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.)