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The Fish , and Bishop’s Style


Elizabeth Bishop is a great poet with her own distinct style. Her poems may seem ordinary at first sight, but as Marianne Moore said, “Elizabeth Bishop is spectacular in being unspectacular”. In this essay, I shall discuss the style of Bishop’s poetry, focusing on The Fish. And investigate how her favourite poets, like Herbert, Baudelaire and Hopkins have influenced her style.

Herbert & Imagery

The Anglican poet George Herbert is Bishop’s lifelong favourite, though she is by no means religious. Bishop did not have much appreciation for the average Christian for their “dogmatic, judgmental, and condescending ” attitude. (somewhat ironical for the name “Bishop”) In contrast, Herbert’s devoutness can speak to her, and his rich imagery influenced Bishop significantly.

Prayer(I), one of my favourite poems of Herbert, can serve as an example:

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
         God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth

Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
          Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,…

This sonnet is profuse in images, some more concrete(reversed thunder, sinner’s tower), and some more abstract(heart in pilgrimage, angel’s age). Herbert constantly shifts his vision between the abstract and the concrete, whose fusion gives birth to magnificent images, and thus he has built a bridge between words and God.

In The Fish, we can easily notice the abundance of images, the painterly depiction of a fishing scene filled with minute details. We can also notice the fusion of concrete imagery and abstract imagery:

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.

When I read these lines for the first time, I’m dazzled by its verbal power that I saw rainbows in front my eyes. Yet the rainbow here is not simply an optical phenomenon, it reminds us of the rainbow that God set as a sign of his covenant with the Earth. We can even say that the oil is related to olive oil, which is burned in offerings for peace. The biblical touch of these two images foretells the narrator’s letting go of the fish, and makes it an exceptional act.

A further example of this “binocular vision” similar to Herbert:

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…

Beside aiding the description of the fish’s skin, “wallpaper” and “roses” create a sense of interior space. The interior of what? The interior of the narrator. We can see that not all the descriptions in the beginning of the poem are related to the narrative. Instead, they reveal more about the narrator’s way of perception, about how she makes associations of past experiences and current observations. We witness her lifting the fish from the sea of her memory, and opens up herself in her inspection of the fish. Looking into the shallow eyes of the fish, will she see her own image?

Baudelaire & The Disgusting

Baudelaire is famous (sometimes infamous) for his faithful description in Fleur du Mal about the ugly, disgusting sights. While he sings in Correspondences,

There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children,
Sweet as oboes, green as meadows

He does not shun away from the prostitutes and corpses, all those things that constitute the urban landscape of modernity. As he continues in the same poem:

— And others are corrupt, and rich, triumphant,
With power to expand into infinity,
Like amber and incense, musk, benzoin,
That sing the ecstasy of the soul and senses.

Elizabeth Bishop is no poet for the pretty things as well. Her observations are keen, and she did not limit her sight to the beautiful things. She deals with the ugly and horrible with an equally poised attitude, observes it with the same precision and imagination. This neutral perspective make them less disgusting, even endowed with a singular aura. As in The Fish, the big fish infested with sea-lice are in fact very repugnant, if you did find a photograph of it. But when reading the poem we may find it “respectable”, with its “five-haired beard of wisdom, trailing from his aching jaw”.

A boat whose engine and bailers are rusted, whose thwarts are sun-cracked, must be very disagreeable. However, when we read the poem, we are fascinated by the rainbow spread over them, that we can temporarily forget their disagreeableness. Though not identical to Baudelaire, the coexistence of beauty and ugly in Bishop’s poem is truly spectacular.

Marianne Moore & Observation

Bishop considered Marianne Moore to be one of the most important poets in 20th century America, whose poetry is characterized by acute descriptions of people, places and animals. Interestingly, Moore has a poem named “The Fish” as well:

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan…

One can feel the difference between their styles of description: Moore’s style is more aesthetic, probing the dazzling details of a underwater world of fish, crab and barnacles without any trace of human. However, Bishop’s description is more or “revealing” in the sense that the fish in her poem does not simply exist, it is recreated through her observation, imagination and action. The fish is observed as it is being caught by the narrator, and then we follow her perspective while she was facing the fish. Descriptions of the fish are accompanied by her own actions:“I thought of the the coarse white flesh”, and “I looked into his eyes”, etc. Her looking at the fish did not only serve for aesthetic purposes, but it actually lead to “And I let the fish go” in the end. As I mentioned in section I, in the inspection of the fish, there is simultaneously an opening up of the narrator’s self.

