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The Pool


                                                         Are you alive?

                                                         I touch you.

                                                         You quiver like a sea-fish.

                                                         I cover you with my net.

                                                         What are you—banded one?





Our (very short) poem this month explores the theme of self-scrutiny, how the mirror can distort (especially the higher up the ladder you go) and how we are all, like Narcissus, inclined at times to fall in love with ourselves—just look at Donald Trump. But there are other ways to reflect, and by thinking through this little poem, we can learn to see ourselves more clearly, and become better leaders in the process.




The poem describes the experience of looking in a pool of water, seeing yourself reflected there, and disturbing that reflection with your touch. It renders this self-image very directly, through short and apparently simple lines (‘I touch you’/‘I cover you’) and a stark simile that acts as the centre of the poem (line three): ‘You quiver like a sea-fish’. It has much in common with the short-form Japanese haiku, allowing the ambiguity around the description to create an air of implication.


The poem must remain ambiguous because self-scrutiny can be extremely difficult: the lines, though simple, remain resistant to any one interpretation. Instead, it opens and ends with questions, which bracket the three-lined description of that ambiguous ‘you’ reflected in the rippling water. By keeping this ‘you’ so vague, the poet is able to speak to herself at a slight distance and address her reflection as though it were a separate person with objectivity and curiosity.


Self-knowledge, we learn, requires ever-new ways of looking.




If, as Shakespeare famously suggested, brevity is the soul of wit, then this month’s poem is very witty indeed. It comes to us from H. D. (1886 – 1961): a poet so enigmatic that she only ever wrote under her initials, which stand for Hilda Doolittle. H. D. was an important poet for the 20th Century, and did much to fashion the kind of poetry that marked a distinct shift from Victorian writing. In particular, she co-founded – with Ezra Pound – a group of poets who called themselves Imagists. Essentially, these writers sought to impress upon the reader, as much as possible, a clear and distinct image.


The Broader Context    


H. D. was also very interested in Ancient Greek literature, and it is easy to hear a myth reflected in her watery lines: that of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection and wasted away in endless self-enchantment. H. D. is more skeptical of her own image, but the allusion suggests that another way of understanding ourselves is by feeling connected to our cultural history: to the stories we pass down from generation to generation. We all have a little Narcissus in us, but we also have the capacity for a more nuanced reflection. If we look long and hard, we see ourselves properly: perhaps a little ambiguous, but connected to something larger. 

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