“I lie on a bed staring, crossing out, writing in, crossing out what was written in, again and again, through days and weeks. Heavenly hours of absorption and idleness…intuition, intelligence, pursuing my ear that knows not what it says. In time, the fragmentary and scattered limbs become by a wild extended figure of speech, something living…a person.”[i]
This is part two of looking at two American poets views on what it means to make poetry. I look at Robert Lowell’s “Fishnet” to see some of his thoughts as compared to Wallace Stevens. You can read the part on Wallace Stevens here I’ll get right down to business and present the poem for reference sake:
Any clear thing that blinds us with surprise,
your wandering silences and bright trouvailles,
dolphin let loose to catch the flashing fish. . . .
saying too little, then too much.
Poets die adolescents, their beat embalms them,
The archetypal voices sing offkey;
the old actor cannot read his friends,
and nevertheless he reads himself aloud,
genius hums the auditorium dead.
The line must terminate.
Yet my heart rises, I know I’ve gladdened a lifetime
knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope;
the net will hang on the wall when the fish are eaten,
nailed like illegible bronze on the futureless future.
Have you ever heard the saying “writing is rewriting”? Robert Lowell takes this notion very seriously, with his work and with other peoples! He is very aware of his place in history, knowing he is part of a poetic tradition rather than eschewing it completely. He constantly revised his work and his poetry collection History shows explicitly that Lowell reworks poems by other writers and reimagines them with new contexts, focuses. Read my post on Lowell’s poem “Marriage” as an example of taking a famous piece of artwork and connecting it to his own life in the mid-20th century. “Fishnet” worries upon the notion of accessibility between the audience and the poet.
The first four lines are supposedly about Lowell’s wife at the time Caroline Blackwood, as “dolphin” was the nickname he had for her. While this most certainly is true, I think the first four lines are also important for thinking metaphorically about what a poem does when you publish it. A poem is “a dolphin let loose to catch the flashing fish…/saying too little, then too much” (3-4). One puts a poem out to the world, hoping to put forth some truth or meaning for whoever is reading it, but poems, like humans, are imperfect, sometimes they fall short of their mark. Lowell seems frustrated with the idea that poetry needs to be at least partially grounded in modern day, lest “genius hums the audience dead” (9), but he still wants to engage with the past. Unlike Stevens notion that the scene has changed for poetry, that the scripts no longer work, Lowell believes very much in the dialogue between past and present.
Similar to Stevens, Lowell believes a poem should be a reflection of the mind, of taking something ordinary and looking at it in a new way. A poem in fact, is “any clear thing that blinds us with surprise” (1), just like Stevens wants a poem to be “wholly/Containing the mind” (“Of Modern Poetry” 23-24). Lowell is most well-known for being one of the first confessional poets; arguably, Life Studies, which featured many poems about Lowell’s family, and time in the hospital because of his bipolar disorder, is Lowell’s best remembered collections. When one thinks of confessional poetry, the first instinct is to consider it as something free form, and steeped in emotion and autobiography, very unlike the notion of poetry being a conscious act of the mind. Certainly, he took autobiographical aspects of his own life, but the “reality” of such poems are up for question. In his Paris Review interview with Frederick Seidel, he says that the illusion of reality is an aesthetic effect and that “they were just as hard to write. They’re not always factually true…I’ve invented facts and changed things, and the whole balance of the poem was something invented.”[ii] Keeping this in mind, we know that Lowell is also concerned with the revision and labour of poetry.
Stevens views past poetry as a “souvenir” (6) within modern poetry. Consider the connotation of souvenir. A souvenir is usually something trivial, a keychain from a gift shop or some sand from the beach, something that we look on fondly, but if we’re being honest, doesn’t matter all that much. Souvenir is also the French word for “memory,” so in calling past poetry a souvenir, Stevens hints that yes, one should remember the poetic tradition and be aware of it, but not to think too extensively upon it. Lowell, however, is much more invested in his place in the poetic tradition, which brings me to the most important metaphor of “Fishnet.” For Lowell, he has made a lifetime of “knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope” (12). This could have multiple meanings (and probably does!). I’m interpreting it as the poet untangling that which he has already read, that which has been left for him to organize and understand. It could also have to do with the poet untangling his own feelings and thoughts, the changes one undergoes through life that changes your perspective on things.
There is a sense at the end of the poem that everything has a natural lifespan, including the poems he writes. There is no delusion of immortality there. He does state that the fishnet/poem will hang upon the wall, but what state will it be in? It will hang on the wall “when the fish are eaten/nailed like illegible bronze” (13-14). The fish being eaten imply that eventually the context will fade from the poem, as those that read it will not understand the times in which it was written. And, like the simile suggests, it will become illegible. Yes, it will last in some form, it will be bronzed, but will it be reachable anymore? Stevens does not offer this kind of worry within “Of Modern Poetry,” he does not touch on the notion of immortality at all. Both though drive home the idea that a poem should be constructed as an act of the mind, and that poets should be aware of their place in history, even if they do not borrow too heavily from the greats of the past.
So there you have it. Two views of poetry from some amazing American poets. I hope you enjoyed ruminating on these cerebral topics. Let me know what you think, or if there are any other poems or poets you can think of that seem similar to Stevens and Lowell in their viewpoints.
[i] Lowell, Robert. “After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me.” In Robert Lowell Collected Poems. Ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 991-993. 991.
[ii] Lowell, Robert, in Robert Lowell Collected Poems. Ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, 1000.