The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“In the Waiting Room” describes a child’s sudden awareness—frightening and even terrifying—that she is both a separate person and one who belongs to the strange world of grown-ups. The poet locates the experience in a specific time and place, yet every human being must awaken to multiple identities in the process of growing up and becoming a self-aware individual.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote about this experience as it had happened to her many years before she wrote the poem. Published in her final collection, it is considered one of her most important poems. The speaker in the poem is Elizabeth, a young girl “almost seven,” who is waiting in a dentist’s waiting room for her Aunt Consuelo who is inside having her teeth fixed. In the manner of a dramatic monologue or a soliloquy in a play, the reader overhears or listens to the child talking to herself about her astonishment and surprise. She tries to reason with herself about the upwelling feelings she can hardly understand. The result is a convincing account of a universal experience of access to greater consciousness.

In the long first stanza of fifty-three lines, the girl begins her story in a matter-of-fact tone. The place is Worcester, Massachusetts. On a cold and dark February afternoon in the year 1918, she finds herself in a dentist’s waiting room. In plain words, she says that the room is full of grown-ups in their winter boots and coats. She picks up an issue of the National Geographic because the wait is so long. She is proud that she can read as the other people in the room are doing.

She looks at the photographs: a volcano spilling fire,...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

In the Waiting Room Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For the voice of Elizabeth, the speaker of “In the Waiting Room,” the poet needed a sentence style and vocabulary appropriate to a seven-year-old girl. Bishop relied on the many possibilities of diction and syntax to create a plausible narrator’s tone.

The words spoken by Elizabeth in the poem reveal a very bright young girl (she is proud of the fact that she reads). Almost all the words come from Anglo-Saxon roots, with few of the longer, Latin-root forms. The plain verbs—I went, I sat, I read, I knew, I felt—are surrounded by the most common verb, to be: “I was.” The last two stanzas, for example, use “was” and “were” six times in ten lines. A beginner in language relies on the “to be” verb as a means of naming and identifying her situation among objects, people, and places. “What is that?” comes early to a one-year-old with a vocabulary of very few words. In her reliance on the verb “to be,” Bishop shows an exact ear for children’s speech.

The nouns and adjectives indicate a child who is eager to learn. She names the articles of clothing: “boots” appear in the waiting room and in the picture of Osa and Martin Johnson in the National Geographic. Perhaps the most “poetic” word she speaks is “rivulet,” in describing the volcano. She could be quoting from the article she is reading—the caption under the picture. Similarly, “pith helmets” may come from the writer of the article. In...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

In the Waiting Room Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Boland, Eavan. “An Unromantic American.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14 (Summer, 1988): 73-92.

Fountain, Gary. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

MacMahon, Candace, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Motion, Andrew. Elizabeth Bishop. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Longwood, 1986.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Lloyd. That Sense of Constant Readjustment: Elizabeth Bishop “North & South.” New York: Garland, 1987.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Wylie, Diana E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.