It is true that self-forgetfulness, of which Marianne Moore is a master, is necessary for keen observations, yet sometimes too much self-forgetfulness can make the poem less “animated”. As Bishop’s friend and Vassar peer Mary McCarthy put it:“I think there is something a bit too demure about Marianne Moore, and there’s nothing demure about Elizabeth Bishop.” On the other hand, excessive self-awareness can lead to overly confessional poems, which Bishop detested. Bishop found a balance between self-awareness and self-forgetfulness, which enables her to disclose her self through her observations subtly, as she once said:“…[Writing] is a question of using the poet’s proper materials, with which he’s equipped by nature, … —to express something not of them—something, I suppose, spiritual…”

Supplement: Gerard Manley Hopkins & Sprung Rhythm

To be honest, when reading “The Fish” for the first time, I know nothing about “sprung rhythm”, and didn’t pay much attention to its form nor meter. However, I did feel its rhythm and internal structure, and the power they generates.

Later I learnt that Hopkins is one of Bishop’s favourite poets, and he has a significant influence upon her style. Bishop discovered Hopkins at the age of thirteen, and during her years at Vassar College her fondness for Hopkins deepened, culminating in an essay about the poet. In her essay, she analyzed “sprung rhythm”, the irregular prosody developed by Hopkins. In sprung rhythm, the first syllable of a foot is stressed and may be followed by a variable number of unstressed syllables.

She then connect sprung rhythm with action, for verse based on sprung rhythm will have “an enormous increase in the variations possible for setting it up”, and therefore an increase in “action”, by which she seems to mean greater rhythmic variation and a corresponding surge of verbal energy.

In “The Fish”, we can find such rhythm at work.

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.

The initial line is iambic trimeter, but the remaining lines may best be scanned as sprung rhythm, especially ‘half out of water, with my hook’. Moreover, the adjacent stressed syllables across the line break is a device frequently used by Hopkins.

Though I don’t have the necessary knowledge and training to scan the meter independently, I am aware that some seemingly plain poems are actually embedded with careful formal considerations. And in order to obtain a thorougher understanding of the poem, the sensibility to form and meter is absolutely necessary.


informal references…
1. Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, University Press of Mississippi, 1996
2. Elizabeth Bishop and Gerard Manley Hopkins
3. On “The Fish”

Frost: Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be—
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

By Robert Frost


我个人还是比较喜欢这一首的。读得时候联想到很多。文本上,在海边的一种非现实图景,想到 L’Étranger, 以及最近在读的 Thomas l’obscur. 后者的开篇极其独特。

图像上,有一点想到 Magritte, 虽然与特定的作品无关,但那种“悬置”的感觉,以及背向的观察者,都有一些共鸣。

更主要的是 Manet. 去年读过 Foucault 关于 Manet 的一本小册子,印象深刻。其中提到了画中人物视线的方向。比如说这幅 Gare Saint-Lazare



右边的小女孩朝着栏杆外望去(was that ever a bar?), 然而被雾气遮挡,我们并不能看见她在看什么,或者她能看见什么(they cannot look out far)

寻找这样的 connections 或者说 resonances 是最快乐的事情之一。

Science & Self

在之前很长一段时间里,科学与艺术对我来说最主要的区别是:科学是对客观世界的研究,而艺术与人自身更为相关。高中及大学学习物理、化学与生物时,时常提不起劲,一方面是因为教学无趣,一方面是感觉这些知识与我没有关系:既然我将来不搞化学,我管你如何有机合成作甚?虽然有时候会因为解决一个问题而感到兴奋,但持续时间十分短暂。相反,当我阅读狄德罗或尼采,才感到自己真正活着,以作为人的整体发生共鸣;而在大二身体最差笼罩在绝望中时,从杉本博司与 Greco 那里得到了启迪,一种宗教性的体验。简单地说,艺术,以及文学哲学等等,给予我快乐与意义,也最为重要。科学则较为遥远,它能提供关于自然的优雅理论,解决各种复杂问题,却与我并不亲密。


