Elizabeth Bishop: Moments of Discovery & Controlled Writing Style

“Moments of discovery and a carefully controlled writing style characterised the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.” 

Discuss with reference to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on your course.

Elizabeth Bishop's poetry is more intricate than it would appear on initial reading. I admire her ability to find extraordinary aspects in every day experiences. She uses a combination of precise, imaginative description and thought-provoking insight. Bishop's unique eye for detail and original imagery give her poetry a strong visual quality, drawing the reader into the world she describes. What makes her poetry particularly appealing is her desire to probe beneath the surface. These moments of insight, often dramatic and always interesting, help us to better understand the world in which we live. Bishop's poetry is rooted in her personal experience, which adds another dimension her already deeply insightful poetry. I will discuss "The Fish", "Filling Station", "The Bight", "First Death In Nova Scotia" and "Sestina".

Elizabeth Bishop
Many of Bishop’s poems depict images of intense concentration or contemplation of individual objects “The Fish” exemplifies this characteristic. In this poem, Bishop describes the experience of catching a fish. We are drawn into the poem by the first person narrative: “I caught a tremendous fish”. The poet’s empathy for the fish is conveyed immediately: he is “battered and venerable and homely”. A domestic simile helps us to visualise the fish: “his brown skin hung in strips like wallpaper”. An interesting shift in the poem occurs when the poet looks into the fish's eyes and begins to engage with him like he is a person. Bishop's language is particularly interesting in this poem. The word “sullen” suggests that the fish has human emotions and thus draws a connection between the fish and the poet, creating a parallel and an intimacy between them. Like Bishop, I admired the fish when she describes the “five old pieces of fish-line”, a symbol for the trials and tribulations, which the fish survived. Bishop personifies the Fish as a veteran. This is an insightful crescendo in this poem. The fish is a symbol of the resilience of the human spirit and the capacity to survive the vicissitudes of life. This insight has an uplifting effect on the poet and indeed the reader. The detail, to which she describes the fish expresses her personal response to it.  I particularly like the optimistic image, with which the poem ends: “until everything/was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow.” Having achieved victory through endurance, the fish is released. Every minute detail in the imagery describes her thought process. This stylistic feature, where the poem builds to a conclusion or a question, is evident in many of her poems.

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Bishop's power of observation and description, as well as her remarkable ability to achieve insight through reflecting on ordinary, everyday experiences are again evident in “Filling Station”. Bishop has a skill of taking something ordinary and, with vivid descriptive imagery, she gives it an underlying universal significance. In the beginning of the poem, she uses a condescending tone to describe the overwhelming filth of the station with its “overall black translucency”. Bishop is thinking fast and highly charged, however this does not affect her descriptions of the “oil soaked station” run by “greasy sons”. Her close observation of the unlikely domestic world that she encounters here sets her thinking: “why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why the doily?" Bishop's eye for detail is astounding as she notices that the doily is “embroidered in daisy stitch”. These observations reflect the poet’s admirable curiosity to understand the reality that lies behind external appearances. Again, we see how reflection leads to insight. The poet realises that some unseen person has done their best to create some semblance of domestic order in the world of grime: “Somebody waters the plant, / or oils it, maybe”.  This is one of the only times we see a glimpse of humour in Bishop. I found Bishop's use of personification as well as the repetition of the sibilant “so” heart-warming. The poet concludes that there is always someone doing their best to quietly improve the quality of our lives: “Somebody loves us all”. As in “The Fish”, Bishop uplifts the reader to reassuring insight into human life. The human ability to rise above the ugliness of life means that beauty and love are to be found in the most unlikely places.
Bishop combines detailed description, personal reflection and a moment of insight in the poem “The Bight”. The subtitle “On my birthday” immediately suggests a personal dimension to the poem and as a birthday prompts reflection and self-evaluation, this is particularly significant. The poem explores the poet’s state of mind through her depiction of this natural sense. There is a strong sensuous quality to her description of the disorder of the bay at low tide.  Bishop describes the business of the bight as “pelicans crash…/frowsy sponge boats keep coming in…/ shark tails are hung up to dry for the Chinese-restaurant trade”. This symbolises all of the people you meet throughout your life but loose touch with as its like being “littered with old correspondence”. The poem of nature like “The Fish”, once read, gives one an appreciation of nature and life. The use of onomatopoeia - “Click. Click”, alliteration - “till they tremble”, and sibilance - “sides stove”, all enhance the great detail and imagery of “The Bight”. I found the reference to Baudelaire interesting because Bishop suggests that the external world may be reflective of one’s state of mind.  Although the bight appears to be a tranquil natural scene, there is an underlying sense of danger suggested in the poet’s description: “the boats are dry, the pilings high as matches”. Even the personified marl seems sinister with its protruding ribs and “glare”, while there is a surreal sense to water that “doesn’t wet anything”. In overall terms, this is a bleak scene lacking in beauty, order and coherence. Perhaps, this chaotic natural scene is symbolic of the disorder in the poet’s mind. The overall tone of the poem is rather dark, but this leads to Bishops moment of insight. The insight the poet achieves at the close of the poem is uplifting “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful”. The poet now perceives that while life may be “awful”, we must approach it with optimism and good humour if we are to endure its disorder and disappointments.

