Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

The theme of poetic intervention and invention is fairly clear. Early in the poem, Bishop alludes to another poet and gently mocks his kind of intervention in the observed world; she then sets about producing her own. A few characteristics of that vision are important to note since they contribute to whatever meaning might be drawn.

First, there is a suggestion of violence about the scene—the remnants of previous upheaval and the potential for some explosive instant to come. The water is “the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible” and is turning to gas, while the pilings are “dry as matches.” Pelicans “crash” into the surface of the bay, while above them soar “man-of-war birds.” Sharks have been harvested along with the sponges, and their tails hang on a fence, drying, memento mori from the sea beyond. The dredge itself brings up a “dripping jawful of marl,” personifying the mechanism with the traits of some carnivorous beast. The little boats have been piled up or stove in by the last hurricane. This impression of violence is countered with the simultaneous, ongoing actions of exposure. The water absorbs, but low tide has left much of the content of the bight revealed, and the work of the dredge is the “untidy activity” of bringing to light what is yet beneath the surface. Even the pelicans and the “frowsy sponge boats” are engaged in bringing something up. What is one to make of these impressions when one considers as well the work of the poet in presenting them, and her pronouncement upon the whole scene as “awful but cheerful”? Should one of these adjectives be stressed more than the other?

The reader must keep in mind that Bishop’s “accuracy” is not a matter of photojournalism, of absolute fidelity to fact. Instead, she recognizes that the poetic vision—even of a negligible panorama like Garrison Bight—involves a certain wrenching on her part. (The word trope, in its Greek origin, means “to turn or twist.”) Poetry wreaks a kind of violence on the real world in order to reveal the imaginative potential of what lies before one. On one hand, this poem reveals some anxiety on Bishop’s part about this; on the other hand, one can see that she is committed to it nonetheless. She knows that this activity is paramount to possess the world more fully and dispel whatever isolation she may feel as a human being.

Bishop’s resistance to Baudelaire’s exotic analogies, her rootedness in the physicality of the witnessed scene, her embrace of the whole range of activity—“awful but cheerful”—all suggest an allegiance to the world of objects. “The Bight” insists not on grand design and poetry as statement but upon the power of the ordinary to inspire a kind of loving attention. The bight itself, that grab-bag of a body of water, becomes a symbol of the poet’s mind. Through the creative labor of dredging, what is least promising, what is nondescript to the point of invisibility, what is in fact buried under a shifting load of psychic debris becomes visible, tangible, and fraught with possibility. The poem provides an artfully staged but privileged glimpse of the poetic imagination in process.

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