Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem works to overcome what any reader would resist: the uncomfortable identification with the helpless, hapless creatures in the store’s tank. These trapped creatures, at once at home and yet decidedly out of place, exist absurdly unaware of their approaching fate, indeed exist in a sort of suspended animation, a dream state, to await an entirely and wholly meaningless death that lurks all about the natural world. That description of the lobsters, “[p]hilosophers and at the same time victims,” tallies uncomfortably close to the situation of the shoppers themselves. The poem then provides the reader the unexpected (and perhaps) unwanted gift of generous humility. There is no protection from that final jolting line. In the penultimate line the poet lingers over four ellipsis dots that trail off into a pause and offer the hope of an affirmation of something, anything, beyond the material world. The ellipsis pause, however, only makes the closing line that much more startling. Yes, there is something bigger than the world: death, as slow and gradual and inevitable as the fire beneath the lobster pot.

But the poem itself counters any pull of anxiety over such a conclusion. Death here is not malevolent or profound or even personal. The poem offers three strategies for engaging the world, two unworkable extremes and a satisfying alternative. That every living thing dwells metaphorically in a pot under which slow-boils a fire does not negate that world’s richness, evidenced by the poet’s loving detailing of the lobsters themselves in the opening stanza. If the poem then asks that the reader accept the absurdity and inevitability of death, it rejects living like the lobsters, too-content in the apparent firmness of the sand, existing in an uncomplicated sort of dream state, unaware of the world, and slowly moving to death. But the poem also dismisses living like the unthinking shoppers, casually insulated from their own world, distancing themselves from that world and never pausing to investigate the beauty and strangeness of the most familiar objects whose unsuspected complexity would stun them. Rather the reader is challenged to live like the narrator himself, stoic, alert, open-eyed, and willing to accept with bemusement the rich ironies of the magnificent living world shadowed, paradoxically, by death.