The Poem

Howard Nemerov’s “Lobsters” is a philosophical meditation on the inevitability of death occasioned by the narrator’s pausing to observe lobsters kept, awaiting purchase, in a supermarket fish tank. Told in loose blank verse, the poem consists of two verse paragraphs, one a single continuously running sentence of nine lines and the second a more developed unit of twenty-two lines. The meditation then ends with a single line that functions much like the punchline of a joke, giving the poem’s meditation its unexpected ironic close.

The poem begins within the reassuringly familiar confines of a contemporary supermarket, mockingly dubbed the Super Duper, and focuses immediately on the tankful of marine curiosities. The lines tidily recount the familiar practice of a shopper selecting a living lobster and then returning home to kill the creature before serving it with a “sauce of melted butter.” The poem reviews the process in an efficient deadpan tone despite the shocking singularity of the transaction, largely unexamined by those who participate in it—certainly nowhere else in the market are shoppers expected to select and then kill their dinners. Indeed the grim act of killing is itself rendered euphemistically: the shopper will go home and “drop [the lobster] into boiling water.” The stanza is a single unbroken sentence. Such lexical tidiness reinforces both the neatness of the ghastly transaction and the swiftness of the approaching execution....

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Forms and Devices

“Lobsters” is an example of symbolist poetry, specifically, a poem that validates the argument, made a generation earlier most prominently by poets such as William Butler Yeats and Wallace Stevens, that the most familiar objects in the natural world are packed with an unsuspected significance that is detected only by the open, interactive eye in moments of unexpected insight. Such poems detach a familiar object from its surroundings to consider its implications, to read its meaning. That poetic process is suggested metaphorically here by the harsh overhead store lighting that makes the lobsters conspicuous despite their natural camouflage colorings. Natural objects, if thus observed, possess dense metaphoric value, and the phenomenal world can instruct those willing to observe and reflect. Nemerov, in describing his role as a poet, has said, “I not so much look at nature as I listen to what it says.” The poem, as a meditation, begins without the distraction of a dramatic situation or any complex narrative line and thus is compelled not by action but rather by observation. Specifically the “plot” here is the evolution of a thought, the process in which the loving description of the lobsters moves inexorably (and paradoxically) toward a wholly unexpected conclusion.

As in the nature poetry of Robert Frost, that reflection is rendered in a low-pitched unadorned blank verse (largely iambic pentameter) that mimics the casual rhythms of everyday speech. That...

(The entire section is 604 words.)