在从猿变成人的进化过程中,工具的发明与使用是根本的一步:它象征着人类(虽然当时还不是)通过对自然的观察与实践,有意识地改变了自身的处境,开始脱离偶然性的支配,以自身的意志塑造生活。之后,各式各样人类活动与创造:群落、语言、神话、狩猎、农业、城邦与宗教,改变了人类的世界图景,也改变了人类存在的文化与生物基础。关于文化基础,我所想到的是 Jung(一开始写成 Rung 了还没发现= =) 所说的 Collective Unconsciousness, 蕴含在每个个体内的人类记忆:人类漫长历史的每一片段都以极其细微的方式影响着今天我们的生活。我们的感情、想象力与心理与原始的 Archetypes 紧密相关。生物基础,是为了适应新的需要而产生的生物改变:今天我们理解相对论或是欣赏绘画的能力,最初始于计数与记事的需求。不断复杂化的生活,使我们拥有了使复杂的思维与多重意识成为可能的大脑。总体而言,正是对于自然的探索与改变,扩大并丰富了人类世界,也塑造了人类自身。



例如,十八世纪自然科学对于康德哲学的影响,以及现代物理学对现象学的影响。鉴于我目前既不懂科学,也不懂哲学,更不懂科技哲学,就不深入讨论这一话题了,咔咔。并且,之前之所以思考这一问题,是因为自己在学习科学时缺少 motivation. 现在学习物理也感觉很有乐趣,也有了些基本的求知欲,并不是很需要它了。大学毕业前多学些数学和物理!

最后引用 Dirac 在 The Principles of Quantum Mechanics 序言中的一段话:

The important things in the world appear as the invariants (or more generally the nearly invariants, or quantities with simple transformation properties) of these transformations. The things we are immediately aware of are the relations of these nearly invariants to a certain frame of reference, usually one chosen so as to introduce special simplifying features which are unimportant from the point of view of general theory.
… Further progress lies in the direction of making our equations invariant under wider and still wider transformations. This state of affairs is very satisfactory from a philosophical point of view, as implying an increasing recognition of the part played by the observer in himself introducing the regularities that appear in his observations, and a lack of arbitrariness in the ways of nature, but it makes things less easy for the learner of physics.







Shadows come across
Leaves fluttered in silence
Night falls the earth is chequered
And we are living tokens

Can you see that black bird high in the branches? Its broken wings are now healed, but it has forgotten about flying. Now it bombard every passerby with indigestion, so be careful not to let its feathers deflect your moonlight.

Colours have now grown oversaturated, and are too heavy for the eye. When you hear a din coming from nowhere remember it is them falling in clot. Monochrome is better for your senses at night.


值此 Lamy 2000 被人碰到地上導致筆帽拔不出來讓我又上網看了一會兒鋼筆之際,寫一點關於鋼筆的東西。


1. 體積小重量輕。雖然高中用過挺長一段時間 Pelikan M800 寫作業, 不過現在肯定不願意了。當然也不能太輕太小,否則沒有手感。這一點上大部份鋼筆都還算可以。

2. 最好是暗尖。金銀雙色的大型筆尖雖然好看,但是在做不出題目的時候相當礙眼:既然不會寫那你要用這麼好的筆幹什麼呢?所以說暗尖這點比較好,大部份時候意識不到其存在。現在暗尖的筆很少了。

3. 彈性小。高檔的筆一般寫起來會比較有變化,responsive, variability! 寫文字可能很好,但是在寫數學的時候這些東西也是比較 distracting 的,至少對於我這種做題費勁的人來說。所以說彈性最好要小一些。當然不等於完全沒有,像某些鋼尖筆那樣;或者寫起來感覺很鈍,那也是不好滴。

4. 順滑程度適中。太滑了不好控制,阻力太大寫得慢。關於這一點 Lamy 2000 在合適的紙上有著非常好的效果。

綜上可見,我對鋼筆的要求是:普通而舒適的書寫感覺,最好讓我意識不到其存在。所以,中低端鋼筆比較適合我,目前也確實是這樣的。Lamy 2000 EF 尖每天用得很舒服,雖然偶爾還是會覺得粗了點;而 Aurora 88 反而很少用。所以現在很煩,趕緊找個地方修一下!訂了支寫樂14K還在路上不知道會怎麼樣。


喜歡的牌子:J.Herbin and Diamine. 總體而言喜歡流動性好,shading 好看的。

用得最多的是黑色,按順序買過 Noodler’s X-Feather, J.Herbin Perle Noire, 寫樂極黑, Higgins Eternal Black, Aurora Black, Diamine Graphite, Diamine Quartz 以及 Diamine Onyx. 最喜歡 Perle Noire, 與其他相比優勢明顯。Noodler’s 很不喜歡,不知道為什麼吹捧得人那麼多。

彩色用得少。綠色的 Diamine Umber, 日常使用過很長一段時間,非常好。最開始的時候買過 J.Herbin Orange Indien, 最後居然用完了也是很神奇。J.Herbin parfume Rose 也相當好。其他的沒有什麼強烈印象。個人不太喜歡藍色系的。


A Tree Without, 四月日常


想不起来题目了,嗯= =


专业之外阅读量倒是很稳定。。杜诗详注看了九百页了,生词率和读 Blanchot 差不多。。


The Internet & the smartphone provide us an easy escape, and a source of infinite distractions always available.