In several poems that I have studied, it’s clear that Bishop addresses life’s mysteries. Sometimes she does this through the eyes of a child, as in “First Death in Nova Scotia”. In this poem Bishop describes a child’s attempts to come to terms with her first experience of death. It is particularly poignant because we see the world through the eyes of an innocent, confused child. Even as a child, Bishop was sharply observant taking in every aspect of the cold parlour. The imagery in this poem powerfully recreates an early childhood memory. Starting in a “cold parlour”, the poem moves effortlessly to the image of the chronographs, the “stuffed loon” on the marble table, the coffin like “a little frosted cake” and the image of the dead child clutching a “tiny lily”. The colours red and white are repeated throughout the poem. The red eye of the loon, the red Canadian maple leaf, the red of the royal robes in the chromograph are all symbols of warmth and comfort, which serve to highlight the whiteness of the child’s face the whiteness of the lily and the deep snow. The description of the lifeless loon as “cold and caressable” effectively conveys the child’s confusion when confronted by death. The simile comparing little Arthur to “a doll that hadn’t been painted yet” is very moving, highlighting the tragedy of the child’s death. Through closely observing the scene in the parlour, Bishop comes to terms with the sense of the finality of death. The child tries to come up with a happy, fairytale, ending to this tragic happening by imagining that the royal figures “invited Arthur to be/ the smallest page at court”. The innocence and sense of wonder of the child speaker adds a profound poignancy to the occasion but also poses the profound question of the meaning of death and how one passes from one state to another: “but how could Arthur go… and the roads deep in snow?  I thought that Bishop really captured the uncertainty of a young child’s mind in this very moving poem. I found Bishop uniquely controlled her imagery in this poem masterful in reaching a moment of universal truth and insight that death can never fully be understood, no matter what age a person is.

Many of Bishop’s poems reveal their depths of insight by means of carefully chosen contrasts. Contrast emphasises that, which is known and that which is hidden. We see this in the poem “Sestina”. A warm, domestic scene of a child and her grandmother is powerfully contrasted with the underlying, unspoken sadness that permeates the entire scene. Although Bishop was not particularly attracted to the formal structure, “Sestina” is an example of an intricate form of the same name, consisting of six stanzas of six lines and a concluding tercet. The six final words of the first stanza are repeated in a different order in each of the remaining five stanzas and also in the final tercet. This very tightly-structured form superbly reflects the strict control of emotion that the poem is really about. "Sestina" is an attempt by Bishop to finally put order on her troubled past. The immediate sense of gloom is seen through the reference to September and rain. The image of the old woman trying to hide her anguish from the child is quiet poignant “laughing and talking to hide the tears”. This sense of despondency we feel in the opening scene pervades the entire poem. The theme is the child’s difficulty in coming to terms with her life without her mother and father, as well as the theme that life continues to go on amidst sorrow and loss. As in “First Death in Nova Scotia” the young Bishop tries to comprehend her feelings by exploring them through the concrete objects around her.  The absent sadness of the tone is reflected through highly imaginative metaphors and similes giving an accurate understanding of grief. Such as the almanac like a bird of prey that “hovers half above the child, / hovers above the old grandmother”. There is a surreal quality to the poem as the child imagines the objects around her coming to life and engaging in a conversation: it was to be, says the Marvel stove, / I know what I know, says the almanac”. The “rigid house” that the child draws becomes a symbol of her desire for stability. While the child sees “tears” everywhere throughout the poem- the grandmother “hides her tears”, the rain,  the child is watching the “teakettles small, hard tears”, the “teacup full of dark brown tears”, the picture of the “man with buttons like tears”, “the little moons fall down like tears” and the seeds of tears in the final stanza, the child herself never cries- she is sharply aware of the sorrow that enshrouds the house, but is not yet mature enough to fully understand it. Beyond doubt, Bishop carefully controls her writing in “Sestina” through her imagery, structure and contrast in this poem. 

Bishop’s narrative and reflective poems are often journeys of discovery and realisation. The loss of innocence is a recurring theme. Her distinctive poetry is thoughtful and thought provoking. I enjoyed Bishop's poetry particularly because of its moments of insight: her ability to probe beneath outer appearances and discover universal truths is very impressive. In terms of her style, I was struck by her remarkably vivid descriptions, and unusual similes and metaphors. Bishop was truly a masterful poet.


Based on an essay of a Leaving Cert student
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