Battle of the Bards: Round 1

I happen to have one of those rare academic degrees in which one’s years of education enjoy an inverse relationship to one’s yearly income. Luckily, my largely unremunerative existence is rich in other things, such as opportunities to stalk trout, not only in the stream, but on the page as well. And my thinking about the book-born species Salmo trutta literaria suggests that not all specimens are created equal. In this week’s column, I’d like to take a closer look at two trout of the bibliophilic order, one spawned by an American fiction writer, the other by an Irish poet. Both won Nobel prizes in their respective days, but the question I’d present you with is this: who demonstrates a keener, deeper understanding of trout?

Enter our first contender. From Oak Park, Illinois via Paris, Spain and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, standing 6 foot 1 in his socks, we have Wemedge, aka Papa, aka Hemingstein, aka Ernie Hemingway. The troutful passage in question comes from his short story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” which he offered to Gertrude Stein as a Northwoods rendition of the French narrative method, very much in vogue at the time, of championing description and rhythm over plot and action (fans of this short story might be surprised to learn its first draft totaled over 90 pages, and that when Hemingway handed it over to Stein he proudly declared, “Nothing happens” ). The following excerpt comes from early in the narrative when young Nick Adams, wounds of WWI still raw, pauses atop a bridge at the outset of what he hopes will be a restorative fishing trip.

The river was there. It swirled against the log spires of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions again by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first. Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.

Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

The first interesting thing to note is the fundamental tension at the core of the trout’s existence, a tension revealed through the conflicting word pairs in the first paragraph. The trout keep themselves “steady” with their “wavering” fins. They “change positions” only to “hold steady.” This suggests a state of total and constant flux, a world where stability can only be experienced temporarily and then only as a product of, a response to, instability—a compelling look at the life of a trout as well as the emotionally damaged young man observing them.

The next paragraph has a good deal of what I define for my students as authenticity, those moments in great writing that demonstrate that the author has experienced something many times and has deliberately chosen the best language to express that experience: “big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.” We also see a more expansive expression of the tension established in the first paragraph. It seems that everything in this scene is battling an opposing force: the trout versus the current, the log piling versus the pushing and swelling river, Nick himself versus the distorting surface currents as he struggles to see what lies beneath. In fact, it appears that the trout’s world of constant tension, calculation and adaptation is the dominant world here, the one in which everything and everyone else must find their place. One could almost make a case for Nick as a trout at this point. I’m sure some dissertating PhD candidate has.

The final, and most dramatic, paragraph, is striking in its resistance to directly invoking metaphor or simile in describing the sharp glissade of that particularly large fish. One could easily imagine the trout being described like a dart or missile; but no, in Hemingway’s world trout are born trout and remain trout. And anything else invited to assist in the description—in this case the gliding shadow of a kingfisher—must come from the trout’s world, and play a soft hand in the process.  Indeed, the trout world Nick Adams sets out to inhabit is a place of secret tensions and battles, of energy and mystery. Much effort will be required to divine it. Lucky for Nick, he’s got cans of spaghetti enough to make a week of it.

In the next corner stands Seamus Heaney (whose tapestry of nicknames I am sadly unfamiliar with) with a poem entitled, “Trout.”

Hangs, a fat gun-barrel,

deep under arched bridges

or slips like butter down

the throat of the river.

From the depths smooth-skinned as plums

his muzzle gets bull’s eye;

picks off grass-seed and moths

that vanish, torpedoed.

Where water unravels

over gravel-beds he

is fired from the shallows

white belly reporting

flat; darts like a tracer-

bullet back between stones

and is never burnt out.

A volley of cold blood

ramrodding the current.

Heaney takes a more deliberate hand in shaping and defining the subject here–a trout, sure, but not just any trout, a Heaney trout, with all the sundry ideas that accrue to their kind. It’s a poem laden with diverse images, some graceful and smooth (“slips like butter down the throat of the river”/“from the depths smooth-skinned as plums”) others brutal and brusque (“fat gun-barrel/ “torpedoed”). What was tension in Hemingway’s piece manifests itself as outright conflict in Heaney’s poem, but the particular forces in conflict are unclear.

Unlike Hemingway’s trout, which seemed to make up the core of the Northwoods comsos, Heaney’s trout appears as something out of place, even destructive. Much of the language comes from military culture: we have tracer bullets, reports, torpedoes, the like. There is a swagger here as well that I can’t quite make sense of: is Heaney trying to capture what a trout might think of him or herself on a really ass-kickingly good day?

One peculiar moment comes in the eleventh line, where the trout “is fired from the shallows.” Given the use of the passive voice, one wonders who the agent of the firing is. Does it suggest an external agent?  That seems unlikely.  Perhaps it’s something so deep within the trout as to exist beyond the trout as well, a self-involved relentlessness that informs the basest purpose of all living creatures.   This torpedoing trout, then, may be in essence a warning shot.  But warning of what?

Those last two lines “a volley of cold blood/ramrodding the current” are a far cry from Hemingway’s natural model of tension and balance. In Heaney’s poem, the river environment itself has been subjugated to the rapacious life force of this fish, which “is never burnt out.” A consumptive life-force that never burns out? Sounds a lot like unsustainability to me. But if so, why locate these ideas within the trout as opposed to the angler?

Clearly, Heaney’s poem asks more questions than it answers. But one thing’s certain: you’d need at least 3x to take the Heaney fish. 2x if water clarity let you get away with it.

So where do you fall in this debate? Hemingway or Heaney?  And what writer would you nominate to take on the winner of this contest for round 2?