中学之后,读过的书大部分都是英文的。一开始是为了学英语,后来则是因为偏好(以及一直没学好其它外语)。首先是主题上的偏好。有段时间很喜欢古文,似懂非懂地读过一些,后来就主要读西方近现代的作品了。对这些书,读翻译显然不如读原文。每次提到翻译都会想到的一个梗便是读黑塞的《玻璃球游戏》里的“多米尼加共和国”。另外,从质量上说,大陆出版社所出书籍装帧设计纸质等等大部分都不太好。中华书局和上海古籍可以把很好的书用很烂的纸印出来。北大等出版社好多数学书坚持不使用 LaTeX 排版,效果比 Word 还差。写得差就算了还那么难看= = 普通书籍也好不到哪去。我小学的时候似乎译林经典是一系列图片做封面的,各种大型马赛克,想起来之前在微博上看有人说中国的出版社里有着很多 Thomas Ruff 式的图像编辑(忘了应该叫啥了),说得很好!




以及,虽然无甚关系,语言与描述的复杂性也有类似规律。本学期选了一门通选课理论物理导论,见到了很多以前听说过但始终没有学过的物理知识。这周介绍了相对论电动力学,结论很美很简洁,但用到的数学更为复杂,其实我还并不是很理解。。(几何和物理都差= =)顺便想到,科学语言的发展似乎没有尽头,各种理论都越来越深奥,而人类日常语言似乎并没有什么变化?在近几百年里。为什么呢,咔咔。



Numerical Optimization 的作业要用 Matlab, 不过我不喜欢它,2014b 在两台电脑上都很容易崩溃= = 以及主要原因:很不优美,尤其是跟 Mathematica 比起来。所以说准备再学一个语言。Mathematica 虽好,但是写长一点就看着晕。研究了一下可能学 Python 或者 Julia 吧,晚上看了一会儿,两小时很快过去了。。
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Wallace Stevens: Of Mere Being

Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Of Mere Being 是我很喜欢的一首诗。这篇是我英语课的小论文,仅供参考。

Of Mere Being is one of Stevens’s most memorable poems and one of his last, written before entering hospital for surgery in April 1955 (Eleanor Cook).This essay is mainly a personal reading of the poem.

There are mainly two images in the poem: the palm and the phoenix.

In regard of the ubiquity of palm in Stevens’s poems, Harold Bloom mentions that palm is also an image of Sufism: God used a lump of red clay left over after the making of Adam to make a palm tree. Therefore the palm is primal: it’s present even before the advent of human words and meaning. This resonates with the inhuman song of the bird in the second stanza. In addition, the scientific name of date palm is Phoenix dactylifera, and there is an literal connection between palm and the phoenix.

The first stanza opens with: “The palm at the end of the mind”. “End” here may refers to the spatial end of mind, the limit of our thoughts. Or it can be the temporal end of mind at the end of life, as this is the last poem of Stevens. “Bronze decor” in the third line indicates the scene is at sunset, it also reminds one of the grandeurs of bronze sculptures. A palm tree rises in bronze decor, beyond the last thought. We feel the palm’s towering existence, and at the same time wonder what is this place at the mind of mind, what is there beyond the last thought? The transcendental, the imaginal? And by what means can we get there?

“A gold-feathered bird, sings in the palm, without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song”. These three lines strike me with their singular tone. This gold-feathered bird, the phoenix, is a fierce bird that burns itself at death and then rise anew from the ashes. At the end of the mind, it sings an foreign song, which makes it more mystical and solemn, reminding me of William Blake’s “The Tyger”. We also notice a further semblance between the tyger and the bird is that they are both bathed in fire.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Fearful as they are, their symmetry and inhuman songs propels us to question “who made thee, who formed thy symmetry”? That is to say, who is the creator the phoenix? Is it of human nature, as God? Then why is its song inhuman? Or can it be something beyond our comprehension, the mere being that eludes description, that constantly inspires awe and desire? A symbol of beauty, a symbol of the sublime?

