“The Sturgeon,” written in free verse, consists of fifty-six lines, which are divided into five stanzas or verse paragraphs. The title bluntly states the apparent subject of the poem; as with other poem titles in this posthumous collection—“Wine,” “Suspenders,” “Lemonade,” “Letter,” and “Summer Fog,” for example—Raymond Carver does not force the title to mean anything. It simply names the object on which Carver decides to focus the poem.
The poem is written in the first person, and the speaker is the poet himself reminiscing about his father and the stories his father told him. The poem begins, however, with an objective description of a sturgeon. Unlike some of the more embellished nature poems by Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop, Carver baldly describes the fish’s habitat, body, and habits: “the sturgeon is a bottom-feeder/ and can’t see well.” He continues, “The sturgeon/ lives aloneand takes/ 100 years getting around to its first mating.” This is not a baroque style to say the least; Carver’s words are as close to prose as poetry is likely to get.
The second stanza moves this description out of a timeless world into a specific moment in time with the description of a specific sturgeon. It seems the opening journalistic description was imitating or recalling “a sketchof its biography” of a nine-hundred-pound sturgeon the author and his father saw “winched up in a corner/ of the Agricultural Exhibit Building.” At this point, where the poem will lead can only be guessed.
The third stanza, like the first, has the first-person persona removed from the description. Again, only the facts about the sturgeon are here: “The largest are netted/ in the Don River/ somewhere in Russia.” The knowledge displayed about sturgeons is encyclopedic, and the style of the poem is reminiscent of the language of a common reference book. Carver has let the air out of the grand style of poetry writing.
The flat language is used to tell a tall story in the fourth stanza, in which the narrator and his father reappear. The reader discovers that apparently Carver is writing—“I am quoting”—from memory or from an imaginary recollection of the “particular specimenkilled in the exploratory dynamiting/ that went on in the summer of 1951,” when Carver was twelve or thirteen. The poem picks up pace with the father’s description of a hooked sturgeon that fights to a standstill a team of horses fastened to the line.
Carver, however, does not like pyrotechnics—he cuts the story short: “I don’t remember much else—maybe it got away.” All he can remember is his father beside him “staring up at that great dead fish,/ and that marvelous story of his, all/ surfacing, now and then.” The concluding stanza does not resolve any of the principal questions a reader might have about the poem, but it does raise new ones about the importance of the story to Carver as a boy and as a man recollecting it and about what the poem says about the presence of memory in poetry. It is also interesting to consider whether William Wordsworth’s definition of poetry fits here, for example, whether this poem is an instant of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” or whether Carver is trying something different.
Carver is known primarily as a brilliant short-story writer, although his poems are also well regarded by many. His poems owe much to the short-story genre, as is clearly evinced in “The Sturgeon.” The poet uses a plain style, with descriptive details that shy away from metaphor or simile, and a narrative to hold the work...
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together. Carver also takes Wordsworth’s words about poetry quite literally: Wordsworth argued, in his 1800 preface toLyrical Ballads, that poets should write in a “language really used by men” and that there should be no “essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.” Carver seems intent on blurring whatever norms or conventions separate the two genres. This poem reads in places as if it were a reference work; his use of figurative language in the poem—“Mosslike feelers hang down over/ the slumbrous lips”—occurs in the section in which he is apparently quoting from an unnamed source rather than being “poetic.”
One of the primary distinctions between a short story and this poem—besides the line breaks—is the fact that the narrator is Carver himself; this poem is not, he insists, fiction, although the fact that Carver cannot quite recall the events central to the poem slurs this distinction. The other central poetic technique used here is the juxtaposition of the simple, descriptive sections (parts 1 and 3) and the parts that are devoted to the capturing of memory (parts 2, 4, and 5). It is this juxtaposition that forces the reader to wonder about the point of joining together the story about the hanging fish, including “its biography—which my father read/ and then read aloud” and Carver’s silence about his feelings for his father. The reader is left wondering whether this poem is about grief, and, if so, where the true emotion lies.
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