Where the fin of the shark cuts like a black chip out of the water...
—from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman
Described by poets as "death-scenting," with "lipless jaws" and "eyes that stare at nothing, like the dead," sharks have long served as a cultural symbol of mortality and looming danger. Despite the fact that sharks kill fewer than 20 people a year, their reputation as the ocean's deadliest predator continues to inspire fear and fascination throughout the world.
The 1975 summer blockbuster movie Jaws made history as the first film to earn more than $100 million in U.S. box office receipts, and Shark Week—the Discovery Channel's annual weeklong series of television programs—has aired since 1986, making it cable television's longest-running programming event. Poets, too, have long been drawn to the animal Herman Melville called "the ravener of horrible meat," and have used both the imagery and dramatic energy of sharks to bait readers with poems that horrify, captivate, advise, and astound.
Due to the elusive nature of the beast, poems that incorporate sharks often leave them almost entirely out of sight, emphasizing the possibility of an encounter rather than presenting the animal itself. This is the case in "I Wonder What It Feels Like to be Drowned?" by Robert Graves, "At Shark Reef Sanctuary," by Eva Alice Counsell, and "Haunted Seas," by Cale Young Rice.
In Charles Wharton Stork's poem "Flying Fish: An Ode," the poet imagines the fear of swimming as a smaller fish:
Enclosed above, beneath, before, behind
In green uncertainty, from which a shark
At any time may dash
And doom you like some huge demonic fate...
When poems do describe sharks, and not merely the fear of them, the result can be gruesome, as in Isaac McLellan's poem "The Bluefish":
The weaker tenants of the main
Flee from their rage in vain,
The vast menhaden multitudes
They massacre o'er the flood;
With lashing tail, with snapping teeth
They stain the tides with blood.
In Carl Sandburg's poem "In a Breath," the speaker escapes into the cool of a movie house only to find a film playing out the hunt and death of a shark. The speaker recounts the jarring moment through description: "Its mouthful of teeth, each tooth a dagger itself, set row on row, glistens when the shuddering, yawning cadaver is hauled up by the brothers of the swimmer." The poet, who lived and wrote in a time before people could watch sharks on television, conveys as film itself might what complicated emotions come with witnessing one of the earth's most mysterious predators.
In a similar way, many poets have used poetry to describe actual events or memories haunted by sharks. In "The Shark," by Australian poet Judith Beveridge, a narrator reveals through slow description the experience of witnessing human remains pulled from the stomach of a dead shark:
We flinched at the stench of blood
that dripped on the fishhouse floor, and
even Davey—when Grennan reached in
past the scowl and steel prop for the
stump—just about passed out.
"The Sharks," by Denise Levertov, "Shoal of Sharks," by Richard O'Connell, "Ashore," by Ernest Hilbert, and "The Shark," by William Henry Venable also depict realistic human interactions with sharks.
In James Dickey's poem, "The Shark's Parlor," the poet employs his signature style—a mix of lyricism, narrative, and stream of consciousness—to offer a story in which boys hunt for a shark in a near-mythic. The young men attempt to catch a shark, mishandling the task at every turn, eventually dragging the thrashing animal indoors. For the narrator of the poem, speaking as an adult about the traumatic rite of passage, the memory is no longer haunting. As Dickey reveals in Self-Interviews, "the terrific energy of the primitive creature and its blood have sanctified the house for him, and he has bought the house and lives in it. As an older man he realizes that this is the reason he bought the house: for the symbolic charge of energy it has come to have for him. It still has some of the shark's blood on the wall!"
For some poets, the image of a dead shark is more haunting than a living one—especially if the animal died of mysterious or natural causes instead of at the hands of human hunters. In Alan Dugan's poem "Plague of Dead Sharks," the narrator contemplates what it means for sharks to wash up on the shore for "no known reason":
What is more built
for winning than the swept-back teeth,
water-finished fins, and pure bad eyes
these old, efficient forms of appetite
are dressed in?
Nancy Willard's poem "Sand Shark" implies similar reflection:
you died in the tracks
drawn by your dorsal fin
as you heaved at low tide
toward pages of water
turning and turning.
Still, other poems feature sharks in less literal ways. In "Ants and Sharks" by Tomasz Růzycki and "The Ripple Effect" by Jamey Dunham, sharks are mentioned in the context of complicated food chains, not as the center of their own narratives. In Růzycki's poem, a shark eats a child with the same curious innocence the child has as he or she eats an ant. "Curiosity / always burns," writes Růzycki, contemplating the nature of appetites:
The poet in his room
will then eat God. He'll feed on everything.
