Thursday, December 6, 2012


"Never explain," Basil Bunting told his students, "the reader is as smart as you are."

This summer, Ted Kooser was kind enough to feature my poem, "The Silver Fish," in his column American Life in Poetry. 

None of my poems have enjoyed so much exposure. Which also means, none of my poems have received so much criticism.

Here's the poem.


I killed a great silver fish.
cut him open with a long

thin knife. The river carried
his heart away. I took his

dead eyes home. His red flesh
sang to me over the fire I built

in my backyard. His taste
was the lost memory of my

wildness. Behind amber clouds
of cedar smoke, Orion

drew his bow. A black moon rose
from the night's dark waters,

a sliver of its bright face
reflecting back into the universe. 

Being someone accustomed to toiling in obscurity, I was both grateful and perplexed by the responses my poem received. 

There is one exchange, in particular, I want to share, from Google Answers. I came across it by doing a Google search on "The Silver Fish."

I hope these comments bring you a smile, too. 

Here's the link:

KYLIE posted this: "I cannot understand 'The Silver Fish' by Shawn Pittard." 

I must say from the 5th stanza onward.

In response to KYLIE'S posting, PATRICK explicates the poem's meaning this way.

To me, one of the themes of the poem is the relation of living thing (the titular silver fish) to the four classical elements (water, earth, fire, air), and its eventual transcendence. The fish lives in the water and is taken from it, is killed by a metal from the earth, is burned on a fire, and rises into the air in the smoke. Compare the "silver fish" to the "sliver" of the moon reflecting back into the universe: 

A black moon rose
from the night’s dark waters,

a sliver of its bright face
reflecting back into the universe.

It makes sense, in this interpretation, that the poet invokes the Greek myth Orion, for the classical elements were a foundation of Greek science.

...Behind amber clouds / of cedar smoke, Orion / drew his bow...

So, what do the Greeks say about amber? Amber was the tears of the Heliades, the "children of the sun" - the daughters of Helios (the sun) and an Oceanid called Clymene (also called Merope, which means "with face-turned" - reference again the moon's "face reflecting"). One myth has it that the hunter Orion courted Merope, and was her lover, at some point.

When the Heliades' "brother Phaethon was struck from the chariot of the sun by Zeus, they gathered around his smoky grave on the banks of the River Eridanos and in their unrelenting grief were transformed into poplar-trees and their tears into golden amber." (see Heliades.html)

So, the poem is actually a multi-layered reverse allegory of the metamorphosis of the Heliades (they came from the fire and air (the sun in the sky), and metamorphosed into earth (trees) at the water (the River Eridanos), whereas the fish came from the water and earth, and metamorphosed into fire and air). Neat!

On the other hand, SYNOPSIS sees it like this:

Shawn Pittard has been fishing. He takes the fish home and cooks it in his back yard, and daydreams about being a famous ancient hunter (instead of an old guy in spectacles who makes his living teaching Creative Writing).

The amber smoke rising from the campfire (which Shawn has build in his backyard) reminds Shawn of all the savage hunters in the old days who used to cook fish they caught themselves on their campfires (out in the forest, surrounded by wild animals). As he daydreams about what a mighty hunter he is (with his $500 fishing-pole and his SUV) he looks up at the sky where he can see the constellation Orion. (In Greek mythology Orion was a mighty hunter who was turned into a constellation by the gods when he was stung to death by a scorpion).

A lot of contemporary US poetry is old fat guys (and old fat girls) daydreaming about how much cooler it would have been to be real people back in heroic times.

It's kind of sad - but then, most poetry is.