Battle of the Bards: Esox Edition

The melt is on.  All across the Midwestern map, my rivers are flush, foaming, and furious— gnashing off chunks of cutbank, gumming away limbs of cedars, filling a hole in here, gouging a slot out there.  There’ll be a few more seams— or a few less— down which May’s duns will slip into trutta-toothed oblivion.  But it’s not May yet.  For now, these rivers are turgid and roiling to the point of unfishability, which brings my thoughts towards still waters, toward lakes, sloughs and reservoirs, each with their own rituals of renewal.  In many of these waters spring rites begin with pike, toothy phantoms already thickening in sunbeaten bays.

So much has been written about pike that they seem to me like literature’s “other fish,” after trout and salmon, of course.  But writing about pike has served a different purpose than writing about trout— over the centuries, the two families of fish have meant very different things.  While trout have often appear in more “refined” narratives (those dealing with science, conservation, aesthetics), the pike has served as a folkloric entity, one symbolizing primal forces like violence, avarice and appetite.  The two fish also seem to operate on different size-scales: if Trutta is the fish of story, Esox is the creature of legend.

Today we look at two mid-century poets, the American Theodore Roethke and the Brit Ted Hughes.  The former went to graduate school in my home state of Michigan, which makes me wonder whether the pike that appears in his poem was indeed a Michigan fish.  Here’s is Roethke’s “The Pike” in its entirety.

The river turns,
Leaving a place for the eye to rest,
A furred, a rocky pool,
A bottom of water.

The crabs tilt and eat, leisurely,
And the small fish lie, without shadow, motionless,
Or drift lazily in and out of the weeds.
The bottom-stones shimmer back their irregular striations,
And the half-sunken branch bends away from the gazer’s eye.

A scene for the self to abjure!-
And I lean, almost into the water,
My eye always beyond the surface reflection;
I lean, and love these manifold shapes,
Until, out from a dark cove,
From beyond the end of a mossy log,
With one sinuous ripple, then a rush,
A thrashing-up of the whole pool
The pike strikes.

Here the pike seems to represent an irrepressible, interruptive force—here literature’s systematically rising trout, steady as a metronome, meets its antithesis.  That said, in Roethke’s poem, one almost gets the sense that the speaker is initially more interested in having a “trout” kind of day—there’s a desire to order, name and understand things.  In this ordering the speaker finds himself on the verge of fusing with the scene, of becoming one with in one of those aesthetic apotheoses poets are so fond of–but the pike is having none of that.  Upon the pike’s sudden and unexpected thrashing up of the whole pool, all precious hell breaks loose—the speaker’s prized “manifold shapes” are thrown into disarray.  What I love best about the poem is how those last five lines echo the two-part rhythm of the pike’s strike: the first a careful, studied hunt, the second a reckless, desperate gamble.

The next (and considerably longer) poem is Ted Hughes’s “Pike.”

Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads-
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them-
Suddenly there were two. Finally one

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb-

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks-
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them-

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly toward me, watching.

Documents reveal that Ted Hughes wrote this pike poem on a day when he wanted to fish pike but couldn’t—his poem represents an act of sublimation.  The portrait of the pike painted by Hughes suggests that he, the angler, wanted very much to be hunted that day (maybe that’s the thing all Esox anglers have in common, a desire to be hunted, to be attacked).  During the course of the poem the idea of the pike grows larger and larger, while human power grows weaker and weaker. Hughes is attempting to understand the pike on its own terms, and the more he understands, the smaller and more vulnerable he feels.  In the poem’s final moment the pike rises, not to sip an emerger in a pat affirmation of science, a knowable fish in a knowable world, but rather to meet the speaker in a dangerous game, approaching him in the way that pike approach things–unknowably, unpredictably.  One can’t help but feel that, if there were a next stanza, it would end with a suddenly absent angler, a suddenly sated fish.

So goes our celebration of the pike, and a question: who wrote the fish better, Hughes or Roethke?