human trespass are what “stand / out on it”—this being in the end mere “evidence” that “it” lives on despite it all. And how I love “it” at that moment. The subject has become iridescent: a mélange of all that is the sea, the capaciousness of both its physical being and its consciousness resolute.

No matter how canonical “The Fish” may be today, a reader should never lose sight of how the poem very much embraces the risk of being a bad poem in this way. Risk—an oh-so-slight teetering over the ledge of failure—being an essential principle of good poetry. You enter the poem through a familiar front door: the poem’s flat, perfunctory title glazes the poem with great potential to be banal even before it begins: this is a poem about the fish, the subject being the fish and how I, the poet, am thinking about this fish. That would be Poetry 101 stuff. But then the first word after the title—“wade,” squat and alone on its line—first touches the fragile glass in the window. Yes, the poem breaks as soon as it begins.
           The Fish

The title beginning the first sentence of the poem is a common convention of twentieth-century poetry. But couple it with the conjugation of the verb and you come to realize that the subject is plural. This is not a poem about one particular fish isolated and refined under the human gaze of a poem, it’s a poem blurred by innumerable fish gone rogue from the human gaze of a poem. We are left with possibility (Dickinson: “I dwell in Possibility”) without certainty. We know there is more than one fish, but we never learn how many. The poem pushes past that concern and into the great topic of art: world making. The focus of the poem is not on the fish but rather on the world that makes the fish fish. We are left dazed and confused but present and witness. We don’t feel as much as we perceive. We don’t have thoughts as much as we think. It does what great poetry does; and we grow old in it.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of Heaven (FSG, 2015) and The Ground (FSG, 2012). He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in New York City.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was an American poet, critic, editor, and translator, greatly admired for her formal innovations and her startling vision. Her poetry received many honors, including the Dial Award, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Bollingen Prize.

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