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Scientists Explore Poet Marianne Moore’s The Fish

A new episode of PBS’s POETRY IN AMERICA focuses on Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Marianne Moore’s “The Fish.” In conversation with six ocean scientists from Conservation International, poet Jorie Graham, and former Vice President Al Gore, the episode undertakes a close reading of this poem which is set in the ocean.

“The Fish”is part of Marianne Moore’s book Observations. Using color, shape, and texture, she evokes imagery of the sea floor and the bodies that live there. Moore, according to the episode, believed that nature was the poet’s god—rather than looking first to emotions, she turned to the external world and through observation connected to a resonant level of meaning. The poem’s form—paragraphs that ripple in and out—mimic the ocean’s waves.

Halfway through the poem, Moore introduced the image of a submarine. “The Fish” was written the year that the United States entered World War I, when Germany was extensively deploying submarines. The ocean floor was significantly damaged: “lack/of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and/hatchet strokes, these things stand/out on it,” in Moore’s words. Her poem, scientists in the episode suggest, may be read as foreshadowing the sad state of oceans filled with plastic and bleached coral reefs familiar today. She ends the poem with a reminder that the sea is capable of aging.

Written and directed by Elisa New, “The Fish” is part of season two of POETRY IN AMERICA. The episode was made with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It can be rented from a variety of online platforms.