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Okay, Shmoopers, it's time to put on our modern poetry caps—and you know what that means. We've got in store for us a whole lot of experimentation, ambiguity, and deep-rooted meanings to dig for. Shovels ready?
Well, even if they aren't, fear not. The work may not be so back-breaking after all. That's because, on a most basic level, Marianne Moore's "The Fish," first published in 1921, is about (have you guessed it yet?) a fish. The poem even looks like a deep-sea creature on paper, with stanzas that look like symmetrical scales. We're guessing that, if you stare at it long enough, it may also look like a fish moving through the water too.
Intrigued yet? Good, because there's a lot to be said about Moore's style that, on the one hand often looks and sounds beautifully simple, while on the other can leave us scratching our heads. Even the infamously difficult Wallace Stevens preferred to read her work simply for its aesthetic qualities (what it looks like) (source). So, you're not alone if you're feeling a little confused by the poem's meaning, but still think the poem looks pretty cool anyway.
Modern poets like Moore asked a lot of questions in their work, whether it be through their style or choice of language. Importantly, they also held off on giving answers. Bear in mind that we're dealing with a time period that featured two world wars, so folks were a bit confused by the sorts of things that were going on and what it all meant. That sense of questioning and confusion played out in a lot of their writing.
So what we often end up with in modern poetry are works like "The Fish" that push conventional boundaries of what a poem should look like and what it's supposed to mean. In this case, Moore asks some big questions that deal with how things in the natural world (including people) get along with one another and how we confront cycles of life and death. She's not necessarily asking why we live and die, but rather paints a picture of both life and death coexisting in a cool, almost dreamlike setting. Hey, we all ask these kinds of life-stuff questions from time to time, but not all of us can pull it off in the shape of a swimming fish.
We're guessing you've seen an ocean before, or at least a few fish swimming around in the water. The ocean has a funny way of making us think about all those profound ideas associated with the cycle of life, the way it all works. After all, those waters have been around for an awfully long time and many of its creatures have been around for just as long.
So, even when we'd rather be catching up on Dancing with the Stars, there are still those moments when we can't help but take a look around us and wonder: what's it all about? Marianne Moore's "The Fish" does an awesome job of painting an underwater world, while bringing to mind all those life mysteries that keep us interested in the bigger picture. We may not get answers to all our questions, but that's kind of what makes the whole scheme of life exciting and mysterious (and wet) in Moore's poem.
Add all this to a poem that actually looks and sounds like a fish swimming through ancient moving waters and what's not to like? You've got some aquatic scenery, some sunlight, a bunch of fish doing their thing, and life's mysteries to boot. At the very least, you may also have some food for thought the next time you're on the beach catching some rays, or pondering life's mysteries—over a plate of sushi.
One-Stop Moore Shop
Here's all you need on Moore and some other modern poets.
The Poetry Foundation has a great bio and links to other poems.
The Fish and Piano
Check out this reading of "The Fish," accompanied by some dreamy piano tunes.
Moore in a Minute
Check out this quick bio of Moore.
Students and Moore
Check out students talking about Moore and her work.
Here's a cool take on "The Fish."
Hear Moore herself read another one of her poems.
Moore as a Sailor
Well, she kind of looks like one, though her hat is pretty cool.
They deserve a photo op too.
Check 'em out above their "ash heaps."
Can't Get Enough (Moore)
Check out a slew of articles and essays written about our lady.
Here's a look at all her mysteries unveiled.
We know you love her too, so why not check out more (not Moore) of her stuff?
Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority
Yeah, she was kind of a poetic rebel.