Christian Reed

Christian Reed: On "The Fish"

 “The Fish” refuses to be caught. This poem seems, on some fundamental level, irreducible to any one interpretation, “high-sounding” or otherwise. It functions as an embodiment of the poetic that cannot be collapsed into the conceptual, the philosophical, the arguable. “The Fish,” as such, functions as an exemplary poetic utterance. Attempts to reduce this utterance to the easily comprehensible always produce some remainder, always admit some error that allows “The Fish” to swim away with the bait.

Formally, as many critics have noticed, Moore’s “Fish” is very striking. The poem is composed of eight stanzas, each of which (1) has five lines, and (2) follows the rhyme scheme a a b b c and (3) the syllable count 1, 3, 9, 6, 8. This triple-mark of order is not immediately apparent; the reader’s first glance at the text suggests the disorder of lines at radically different lengths and pervasive enjambment. However, while reading, the sense of the pattern nonetheless gradually suggests itself – an experience that, as many critics, beginning with Wallace Stevens, have noticed, mimics the sensible apprehension of waves on the sea. Each stanza, like a wave, builds (in the first two lines) and breaks (in the second two), giving way for the one that follows (and repeats the same cycle). In this way, we get a poetry in which the structure of the lines, their inherent rhythm, lines up their descriptive content perfectly. The force of this utterance, under this kind of reading, derives from the special conjunction between the poem’s formal structure and the substance of its descriptions.

Although this reading of the poem does account for a measure of the poem’s power, and is important to understanding how the poem works (read, in the terms of “Poetry”: makes itself useful), “The Fish” cannot simply be reduced to this gloss. The attempt to apply this interpretive scheme to the poem inevitably produces some significant remainder, some inassimilable poetic material. For instance, the c is a recurrent remainder: if the stanza derives its structure from the wave, building (a a) and breaking (b b), the presence of the last line (c) is systematically ignored, discarded, thrown back. If the wave-like rhythm of “The Fish” marks its poetry, then the c is excluded from this poeticism. The c, of course, is a homophone for “the sea” – the very name of the image the c is being excluded from. The site of exclusion, of the remainder, then, covertly names that from which it is barred, and hence names this act of exclusion as such. The formalist reading of the poem also has no place for the title, which (as in William Carlos Williams’ “The Yachts”) is made to function as a semantic unit within this poem: “The Fish” “wade / through black jade,” (1-2). The title, then, also is a manifest remainder, an element of the poem reduced or excluded in the act of explaining the poem.

Another provocative reading of “The Fish” finds it to be “a poem about injury of wholeness, resentful but resigned deprivation,” a poem saturated with “a sense of infringement, violation, and injury,” (Hadas, MAPS). This reading embraces the poem as “the work of a thirty year old woman whose rather unnervingly cool sympathies lie with a battered and violated nature.” However, this pessimistic reading also produces a significant remainder. The critic propels herself into pessimism by reading the image of “the / turquoise sea / of bodies” (16-18) as a phantasmal image of the water an overfull grave (also as in Williams’ “The Yachts”), so that the sea is “not deliberate, not playful; not an expansive sea…” This reading captures some of the power of this image, but at the expensive of its true richness. The “sea / of bodies” seems not only to be an image of death, but also an image of flourishing, thriving, healthy life – an image supported by the emphasis on light and the play of illumination in the preceding lines:

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. …                        8-18

The “sea / of bodies” is not only a collection of physical remnants forsaken by death, but also a profusion of living, moving, embodied creatures. And so, once again, the poetic language of “The Fish” is compromised, reduced, exploited, by explanation.

This, of course, is not to say that no attempt at explanation should be made. It is more to say that many attempts should be made, that no one attempt to render - in conceptual, philosophical, arguable, language - the power of the poem can function perfectly, can avoid leaving behind some significant remainder, can avoid performing some uneasy motion by which “The Fish” manages to slip away.

Copyright © 2006 by Christian Reed

Christian Reed: On "The Yachts"

In 1955, Williams folded into a file a set of notes containing the following gloss of “The Yachts”: “It is a false situation which the yachts typify with the beauty of their movements while the real situation (of the poor) is desperate while ‘the skillful yachts pass over.’” On one hand, this information helps readers tremendously; it supplies them with a rubric for understanding the relationship between the two very different scenes depicted in this poem (one is “false,” one is “real”). This is useful: the problem presented by these two seemingly irreconcilable scenes is an obsession in the criticism surrounding this poem – it is “the problem with interpreting ‘The Yachts,’” “a tactical difficulty” that produces “intense confusion for the reader” (MAPS: Schneider and Sullivan, respectively).

On the other hand, however, if Williams’ gloss solves one problem, it raises (at least) two new ones. First, Williams’ use of the words “false” and “real” is very puzzling; it seems much easier to attach the signifier “real” to Williams’ description of the yachts and the race (a description, Mariani maintains [MAPS], that derives from Williams’ first-hand witnessing of a “real” yacht race in 1935), and similarly easier to consider the scene of the dismembered and entangled mass of “watery bodies” to be “fantastic” - that is, to be “false” in some sense of the word. Williams’ explanation, then, leaves us with the difficulty of sorting out what he means by its two most important words. Secondly, the explanation itself takes on a rather odd form, as a sentence; the oddity of this convoluted statement is amplified by the fact that Williams is a poet who often achieves poetic effects through the economy of his language (as in “The Great Figure” or “The Red Wheelbarrow”). This too, I think, presents an interesting problem for the critic responding to “The Yachts.”\

I want to begin with the second of these problems, which I believe will in relatively short order lead us to the consideration of first. The oddity of Williams’ explanation lies in its apparently needless repetition: he describes the “false situation” embodied in the spectacle of yacht race, then the “real situation (of the poor)” registered by the “Broken / beaten, desolate” bodies in the water (30-31), and then the spectacle of the yacht race again. Williams’ explanation is structured as if three things were happening simultaneously (X “while” Y “while” Z), though in fact, he is describing two simultaneous events in a redundant way (X “while” Y “while” X). Although this strategy makes little sense on the level of meaning, it is comprehensible as a kind of performance; this sentence, we might say, stages the drama of containment (or perhaps, more literally, of circumscription, of writing that produces a boundary around something). Y – “the real situation (of the poor)” – is concealed within, contained on both ends by X – the “false,” though thoroughly distracting, vision of the “skillful yachts.”

“The Yachts” itself enacts a similar circumscription in its opening stanzas: “an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses / tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows / to pit against its beatings, and sinks them [that is, the yachts] pitilessly” (3-5). The phrase about what “the best man knows” is confusingly interpolated into the middle of a set of words about the savage (“ungoverned,” “pitiless[]”) power of nature. As such, these lines seem to call attention to the fact that even “the best man” is contained (like William’s notes in a folder); the poem enacts this sense in the literal circumscription of the phrase “the best man knows…” by the descriptions of the overwhelming power of the sea, of nature.

Besides these two instances of what I have been calling “circumscription,” Williams employs the more general motif of containment frequently in “The Yachts”: the sea is contained by land (“a sea which the land partly encloses,” 1), the sea is also contained by watchful guardians (“a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by / lesser and greater craft,” 13-14, this phrase is almost another instance of circumscription with “well guarded arena” and “lesser and greater craft” paradoxically enclosing “open water”). The middle part of the poem works hard to cast the yacht race as playing out the victory of man over the brutal force of nature (“the waves strike at them but they [the yachts] are too / well made, they slip through,” 23-24); however, by noticing these multiple layers of containment, the elaborate construction that goes into staging this dramatic triumph, we can see that victory is only possible if man picks his battles very carefully. How then does this small and very expensive victory acquire its significance, it sublimity, for the watcher? This significance arises by way of another instance of containment – that is, because the spectacle takes place “in the mind” of the spectator.

In this poem, Williams demonstrates the power of the mind to produce (through acts of repression, forgetting) some cultural object as pure or natural; the yachts are described as “live with the grace / of all that in the mind is fleckless, free and / naturally to be desired,” (16-18). This majestic vision of the yachts, however, is available only by rather large acts of mental repression; the suffering that permeates much of the social field must be ignored. Roland Barthes, in his discussion of “Wine and Milk” in Mythologies, finds that wine can become an “unalloyedly blissful substance” for the French public only if they “wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation,” an issue of violent colonial oppression in Algeria (60-61). In very much the same way, the perception of the “skillful yachts” is available only through the “wrongful forgetting” of the capitalist exploitation that underwrites it.

However, Williams not only demonstrates the power of bourgeoise mythology, he also demonstrates the mind’s power to recover, through the action of the imagination, a sense of reality. This sense of reality is reinstated through powerful representations of what has been lost or rendered unavailable through these acts of primary repression. This is what is being performed through the intense language and imagery of the closing stanzas (“Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows…” 25). In this way, although a direct apprehension of reality is simply not possible because of a repressive filter that has been installed (through ideological apparatuses, etc.) in the individual subject, some approximation of the “real” (a “real” that discovers the apparently real to be “false”) is nonetheless shown to be salvageable through the work of the informed imagination.

Copyright © 2006 by Christian Reed