What is the theme of Derek Walcott's poem "Tarpon"?   .

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Derek Walcott, a West Indian writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.  In choosing Walcott, the selection committee stated that his poetry contained luminosity and radiance.  This description fits his poem "Tarpon."  Using the background of Trinidad in much of his poetry,   Walcott explores the Caribbean cultural experience, with sweeping rhythmical and lush descriptions. 

Utilizing colorful imagery, "Tarpon," written in free verse, is narrated in first person, probably by the poet himself.  The poem's subject is the tarpon, a large salt water fish that when fully grown weighs approximately two hundred pounds and can reach a length of six feet.  Characterized by a thick body covered with  large silvery scales,  the fish has a large forked tail and a definitive underbite with large lips. 

The poem records an actual event.  The poet and his son observe the death seizures of a tarpon lying on a beach near Cedros, a fishing district near Walcott's home in Trinidad.  The scene is one of extreme brutality, but later to the poet, one of astonishing beauty.

...the tarpon gaped with a gold eye

Thrashing with brute pain.

Dead and examined in detail

a tarpon's bulk grows beautiful.

As the fish dies, the narrator looks at the complexity of the  fish's design.  It is so intrigues him that its image becomes attached in his mind's eye.  In its death throes, the tarpon occasionally shudders spewing blood with its mouth moving as though it is speaking nonsense.  A fisherman is beating the fish to death. The poet's young son observing this horrifying scene simply shakes his head.  Wondering if he should tell the boy not to look, the man decides this is a important scene they are sharing.

When the fish dies, its body takes on a surprising splendor.  Using a variety of similes, the tarpon's colors and scales are compared to corroded silver coins in a net that runs from the forked tail to the wide open eye.  The most striking comparison is simplistic:

A shape so simple, like a cross

a child can draw it in the air

The comparison brings to mind a religious experience. In another interesting contrast, the self-satisfied fisherman likens the scales of the fish to a child's drawing of a two- masted ship.  The narrator visualizes the tarpon moving with its sails to some faraway place.  The fish so immense and ferocious in life seems almost innocent in death.

Capturing the wonder and adventure of this spectacle, the poet thematically uses his artistic voice to share the enigma of death.  From the brutality of the fish's death, the poet has an epiphany: How can this immense dead fish lying motionless represent such extreme opposites of density and delicacy?  This is nature's plan. Some aspect of nature dies, but this does not take away its splendor.

The author shares this personal experience not only  with his son but with the reader as well. The awesome  adventure of encountering this immense fish is both brutally repulsive yet strikingly natural.