Fishing in the Mind

Winslow Homer, “Boy Fishing”

Thursday

Can art be so vivid that it supersedes actual experience? Billy Collins makes such a claim in “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” where he conjures up images that may resonate with those who fish, even though Collins isn’t among them. His own experience, he freely admits, comes from museum paintings.

Art precedes life, I imagine Collins arguing. A brown hare he sees in a painting seems much more real than any actual hare.

If Collins enhances our own fishing expeditions or nature walks, however, perhaps actual experience doesn’t really matter. As Hamlet reflects upon an actor pouring out the Queen of Troy’s grief, “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?” Perhaps artists don’t so much see as channel.

Or as Shakespeare puts it elsewhere,

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

By Billy Collins

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

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