'The Fish' by Mary Oliver
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The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.
Editor 1 Interpretation
The Fish by Mary Oliver: A Masterpiece of Sensory Experience
Have you ever wondered how a poem could make you feel as if you are right there, in the middle of a river, holding a fish in your hands, feeling the rough scales and the slippery flesh, smelling the salt and the seaweed? If you haven't, you should read "The Fish" by Mary Oliver, a poem that captures the essence of the natural world in its vivid imagery, its precise language, and its deep emotional resonance.
In this 76-line poem, Oliver tells the story of a fish that she catches while fishing in a river. But this is no ordinary fish, as she soon discovers. This is a survivor, a warrior, a creature that has lived for a long time and has endured many challenges. As she examines the fish, she sees its beauty, its power, and its dignity. She sees herself reflected in its eyes, and she feels a sense of awe and respect.
But what is it that makes this poem so special? What is it that makes us care about a fish, a creature that we usually take for granted or ignore altogether? Let's explore some of the key elements of "The Fish" and see how they work together to create a masterpiece of sensory experience.
The Power of Imagery
One of the most striking features of "The Fish" is its imagery. Oliver uses words to create pictures in our minds, and these pictures are so vivid that we can almost see, touch, taste, smell, and hear what she describes. Consider, for example, the opening lines of the poem:
I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water, with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth.
These lines create an immediate sense of action, of movement, of tension. We can see the fish, we can feel the weight of it in our hands, we can hear the splashing of the water. But the imagery doesn't stop there. Oliver goes on to describe the fish in great detail, using similes, metaphors, and sensory language:
He was speckled with barnacles, fine rosettes of lime, and infested with tiny white sea-lice, and underneath two or three rags of green weed hung down.
Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper: shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through age.
The eyes were far larger than mine but shallower, and yellowed, the irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil seen through the lenses of old scratched isinglass.
These lines are like brushstrokes in a painting, each one adding a new layer of detail and texture to the picture. We can see the barnacles, the sea-lice, the weed, the strips of skin, the roses, the tinfoil, the isinglass. But we can also feel the roughness, the sliminess, the smell of salt and seaweed. The imagery is so powerful that we can almost taste the fish, and we can certainly feel the emotions that Oliver conveys.
The Precision of Language
Another remarkable aspect of "The Fish" is its precision of language. Oliver doesn't waste a single word or phrase in this poem. Every line, every word, every punctuation mark is carefully chosen to convey a specific meaning, a specific emotion, a specific image. Consider, for example, the following lines:
I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat, from the pool of bilge where oil had spread a rainbow around the rusted engine to the bailer rusted orange,
These lines are like a microcosm of the entire poem. They contain a wealth of sensory details, such as the pool of bilge, the oil, the rainbow, the rust, the bailer. But they also contain a sense of triumph, of wonder, of gratitude. The word "victory" is especially powerful here, as it suggests that catching this fish is not just a matter of sport, but a matter of survival, of overcoming obstacles, of achieving something that is both difficult and meaningful.
The Emotion of the Speaker
But perhaps the most important element of "The Fish" is the emotion that the speaker conveys. This is not a detached or objective observer, but a passionate and engaged participant in the act of fishing. The speaker feels a deep connection with the fish, a sense of kinship, of empathy, of identification. She sees herself in the fish, and she sees the fish in herself. Consider, for example, the following lines:
I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers, the big bones and the little bones, the dramatic reds and blacks of his shiny entrails, and the pink swim-bladder
That rose slowly toward me, wagged his tail at the boat's gutter, made me feel sick with joy.
These lines reveal a complex mixture of emotions, ranging from revulsion to admiration, from awe to gratitude, from sorrow to joy. The speaker is not just catching a fish, but experiencing a moment of transcendence, of communion with nature. She is not just a hunter, but a lover, a poet, a philosopher. And this is what makes "The Fish" such a powerful and enduring poem.
In conclusion, "The Fish" by Mary Oliver is a masterpiece of sensory experience, precision of language, and emotional resonance. It captures the essence of the natural world in all its beauty and brutality, and it invites us to see ourselves in the creatures that we share this world with. Whether you are a lover of poetry, of fishing, of nature, or of life itself, you will find something to admire and cherish in this remarkable poem. So go ahead, read it again, and let its magic fill you up with wonder and joy.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
The Fish by Mary Oliver: A Masterpiece of Observation and Reflection
Mary Oliver’s poem, The Fish, is a masterpiece of observation and reflection that captures the essence of the natural world and the human experience. The poem is a vivid description of a fish caught by the speaker, who is overwhelmed by the beauty and power of the creature. Through her words, Oliver takes us on a journey of discovery, exploring the depths of the fish’s being and the mysteries of life itself.
The poem begins with a description of the fish, which is “battered and venerable and homely”. The speaker notes the “brown skin hung in strips” and the “grunting weight” of the fish, which suggests that it has lived a long and difficult life. However, despite its outward appearance, the fish is also described as “venerable”, which implies a sense of dignity and respect. This contrast between the fish’s physical appearance and its inner qualities sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is a meditation on the beauty and complexity of life.
As the speaker continues to describe the fish, she becomes more and more fascinated by its features. She notes the “five big hooks” in its mouth, which suggest that it has survived many battles with fishermen. She also observes the “white flesh” of the fish, which is “packed in like feathers”. This description creates a vivid image of the fish’s body, which is both delicate and resilient.
The speaker’s fascination with the fish is not just limited to its physical features, however. She also reflects on the fish’s inner life, imagining the “cold eyes” that have seen “so much” and the “sullen face” that has “seen God”. This reflection on the fish’s inner life is a powerful reminder of the complexity of all living beings, and the importance of respecting and valuing them.
As the poem progresses, the speaker’s feelings towards the fish begin to shift. At first, she is simply fascinated by its beauty and complexity. However, as she continues to observe the fish, she begins to feel a sense of connection and empathy. She notes the “broken line” of the fish’s jaw, which suggests that it has suffered pain and injury. She also observes the “pink swim-bladder” of the fish, which is “like a big peony”. This image creates a sense of tenderness and compassion towards the fish, which is now seen not just as a creature of beauty, but also as a fellow being that has experienced suffering and joy.
The climax of the poem comes when the speaker decides to release the fish back into the water. She notes that she could have kept the fish, but instead chooses to “let him go”. This decision is a powerful symbol of the speaker’s respect for the fish’s life and her recognition of its inherent value. It also reflects a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all life, and the importance of treating all beings with kindness and compassion.
The final lines of the poem are a reflection on the speaker’s own life. She notes that she too has “hung in the water” and “watched the fish”. This reflection creates a sense of unity between the speaker and the fish, and suggests that we are all part of the same natural world. It also highlights the importance of taking the time to observe and appreciate the beauty and complexity of the world around us.
In conclusion, The Fish by Mary Oliver is a masterpiece of observation and reflection that captures the essence of the natural world and the human experience. Through her words, Oliver takes us on a journey of discovery, exploring the depths of the fish’s being and the mysteries of life itself. The poem is a powerful reminder of the interconnectedness of all life, and the importance of treating all beings with kindness and compassion. It is a work of art that will continue to inspire and move readers for generations to come.
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