May 13, 2012


A.E. Stallings usually or always writes poems in fixed form, and “Fishing” is a good example. In fact, I’d guess she wants it to be an Italian sonnet, although I don’t see the poem’s turn happening until Line 11 or 13, rather than the traditional shift at line 9, creating an octave (8 lines) and a responding sestet (6 lines).  The final two lines of “Fishing” have some of the feel of the rhymed couplets that conclude Shakespearean sonnets, but of course, they aren’t rhymed.

Fishing by A.E. Stallings : Poetry Magazine

Well, whether it’s Italian or Shakespearean or no sonnet at all, I think Ms. Stallings has given us a fine poem for 12 lines. My favorite images are “The sun . . .  sweating gold,” the “sullen summer of father and daughter,” and above all, the father’s lesson: “cast towards  shadows where the sunlight fails.” That’s where the hidden prizes live, the sheltered fish—in the dark parts of the world, the amorphous and mysterious areas, not in the clearly defined facts or rules or measurements that sunlight inflicts upon us, forcing us to see. I hear this sunlight as math, as policy, as religious doctrine, for example. Such brightness might be the best disinfectant, but eventually it fails because the fishes shelter in the undergrowth, in complexity, in murky doubt and contradiction.
Those shadows are the place from which “the unseen strikes,” along with a life and death struggle. Isn’t it usually the strikes of “the unseen” that matter most? However symbolically or literally one wants to read those lines, they make an important, powerful point about the nature of discovery. If a sheltered fish, or peace between a father and daughter, or any other experience is worth pursuing, it’s likely to produce a struggle that will at least seem a matter of life and death.

Lines 1 – 12 suggest all this very nicely, but I find the poem's final two or three lines a bit disappointing. They’re not bad poetry, but I don’t see what they add that hasn’t already been covered—and covered more effectively. I could have lived happily without the play on “scales”—fish scales and the scales of justice, of right and wrong. And I’m not ecstatic about the multipurpose “them” in the final line; it could refer to father and daughter or human and fish or life and death or all of the above, and more; but I thought I’d already pretty much sensed as much in the events and imagery of lines 1 – 12.
That’s a minor quibble about a fine poem, but I wonder if it illustrates a larger point about fixed form: in an effort to fulfill requirements—in this case, the rules or customs of a sonnet—the best parts of a good poem can be diminished by so-so lines that exist primarily to obey some demand of form. Of course, those same demands of form can force a poet into wonderful turns of phrase and thought that would've never occurred otherwise. It's a two-edged sword if ever there was one.

But in the end, would we rather have an excellent poem or a merely adequate sonnet or villanelle? Of course, the poet, through luck and skill, can sometimes have her cake and eat it too. But sometimes she has to choose. I wonder if that’s what's happened in the last two lines of “Fishing,” though I'm grateful for the first ten or twelve.

The photos are from a short trip to Deer Creek State Park, near Mt. Sterling, Ohio, 30 miles south of Columbus. The morning temps were high 30s to mid 40s, but there were always three or four small boats out, pairs of humans fishing the shallows, casting into the shadows.

Fishing by A.E. Stallings : Poetry Magazine


Kelly said...

...thanks for posting the poem. I just read it and enjoyed it. (I liked the "sun ...sweating gold" too, and didn't need those last two lines either.)

I've never been to Deer Creek but have often wondered what it's like. I need to head up there one of these days.

RuneE said...

To me, this poem was "easy":
As a father of three girls and and a boy, I know the situation all too well. :-) Being with your parents doing what you used to love, but now feel that you are growing out of - only you haven't. The relationship and the fun is still there. It's all about the process of growing up and getting independent. You discover that blood is still thicker than water and that you have more in common than the family name.

Oh - beautifully written (I'm sure I have lost many of the nice details) with fitting photographs :-)

Jean Spitzer said...

The first photo is my favorite.

As for the poem, I read it before I read your commentary and also felt let down by the last lines.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Interesting...I think the less heavy-handed the end of a poem (especially a rhyming one, especially a sonnet, the better.

I see what you mean about the ending. I think it hangs on the word "weighing"...

I thought of that Elizabeth Bishop poem, "The Fish," which is not at all my favorite poem of hers (but perhaps one of the most often anthologized). I think there is something to this....that there is a trope of the fishing poem. Maybe?

The poet Marita Dachsel has a strong fish poem ("Fish Stories"). I can't find the full text....just these lines: "The gills were still moving when my father inserted his knife/…when he scooped out the organs he saw the heart still/ pumping. He said nothing…and then/ placed it in my open palm."

Pasadena Adjacent said...

"Life and death weighed in the shining scales,
The invisible line pulled taut that links them both"

Those two lines in and of them selves have a rather pleasing appeal.Yes, they do seem jagged and contrived placed where they are.

It's always a pleasure to watch you map out a poem into it's rules and regulations via that hard light. I always regret that I wasn't able to grasp (or be exposed) to those kind of concepts when I was young.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this poem makes me hurt. You are underestimating that last line. It means something other than you think.

Brenda's Arizona said...

This and the follow up post show your great photographic eye. I want to be there.
And I agree with your comment on the first 12 lines. If only we could learn more about the mental conversations; the daughter's response would be interesting to read.
The last couple lines took a mental image I had built and made it all a metaphor. Or is that a simile?

Lovers' Lane