Everyday Occurrence or Profound Experience?

I found that this week’s theme, “Everyday Difficulty,” was very fitting for Elizabeth Bishop’s two poems. For the most part, they are written in fairly plain English; the language is not what makes comprehending these poems difficult, as they are fairly straightforward to read. Both deal with accounts of seemingly normal occurrences (catching a fish and sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room), so the difficulty comes about due to finding overall meaning in these everyday happenings.

In “The Fish,” the speaker recounts a time where he/she caught a “tremendous fish.” The 76 lines of the poem seem to deal with an almost split-second instance; the speaker catches the fish, holds it by the side of the boat, contemplates its existence, and releases it. For me, I found it difficult to understand the significance of this occurrence. Essentially, I continued to ask myself why this poem is still read today. It seems that the speaker, upon holding the fish on the side of the boat, recognizes the beauty of the fish. He/she realizes that the fish has lived a life of difficulty (“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/”). I connected this with the everyday struggles that all beings face in their existence. Though we all face some sort of obstacle, it does not completely detract from our existence, and therefore, we have some sort of inherent worth. It seems that after the speaker makes this connection, he allows the fish to go free and continue to live. This was the take away I made after really thinking about this poem, and I’m not sure if I’m even remotely correct. But for me, the difficulty in came in understanding a bigger significance of a fairly normal occurrence.

“In the Waiting Room” proved to be even more difficult for me to understand. It seems to be about the speaker recounting a time in which she went to the doctor with her aunt. While in the waiting room, she comes across a feature in National Geographic about cannibalism. The speaker recognizes how foreign that way of life is in comparison to his/her own life in Worcester, Massachusetts, and this seems to startle him/her. This poem was difficult because it seemed to talk about a very specific instance (location, date, magazine, etc. are all very specific to this one occurrence). More so than “The Fish,” I wondered why an understanding of this speaker’s specific experience was important to me. The only thing I could come up with this that certain experiences have profound and lasting impacts on an individual, and they in some way or another shape them.

The Beauty in Simplicity

This week’s poems share the similarity of using simple language to convey vivid images. Although the poems were not difficult to understand for the most part, I could not help but to wonder if I was missing a crucial point while reading them. My favorite among this week’s readings is Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” Maybe it’s the autobiographical aspect of the poem or the prose-like fashion it’s written in, but I felt an instant connection with the poem and that’s what made it a beautiful read for me.

Unlike “The Fish,” this poem has a purpose that’s less complicated to grasp. Maybe the level of detail provided was like a moving image taken from a video rather than a still image from a photograph like in “The Fish,” but reading “In the Waiting Room” almost feel like a peek into someone’s journal entry and tapping into their thoughts. But why is this poem written in prose? No doubt the form contributed to the easiness of the poem, but that makes it dangerously easy, like surrounding it with caution tape. That is also why I think this week’s poems may have a deeper meaning that I may have missed.

Additionally, out of curiosity, I wonder how a six-year-old little girl could be so attentive to her surroundings, let alone pick up a copy of National Geographic and recognize two famous explorers at the time. I am by no means discrediting the speaker, but it just caught me by surprise. At the same time, I felt that the speaker was trying to prove her maturity by inserting “I could read” in line 15 to have adults take her seriously, like what every child has the tendency to do. But her façade came crumbling down when she was given a taste of reality through the editorial images. All in all, the attention to detail Bishop provides in her poems made them a memorable and enjoyable read.

Intense Imagery In “The Fish”

I really enjoyed reading “The Fish” because it was much easier to understand than the poems we have read in the past. On the surface this poem is pretty simple. Bishop writes with intense imagery to describe a time that she (or the narrator) caught a fish and bonded with it in a way and ended up letting it go. An aspect of Bishop’s imagery I found interesting was her tendency to humanize the fish. Instead of referring to her catch as “it” or something along those lines, she refers to the fish as “him.” This brought the fish to life for me and I started to feel bad for it in a way. The difficulty in this text actually arose because it seemed to be so ordinary and easy to understand. I started to wonder if this was actually Bishops goal – make the readers think more about what she has to write instead of hiding it obscurely in her poem. Not only do I start to feel bad for the fish but I gained a sense of respect for him, as I believe the narrator did as well. This made it hard to picture the fish caught on the fishing line, breathing in poisonous oxygen and getting ready to die. I think that the reader also struggled with this and it was out of respect and also guilt that she ended up setting him free. This poem also slightly reminded me of the book David and Goliath, which focuses on how the underdog can defeat the larger, often favored opponent. In this poem, that is exactly what happened

The Skunk Wife

Of all the readings for this week, “The Skunk” by Seamus Heaney was most interesting for me. It is simple and tells a story which I could actually understand for once.

Reading through the poem once, the placement of the stanzas did not make any sense. I felt the flow was butchered because the opening stanza is about the skunk and then there are three stanzas not related to the skunk at all, and then in the fifth stanza, Heaney returns to the idea of the skunk.

After a slower reading of the poem, I understood that a husband is writing about how his love for his wife has rekindled after eleven years of marriage. He is memorized by his wife all over again. The author used a skunk to symbolize the aura that he feels from his wife. Apparently there is a mystery and glamor to a skunk that has instigated a new found image to his wife. This helped me understand the stanza placements. Heaney’s poem makes a full circle. He starts with an introduction to the idea of the skunk and then goes through his situation/life and thought process. Then, he circles back to the idea of the skunk to show that his wife has the characteristics that he pictures a skunk has. Her nightdress is black like a skunk and she has the ambiance of a skunk. He states, “And there she was, the intent and glamorous, // Ordinary, mysterious skunk, // Mythologized, demythologized, // Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.”

Imagery in The Fish

I enjoyed reading The Fish for this week. The poem was easy enough to read at the basic level, so getting through does not feel like a tall task, but has a lot meaning underlying the simple description of a fish for further reflection. I feel that this type of poetry is my favorite, as I can connect best with it.

Through my first read, I was impressed by the way the description really brought the fish to life in a way that built sympathy towards the fish. While there are plenty of ways to make a reader sympathetic towards an animal that has just been caught, I thought Elizabeth Bishop really angled towards that impression in a ton of different ways, such as her use of specific adjectives, and even just picking parts of the fishes body to describe. For example, talking about the lower lip of the fish made me think of the trembling lower lip of a “sullen” individual.

Additionally, I found the description of the fish’s lip as being “weaponlike” was very interesting. She goes on to say that it hung five old pieces of fish line with their hooks still growing in its mouth. In addition to being unbearably painful for the fish, this makes the fish seem like a real survivor, which adds to that sympathetic feel. I wonder if that survivor concept is a place where she is trying to give even more significance to the fish, but can’t quite figure out what she would mean by it. The next part where she describes the lines hanging from its mouth as “medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering” makes the fish seem like an old war survivor.

All of this culminates in the great ending line, “And I let the fish go”, which although seemingly corny and not very surprising, is still a great way to end the poem.

Interpretation in Bishop and Heaney

This week’s poems were easy to read, but harder to interpret.

I read Bishop’s “The Fish” literally and connected it to the destruction of nature. I saw a fish who was ravaged by human action, yet survived. The fish is caught by a novice fisherman, with the last line of the poem reading, “And I let the fish go”. It’s as if the fisherman has performed a noble act by unexpectedly releasing an elusive fish. However, for me, the act of release lacked mercy, because the fisherman’s boat has begun to pollute the water the animal lives in (“oil had spread a rainbow around the rusted engine”). I read some of the blog posts earlier today and one post compared Bishop’s fish to a veteran. When I reread the poem, the themes of war and survival became more prominent, especially considering the time period of Bishop’s life and poems. I tried to extend my initial interpretation to apply in this context and started seeing different angles to approach the text. Post-war, men returned home aged and ravaged by human action. They were released from war, and while their home (like the fish’s water) differed from the certain danger of war, it held it’s own set of struggles, especially emotional ones. The place they lived was not the same as it had been in their youth.

I also enjoyed Heaney’s “Digging”.The poem has a weight of both responsibility and guilt. Heaney does not perform hard labor like the generations of men before him (this may be a result of the Irish Potato Famine, which occurred shortly after he was born), he must instead “dig” with his pen. Heaney is challenged to live up to the pen before him without doing the same thing.

The simplistic language of these poems allows the opinions and bias of the reader to especially influence the image each piece conveys.


A Fish and A Skunk

The subject-matter from Monday’s poems ranged greatly. While reading these poems, I was fascinated by the way that each poet transforms every day scenarios into something beyond what I may have written.

For example, “the Skunk” by Seamus Heaney uses the metaphor of the skunk to talk about his wife. In line 10, Heaney writes “Love-letters again, broaching the word “wife” / Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel” and constantly uses the feminine pronoun “she” when referring to the skunk. The unconventional images of the skunk and wife made me laugh and ultimately I wondered if Heaney was being serious.