He is a monster like a boar that bloats,
excretes. He feeds on paper.
In Dunham's poem, too, the shark is listed among a number of characters enacting a complex web in a tangled series of events:
The sleepy shark rolls from bed at the sound of the bell: the fisherman's foot ringing in the water. On the pier a young girl purchases a dried apricot from a vendor and rolls its wrinkled skin over her tongue before biting down. Behind tightly drawn curtains, the boy who might have grown up to be her great love (or grocer) succumbs to his illness and orphans his parents, as the shark draws behind a curtain of foam.
Here, a shark attack is never stated outright. Instead, a kind of chaos is enacted. Images and actions are repeated, outside of their initial contexts, as cause and effect seemingly break down: "a bell ringing from the marketplace wakes the sleeping fisherman just in time to reel in his apricot." In the end, the boy who might have been the girl's great love is replaced by a shark bought from a grocer. She "leads it home through the crowded streets of the village to meet her parents."
The absurdity of these poems offers comic relief to the more excruciating narratives. This is not the case in Vivian Shipley's poem "What To Do About Sharks," which uses humor to offset a different kind of disgust. The poem uses the metaphor of the shark to discuss ambition in the poetry world, offering advice about what to do "if a hammerhead or a great white / makes waves during your workshop or poetry reading." Here, the poet not only helps the reader identify a shark ("Rule of thumb: it's a shark not a dolphin / if it is slamming about the room, hugging, / blowing air kisses..."), but how to defend yourself ("hit it on the snout").
Poems about Sharks:
|In a Breath by Carl Sandburg
High noon. White sun flashes on the Michigan Avenue asphalt...
|No Place Like Home by Stephen Cushman
My ocean's the one bad weather blows out to....
|What To Do About Sharks by Vivian Shipley
If a hammerhead or a great white makes...
|The Sea is History by Derek Walcott
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?...
|The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville
About the Shark, phlegmatical one...
|Sharks' Teeth by Kay Ryan
Everything contains some...
|World Below the Brine by Walt Whitman
The world below the brine...
|I Wonder What It Feels Like to be Drowned? by Robert Graves
Look at my knees...
|The Ripple Effect by Jamey Dunham
The sleepy shark rolls from bed...
|Upon Shark by Robert Herrick
Shark, when he goes to any publick feast...
|Untitled [There, by the crescent moon, the shark] by Shido
There, by the crescent moon, the shark...
|The Shark by William Henry Venable
Captured! Along the beach those shouts reveal...
|The Sirens by James Russell Lowell
The sea is lonely, the sea is dreary...
|Inheritance of Waterfalls and Sharks by Martín Espada
In 1898, with the infantry from Illinois...
|Seal Lullaby by Rudyard Kipling
Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us...
|Flying Fish: An Ode [excerpt] by Charles Wharton Stork
How must it be to swim among your kind...
|Haunted Seas by Cale Young Rice
A gleaming glassy ocean...
|Submarine Mountains by Cale Young Rice
Under the sea, which is their sky, they rise...
|The Bluefish by Isaac McLellan
It is a brave, a royal sport...
|Song of the Paddlers [excerpt] by Herman Melville
Dip, dip, in the brine our paddles dip...
|Summer [excerpt] by James Thomson
Increasing still the terrors of these storms...
|The Shark by Lord Alfred Douglas
A treacherous monster is the Shark...
|The Shark by Isaac McLellan
The seaboy sailing o'er the main...
|The Shark's Parlor by James Dickey
Memory: I can take my head and strike it on a wall on Cumberland Island...
|Ants and Sharks by Tomasz Rózycki
An ant devours a larva, in accord...
|Plague of Dead Sharks by Alan Dugan
Who knows whether the sea heals or corrodes...
|Ashore by Ernest Hilbert
The harpooned great white shark heaves onto sand...
|The Sharks by Denise Levertov
Well then, the last day the sharks appeared...
|Murray Dreaming by Stephen Edgar
It's not the sharks...
|The Steel Rippers by Patricia Carlin
That cheapster chopper...
|At Shark Reef Sanctuary by Eva Alice Counsell
Only seagulls surround us...
|Rome by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
I saw once, in a rose garden, a remarkable statue...
|Coffee and Oranges by Joel Brouwer
The music on TV turned gloomy. Sharks...
|Shoal of Sharks by Richard O'Connell
Oh, look at all the porpoise! someone shouted...
|The Shark by Judith Beveridge
We heard the creaking clutch of the crank...
|Angel Shark by Hailey Leithauser
Wan oxymoron of a fish, dotted...