Bishop held a unique place in American poetry during her lifetime, and after her death she has come to seem one of the few truly durable and original voices of twentieth century poetry. An accessible voice in a period of frequently puzzling poets, Bishop’s style was marked by precision and clarity, so that many critics have spoken of her work as a logical development of Imagism, the short-lived school of precise observation and clipped phrases of Pound and F. S. Flint in the early years of the century. The single most frequently evoked model, however, is Moore, with whom Bishop was friends, and whom she addressed directly in one of her poems, “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” in A Cold Spring. Certainly the link between the two comes readily to mind, not only because of the biographical connection between the two poets but also because of Moore’s equally effective choice of precise words to evoke unitary states of things. Recently, however, some critics have challenged this linking.
The particular qualities of her poetry aside, it certainly added to Bishop’s mystique that during the period of her greatest fame she lived in Brazil and was rarely seen in the United States. Another factor contributing to her reputation, perhaps paradoxically, was the fact that she wrote relatively little, a factor in part of her recurrent bouts of alcoholism. Her complete poems are contained in a single volume, like those of T. S. Eliot, and can conceivably be read through in a single sitting. In the glut of print in the modern world, the very parsimony of her production came to seem a virtue, as did her insistence on continual revision of the poems.
The impression that an initial reading of Bishop’s poetry makes is certainly that of the polished surface. Her words are carefully chosen, her evocations of the physical world precise, ranging from the description of scales on the floor of the fish house (“At the Fishhouses”) to the sensations of a child reading National Geographic in a dentist’s waiting room (“In the Waiting Room,” from Geography III). Her poems lack an easy moral; critics tend to agree that they avoid coming to overall, or perhaps overly pat, answers about the great themes of human existence. The reader must tease out the meaning, if indeed there is such, from under the shining surface.
As a result, some critics have found that Bishop’s poetry lacks substance, an accusation more frequent with respect to her earlier, pre-Brazil poetry (which nevertheless contains many of her most celebrated single works). It is a refusal to disclose secrets, if secrets there be, that the reader senses in these early poems, or an unwillingness on the part of the author to get involved with the world. This changed to some degree when Bishop began to write about Brazil, from whose culture she evidently felt sufficient distance to allow herself to characterize it from the outside, as she was not able to do with North American culture. From the poems about Brazil, as a result, a number of more elemental, slightly less intellectualized human themes emerge, longing for other climes and satisfaction with daily living among them.
A number of critics have therefore seen the theme of Bishop’s poetry taken as a whole to be that of involvement or noninvolvement with the world. By and large, the earlier poems are perceived as remaining within the bounds of the self, and the later poetry as being willing to step outside these bounds. Such easy dichotomies are not satisfactory, however, as there are early poems that clearly do take stands on human issues and later ones that do not seem to do so at all.
Critical stances such as these underline the curiously negative quality of most attempts to place Bishop in a larger context, whereby what she does not do becomes more important than what she does. Many social critics understand the twentieth century to be a time when previously hard-and-fast moral and social values were questioned, and they see relativity as the rule not only in physics but also in the world at large. Such critics praise Bishop precisely for having had the taste and sensitivity to avoid giving easy answers. In short, they praise Bishop for not committing certain faults or (as a variation) see the slight air of authorial absence in her poems as itself an indication of the built-in alienation or fragmentation of modern thought. One critic has suggested that she successfully subverts the now outmoded heroic/masculine vision of the hero, substituting for it a more rational female version. Other critics, more accustomed to poems that contain what has been called “the reek of the human,” fault her poems for seeming to have been written by a “lady” (as well as a woman)—they seem too gentrified, too rarefied. What is certain is that her works avoid vulgarity of surface and vulgarity of message as well, itself an accomplishment of no mean measure.
First published: 1946 (collected in North and South, 1946)
Type of work: Poem
The narrator catches an old fish, then later lets it go.
“The Fish” is Bishop’s most anthologized poem. The work is popular because it avoids the surrealism that makes puzzling some of the other poems published in Bishop’s first collection. It is devoted in large part to a description of a fish that the narrator catches and, in the last line, lets go. The moral suggested is somewhat closer to the surface than is usual for Bishop; in addition, the slight but undeniable sententiousness of the narrator may make it easier for the reader to identify with him or her than with the less characterized and virtually invisible narrators of many of Bishop’s other poems.
The work opens with a simple statement: The narrator has “caught a tremendous fish.” The fish immediately comes to seem somewhat noble, or perhaps resigned: “He didn’t fight./ He hadn’t fought at all.” The reader sees the fish immediately as humanized, both through the male pronoun as well as through the author’s ascription to it of the adjective “venerable.” The narrator clearly reacts to this creature as an equal to an equal, on one hand totally within his or her power, on the other hand a creature into whose eyes he or she looks. The reader is told that the fish’s eyes are “far larger” than those of the narrator, “but shallower, and yellowed.” The most intimate communication with another person frequently takes place through the eyes—so too this contact of fisher and fish.
This fish, however, is the veteran of many previous combats; from his lip hang the remains of five fishhooks. As a result, it seems that the narrator has been victorious where others have failed; the reader is told that “victory filled up/ the little rented boat.” Yet this victory may perhaps be that of the fish, whose hooks have been referred to as “medals”—the fruits of military victory.
The last line reads: “And I let the fish go.” Why “and,” the reader may wonder. This suggests that the narrator’s letting the fish go is the anticlimactic natural result of the fish’s victory, an acknowledgment of the greater nobility of the natural world with respect to the human one. This reaction seems a bit extreme for the situation described; indeed, the slight discomfort the reader may feel with this poem lies in precisely this self-effacement of the narrator before the minutely described denizen of the deep. One may wonder whether human beings are nothing more than creatures to plague a fish.
“Visits to St. Elizabeths”
First published: 1950 (collected in The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, 1983)
Type of work: Poem
This work describes a visit to a hospital for the mentally ill and to a poet (known to be Ezra Pound) who is incarcerated there.
“Visits to St. Elizabeths” is the result of Bishop’s visits, while in Washington, D.C., as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, to see the great modernist poet Ezra Pound, who had been incarcerated in this mental hospital as an alternative to conviction for treason; he had made purportedly pro-Fascist radio broadcasts on Italian radio during World War II. Bishop’s reaction, characteristically enough, has nothing to do with politics and focuses only on the man in the hospital, who is never named. Yet the poem seems to lose a great deal if the reader is unaware of the poetic stature of Ezra Pound (for some literary historians, the single most original figure of Anglo-American modernism, and at any rate a figure without whom the shape of twentieth century literature would have been vastly different). It helps to have a sense both of Pound’s literary grandeur and stature and of the circumstances to which he had been reduced. The narrator’s meditation involves a realization of both these extremes, of both the splendors and miseries of the poem’s central figure.
The poem is stylistically somewhat peculiar in that it takes a particular metrical prototype as the model which it adopts and then varies, namely the childhood add-on song, “The House That Jack Built.” The echo is made clear by Bishop’s repetition of its basic structure of one line, separated by a blank line from the next group of two, separated...
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