After all, whether we understand the inhuman song of the phoenix and their mystical nature or not may actually be of little matter, for the third stanza reads: “You know then that it is not the reason / That makes us happy or unhappy.” This sentence is rather confusing, and can be interpreted in numerous ways. We could say that the song is not the reason that makes us happen or unhappy. It has no direct influence upon our emotions, but may have influenced us in more profound ways.

I tend to read these two lines in a slightly different way, that what makes us happy or unhappy is not our making meaning of the songs, but the mere being of the song itself, as “The bird sings, its feathers shine”. That is to say, our perception of the bird moves us, yet through a subtle and inexpressible way. We cannot articulate its meaning, yet we can most certainly feel the power of its being, its sublimity.

This reminds me of reading Merleau-Ponty. I remember him saying that the perception of the world is difficult, and that we are often too eager to arrive at the meaning, the essence of things that we run past the appearances, which are thought to be superficial, but are actually very rich and illuminating. His examples are the paintings of Cézanne, and I think great paintings and poems share the same property that they cannot be “tamed”, nor to be reduced to a single meaning. We can feel the full power of their being only when we stay on the surface to explore its intricate topology, to behold the manifold possibilities of interpretation, together with its inherent ambiguities and paradoxes at the same time, instead of securing ourselves with some convenient “meanings”.

The last stanza goes back to the first, in a circular motion. We usually say “The branches move in the wind”, but here “The mind moves slowly in the branches” reverses the order of words and renders the palm’s being more self-sufficient. The last line reads: “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down”. It seems a moment and an eternity, as the fire-fangled feathers dangle down in space. “Fire-fangled” comes from combining “fire-fang”(caught by fire) and “new-fangled”(new, but derisory). It creates a double meaning of “burned” and “inclined to take fire”, implying that the phoenix could be dying or rising from birth. One can simultaneously feel a sense of repose and motion here. These are the last words of a master, and a masterpiece by itself.

Now we look back at the title, and we can see that the word “mere”, apart from its common connotation of “simply, just”, can also mean “very, essential”. I think “Of Mere Being” is such a poem that can bring us one step closer to the “Mere Being”, and it’s one of my favourite poems of Stevens.

January First – Octavio Paz

The year’s doors open
like those of language,
toward the unknown.
Last night you told me:
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.

I opened my eyes late.
For a second of a second
I felt what the Aztec felt,
on the crest of the promontory,
lying in wait
for the time’s uncertain return
through cracks in the horizon.

But no, the year had returned.
It filled all the room
and my look almost touched it.
Time, with no help from us,
had placed
in exactly the same order as yesterday
houses in the empty street,
snow on the houses,
silence on the snow.

You were beside me,
still asleep.
The day had invented you
but you hadn’t yet accepted
being invented by the day.
––Nor possibly by being invented, either.
You were in another day.

You were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among appearances.
Time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees
and sleeping women.

When you open your eyes
we’ll walk, once more,
among the hours and their inventions.
We’ll walk among appearances
and bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we’ll open the day’s doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.

Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bishop with the author

读到这首诗很偶然。其实是三月在亚马逊买墨水(J.Herbin Perle Noire)的时候,为了免运费顺便买的。收到之后并没有立刻开始看,因为学校里在读的书也很多。昨天上课前突然想起,翻到了这首,非常喜欢。网上只有 Bishop 的译文,我个人更喜欢书里的 Weinberg 译文。不过差别并不大。

Prayer (I)

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
         God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
         Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
         The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.


By George Herbert

Ce Souvenir – Pierre Reverdy

Je t’ai vu
Je t’ai vu au fond devant le mur
J’ai vu le trou de ton ombre sur le mur
Il y avait encore du sable
Et tes pieds nus
La trace de tes pieds qui ne s’arrêtait plus
Comment t’aurais-je reconnu
Le ciel tenait tout le fond tout l’espace
Un peu de terre en bas qui brillait au soleil
Encore un peu de place
Et la mer
L’astre est sorti de l’eau
Un navire passait volant bas
                                   Un oiseau
La ligne à l’horizon d’où venait le courant
Les vagues mouraient en riant
Tout continue
On ne sait pas où finira le temps
                                   Ni la nuit
Tout est effacé par le vent
                     On chante autrement
                     On parle avec un autre accent
Je reconnais des yeux qui sont restés vivants
Et la pendule qui sonnait dans la chambre
Une heure en retard
Le matin vert qui vient quand on n’a pas dormi
Il y a un gai ruisseau d’eau claire et d’autres cris
Devant la porte une silhouette qui disparaît
Un visage dans la lumière
Et au milieu de tout ce qui vit et se réveille
La même et seule voix qui persiste
dans mon oreille