Elizabeth Bishop Leaving Certificate Poetry
Elizabeth Bishop v Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. v When she was only a baby her father died and her mother was so traumatised she was later committed to a mental asylum. v Bishop was sent to live with her grandparents and later her aunt. v She lived for many years in Brazil with her lesbian partner Lota de Macedo, until Lota’s death in 1967. Bishop described this period as the happiest time of her life.
Elizabeth Bishop She wrote slowly and published sparingly but her work was critically acclaimed. She won many prizes and awards until her death in Boston in 1979. Bishop’s unhappy childhood created a sense of loss which remained with her as an adult.
The Fish The poet catches an enormous fish She holds the ‘tremendous’ fish alongside the boat. The hook that she used to catch him is lodged securely – ‘fast’ – in the corner of the fish’s mouth. This is a big fish and the poet is surprised that it put up no resistance when it was caught. ‘He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all. ’
The fish’s appearance The fish is old and its age makes it worthy of respect. This is clear when the poet describes it as ‘venerable’. The word ‘battered’ implies that the fish has suffered in it’s lifetime. Vivid colours help us to picture the fish: ‘brown’ and ‘darker brown’ skin speckled with lime green and white lines and shapes like ‘roses’.
The Fish Despite the barrier between animal and human, Bishop begins to empathise with the fish: ‘I looked into his eyes’. She describes the eyes with great care, noting that the fish’s eyes are ‘far larger’ than the poet’s but they are ‘shallower, and yellowed. ’ Though the creature does not respond to her, she admires ‘his sullen face/ the mechanism of his jaw’
The Fish It is while she is examining the fish’s jaw that she suddenly notices there are ‘five big hooks’ lodged firmly in the fish’s lip. Attached to the hooks are pieces of line and wire that would have once connected the hooks to the rod. She describes the hooks as ‘weaponlike’ and realises that the fish has struggled many times to escape capture.
The Fish The achievement of the fish in escaping capture becomes like that of a war hero who has endured hardship and is now being honoured. We can picture a battle-scarred general, decorated for bravery, the fish-lines are ‘like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering’. She realises she has looking at a fish who has been caught five times but each time has managed to break himself free.
The Fish This knowledge gives the poets a great feeling of ‘victory’. A victory that comes from catching the tremendous fish and understanding what the fish has been through and survived. The colours that surround the poet add to this wonderful sense of victory. Oil at the bottom of the boat ‘had spread a rainbow/around the rusted engine. ’
The Fish For a brief moment, the world around the poet seems beautiful and joyous, full of wonderful colours: ‘everything/was rainbow, rainbow!’ Inspired by the fish’s survival, the poet decides to ‘let the fish go. ’
Similes A simile is a comparison that uses the word ‘like’, ‘as’, or ‘than’. The poem features a number of similes: The shapes on the fish’s skin are ‘like full-blown roses/stained and lost through age. ’ The fish’s flesh is ‘packed in like feathers’. The eyes move ‘like the tipping/of an object toward light’. The lines attached to the fish’s jaw are ‘Like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering. ’
Theme The Natural World The poet is fascinated by the fish she has caught; she thinks that it is ‘tremendous’. It is not particularly beautiful; in fact, the poet tells us it is ugly, or ‘homely’. What fascinates the poet the most is just how strange the fish is – how different it is to her. The fish is a creature of the water and the oxygen that the poet breathes naturally is ‘terrible’ to it. When the poet looks into the fish’s eyes, there is no recognition there. They do not return her stare but ‘tip’ away from her. The poet considers the fish’s ‘frightening gills’, and thinks of how they can ‘cut so badly. ’
First Encounter Questions 1. How did the poet feel about her catch in the opening lines? 2. In lines 8 -9 the poet uses three words to describe the fish: she says that he is ‘battered and venerable/ and homely’. What does each word suggest to you about the fish? 3. When the poet looks at the fish’s jaw, she realises that she is not the first person to have attempted to catch this fish. What brings about this realisation? 4. How is the poet’s sense of joy evident in the closing lines of the poem?
A Closer Reading – Questions 1. Were you surprised by the extent of the detail given in the poem? Why do you think the poet decided to give so many details about the fish? 2. Do you think that the poet was always sympathetic to the fish or did you think that her attitude changed throughout the course of the poem? 3. Do you think this poem has anything to say about the way people relate to the natural world?
The Prodigal This poem can be read as an updating of the well known parable from the Gospel of St. Luke. Jesus tells how a son asks for his inheritance from his wealthy farmer. He heads off to a foreign country and squanders all of his money on drink and gambling. Eventually, his funds run out and he has to work in a pigsty in order to survive. For a long time he endures labouring in the filth and dung as he’s too ashamed to return home. Eventually, however, he can take no more and returns home where his father forgives him and welcomes him home with open arms.
The Prodigal Stanza One Bishop dramatises the time before the prodigal returns home rather than the homecoming itself. The prodigal is a voluntary ‘exile’ who would rather sleep in the pigsty than return to where he came from. The poem describes an alcoholic farm worker who works and lives in a pigsty and the poet does not flinch from describing the squalor in which he lives.
The Prodigal The pigsty can only be described as unpleasant. The prodigal lives among the pigs with their ‘brown enormous odor’, ‘ breathing’ and ‘thick hair’. The floor is ‘rotten’ and the walls are covered with ‘glass-smooth dung’ The odour has so overpowered him that he can no longer ‘judge’ it. He is so degraded that he can’t even see how far he has fallen. He lives too close to the animals ‘for him to judge’.
The Prodigal Bishop describes the pigs in an approving way as they offer the prodigal some comfort and companionship. Their eyes follow him with ‘a cheerful stare /even the sow that always ate her young. ’ Such a realistic detail makes us realise how low the prodigal has sunk, especially since he scratches the sow’s head in spite of being sickened at what he sees.
The Prodigal He deceives himself so much that he has almost come to accept his living conditions. He also deceives himself, and others, about his drinking: ‘he hid the pints behind a two-by-four’. It seems he often gets drunk early in the morning and finds beauty in the sunrise and how it is reflected in the mud and puddles of the yard.
The Prodigal The pleasant sight of the sunrise that ‘glazed the barnyard mud with red’ and the ‘burning puddles’ makes him think he can put up with the pigsty for another year, rather than returning home. ‘And then he thought he almost might endure/his exile yet another year or more’. He is not ready to face his problems and change his life.
The Prodigal Stanza Two This stanza describes an evening in the farmyard. The sun is ‘ going away’ and his employer ‘shuts the cows and horses in the barn’ and returns to his farmhouse by the light of a lantern. The image of the lantern light getting smaller as the farmer heads for home, while the prodigal remains in darkness with the pigs, is truly saddening.
The Prodigal The prodigal’s nights seem to be truly miserable. We can imagine that they are filled with guilt and self-loathing caused by his addiction and the fact that he has ended up living in such a dirty environment. He views the ‘first star’ as a warning that the night time, and the horrors it brings, are on the way.
The Prodigal The prodigal’s nights are in contrast to that of the farmer and pigs. The pigs snore contentedly and the farmer returns to the warmth and comfort of his own home. The intense loneliness of the prodigal is also highlighted as the pigs sleep in ‘companionable’ togetherness while the farmer doesn’t say a word to him before retreating to his home.
The Prodigal The prodigal’s moment of truth comes when he comes aware of ‘the bats’ uncertain staggering flight’, which gives him ‘shuddering insights’. He does not want to recognise the truth, but at last, he realises his terrible isolation. The bats terrify him because their blind flight resembles his stumbling through life and his uncertain future. Although he finally accepts the misery of his situation, it is a long time before he can find it in himself to leave the pigsty and return home: ‘it took him a long time/finally to make his mind up to go home’.
The Prodigal - Theme Addiction ‘The Prodigal’ is a moving and honest portrayal of an addict. He suffers from severe alcohol addiction and his problem has brought him to a terrible situation. He spends his days and nights amid the filth and squalor of the pigsty and it seems his nights are racked by guilt and self-loathing.
The Prodigal - Theme Addiction The poem paints a picture of the misery addiction brings but also highlights how addicts take comfort in their way of living. They may be miserable but their way of life is one they are familiar with and understand. The poem emphasises how hard it is for an addict to leave addiction behind, even when he realises the full horror of his situation. It is important to note that there is a strong autobiographical element to this poem as by 1939 Bishop was a fullblown alcoholic.
