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Elizabeth Bishop at 100

After taking a detour from my reading of The Portrait of a Lady (with its grand style and intricacies, it’s the best, so far, of James’s novels (I’m reading them chronologically)) to read what turned out to be one of the worst novels I’ve ever read, I flushed out my brain by reading Emily Dickinson’s poems aloud, until I discovered with some sadness that I’d finished reading her Complete Poems. But then I followed that with reading aloud some of The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, by Elizabeth Bishop, and felt better again. I’m reading her poems in preparation for an event coming up in New York City, namely, “Elizabeth Bishop at 100,” on February 8, 2011 at Cooper Union, where

Twenty contemporary poets read a favorite poem by Elizabeth Bishop in honor of her centenary year, with actors reading excerpts from the new volume of her correspondence, Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker. Featuring Elizabeth Alexander, John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Tina Chang, Jonathan Galassi, Kimiko Hahn, Richard Howard, Marie Howe, Yusef Komunyakaa, David Lehman, Paul Muldoon, Robert Polito, Marie Ponsot, Vijay Seshadri, Tom Sleigh, Mark Strand, Tracy K. Smith and Jean Valentine. This event will take place at the Great Hall of Cooper Union. Admission is free.

Also, check out Elizabeth Bishop: Essential American Poets for “archival recordings of former poet laureate Elizabeth Bishop, with an introduction to her life and work. Recorded in New York City in 1947 and at the Library of Congress in 1974.”

Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” is a wonderful example of her evocative perspicacity, intense gaze, and her odd sense of wonder. I don’t think I’ve read it since elementary or middle school, where I was first introduced to it, but it somehow thrust me down the rabbit-hole back to that time of golden slumbers, back before I had to carry so much weight around. A brief explication follows.

The Fish

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but
not to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go!

Deceptively simple, Bishop’s poem, a meditation on life and death, a reverie on knowledge versus wisdom, simply delights. The narrator, a fisher, clearly vastly experienced, able to differentiate the bits of broken fishing line, to draw a kind of historical portrait of the fish’s narrow escapes, delighting in her catch with a kind of grotesque glee, is still, like Malte in Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “learning to see.” And I can also imagine her like him saying, “I don’t know why, everything penetrates me more deeply, and doesn’t stop at the place where it always used to end. There is a place in me I knew nothing about. Everything goes there now. I don’t know what goes on there.” The fisher, too, is teaching herself how to see, while also learning from the fish, its eyes, after all, “far larger” than her own, in the end, also discovering a place she may have known nothing about, that is, a place of compassion. On a formal level, Bishop unobtrusively uses all kinds of interesting repetitive effects; the use of the letter “h” is handled particularly well; note, for instance, the anaphoric parade of the fifth through eighth lines. Actually, the first ten lines are held together by a series of h-words: “held”, “him”, “half”, “hook”, “He”, “He”, “hadn’t”, “He”, “hung”, “homely”, “Here”, and “hung”—all those h’s suggesting the halting breaths that fish must have been taking. The assonance of the line “He hung a grunting weight” is a marvel—you can almost feel the downward pull of the fish’s almost-dead weight. Bishop manages to use the simile “like wallpaper” to great effect, since it’s not simply a repetition. The fish’s brown skin both hangs like ancient wallpaper, and the pattern of its skin was like a strip of wallpaper’s “full blown roses / stained and lost through age.” This comparison to flowers is a recurring theme. Later, we find the fish speckled with “fine rosettes of lime,” rosettes themselves ornaments resembling a rose; and its “pink swim-bladder” is “like a big peony.” The fisher swells with pride as she “stared and stared” at the fish, her accumulating knowledge in clear conflict with the fish’s “five-haired beard of wisdom.” As she finds her own victory growing and growing, and along with it, her pride, she finds herself overwhelmed by compassion for the fish. With all of its internal rhyming, consonance, alliteration, and assonance, and numerous repetitions, not to mention its thematic material, you would think the poem’s lines would snap from the weight of it, but Bishop’s command is sure and easily reels in this reader.

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth Bishop at 100

  1. And then two days later, an event in Boston, Elizabeth Bishop at 100:

    Participants include Frank Bidart, Olga Broumas, Peter Campion, Dan Chiasson, Henri Cole, Bonnie Costello, Maggie Dietz, David Ferry, Erica Funkhauser, Jonathan Galassi, Jorie Graham, Melissa Green, Saskia Hamilton, George Kalogeris, Gail Mazur, Alice Quinn, Christopher Ricks, Peter Sacks, Mary Jo Salter, and Lloyd Schwartz.


  2. God, Portrait of a Lady. What a great novel that is. There are days when I think James was the best.

    Bishop was pretty good, too!

    What was the novel you didn’t like, John? Care to divulge?

    1. Hey Adam,

      I won’t say what the novel is, right now, since I’m working on a somewhat lengthy examination of its failure, but you should be hearing about it in the coming months.

      Thankfully, reading Bishop and James are flushing out the garbage I allowed to seep into the interstices of my mind.

      1. This “flushing of the garbage” reminds me, John, of something Ezra Pound said; it went something like, “After reading one bad poem, you need to read five good ones to make up the damage.” I don’t quite agree with him but he makes a point.

  3. More treats to come. Ashbery sent me to Bishop.

    “Crusoe in England”


    I’ve written “At the Fishouses” into some of my fictions. “The Weed” as well.


    1. Bishop was one of the first writers that I really embraced… I love “The Monument.” And those prose poems in the voices of animals — amazing. Do you know her fiction? It’s pretty good. I like “In the Village” and “The Farmer’s Children” — her Collected Stories is worth getting too.

      1. Hey Michael,

        Oh yes, I enjoyed those prose poems with the toad, crab, and snail. I’ll have to get to her stories someday.

        I just finished reading Bishop’s The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. I definitely enjoyed most of it, although the juvenilia and most of the translations painfully paled in comparison to her major works.

        I think I’ll read the whole thing again before the upcoming event.

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