Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fishing for Poetry

James Henry Leigh Hunt, known now and in his lifetime as simply Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), was among the lesser British Romantic poets. His most important achievement occurred in journalism, especially with The Examiner, which he edited, but also with other journals. He changed the reviewing of drama from a kind of inside-job to a more objective assessment of plays, and for calling the Prince Regent "a fat Adonis of fifty," he was thrown in jail for a while. British defamation laws then were and now are more strict than American ones with regard to the press and public figures.

In politics, Hunt tended to support such left-leaning issues as enfranchising common citizens and other kinds of reform, things that don't seem so left-leaning now to most people. He produced a lot of poetry, much of it so-so; he published one novel, a piece of historical fiction called Sir Ralph Esher; and he was known as being a tad silly and as being cheerful but improvident. He and Lord Byron were friends for a while, but Byron got tired of Hunt, especially after Hunt visited him in Italy, large family in tow; the Lord got annoyed with the kids. Hunt also helped John Keats get published early on. His most famous poems, perhaps his only famous poems now, are "Jenny Kissed Me" and "Abou ben Adhem." Both are widely available on the web and elsewhere. The following poem by Hunt intrigues me:

To a Fish

You strange, astonished-looking, angle-faced,
Dreary-mouthed, gaping wretches of the sea,
Gulping salt-water everlastingly,
Cold-blooded, though with red your blood be graced,
And mute, though dwellers in the roaring waste;
And you, all shapes beside, that fishy be,—
Some round, some flat, some long, all devilry,
Legless, unloving, infamously chaste:—

O scaly, slippery, wet, swift, staring wights,
What is't ye do? What life lead? eh, dull goggles?
How do ye vary your vile days and nights?
How pass your Sundays? Are ye still but joggles
In ceaseless wash? Still nought but gapes, and bites,
And drinks, and stares, diversified with boggles?

The poem is actually part one of a three-part poem called "The Fish, The Man, and the Spirit." In part two, the fish answers the man (in English, not bubbles--this is called poetic license), and in part three the fish turns into a man who turns into a spirit, who observes the extent to which humans are rather a lot like fish. Part one, "To a Fish," interests me in part because, refreshingly, it doesn't like the fish much. I'm surprised the speaker doesn't go even further and ask the fish, "Hey, why don't you get a job?!"

I guess fish were "infamously chaste" back then--because they make little or no contact when reproducing? I reckon there's some logic to the view.

The poem does get a bit silly, with the joggles and boggles and the "How pass your Sundays?" But it's still amusing--and unexpected.

It's difficult to say what fish-poem is the best fish-poem, but I might have to go with Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish." I include the poem in courses often, and students tend to like it.

The following poem includes ten fish, but they're dead. It's an odd little poem, I must admit. I wrote it quite a while ago, but I think the idea was to "answer" hum-drum questions with references to creatures, and in the last line, I think I was going for a wee echo of Basho's poetry. The poem first appeared in Poetry Northwest.

From Another Part of the Forest

How are you today?
Ten dead fish float in the lake.

May I help you?
Five cattle lie in the shade.

Won’t you please sit down?
A bobcat rakes a deer’s back.

Do you love me?
A butterfly folds up its wings.

What are you waiting for?
Seven geese waddle toward a pond.

Are you sure?
A frog jumps from a log into mud.

Copyright 1986, 2007 Hans Ostrom

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