The Poetry of Fishing: James A. Emanuel

[26 August 2008]

By Chris Justice

The list is prodigious as an Alaskan salmon run: Izaak Walton, James Fenimore Cooper, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Norman MacLean, Thomas McGuane, Nick Lyons, and John McPhee. They’re just a few of the many writers, classic and contemporary, whose prose routinely tangles with the sport of fishing. However, prose writers like these are not alone: for centuries, poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Butler Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, and James A. Emanuel have mused over the fisherman’s art.

Why do so many writers, particularly poets, embrace the sport of fishing? For starters, fishing and writing are typically solitary crafts that offer fishermen and poets sweet opportunities for introspection. Sure, you can fish with friends, just as you can participate in writers’ workshops and revel in the camaraderie each experience provides, but fishing and poetry dangle seductive invitations for the loner hungry to tackle his or her ideas. Unlike more collaborative art forms, such as theater, music, or filmmaking, fishing and poetry cultivate individual responsibility like few other crafts: whether you write a good poem or catch many fish, the poet’s and fisherman’s products are always a reflection of his abilities alone. A romanticism and celebration of the self resonates throughout that individualism.

Fishing and storytelling are inseparable, since a fishing trip is never complete until it has been narrated to an expectant audience. We not only allow fishermen to exaggerate, but we celebrate their hyperbole, allowing them to expand truth in ways only writers and their readers, or storytellers and their audience, can appreciate. Nobody blends reality and fiction better than writers or fishermen. The blank page is no different than the open river. The writer sitting alone at a desk has a mood shared with the angler pondering invisible ghosts in deep pools. The adventure of traveling across a wild landscape in search of fish is the angler’s equivalent of a poet’s journey into the heart of language’s soul, if you will. But that journey is never complete until it has been retold and its setting, characters, dialogue, and climax have been refined for the eager listener’s ear. I often wonder myself … do I fish to tell stories, or do I tell stories to fish?

Also, similar to all great art, especially literature, fishing provides hope, inspiration, and respect for natural forces beyond our understanding and control. That hope and inspiration, like a good poem, bring people together to revel in their humanity, shared objectives, and fellowship with the natural world long after the rods, reels, and anthologies have been stored away. The overwhelming feelings we experience after reading a beautiful poem are not that different than the emotional highs we experience after catching a large, beautiful fish. In both instances, we’ve landed something profound. 

For the avid angler, fish are the writer’s words; for the avid writer, words are the fisherman’s fish. Anglers cast into the mysterious lake of possibility seeking perfectly scaled gems, just as writers cast into the sea of language seeking the perfect word or phrase. Those quests are sometimes frustrating and often challenging, but regardless of results, they are always rewarding: having examined our deepest worries and wonders while writing or fishing, poets and anglers alike often produce memorable tales. Combine those characteristics with the escapism and adventure fishing offers and the contact it fosters with Chance’s mystical realms, and it should be no surprise that some of the world’s greatest writers and poets were also fervent anglers.

And just as sensory explosions, unique rhythms, and symmetrical balances propel poetry, fishing too is electrified by our senses and the natural order. Hearing a reel’s drag slice through morning silence as a large fish runs, or watching an eagle clasp a fish on the surface with the sun rising behind, or smelling summer rain as a largemouth ambushes a plug…each provides the stuff of legend.

The best fishermen know that order, balance, precision, and symmetry, as best understood in our most respected “ologies” – climatology, marine biology, ichthyology, or entomology, to name just a few – cannot be ignored. Knowing sciences such as geometry and how the natural world is arranged is the fisherman’s greatest resource, just as studying traditions and conventions of poetic forms offers the poet knowledge too tempting to pass.

Few poems capture these ideas better than James A. Emanuel’s “Poet as Fisherman”. Born in 1921, Emanuel, a Nebraska native, is best known for his contributions in establishing African American literature as an academic discipline and creating the literary genre of the “jazz-and-blues-haiku”. As one of the world’s leading Langston Hughes scholars, he has held professorships at the City College of New York (CUNY) and in France and Poland and currently resides in Paris. By many people’s estimations, he is one of America’s most important “neglected” poets.

