Bishop’s Fishy Poem

On mulling over Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” something smells wrong. I have been slowly turning the poem about in my mind trying to identify the off note. Sometimes I think I have found the source of the stench, but then it slips away. Nonetheless, there’s something wrong with this classic, much read and taught, poem.

As a way to spend one’s days, I prefer fishing to most all other activities–perhaps, truth be told, even to reading and writing poetry. One might think, therefore, that I would have a greater than usual appreciation for Bishop’s fish story. I think, however, that it is this very first-hand appreciation of angling that makes me suspicious of Bishop’s poem.

My first inclination was to object that Elizabeth Bishop knew nothing of fish–that she, herself, did not go fishing often. About this, I was probably wrong. She spent much time in Nova Scotia and in Key West–and even mentions her fishing trips in a letter or two. Having discovered Bishop’s, at least, passing familiarity with fishing, I next objected that the fish of the poem was not a fish that poet saw with her own eyes. It never swam in the water, never took bait, never broke a line. Ronald E. McFarland,  excerpted at the beginning of the page at UIC’s Modern American Poetry Site, believes that such an objection may be easily dispatched. He refers, as all do, to her days lived near the water’s edge and even goes on to speculate about type of fish that Bishop might have meant for the poem–he puts his money, without much real evidence, on the grouper.

As it turns out, Bishop herself, in her letters, provides conflicting information about the fish. First, in an epistle to (the superior poet) Marianne Moore, Bishop writes nothing of a grouper and instead identifies the parrot fish, so named for its loud colors and hook-beaked mouth:

The other day I caught a parrot fish, almost by accident. They are ravishing fish – all iridescent, with a silver edge to each scale, and a real bill-like mouth just like turquoise; the eye is very big and wild, and the eyeball is turquoise too – they are very humorous-looking fish. A man on the dock immediately scraped off three scales, then threw him back; he was sure it wouldn’t hurt him. I’m enclosing one [scale], if I can find it. (January 14, 1939)

Later, in a letter to (the far, far superior poet) Robert Lowell, Bishop sends a post-card of the “Jew-fish” (a Goliath Grouper) to the poet, saying: “Dear Cal: These are the “Fish”…. (December 21, 1948)

Setting aside the confusion that Bishop’s two letters fosters, I still insist that the fish is not the fish that Bishop caught … if she caught a fish. Rather, what we find in the poem is a caricature of a fish. It is as if the poet could not or would not take the factual fish as her model and so chose a fanciful one instead. What we have here (to cut too close to the poem’s allegorical bone) is a not the oversimplified rendering of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but rather the cartoonish parodies of Michelangelo’s image that have become the common stock of our cultural short-hand. Although the tone of the entire poem, which differs in such a great degree from the more honest note to Marianne Moore, seems ill-fit and improbable for the average fishing trip, it is the final images of the creature which I find the most unlikely and most objectionable. I have caught many, many fish, but only one with a lure in its mouth and a few with bait in their guts. Fish dislodge these irritants, or they rust away (one would think the salt water would make very quick work of the lines in this fish’s mouth)–on any account, most fish do not feed until they are free of the foreign object. To be very plain about it, a fish with a hook in its mouth is a fish that will not bite and will not be caught–a fish with four lines and leaders of rainbow hue hanging out of its mouth might be found at a puppet show, but not at the side of the boat. Bishop did not catch this fish.

Very well, one might reply. Bishop caught a fish, released it, imagined quite another fish and wrote a poem about the latter. What’s the big deal? I agree, in that there’s nothing dishonest about placing an imaginary fish in a poem, but I object to letting one’s readers assume a narrative veracity that does not exist. If the fish is imagined, so is the poet–her feelings, her brief epiphany and her fishy little moral lesson at the end, all are mere fantasy.

This dishonesty on Bishop’s part allows her readers to cede to her a voice of moral authority that she does not have. See, for example, Thierry Ramais’s thoughts at the bottom of this page on UIC’s Modern American Poetry Site:

The poem obviously celebrates a moment in person’s life when his/her humanness goes as far as to recognize the humanity of nature itself, to consider nature not as “object” but as equally “subject”. (On “The Fish”:

The irony of this statement is lost on its author–as, perhaps, Bishop was oblivious to her own dishonesty. Nature has no “humanity” and when it does, it is smaller for it. (On the other hand “humanity” has much “nature”–clearly, humans are but one of nature’s many features.) Ramais and Bishop have empathies for creatures and for natures which do not exist and, as such, they do not respect the nature that does exist. The poet may make herself and a few of her readers feel better about their place in this world, but she has done so with forgery. I would much rather have the smell of fish on my hands.


3 responses to “Bishop’s Fishy Poem

  1. The fact that something fantastic (or incaccurate) is grafted on to something ostensibly realistic is an interesting complaint. I believe your sense that it is cartoonish or a caricature may be related to what I am mulling–that is, I immediately started thinking about how very still this poem is. for a poem about fishing. Very little movement. The gills. The tipping of the fish. (I used to do a lot of fishing as a child in Louisiana, and I remember something much more lively.) And it aims to be very meticulous about looking–that thing she learned from Marianne Moore. It makes me think about photography, that odd art that both fixes and transforms. It makes me remember that photography was changing the world of visual art at this point in time, and soon afterward we would have Pop Art and then after that would come photorealism, both of which have a curious relationship to the real and a strong artificiality… and that reminds me again of “The Fish.”

  2. Am I correct in remembering that Moore kept a commonplace book that included images she collected from magazines, postcards and elsewhere? Or was that some other poet? Perhaps Bishop did the same? Perhaps the postcard of the grouper she sent to Robert Lowell was the image that she studied for her poem?

    I guess I had assumed that the stillness was allowed because we were to think that the fish was already half dead. (Again, I would object, why would a tired, old fish bother taking bait?) Your thoughts, however, regarding what was happening in the visual arts at the time, are more interesting. Not knowing much about photorealism, I’m struggling to think of other examples in poetry. Could one “look” at the early “imagist” poetry of Pound and Williams as attempts at photorealism or artificial realism?

    I’m going for a run now, as I still have a bit of day light, but I promise to find that misogynistic little poem by Ted Hughes at the library this week.

  3. I came back and am surprised at what I had to say…

    Yes, I think the tired fish is a problem! Though I like your puppet reference–stillness, ease of manipulation, bit of cartoonishness…

    Don’t know what I think about photorealism and the others. It seems more apt for this poem.

    Oh, the chicken butt ladies! Dreadful. All lovelessness…

    Thanks for sharing my riposte! I noticed when I did the weekly roundup.

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