Tag Archives: Elizabeth Bishop

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”: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/bishop/fish.htm)

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.

Magic Not Made By Melody

The best part of Elizabeth Bishop‘s sonnet “I am in need of music” is also the least intelligible.

Here is the sonnet:

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

Bishop completes most of the work, the argument of the poem, in the octave. In the first eight lines, she establishes the problem (a fretful unease) and names a remedy (melodious music). The poem itself is an attempt at fashioning a version of this remedy. For my taste, Bishop does the job too well. The abundant alliteration and internal rhyming draws too much attention to artifice. The reader, too soon, sees how the poet hopes to manipulate our senses–like a scary sound track preceding an event in an otherwise too ordinary scene at the movies.

The second stanza (the sestet) also suffers from this overwrought “magic made by melody”, but less so. Although contrived (one may easily surmise the unwritten questions Bishop must have asked herself in the composition of the stanza), the last six lines step away from the argument, away from the intellect and toward an ungrounded sensual gesture. Spells, breathing, sinking and floating, waves and pools, dreamy embraces–these are the impressions of melody on the poet’s sensual self, the remedy to her “bitter-tainted” unease. If these lines refer to nothing outside our subjective, soothing, sensual experiences, it’s still hard not to swoon over the “subaqueous stillness” and the “moon-green pool”.

The sestet works the “magic”, but (even so) I prefer the pivot at the end of the octave, an absolutely befuddling statement: “dream flushed to glow!” Here Bishop writes within herself; she is not watching in the self-critical mirror. In other words, one little ecstatic utterance escapes Bishop’s superb and exacting internal editor. I am fascinated with the phrase not only for its departure from the established course of the poem, but also because it sends me in search of some kind of sense, some kind of logic in the syntax that would explain it. How flushed? “Dream” as a noun or a verb? And “glow”? Why, of all things, “glow”? Yes, the phrase completes the rhyme and certainly leaves no guessing for where the caesura is employed, but beyond these mechanics of the form, what on earth did she mean? I am suggesting, of course, that Bishop did not know what she meant. She had some hints and the phrase is by no means in the wrong poem–the sonnet is packed with images of sleep, water and various auras, but there’s nothing here to paraphrase, and that’s the beauty of it.

“Dream flushed to glow!”: this is not nonsense; this is glossolalia. Just so, Milton’s Adam and Eve were found, before the sentence, already repenting (thanks to “prevenient grace”):

… sighs now breathed
Unutterable which the spirit of prayer
Inspired and winged for Heav’n with speedier flight
Than loudest oratory. (Paradise Lost XI:5-8.)

Sometimes, we do not know what we mean; sometimes, right then, there’s no truer language.