(Source: Poetry Foundation)
I used to find line and stanza breaks in poems to be entirely mysterious. I still, basically, do find them mysterious, but I’m trying to get better at noticing them and taking them seriously.
For instance, the first stanza features no punctuation to stop the flow of images. There is a brown fish — my attention drops for a moment as I find the next line — and it’s hanging on the wall and it swims along — another pause and a tug of attention — in his frame, and finally I can take a breath at we are eating dinner.
It strikes me that the line breaks in this stanza effectively create a sensation of being tugged along by the sentence across breaks in the line. The language swims in little bursts that mirror the swimming of that little brown fish.
- Why a brown fish? Why not red? [Maybe any other color would be a distraction. If red, we would focus on the color. If gold, we’d assign meaning to that. Brown is nice and neutral, allowing us to focus on the fish’s movement.]
- Why “in his frame”? [Perhaps we’re contrasting the fluttery movement of the fish with the stasis of the frame?]
- Why “dinner”? [It mirrors “dining room” in a pleasing way. And I guess people tend to gather around the table for dinner more often than lunch? Not sure.]
The next stanza has a lot of commas. Why?
I enjoy the slower, more reflective pace of the second stanza. It matches the mood of the poet, I think: we first are asked to notice this interesting phenomenon, the dynamic fish in the static image, and then we’re asked to reflect on it. The lines here come with reflective pauses for the reader to dwell on the import of the fish.
And what is that import? That he is on display (“in candlelight for all to see”), that because its motion is projected on it by the viewer that motion has a timeless, eternal feel to it. It’s a motion that is entirely in thought: the fish was moving “even in the darkness of the ink before someone thought…”
Why break the stanzas here?
Maybe to emphasize that the motion of the fish — which is entirely a product of thought, imagination — is the motion of thought and imagination itself, any thought. The line, with the stanza can be read as describing the darkness of the ink before ANY thought at all.
But we are talking not just about thought in general, but about a particular imaginative ability, and so the next stanza picks up where the last left off — the thought of this particular fish, this particular image.
In this third stanza, the poet once again describes the motion of the fish and so once again we get a pair of lines without comma or pause to slow down the tug of the fish’s movement: “to draw him and the thin reeds waving in his stream…and the clear pebbles strewn upon the sand.”
I find the stop of this motion to be surprising, and somewhat jarring. Why stop this movement before the end of the stanza? [Perhaps to give us a moment to collect ourselves, and to notice that the poem is wrapping up, and that we’re getting ready for another thought?]
I have no idea how to read this second half of the poem. I’ll do my best, but I’d appreciate any help.
So, now we get a pair of thoughts (“No wonder…No wonder…”) broken across three stanzas.
Is it broken to remind of us this projected motion?
“No wonder he continues his swimming deep into the night, long after we have blown out the candles and gone upstairs to bed.”
This seems wrong to me. The fish swims only because we imagine it to be swimming. It seems to me that if we go to sleep, it rests.
Two possible answers:
- Its movement isn’t about my imagining it so, it’s about the meaning that, collectively, we assign to the image. Even when I sleep, the fish’s image still moves under the spell of the meaning we have collectively imbued it. (And because of this, one can still imagine that meaning to persist when any one human is asleep, or dead. Meaning persists.)
- Maybe my whole read is wrong, and this isn’t a poem reflecting on how people assign meaning to inanimate tokens. Maybe the poem is about some sort of fate or destiny. The molecules were always destined to become ink that was always destined to become the image of this fish. It’s not about people at all — the opposite — it’s about the universe and fate.
“No wonder I find him in the pale morning light, still swimming, still looking out at me with his one, small, spellbound eye.”
I don’t know why the lines break how they do. I don’t find them mysterious, I’m just not sure what to make of them. All I can say is that when we talk about swimming in this poem, we’re likely to have that image broken across the line to drag us along in that motion, and this continues in the last few stanzas.
And then what’s with that mysterious last image? What is that one, small, spellbound eye?
Is it that art — the images and symbols we imbue with meaning — ultimately peer back at us? We look at them, and imagine them in motion, but we also imagine them starting at us just as we stare at them? That is to say, that we imagine the fish as real and then we further imagine that fish seeing us as real?
Is this a poem about how the act of creating meaning actually does assign meaning to us? Is this what is suggested by “spellbound”?
(What are all those s’s in that last stanza? What function do they serve?)