The Prodigal - Theme Homelessness An important part of the poem is the prodigal’s refusal to return home. He lives and works in misery and we get a sense that he feels he doesn’t really have a home as he is no longer welcome there. The word ‘home’ is the only end-word that doesn’t rhyme suggesting how difficult the idea of home is to the prodigal. Again, this is very similar to Bishop’s circumstances as someone for whom ‘home’ did not really exist. Having lost her parents at a young age and spent years moving from house to house, in Bishop’s eyes the journey home is not an easy one to make.
The Prodigal – Questions 1. Describe, in your own words, the prodigal’s living place. 2. According to Bishop, the smell of the pigsty was ‘too close’ for the prodigal to judge. What do you think she means by this? 3. What sign is there that the prodigal is ashamed of his drinking? 4. The poem says the ‘first star came to warn’. What warning does it give the prodigal? 5. Why do you think the prodigal was reluctant to change his life, leave the pigsty behind and return to his home?
The Prodigal – Detailed Questions 1. Discuss the main themes in this poem. 2. Do you think the poem gives a truthful portrayal of addiction and what a terrible disease it is? Give reasons for your answer. 3. Imagine you are the prodigal. Write three paragraphs in which you describe your life on the farmyard. You may wish to focus on: • Your living conditions • Your duties in the farmyard • Your relationship with the farmer • How you came to live and work there • Your reluctance to go home
The Filling Station In this poem, the poet stands in front of a filling station and takes in what she can see all around her. Everything she sees appears oily and dirty: ‘oil-soaked, oilpermeated’ to the extent that everything has an ‘over-all / black translucency’ or shine. Humorously, she warns herself, or someone else, to be careful of a lighted match, as the place could quickly go up in flames.
The Filling Station Stanza 2 describes the members of the family who own and work in the station, a father and several sons. Like their surroundings, the men are ‘greasy’ but Bishop’s tone is light-hearted when she says they are ‘quite thoroughly dirty’. With typical curiosity about the world around her, Bishop begins to question what she sees.
The Filling Station As unlikely as it seemed at first, she realises that the family do live in the filling station. On the porch there is wicker furniture and a dog who both look as ‘comfy’ and dirty as the rest of the station. Bishops use of the word ‘comfy’ suggests that in spite of the dirt she finds the scene pleasant. It is not a soulless business, it is a family environment.
The Filling Station In the 4 th and 5 th stanza Bishop begins to realise that despite the fact that the place is run by a bunch of greasy men and is utterly filthy, the station has elements of decoration. The plant, the taboret and the doily are all there to make the place pretty. But their presence in such a filthy place, run by men, strikes the poet as very strange, causing her to ask: ‘Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily? ’
The Filling Station The doily has been carefully embroidered with flowers and grey stitching. Such a pretty and delicate item is out of keeping with the rest of the place. Although everything is dirty, these are objects that suggest a desire for a more ordered life. Somebody has even arranged the ESSO cans so that they all face the same way.
The Filling Station Bishop answers her own questions in the final stanza. She realises someone cares about this place and has tried to improve it, even if their efforts are pointless. It can hardly have been any of the men. There must be another person, someone not present who bothered to do all these things. The final line suggests that a caring ‘motherly’ figure lies behind these details. Such a person is looking out for us: ‘Someone loves us all. ’
What is the poem about? Optimism and Motherly Love Although ‘The Filling Station’ is quite simply written, it can be interpreted a number of different ways. One reading of the poem is that it shows Bishop’s optimistic view of life, despite her personal problems, especially the lack of a mother in her life. She seems to suggest that a mother’s presence is always felt, even if she is not actually there. The father and the ‘greasy’ sons have had at least some experience of feminine care and affection. It doesn’t matter that they are dirty and unattractive because somebody has loved them.
What is the poem about? Regret Some readers feel that the light-hearted tone of the poem is tinged with regret. After all, the station has been allowed to become so dirty. The mother is nowhere to be seen. Has she gone away or simply given up the battle against the oil and grease? This may be an expression of grief for Bishop’s deprived childhood.
