Throughout this piece, which may be autobiographical in nature, the poet’s speaker describes fishing, catching a fish, killing it, and praying for the natural world around him. The speaker takes a calm and peaceful approach to this subject matter. This means that the lines do not feel rushed or overly emotional. Throughout ‘Northern Pike’, readers will also find many examples of skillful imagery.
Explore Northern Pike
‘Northern Pike’ by James Wright is a peaceful poem about a fishing trip and a speaker’s appreciation for nature and life.
The poem describes the images he saw on a fishing trip and his experience with the fish itself. He notes the beautiful, life-affirming sights and sounds in his vicinity and how killing and eating the fish made him feel. The poem ends on an optimistic note, suggesting that happiness can be found through simple pleasures in the natural world.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Northern Pike’ by James Wright is a twenty-nine-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean they are completely without structure or rhyme. For example, the poet uses examples of repetition in his use of anaphora in the final lines of the poem.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “living” used twice in line sixteen and “movements” and “making” in line twenty-two.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses especially effective images. For example, “For the ripples below their tails, / For the little movements that we knew the crawdads were making.”
- Enjambment: used throughout the poem. Occurs when the poet cuts off a line before it’s natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three as well as five and six.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “All right. Try this” or “To go on living. We.”
All right. Try this,
Then. Every body
I know and care for,
Open from the hinge of the tail
To a place beneath the chin
I wish I could sing of.
In the first lines of ‘Northern Pike,’ the speaker begins by addressing an unknown listener or group of people. He’s going to be conveying something important and trying to capture everyone’s attention. This is known as a “hook.” Readers should be interested in the poet’s first lines and feel like that want to continue reading.
The speaker describes how he came to understand that everyone he knows and everyone he doesn’t is going to “die in a loneliness / [he] can’t imagine.” He’s thinking about death and what it’s going to be like. For someone who is alive, it’s impossible to truly imagine. He knows that “he” and whoever he is with, perhaps his close family or friends, had to “go on living.”
The “living” takes the form of being outside and fishing in this particular poem. The following lines serve as a metaphor for the difficulties of life and the process one goes through to solve one problem before encountering the next.
The speaker describes catching and killing a fish (a Northern Pike), cutting it open from “the hinge of the tail / To a place beneath the chin.” He uses the line “I wish I could sing of” here. This suggests that he finds this process entrancing and beautiful. It’s something he wishes he could put into words or into verse but is unable to. This captures a feeling of amazement and awe that many experiences when exploring the natural world.
I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.
For the little movements that we knew the crawdads were making
The speaker adds in lines fifteen and sixteen that he would sing of this “as soon as we let / The living go on living.” Here, readers may interpret the lines differently. They could suggest that the speaker is encountering a moral issue with his own killing of the fish, but it’s not something that stops him. He respects living and all-natural things, but he is trying to live and experience things as well.
The speaker describes how “we” paused and prayed for everything. This included the muskrats and the ripples in the water, the “little movements that we knew the crawdads were making” and more. They are sending out their love and appreciation for the beautiful, simple sights of the natural world, these things that let one know that life is present.
Lines 24- 29
For the right-hand wrist of my cousin who is a policeman.
We prayed for the game warden’s blindness.
We prayed for the road home.
We ate the fish.
There must be something very beautiful in my body,
I am so happy.
They also prayed for the “right-hand wrist of my cousin who is a policeman.” This interesting line suggests that the “right-hand,” perhaps the wrist they use to draw their weapon, is damaged (or needs to be protected). They also prayed for the “road home” and to avoid the “game warden.” The latter implies that they are fishing on land that they aren’t supposed to. They hope to get away with what they’re doing and make it home safely.
The poem concludes with an acknowledgment of the beauty of the natural world and how, after eating the fish, the speaker was happy and believed they had something “very beautiful in” their body. That beautiful thing is represented by the fish they killed. It has its own life force and its beauty that the speaker appreciates.
The themes at work in this poem are beauty and life. The speaker appreciates both through his acknowledgment of the natural world. He is living in the best way he knows how in these lines.
The purpose is to describe an experience fishing: one that may or may not be new to the speaker. They are out somewhere they aren’t supposed to be and taking the time to love and pray for the beautiful sights and sounds around them.
It’s likely that the speaker is James Wright himself. But, there is no clear evidence to prove that this is the case. Therefore, it makes more sense to acknowledge the speaker as a persona and not try to draw connections to the poet’s life.
The poem is written in free verse. It is twenty-nine lines long and contained within a single stanza. The poet chose not to use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern throughout the poem.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other poems by James Wright. For example:
- ‘A Blessing’ – describes Wright traveling with his friend and fellow poet Robert Bly and a moment where the two pulled off the highway to admire horses, just like in the text of the poem.
- ‘Beautiful Ohio’ – has an outlook on the beauty that clearly comes from a working man’s point of view.
- ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ – describes a speaker’s new appreciation for the countryside. They find themselves so attached to it that they suggest they’ve wasted their life not living there.