Ecology Kyle Griffiths

Fish Art

by Kyle Griffiths

Trevally Jack (public domain because of copyright expiration)

“And we know that some words, like hill, plow, mother, window, bird, and fish, are so drenched in human association, they sometimes can make even bad poems evocative.” – Theodore Roethke

So, keeping the artistic theme from my plants post going, I’ve collected sources that illustrate the rich history of fish-based art and poetry. People have been inspired by fish for a long time, if you take the quote above the same way I do. I believe that a lot of the appeal of an aquarium is the the beauty of the organisms and the aquascaping, and even though I’m a science-focused person, I appreciate the beauty of fish as much as anyone.

Fish in poems can represent the unknowable, the other, elemental forces, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s The Fish. The speaker describes catching a fish and holding him beside the boat: “He hung a grunting weight, /battered and venerable /and homely…” Much of the text of the poem is a description of this organism, and the respect the speaker feels when she sees five hooks broken off in the fishes mouth, “Like medals with their ribbons /frayed and wavering, /a five-haired beard of wisdom /trailing from his aching jaw.” A cascade of sensation leads to the speaker’s release of this grizzled veteran, who has already enriched the speaker beyond compare.

Rilke also treats fish as an unquantifiable in his Sonnets to Orpheus. In sonnet 20, part 2 (translated by David Young, 1987 Wesleyan Press), Rilke’s speaker describes a feeling of distance looking at a plate of fishes. “Fish are dumb … so we thought. Who knows? /Is there a place where, even in their absence, /we can speak the language of fish?” he wonders.  This is a very curious thought, something a kid might think, but the Sonnets are directed toward Orpheus, the son of Apollo, the Greek god of music, and therefore towards the elements of poetry, form and symbol, communication itself, so my interpretation is that this is a more subtle question. Wondering if there is a place where the language of fishes is spoken in their absence could be an expression of how we will never truly inhabit the semantic world of another, no matter how well known, that everyone else might just as well be speaking the language of fish all the time.

On the visual side there is a very interesting connection of art with science.  In zoological texts, to show their colors in life (something distinctly lacking from a preserved specimen) fish were often documented through drawings and paintings. These scientific works are also incredibly lovely.

Ironically, illustrations of fish can be used for science even when they are not intended for that purpose. Recently, I read a story about contemporary researchers using information from ancient Roman mosaics to put together trends in the abundance of a type of grouper that was formerly common in the Mediterranean. So here’s to the longstanding relationship of fish to human expression, whatever the nature of that relationship in the long run.

Link to grouper article: