Two poems, both called The Fish.
Two ways of seeing and expressing what is seen.
First, Moore's poem.
The FishOur first impression is not content, but form -- the obvious end rhymes, the strict accounting of syllables (1-3-9-6-8), the physical shape of the stanzas on the page. We lose track for a moment of what it is that we are looking at, until we realize that the poem's form evokes the surge and retreat of the tide in the cliff-chasm, the waving rhythm of the sea-creatures in response to the tide, and the sweeping spotlight of the sun flashed by the flowing water into every crevice.
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
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
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.
marks of abuse are present on this
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 cannot revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.
And so the rhythm is impressed upon us, fixed in the brain, the ebb and flow, and we read the poem again, this time with the cadences of ordinary speech, and we see what the poet sees -- the crow-blue mussel shells (crow blue, not black; how exactly seen!), the ink-bespattered jelly fish, the "dynamite" grooves in the rock.
There are two ways of doing science. In one, we begin with a theory, a preconceived notion of what the world should be, and look to see if the world agrees. We nudge our observations into the form, rounding off rough edges perhaps, or hyphenating an observation if necessary, always hoping not to do violence to the integrity of observation. In the second way of doing science, we focus first of all upon the raw data of the senses, observed as precisely as possible, without preconceptions of what it is we are looking for, and trust that out of exactitude meaning will emerge. Both ways of doing science are seldom pure, and each complements the other.
Something analogous is happening with our two poets and two poems. Having decided upon a form, Marianne Moore waves what she sees against the fixed bulwark of the rocky shore, in and out, back and forth, slosh and flow, and the sea grows old in its ancient rhythm, (forgetting the inscrutable last stanza). Ultimately, as the poet would surely have insisted, the form, though prominent -- here almost overwhelming -- is incidental to delight, to that flush of excitement when nature, language and mind chime together.