As for Elizabeth Bishop, the subject matter of her poem reminded me greatly of the “Red Wheelbarrow” by Williams Carlos Williams, in the sense that both poems seemed to look at the simplicity of objects for their writing. However, Bishop with “The Fish” tackles a singular moment. The effectiveness of her poem comes from how extensively she uses imagery to describe this moment. In effect, she envelops the reader into the scene thus connects the experience of the speaker to the reader. For this poem, what also struck me the most was the final lines of the poem:

“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”

I found this section particularly comedic. I believe that with the help of her enjambments and the repetition of the word rainbow, the last lines become a crescendo in tonality until the last line.


The Most Beautiful State of Confusion

As soon as I started reading this week’s poems I knew why the unit was called “the difficult in the easy” (or whatever it was actually titled. I’m going to be honest, I was too lazy to look up the actual unit title. Don’t judge me). The ones I want to focus on, however, are Elizabeth Bishop’s. Both “The Fish” and “In The Waiting Room” struck a chord with me. Both of these poems seemed so simple. Reading them was so easy it was almost scary. They were also incredibly enjoyable to read, because I was never confused about words or content, and I could just nod and follow along. That being said, I know for a fact that I missed the point in both of them, though “The Fish” more than “In The Waiting Room.”

The writing and imagery in both of Bishop’s poems are beautiful. Her way of describing things in a prose-like description style is captivating and visceral. I’ve never pictured a fish so perfectly in my mind’s eye before. This, above other reasons, is why I loved these poems.

But that brings me to the “however.” However, I don’t know what the point was. I got a gist, of how the fish was beautiful and Bishop could see the life in the fish, which is why she tossed him back, but I feel like there’s a deeper meaning that I’m missing. Somehow this almost felt more alienating than confusing-as-hell pieces like “the Bridge” where I knew why I was missing what I was missing. It was very irksome to read something and know all the words and follow along, but feel like I was only scratching the surface of content.

Another thing I’d like to bring up, which is definitely unrelated, is that “In The Waiting Room” reminded me so much of Whitman’s “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry” in the way that she brought us and herself into 1918, in the time of the National Geographic she was reading. I’m still not sure what the significance of most of the poem was, but I definitely appreciated it and enjoyed (what I thought was) the nod to Whitman.


P.S. As I’m tagging this week’s post, I realize that this week’s unit title is “Everyday Difficulty,” but I thought I was being clever, so I’m leaving my post as it is.

The Fish – Too Easy?

I liked Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” lot, mostly because I could picture exactly what the fish looked like. Her imagery is solid. I have some questions about the intentions of this poem though. First, I think this poem is a prime example of the struggle between what is poetry and what is prose. All of the ideas in her poems are broken up with sentence punctuation (commas, periods, etc), but they’re split apart by line breaks into one long stanza. If it weren’t for the way she placed the words on the page, this poem could just as easily be read as prose. And it seems to be describing something mundane and not very elusive as well. That brings me to my second point. Is this poem really just about a fish? And if so, why is this poetic? Why isn’t this just a nicely written essay? What I find so difficult about this poem is its simplicity. It seems so obvious compared to everything else we’ve read all semester, but am I just missing something?

the past among the present

Elizabeth Bishop’s two poems both concern time and age as they discuss, separately, a fish and the waiting room in a dentist’s office. I have often wondered how much of my life has been spent (wasted) in various waiting rooms, but the level of crisis reached by Bishop in her poem “In the Waiting Room” is something I am fortunate to not have experienced. The poem gets existential pretty quickly and I wasn’t totally on board with or convinced by its rapid descent into questions like “Why should I be my aunt or me or anyone?” and “What similarities…held us all together/or made us all just one?” She monumentalizes the overwhelming experience she had in the dentist’s waiting room by rooting it in a place – Worcester, Massachusetts – and specific time – February 5th, 1918 – as if to archive it in human history, and in doing such she travels back in time. “I said to myself: three days/and you’ll be seven years old.” Time and femaleness appear to have been condensed but I was not left with the same feeling of emotional suffocation that Bishop herself writes of having experienced, I think.

Her poem “The Fish” and Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” both succeed in attributing honor to the seemingly mundane, dull, or overlooked, whether that be an old fish or mining for potatoes. The fish caught in the poem has the same aura of history and wisdom that Heaney’s ancestors have attributed to them. There is a sense of durability to these figures, the fish as “tremendous,” “venerable,” and also “homely” with a “sullen face.” It is also “mechanical,” as are the gestures of Heaney’s ancestors, whom he honors, though will not follow, choosing instead to forge his own path with his pen, his poetry, his divergent reality.

1 2