Elizabeth Bishop’s Masterpiece, “The Fish”

In the poetry world, Elizabeth Bishop was highly respected. She had the reputation of being a perfectionist, polishing a few poems rather than starting many at once. Her poetry describes the world with a sense of serenity. Underlying themes in her writing are grief and longing.

Elizabeth Bishop’s home life was atypical. She spent most of her childhood staying with various relatives after her father’s death and her mother’s hospitalization. Bishop did not reach the height of her poetic career until later in life.

She studied English at Vassar, even though she had planned on majoring in music composition and piano. She also thought of going to medical school, but Marianne Moore, a friend she met while working on Vassar’s literary magazine, encouraged her to pursue writing.

She ended up traveling all over Europe and teaching at various universities, winning poetry prizes that included the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award . She was the first American and the first woman to win the Books Abroad/Neustadt Prize for Literature. Certainly her life, 1911 – 1979, was full of accomplishment and excitement.

Through her poetry, we see Bishop’s attentive eye for detail. Especially her poem, “The Fish,” helps us to realize beauty in unexpected places.

“The Fish,” by Elizabeth Bishop, will absorb the reader unconsciously upon reading. This poem has the power to “hook” a reader into feeling sympathy for an otherwise routine activity: fishing. The various elements of figurative language tug at our heartstrings and invite us to notice beauty in unseen places. Especially narration, tone, and imagery complement each other to produce a successful piece. Through the use of engaging narration, sensitive tone, and detailed imagery, Bishop helps us readers to grow along with the speaker in our bond with the fish and realize its ironic beauty.

Bishop has a way of storytelling that is exceptionally believable. The poem is structured in free verse, which helps us to read it and become involved. Along the way, there is rising action, or detailed imagery that points out what she notices about the fish. The climactic ending ties it all together. The first lines say, “I caught a tremendous fish/ and held him beside the boat/…He hadn’t fought at all.” Right away, we are drawn into her words and figure that the author is actually the one catching the fish. Perhaps Bishop is telling of her own experience, but the fisherman and speaker in this poem is most likely a character she created.

Because the narration is believable, we go along with the speaker and begin to take on her views of the fish and begin a bond. The fisherman describes how the fish, “hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable/ and homely”. Here, the fisherman first steps back to examine and respect the fish; this is the bond in its beginning stage.

The narration of the speaker also helps us to discover the beauty of the fish. “I thought of the coarse white flesh/ packaged in like feathers/ …the dramatic reds and blacks/ …and the pink swim bladder/ like a big peony.” As the speaker begins to notice color and compares fish parts to flowers, we can see the beauty develop.

The narration would be nothing without the use of detail because these elements work together inside the narration to create successful language. Bishop’s use of tone especially helps readers to feel sympathy within and triumph at the end of the poem. For example, the fisherman says, “I looked into his eyes/ … shallower, and yellowed, the irises backed and packed/ with tarnished tinfoil.” Instead of saying, “The fish as near death and his eyes were yellow,” Bishop expresses her sense of pity for the fish that we begin to feel also. There is something familiar about looking into eyes that she uses to help establish a connection with the fish. Now that we sympathize with the fish, our bond is becoming more personal.

The use of tone also helps us to realize the beauty of the fish. At times the tone seems distant and thoughtful. I admired his sullen face, / the mechanism of his jaw…I stared and stared.” Because Bishop cares to give the closer look, we as readers are persuaded to do the same. While both narration and tone help readers to see the fish as Bishop does, her use of detail and imagery is what really “reels” us in.

Detail and imagery help to solidify our personal relationship with the fish. “While his gills were breathing in/ the terrible oxygen/ -the frightening gills, / fresh and crisp with blood.” “Terrible oxygen” is so ironic, yet we have all seen a freshly caught fish struggle to breathe. Bishop allows us to taste that scary moment to stir up emotions like pity and fear that make us want the fish to live because we now care for it. Ultimately, this developing bond is what finally convinces the fisherman to let the fish go at the end.

The beauty of detail and imagery in this poem establishes the ironic beauty in the fish.”[H]is brown skin hung in strips/ like ancient wall-paper, / … shapes like full-blown roses/ stained and lost throughout age.” Normally, we would not see beauty in suffering in death, but somehow Bishop washes us over with sensitive images and we are awed. After noticing the five other lines grown into the fish’s lip, the fisherman compares them to “medals with their ribbons/ frayed and wavering, / a five-haired beard of wisdom/ trailing from his aching jaw.” The way she delicately describes the fish helps us visualize and respect it. Here, we see the fish as gentle, aged, wise, and respected, like a war hero. Bishop sees the beauty and hardship in his life, as displayed by his past encounters with the five lines as a beard.

In this poem, narration, tone, and specific detail work together. Through the sympathy in tone we are able to bond with the fish and establish a personal relationship. In this bond, we see beauty through Bishop’s imagery. The imagery also makes us feel sympathy and the use of imagery and detail is what supports the narration and makes it work. Each aspect of Bishops’ writing sings, but together, they form a choir and we are able to bond with a fish and realize its ironic beauty through the use of engaging narration, sensitive tone, and detailed imagery.

See http://www.poemhunter.com/elizabeth-bishop/biography/ for more on the life of Elizabeth Bishop.

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.