The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

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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. That process essentially empowers the shopper by permitting a happy sense of superiority to the helpless animals in the tank. It is that comfortable distancing that the poem will eventually discount.

If such a singular transaction appears to be routine, Nemerov cautions, it is only because shoppers seldom pause to contemplate the creatures. Thus in the lengthy second verse paragraph, the poet first lovingly lingers to observe what the rest so easily ignore. In a generous section (fifteen lines) largely free of distracting figurative language, the poet details the “beauty of strangeness” that marks these mysterious creatures so absurdly out of place in the market. The loving eye of the narrator records the lobsters’ slow, dreamlike underwater movements and then inventories their rich dark colorations. He observes sympathetically their helplessness, their “imperial claws” held shut by pegs, and how they sleep away their final hours in evident ignorance of the depth of their precariousness.

In a brutal intrusion of otherness and an abrupt shift of focus the poet suddenly introduces the harsh pronoun “we” to indicate the casual shopper who without reflection simply selects dinner. The “we” implicates the reader. After the generous description of the creatures, however, it is difficult for any reader to participate in the shopping transaction without some hesitation. Indeed the poet suggests that occasionally there will be a shopper (like the poet himself) alert enough to pause sufficiently to identify with these helpless creatures, a mind that “sinks down” into the sandy tank bottom and who feels metaphorically the lobster’s chilly shell. At that moment of close identification the poet realizes that despite the casual assumption of superiority by the other shoppers, there is an uneasy correspondence between these magnificent creatures awaiting a death they cannot begin to understand and the shoppers themselves. The store lobsters are suddenly not merely dinner but rather an occasion to ponder mortality. The existential dilemma that faces the shopper—is there anything beyond the material world, “something underneath the world”—is answered in a devastatingly ironic closing one-liner: only the “flame beneath the pot that boils the water.” Death lurks beneath the calm world of the tanked lobsters and beneath the well-appointed Super Duper world of the shoppers as well.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

“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 use of conversational diction and familiar sentence constructions, so flexible and so handy, creates the sense of the ordinary that is essential to the poem’s argument. The poem, however, heightens the poet’s deep feeling for the lobsters by frequently deploying rich liquidy long vowels that slow down the recitation of the lines and thus create a lingering, sensual feel to the poetic lines.

Importantly, given the compact and meticulous detailing of the lobsters that the narrator provides, the poem uses figurative language only twice and each time for thematic effect. First the tanked lobsters are compared to somnambulists, or sleepwalkers, to suggest the creatures’ unenviable existence dumbly unaware of their approaching fate, a philosophy that the poem will ultimately reject. And later when the shopper actually selects a lobster, the animals are described as “slow, gigantic spiders,” the implicit metaphor functioning as a distancing device. The metaphor creates a comforting insulation—they are not really lobsters but rather mythical, hence unreal creatures—against the unpalatable reality that the strange, beautiful sea animals must be killed to become “our needful food.” Ultimately, that strategy of distancing will also be rejected by the poem.

Tone is critical here because any casual summary of the poem might make it sound brutally pessimistic. This brief poem, despite its startling closing line and its apparently grim reflection of the death that awaits every living creature, maintains a gentle, wry tone. Surely, in linking the shoppers and the lobsters Nemerov recognizes that as living creatures they share a strikingly similar fate in the face of death. To suggest the larger natural world itself, Nemerov uses as metaphor the great glass fish tank, which, he notes, is supplied by a continuously renewing source of cold, fresh water. Against the obvious temporariness of its endangered occupants, the tank symbolizes the “[p]erpetually renewed” and, hence, permanent natural world itself that surrounds even the shopper. In this Nemerov is not some existential philosopher negotiating, with anxious fears, the terrifying implications of his thinking. Rather he is a naturalist, detached yet sympathetic, an amused observer, like Frost before him, of the simplest, most evident realities of the natural world. Thus the poem closes in a bemused sense of comic irony.