Poet As Fisherman
I fish for words
to say what I fish for,
half-catch sometimes.

I have caught little pan fish flashing sunlight
(yellow perch, crappies, blue-gills),
lighthearted reeled them in,
filed them on stringers on the shore.
A nice mess, we called them,
and ate with our fingers, laughing.

Once, dreaming of fish in far-off waters,
I hooked a two-foot carp in Michigan,
on nylon line so fine
a fellow-fisher shook his head:
“He’ll break it, sure; he’ll roll on it and get away.”
A quarter-hour it took to bring him in;
back-and-forth toward my net,
syllable by syllable I let him have his way
till he lay flopping on the grass—
beside no other, himself enough in size:
he fed the three of us (each differently)
new strategies of hook, leader, line, and rod.

Working well, I am a deep-water man,
a “Daredevil” silver wobbler
my lure for lake trout in midsummer.

Oh, I have tried the moon, thermometers—
the bait and time and place all by the rule—
fishing for the masterpiece,
the imperial muskellunge in Minnesota,
the peerless pike in Canada.
I have propped a well-thumbed book
against the butt of my favorite rod
and fished from my heart.

Yet, for my labors,
all I have to show
are tactics, lore—
so little I know
of that pea-sized brain I am casting for,
to think it could swim
with the phantom-words
that lure me to this shore.

—James A. Emanuel

The beauty of Emanuel’s poem resides in its first and last stanzas, where he weaves the arts of fishing and writing unlike any other artist. In the first stanza, he writes, “I fish for words to say what I fish for, half-catch sometimes,” which raises this important question: Why do we fish? To catch fish or to catch words and stories? Emanuel reminds us that fishing and writing are bookends on the same odyssey, a search for personal, communal, societal, and universal meaning that helps define our existence. Many fishermen find fish and words synonymous; our sentences are each a fishing trip themselves marked by endless variations and surprising syntactical combinations that compel us toward the shore of meaning, gazing into the horizon, seeking more. 

The “half-catch sometimes” that he alludes to recalls the imperfections inherent in fishing. Like writing, fishing is a celebration of missed opportunities, uncertainty, and failure. Casting a fly to an exact location is an exercise in imperfection, just as trying to describe a mental image or emotion with words can be. Every word a writer chooses, just as every cast a fisherman boasts, is simultaneously a reaching for something perfect while tacitly acknowledging it cannot exactly hit its target. We catch something when angling, but the experience is never certain, never complete, until our words become stories and our stories find conclusions.

James A. Emanuel - 1999, photo by Godelieve Simons

James A. Emanuel - 1999, photo by Godelieve Simons

Emanuel’s poem concludes with this stanza: “Yet, for my labors, all I have to show are tactics, lore so little I know of that pea-sized brain I am casting for, to think it could swim with the phantom-words that lure me to this shore.” Emanuel acknowledges there’s something foolish about fishing: Why do we waste time with this silly sport, chasing these tiny creatures? Why do we work so hard for something so insignificant? We concoct elaborate tactics and purchase expensive equipment for small fish with “pea-sized brain(s)” that we often don’t even keep or eat.

Why? Part of Emanuel’s point articulates the magic all anglers experience: fishing is a profoundly humbling experience that often leaves egos in shreds. To remind ourselves frequently that a creature as relatively small and “pea-brained” as a sunfish, flounder, or trout can remain so elusive and difficult to catch is a humbling, almost religious, experience. We are reduced to something fundamental when fishing, and that process is precious.

And “the phantom-words that lure (him) to this shore” are no different than the phantom-fish that lure him: both are hauntingly elusive and beautiful, simultaneously embodying the possible and impossible in one silver flash. For Emanuel, words and compositions are phantoms: they don’t exist until we find them and bring them to page; fish are no different: they don’t exist until we find them and bring them to shore. Out of nothingness, through the poet’s and fisherman’s tools, come glorious fish and poetry. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chatted with people along a shoreline and pointed out fish to them. They were amazed that, first, I could even see those phantoms; second, that I could accurately identify them; and third, that such life could exist before their eyes without noticing it.

Call me naïve, but I’ll call that magic, and no two activities recreate that magic better than poetry and fishing.

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