‘Cetacean’ by Peter Reading is a twenty-three line poem that does not follow a particular rhyme scheme. The piece has been written utilizing a variety of line lengths, ranging from thirteen words to four. This intrinsic element of variety, as well as the initially random-seeming line breaks, add to the visual and auditory interest. The title of this piece is a word that is not common in everyday speech, “cetacean” refers to a certain species of ocean animal, such as a dolphin, whale, or porpoise.
The individual verses often break in unexpected places where one would not naturally pause in their speech, this is called enjambment and is used to draw attention to, speed up, and slow down, certain elements of the poem. Additionally, the poet has chosen to write using short choppy phrases within his long lines. A great example of this is in the second line, “to observe Blue Whales-and we did, off the Farallones.”
One other aspect to note about ‘Cetacean’ is the way that Reading has chosen to construct the poem as more of a narrative than lines of verse. The individual lines are longer than an average poem’s, and he has not put emphasis on rhyme or meter.
Summary of Cetacean
The poem begins with the speaker stating that it was on an early Sunday morning that he, and his companions, set out to see the whales. They were intentionally going out to see blue whales and traveled to a set of islands off the coast of California, the “Farallones.”
The speaker is successful in his quest and the rest of the poem is devoted to describing that experience. He frequently takes note of the grace of their bodies, as well as their general mass. He is amazed by their movements, and struck by the “diminutive” nature of their dorsal fins.
The whales dive back under the water, rolling through the waves, showing off all the markings of their bodies. The display finally ends when they dive into the depths, leaving the narrator with the image of their “flukes,” or tail fins.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Cetacean
Out of Fisherman’s Wharf, San Fransisco, Sunday, early,
our vessel, bow to stern, some sixty-three feet,
(they were grey as slate with white mottling, dorsals tiny and stubby,
with broad flat heads at least one quarter their overall body lengths).
The poem begins with the speaker describing the setting. Due to the format of Reading’s writing in this piece, it might take more than one reading to understand the first few lines. The words appear out-of-order, and the choppy nature of the phrasing is quite unusual.
The speaker, and his unnamed companions, are setting off from San Francisco, early on a Sunday morning. They have left behind “Fisherman’s Wharf” and are headed out to sea. These simple phrases are evocative and bring to mind endless images of the tossing ocean and hardy sailors setting out on a great quest. Taken in tandem with the title, one might assume that this is the beginning of a hunt.
The poem continues on to describe a closer element of the setting, the boat itself. As the speaker looks around he knows that the “vessel” is “sixty-three feet” from the “bow to stern,” or front to back. The following line provides more context as well as the reason for the trip. He and his companions are setting off in the hopes of seeing “Blue Whales” off of “the Farallones,” a group of islands off the California coast.
The story is not about whether or not the speaker will see the whales though, as the following two words confirm. He saw the whales as they came quite close to the boat. They were swimming and rising “slowly” from the water. They breached at an angle and appeared as “grey as slate.” Their bodies were covered with “white mottling” and compared to the overall size of their bodies, their “dorsal” fins were small.
In the final line of this section, he states that their “broad flat heads” were impressively large. The speaker knows a lot about these animals and relays, scientifically, to the reader that they were “one quarter their overall body-lengths.”
They blew as soon as their heads began to break the surface.
The blows were as straight and slim as upright columns
showed briefly, after the blows had dispersed and the heads had
In the next set of lines, the speaker continues to describe the interaction he had with these blue whales off the coast of California. After the whales had come to the surface they “blew” out water. These streaks were enormous, and “straight and slim as upright columns..” They rose up to “thirty feet.” This is a fact that clearly impresses the speaker. He sees these creatures as both beautiful and highly impressive.
In the next lines, the show is over. The whales descend back into the water and momentarily disappear. The poet is trying to evoke a sense of loss— through his speaker, he has described something wonderful and then taken it away. They were gone from the surface, but could still be seen rolling through the water. Their “backs” would “hove into” the speaker’s view and he could tell that they were longer than “the vessel herself.”
Then they arched their backs, then arched their tail stocks ready
Then the flukes were visible just before the creatures vanished,
slipping into the deep again, at a shallow angle.
In the final four lines, the speaker brings the narrative of whale watching to a close. He has glimpsed the mass of the whales and has been impressed by their biological distinctiveness. He notes the fact that as they rolled he once more caught sight of their “diminutive dorsals,” (interesting use of “d” sound alliteration by the poet).
In the last two lines, the whales departed from the scene entirely. They “arched” up their backs and their tails. The speaker knows they are getting ready to dive. They do so, and the last thing he is able to see are their “flukes,” or tail fins. One can easily imagine the grace of these movements and the true sense of loss that would be experienced when the whales were truly and finally out of sight.