Friday, February 22, 2008

Marianne Moore magic

Consider the title and first two lines of Marianne Moore's "The Fish" (1921):

The Fish

through black jade.
The first line of the poem performs two kinds of magic: it reveals what seemed to be a singular noun as a plural, and it gives these fish legs. To wade: "to step in or through a medium (as water) offering more resistance than air" (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary). The second line adds another bit of magic, transforming the fishes' medium into one that offers more resistance than water. The water turns to stone via a metaphor whose visual accuracy is surprising: luminous, milky-black water does indeed look like black jade.

Another kind of magic: Moore's idiosyncratic sense of poetic form helps to slow down the movement that the sentence tracks. Compare:
The fish wade through black jade.

through BLACK JADE.
The short lines and extreme enjambment enact a deliberate, stubborn progress, four stresses in six syllables.

These strategies of metaphor, sound, and form return again and again in a poem that turns out to be not about the fish but about movement, difficulty, color, light, water, rock, survival, and time.

I never read Marianne Moore as a student: her poems must have seemed slight to an academic community caught up in Yeats' mythic self-absorption and Eliot's mythic impersonality. Now I'm catching up. You can read the poem via the link, Until the Real Thing Comes Along:

The Fish (via Google Book Search)

Related post
Q and A (What's in Moore's handbag?)

comments: 3

Tom the Piper's Son said...

marianne moore -
...and a brooklyn fan
to boot.

T. said...

Thank you so much for adding a refreshing and enriching moment to my lovely New England Saturday morning. Reminds me of why I chose to be an English major before all this doctor stuff! Wonderful!

Michael Leddy said...

Glad you both like "Miss Moore." I love doing this kind of informal lit crit -- zooming in on a handful of words.