The Poem

“The Bight” is a lyric of thirty-six lines that provides a veritable showcase of Elizabeth Bishop’s aesthetic of observation and her metaphoric impulse. The bracketed subtitle—“On my birthday”—suggests both an occasion and, perhaps, a gift. Such an occasion usually implies the assessment that people are prone to on their birthdays, but, in this case, the poet seems to be tallying up the contents of a localized landscape.

A bight is a small bay between two points of land, and here the topography in question is Garrison Bight in Key West, Florida, where Bishop lived during the winter of 1948-1949. The poem draws heavily from a letter Bishop wrote to poet and close friend Robert Lowell in January, 1948. The details of her description of Key West appear in the poem’s opening lines, and she tells him that the untidy bay resembles her desk.

One of the problems Bishop faces in this poem is how to infuse what seems like a purely descriptive exercise with some of the impetus of narrative. The poem consists of an apparently random survey of activity, both natural and human, and the detritus left behind by it all. Each focused detail, however, is an invitation to concentrate and see clearly not just what is but also what can be. The speaker seems separate from the scene, distanced, but her imaginative capacity closes the gap. The water, the birds, the “frowsy sponge boats,” the ramshackle scenery are eventually taken in by the speaker/observer, a gift on her birthday, one might say, to herself and to the reader. In the following passage, the movement from distance to interiority, from disparate object to meaningful symbol, reflects the overall movement of the poem:

Some of the little white boats are still piled upagainst each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,like torn-open, unanswered letters.The bight is littered with old correspondences.

Like her early mentor, poet Marianne Moore, Bishop finds a more compelling reality in the imagined scene, the individualized, personalized world. “The Bight” depicts that reality as it comes into being.

Forms and Devices

One of Bishop’s aesthetic standards as a poet was accuracy; poet-critic Randall Jarrell noted in one of his reviews that “all her poems have written underneath, I have seen it.” Yet accuracy for Bishop means something more than objective, literal transcription. She must allow her reader not only to see the object before her but also to experience the whole meditative, discursive act of perception. To re-create this experience, she brings to bear a range of poetic devices, tactics that give her language the expansiveness and elasticity of a mind freed by engagement with the world around her. Thus, the envisioned objects can take on symbolic significance.

The mention of the great French poet Charles Baudelaire seems justified by his own proclivity for searching the material world for analogies to the human soul, as when he writes: “Imagination is an almost divine faculty which perceives immediately and without philosophical methods the inner and secret relations of things, the correspondences and analogies.” In her allusion, however, Bishop treats this idea ironically, noting that “if one were Baudelaire/ one could probably hear” the evaporating water in the bay “turning to marimba music.” The qualifications in this passage (“if one were . . ./ one could probably”) suggest that Bishop herself draws back from such fanciful and elaborate flights of invention. Later she confirms a less exalted, more modest...

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