Elizabeth Bishop: Moments of Discovery & Controlled Writing Style (2.0)

“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.

See another answer to the same question here.

Through my study of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, I have found it to be far more intricate than meets the eye. It is clear that Bishop has an innate inability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, everyday experiences. The poet uses a combination of varying points of view, precise and imaginative description and thought provoking insight. I find that her inquisitive tendencies and desire to look a little closer makes her poetry even more appealing and helps to draw the reader into the world she describes. Her prolific moments of insight give the reader a different view on life. Bishop's poems are often rooted deep in her prior experiences. This adds an extra layer to her fascinating poetry. The poems in which these features are vividly displayed are "The Fish", "Filling Station", "In The Waiting Room", "First Death in Nova Scotia" and "Sestina".

Elizabeth Bishop
Like many of Bishop's poems, "The Fish" shows intense meditation on commonplace objects. In this poem, Bishop describes her experience of catching a fish one day: "I caught a tremendous fish". The poet's use of the first person narrative engages the reader. Bishop describes the fish in great detail, really capturing this moment of discovery: "Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw." The poet's deliberate choice of words highlights the commonalities she shared with this fish. Perhaps, the fish was a metaphor for Bishop as they had both endured the trials and tribulations of life. Bishop personified the fish as a veteran displaying her respect for it. To Bishop, the fish is admirable and she views it as more than tonight's dinner although she vividly describes its inside: "It's dramatic red and black shiny entrails, pink swim bladder like a big peony." The detail to which she describes the fish expresses her personal response to it. I like how the poem ends on a particularly optimistic image: "Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow. And I let the fish go." Having experienced this moment of realisation with this fish, she grants the fish it's freedom. Every detail regardless of how minute, is mentioned in this poem and truly illustrates the poet's thought process. This made me feel as though I was in the boat with her. This stylistic feature, where the poem builds to a conclusion, is seen many times in Bishop's poetry.

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Bishop's power of observation and description, as well as her incredible ability to achieve insight through reflecting on quotidian experiences are visible in "Filling Station". Thanks to the poet's eye for detail, Bishop is capable of taking something banal and with vivid description give it an interesting universal significance. In the beginning of the poem, Bishop describes with a condescending tone as she inspects her surroundings. She describes the overwhelming state of disarray and filth with a welcome sense of humour. "Be careful with that match!" Her close observation of the unlikely domestic world she finds herself in makes her think "Why the extraneous plant" Her out-standing eye for detail lends itself well to aiding the reader to enjoy this experience with the poet. "Embroidered in daisy stitch with, with I think marguerites and heavy with gray crochet. I found Bishop's repetition of the "so" heart-warming. "They softly say Esso-so-so-so to high strung automobiles". The poem comes to a close with the touching sentiment "somebody loves us all". Similar to in "The Fish". Bishop aims to uplift the reader by highlights our human ability to see past the ugliness of life and enjoy the beauty and love that are to be found in the most unlikely of places.

In "In The Waiting Room", Bishop recounts her own experience of self-realisation in the waiting room of a doctors surgery. As she flicks through the pages of the national Geographic,  she happens upon photographs of people very different to her. "Naked black women with their necks wound around and round with wire like the necks of light-bulbs. A common theme in the first half of this poem is the separation the poet felt. Written from a child's point of view, there is a certain degree of separation between the young Bishop and the world she found herself in: "the room was full of grown-up people". Suddenly, the girl realises she is in fact a part of this world and this is a moment of discovery for her. "You are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them". This repetition of "you" drives home this self-realisation.

Bishop's carefully controlled writing style is most clearly presented in "Sestina". Unlike the poet's other poems "Sestina" is an example of an intricate form of the same name, consisting of 6 stanzas of 6 lines and a concluding tercet. The six final words of the first stanza are repeated in a varied order in each of the other stanzas and in the terminal stanza. I feel that this tightly structured form reflects the subject of the poem which is the strict control of emotion as well as the poet's attempt to put some order on her troubled past. The poem commences with a familiar domestic scene of grandmother and child in the kitchen. The poem soon takes a somber turn with the introduction of the tears imagery. "Her teacup full of brown teas". "teakettles, small, hard teas. This repetition is unnerving and surreal. The Surreal imagery adds a nightmarish element to the poem. The poem personifies the kettle. "The iron kettle sings on the stove". This shows the degree to which the poet was kept in the dark about certain aspects of her life. There is an overpowering sense of foreboding throughout the poem. "It was to be says the Marvel stove". I feel as though the poet believes her childhood years set faulty foundations for her adult years. As if her future struggles were written in the almanac and there was no escaping that. "Bird-like, half open hovering above the child". The ultimate image is one filled with poignancy as we are reminded she was merely a child in search of a family and a home. "The child draws a rigid house and a winding pathway". In my opinion, Bishop expertly captured the image of a young child buried in grief but not mature enough to comprehend its origin. Bishop carefully controls her writing in "Sestina" through her original imagery and restrictive structure. 

In "The First Death in Nova Scotia" the port addresses one of life's mysteries, again from a child's perspective. In this poem, Bishop describes a child's attempt to come to terms with her first experience of death. I found this poem to be especially moving as this poignant experience is through the innocent eyes of a child. It is clear that even as a child the poet was sharply observant, taking in every minute detail she noticed in the cold parlour. The colour white and the sense of coldness haunted the poet to the extent that she personifies the icy weather "Jack Frost had dropped his brush". The description of the lifeless loom effectively conveys the child's disillusionment of confession when confronted by death. "this breast is deep and white, cold and caress able". The simile comparing little Arthur to a "doll that hadn't been painted yet" is deeply moving. It highlights the tragedy and injustice of the death of a child. The innocence of the child speaker adds a profound layer of poignancy to the occasion as a young Bishop poses a deep question of the meaning of death and wonders how one might pass from one state to the next. "but how could Arthur go.... and the roads deep in snow?" Personally I feel that Bishop really captured the uncertainty of the Childs mind. I found Bishop uniquely controlled her imagery masterfully in reaching a moment of saddening truth and the revelation that mortality can never be fully comprehended regardless of age.

Bishop's narrative and reflective poems are often journeys of discovery and realisation. The loss of innocence and discovery of something new is a prevailing theme. I enjoyed Bishop's poetry particularly because of its moment on insight. .... her ability to probe at what lays beneath the surface and uncover a trove of universal truths. With regards to her style, I was struck by her incredibly vivid descriptions, interesting similes and unusual metaphors. It is fair to say that Bishop is a masterful poet.

Based on an essay of a Leaving Cert student
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