Sound patterns in the poem Bishop makes use of sibilance (repetition of ‘s’ sounds) in the poem – in words such as ‘soaked’, ‘translucency’, ‘saucy’, ‘greasy’ and so on. This has an onomatopoeic effect as it suits the impression of oiliness and grease that she wants to give. The use of alliteration in the words ‘family filling’ and ‘dim doily’ contribute to the harmony of the poem.
The Filling Station Questions 1. What is the speaker’s immediate impression of the filling station? 2. What objects in the station most surprise the speaker? Why do you think she is so surprised to see them in this place? 3. The final stanza refers to the ‘somebody’ who must have been responsible for the presence of the surprising objects. Who do you think this somebody might be?
The Filling Station Detailed Questions 1. Do you think that the speaker respects the fact somebody has bothered to try to make the filling station pretty? Or do you think she feels that such efforts are a waste of time? 2. What do you think is the poem/s message? Give reasons for your answer.
Questions Of Travel Bishop travelled a lot in her life before travelling and settling in Brazil in 1952. This poem questions the idea of travel. Why do we travel? and can we ever really understand other people’s culture?
Questions of Travel This poem is set in Brazil. The speaker in the poem seems overwhelmed by the notion of travel, everything seems crowded and excessive but beautiful too. Bishop reflects on the pros and cons of travel.
Questions of Travel The first section of the poem conveys the abundance and richness of nature but there is a sense of travel-weariness. “too many waterfalls” Visual and aural imagery with the sibilant ‘S’ and assonant ‘O’ sounds, enable us to both visualise and hear the water pouring down the mountains. The poet conveys the energy and non stop movement of the natural world “…keep traveling, traveling”.
Questions of Travel The second section is more philosophical in nature. The poet questions our need for travel or whether we should just imagine these places from home. She suggests that as tourists, we are like intruders into a world that is not ours. “is it right to be watching strangers in a play/in this strangest of theartres? ”
Questions of Travel Bishop describes the need to travel as impulsive childish behaviour “what childishness it is…”. She captures the often uncomprehending response of the tourists to the historical remains of other cultures. “inexplicable and impenetrable”. Our response to such heritage is uniformed and cliched “always, always delightful”. She views the tourists in a very negative light suggesting that our response to the world is entirely superficial. There is no meaningful engagement with a new, possibly rich culture, instead we take another instant photot and move on. “And have we room/ for one more folded sunset, still quite warm? ”
Questions of Travel In the third section we are presented with the benefits of travel. Bishop presents us with a series of detailed images which reflect her observant eye and wonderful descriptive power. She describes the trees as having a “noble” quality. They were “robed in pink”. Her use of alliteration and onomatopoeia “carelessly clacking” convey the distinctive sound of the clogs.
Another lingering visual and aural memory is “the fat brown bird/who sings above the broken gasoline pump”. This section of the poem ends on a humorous note with Bishop comparing the monotonous sound of incessant rain to “politicians speeches’ which also end in a “sudden golden silence”
Exam style questions 1. ‘Bishop’s narrative style and her use of conversational language make her poems accessible to the reader. ’ Would you agree with this view? Explain your answer with reference to the poems you have studied. Bishop’s poems reveal a great deal about her life, especially her childhood, and her personality. Her descriptions are always vivid and fresh, in line with her desire to see things in a new way. You can see how, as a painter as well as a poet, she was interested in the shape colour and texture of things around her, and this is reflected in her use of language. Her poems are hardly ever purely descriptive, there is almost always a deeper theme.
Sample introduction I would agree that her narrative style and her use of conversational language make her poems accessible to the reader. She often creates the impression of someone thinking aloud, reflecting on the world about her, on her own experience and the issues it raises. She is preoccupied with what it means to be human in a world that she sees as uncertain, constantly changing. The reader can relate to the philosophical nature of her poems, expressed in a unique and attractive style.
Exam style questions ‘Elizabeth Bishop: a personal response. ’ Remember to support your points with reference to or quotation from the poems on your course. Her choice of themes – childhood experience, travel, the natural world, the creative imagination – to they appeal to you? The speculative nature of her poems, the questions they raise and sometimes answer. Her use of language, her striking imagery, the sounds of her poems etc. Her personality and outlook as revealed in her work. The emotions her poems evoke.