One Beautiful Sentence (Well, Line of Poetry)

» August 31st, 2015

He jumps up high/against the night,

rattling his gills/and the hooks/in his back.

The Indian says/he is like a goose/passing in front

of the moon.

–Frank Stanford, 1971

–David Bates, from The Katrina Paintings

15 Responses to One Beautiful Sentence (Well, Line of Poetry)

  1. Layne says:

    That is heartbreaking.

  2. Mary Finelli says:

    It sounds to me to be about a tortured fish. I don’t see anything beautiful in that.

    • James says:

      Seriously? Since when is a lack of violence and suffering was a prerequisite for beauty? You have obviously never read Cormac McCarthy, or appreciated a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or been moved by a Peter Greenaway film.

      • Mary Finelli says:

        I grew up a fan of Ralph McTell and his music. In his very moving song, First and Last Man [ ], he sings: “There is beauty in pain.” It’s a lyric that’s has often come to my mind. He precedes it, though, with the lyric: “I have cut marks on my body.” I can understand appreciating one’s one own pain, and a certain beauty in one’s own suffering. I don’t find anything beautiful about violence inflicted on innocents, though. I also don’t see any relevant similarity between a hooked fish fighting for his or her life and a goose flying in front of the moon.

        I’ve seen Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” and “Prospero’s Books.” (I was so impressed by the artwork in the latter -plus Sir John Gielgud is one of my favorite actors- I actually bought the video of it years ago.) They are complex films full of beauty and pain. While there is beauty in some of the characters’ reaction to others’ pain, I didn’t consider the pain inflicted on the characters by others to be beautiful. I found it rather horrifying. (The first movie is particularly violent and gruesome.)

        I find Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings to be interesting and meaningful but not particularly beautiful.

        I haven’t read any of Cormac MacCarthy’s novels but I’ve seen the film version of No Country for Old Men. Not much beauty in it. Some grace but no real beauty, except for some physical beauty.

        I don’t see how they relate to this poem, or how the poem, written in 1971, relates to Katrina.

        The Katrina aftermath was a tragedy largely caused by governmental shortsightedness and apathy. However, unlike the agony of a hooked fish, the suffering that ensued was generally not intentional. (Except, for example, the innocents on the bridge who were shot down in cold blood by police. Nothing beautiful in that.)

        It’s not surprising that people have responded about the poem and not the image. That’s what your subject line is about.
        Btw, Katrina also greatly affected fish and other animals aside from humans.

        Perhaps you can share with us what it is you find to be beautiful about the poem.

        From the little I’ve read of his poetry, Stanford doesn’t appear to have any genuine appreciation of fish. I doubt he was sympathizing with the fish in this poem. By comparing it to the relatively peaceful image of a goose flying by the moon he (well, the Indian, at any rate) doesn’t seem to comprehend the distress and desperation of the fish. I don’t see anything beautiful in this one of his, either. Instead I find it disturbed:

        “Consider this gem called ‘The Minnow’:
        ‘If I press?/?on its head,?/?the eyes / will come out?/?like stars.’”

  3. Les Roberts says:

    Amazing. Haunting. Will not soon forget this one.

  4. Fireweed says:

    I agree with Layne and Mary.

    Language both reveals and conceals. Hunting and fishing are not infrequently romanticized with words that obscure the actual suffering involved.

    This may offend a few people, but now that you have prompted me to think about it James, I realize that this poem is practically pornographic in the way it objectifies the fish…here’s what I mean by that…

    We are prompted to behold an animal fighting for their life more like a shimmering jewel…a mere object of desire..than a creature in distress. We are ‘lured’ into the moonlit experience of predation ourselves to partake of the ‘magic’ … to affirm the timeless ‘natural order’ of ‘life and death’…

    We are NOT prompted to feel any remorse or empathy with the plight of this sentient being. The life of the fish is insignificant outside of the purpose it serves as a prop to the mythical backdrop of the poem. The fact that the death rattle is apropos, notwithstanding.

    Animals’ lives become the ‘absent referents’ whenever we ‘dress up’ their demise…be that with poetic language or culinary presentation.

  5. James says:

    What is romanticized in the poem? Stanford didn’t have a romantic bone in his body. Pornographic? My word. To say the least, I’ll have respectfully disagree with your literary analysis.

  6. James says:

    I find it terribly interesting that all commentary has been on the fish with possibly metaphorical hooks in its back rather than on the image of the Katrina survivor.

  7. A question to be asked here, professor McWilliams, is why you chose this particular line of poetry to publish on a blog whose readers appear mainly to be animal people for whom the word “hook,” associated with aquatic animals, would understandably be hurtful. And to call it beautiful and act like we’re not intellectually or artistically lofty and sophisticated enough to join you in appreciating its “beauty.”

    Perhaps animal rights people aren’t the only ones in need of some rigorous self-interrogation.

    In addition, I asked you a few blogs back to please clarify your position on whether, since you said you believe insects are insentient, it follows that it is okay to dismember live insects. If you believe that crickets, butterflies, preying mantises, flies, grasshoppers and the like are insensate objects, then is it all right in your view to pull them apart, drown them, set them on fire, etc.? I am asking you, once again, to respond to this important question.

    Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

    • James says:

      I wouldn’t dismember live insects any more than I’d smash antiquities or lay waste to a field of native grass. Not sure why this is an important question.

      I’ve never suggested anyone who reads my blog isn’t sophisticated. Joyless, for sure, but not unsophisticated.

      • This is the type of reply I expected but glad to see it laid on the line. I’ve watched many bumblebees over the years desperate to escape a place they don’t want to be in. I cannot believe they have no inward experience of their situation of which their behavior is an expression.

        • James says:

          A drone lives for 6 weeks at best and plays a role so socially focused that it’s extremely implausible that there would be any evolutionary advantage to him having individual consciousness. A queen bee, by contrast, gives me more pause, in that she lives 3-4 years and has a less explicitly and purely functionary role. These factors—life span and evolutionary role—have to be considered when we make decisions about where to draw the line. Relatedly, as a pragmatic matter, we do ourselves few favors chastising people for harming insects when a) we harm them ourselves doing things we could stop doing; b) we alienate people from veganism with such an extreme message: and c) there’s so much evidence that lack anything like a morally relevant consciousness.

      • Mary Finelli says:

        If you are proposing that insects are insentient, than why is the treatment they receive any different than how one might treat a paper clip or a nail? How do they compare to a field of native grass, which probably has rodents and other sentient beings in it, or antiquities, which have significant cultural value?

        If it’s okay to eat insects, species of which there are plenty and who readily reproduce, than what’s the harm in pulling them apart for amusement? If they’re insentient, what’s the difference between slowly pulling their wings, legs, antennae, eyes off and twisting a paper clip into unusability? If they’re insentient, they don’t feel or care. Are you saying it’s okay to do that? Was Shakespeare wrong about schoolboys being cruel for pulling the wings off flies?

  8. Several years ago a TV ad was run by the pest control company Orkin in which the “Orkin man” posed a question something to the effect of “do you know what happens when you cut the head off a – I think it was a roach. During the time of that ad, some teenagers broke into a chicken house and beheaded many chickens. I wondered and still do whether that ad inspired them to try the “experiment” out on chickens. I don’t see any good in being cavalier about deliberately harming/maiming insects. In fact, I know few adults, if any, who consider it all right to maim insects intentionally and gratuitously, so maybe it isn’t so “extreme” for many of us to believe that insects experience what is being done to them in the form of mutilation.

    • James says:

      That’s a speculative anecdote, but I’m wondering what you think about the content of comment on insects, evolution, and sentience.

Leave a Reply