Description itself isn't enough for a poem--that's the premise Baron Wormser takes on in his essay in the current issue of The Manhattan Review. And I have to agree. In his examination of Mark Doty's recent collection of craft thoughts, The Art of Description, Wormser rolls out the Description defense's main body of evidence, Elizabeth Bishop's very fine and oft-cited poem, "The Fish" to illustrate how it has been misunderstood, made into a totem of description. Certainly there is no lack of mastery in the description of the creature in question:
While his gills were breathing inthe terrible oxygen--the frightening gills,fresh and crisp with blood,that can cut so badly--I thought of the coarse white fleshpacked in like feathers[...] and the pink swim-bladderlike a big peony.
She is putting on a clinic for attentive detail, reminding us what a gifted painter she was, as well as writer. But description alone does not a poem make. Even with this power to transport the reader with an eye for smart detail ("a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing from his aching jaw") Wormser reminds us: "the poem isn’t really a description. The poem is an evocation. The poem seeks to bring the fish to life in words, to articulate the miracle of its being....after language comes freedom," he instructs, moving the common understanding of the poem beyond its totemic place of word-painting to one of consequence. ("I caught a tremendous fish...And I let the fish go.") Right there is the crucial narrative that makes the poem matter. The fish is spared! It's true.
I am, however, most drawn to the lines "I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little boat" which follow the discovery of the fish's previous struggles, the hooks barbed in his mouth and trailing line, his "five-haired beard of wisdom." What is this "victory?" Does it subvert what I had long considered the speaker's benevolent whim to let the fish go? Perhaps there a moment here of moral recognition, of the living fighting thing? And that leads to the benevolence of the "I" as much or more than the beauty and transport of the language itself. After all, the speaker of the poem isn't releasing the fish because she's so in love with the portrait of that fish that she's composed in her mind (though readers seem to have made that conclusion). The "I" comes into eye contact, face to face, with a rather alien thing from below the surface that wears its own palimpsest and personal history of astonishing good luck and perseverance. "And I let the fish go."
Consequential subject matter is, I'll agree, hard to come by in contemporary poetry. But I disagree with Wormser when he waves a hand and says "The Fish" is "dawdling in the eternity of rapt language" rather than emanating from the gritty, determined stance of a Berryman or a Sexton, sweating the groundtruth of particular circumstance(s). Though I don't go for so-called "language" poetry, either, I would hardly trace its roots to Bishop's doorstep or say that she is reveling wordplay alone. So much of contemporary poetry has evaporated itself from the deep waters of subject matter and circumstance that matter to societies, cultures, ecosystems; I agree. However, Bishop's poem, which is much more focused on the spectacular creature than the nominal "subject" of the speaker, is hardly guilty of lacking circumstance, and the poem, though "rapt" in language, never loses its footing in the boat.
What Wormser is saying (and I am echoing) is that poetry ought to matter beyond its own sweet whisperings, which is to say it ought to move beyond merely rendering or transferring image into language through description or floating around in the ethereal, deconstructed "meaning"-lessness of L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, else it does risk being what Doty calls in his book a "fundamentally useless, contemplative pleasure." Catching (or catching and releasing) a fish can be a matter of life or death--both for the angler and the swimmer. And as Frost put it, with the best poetry "the work is play for mortal stakes."