Elizabeth Bishop at 100

February 8, 2011

Acclaimed poet, Elizabeth Bishop, class of 1934

Elizabeth Bishop at Vassar

Elizabeth Bishop is my favorite poet.   I am addicted, as John Ashbery suggested, to her poetry like that of no other poet I know.

Unfortunately, there is just so little of it; she published 88 poems in her lifetime, which is probably the yearly output of MFA types.

Yet, as Ashbery said, “like other addicting substances, this work creates a hunger for itself: the more one tastes it, the less of it there seems to be.”

Nearly all her poems were perfect, if a poem can be perfect.

There is something about the clarity of her language and the painstaking approach she took composing poems that makes almost all of her poems feel absolutely contemporary.

Bishop was born 100 years ago today and died on October 6, 1979.

Some years ago, a friend of mine, a fiction writer, to whom I sent Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” said that reading this poem helped her finish a story she was writing about “shooting a halibut.”

If you’ve ever fished for halibut, you know that you have to shoot or club the enormous fish in order to land it.  My friend was struggling with the ending, because she didn’t want to shoot the fish, but she knew she had to shoot the fish to finish the story.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish”:


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 with 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.

–Elizabeth Bishop

You can read an essay I wrote about Elizabeth Bishop for The Bloomsbury Review in 1996:  Elizabeth Bishop Under the Microscope

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth!