Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Two poets, two fish -- Part 1

Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, two of the most distinguished American poets of the last century. Moore about twenty years older, a mentor to the younger poet; both died in the 1970s.

Two poems, both called The Fish.

Two ways of seeing and expressing what is seen.

First, Moore's poem.
The Fish

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 cannot revive
               its youth. The sea grows old in it.
Our 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.

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.

Tomorrow, Bishop.