The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 604 words.)