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”