Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop at 100

Today is the centennial of one of America's greatest poets, Elizabeth Bishop.

She published very little during her lifetime, fewer than 100 poems. However, her poems are considered near-perfect. They are not obscure in the way of much modern rubbish; the reader understands every word, every phrase. While she does not have the fame of Robert Frost, her reputation among both critics and poetry lovers is equal to his -- indeed, to that of any other poet of the twentieth century.

Here is her most famous -- certainly, the most analyzed -- poem, "The Fish," published in 1946:

   I caught a tremendous fish
   and held him beside the boat
   half out of water, with my hook
   fast in a corner of his mouth.
   He didn't fight.
   He hadn't fought at all.
   He hung a grunting weight,
   battered and venerable
   and homely. Here and there
   his brown skin hung in strips
   like ancient wallpaper,
   and its pattern of darker brown
   was like wallpaper:
   shapes like full-blown roses
   stained and lost through age.
   He was speckled and barnacles,
   fine rosettes of lime,
   and infested
   with tiny white sea-lice,
   and underneath two or three
   rags of green weed hung down.
   While his gills were breathing in
   the terrible oxygen
   --the frightening gills,
   fresh and crisp with blood,
   that can cut so badly--
   I thought of the coarse white flesh
   packed in like feathers,
   the big bones and the little bones,
   the dramatic reds and blacks
   of his shiny entrails,
   and the pink swim-bladder
   like a big peony.
   I looked into his eyes
   which were far larger than mine
   but shallower, and yellowed,
   the irises backed and packed
   with tarnished tinfoil
   seen through the lenses
   of old scratched isinglass.
   They shifted a little, but not
   to return my stare.
   --It was more like the tipping
   of an object toward the light.
   I admired his sullen face,
   the mechanism of his jaw,
   and then I saw
   that from his lower lip
   --if you could call it a lip
   grim, wet, and weaponlike,
   hung five old pieces of fish-line,
   or four and a wire leader
   with the swivel still attached,
   with all their five big hooks
   grown firmly in his mouth.
   A green line, frayed at the end
   where he broke it, two heavier lines,
   and a fine black thread
   still crimped from the strain and snap
   when it broke and he got away.
   Like medals with their ribbons
   frayed and wavering,
   a five-haired beard of wisdom
   trailing from his aching jaw.
   I stared and stared
   and victory filled up
   the little rented boat,
   from the pool of bilge
   where oil had spread a rainbow
   around the rusted engine
   to the bailer rusted orange,
   the sun-cracked thwarts,
   the oarlocks on their strings,
   the gunnels--until everything
   was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
   And I let the fish go.

Gives me the spine-shivers. I invite you to take a minute to think on Elizabeth Bishop today.

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1 comment:

  1. Steve, Love the poem... I need to get back out fishing!