Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”

I’ve been struggling through the first eighty-four pages of Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems 1927-1979 and finding it impossible to identify with most of the poems as they are long, detailed examinations of ordinary, everyday situations which seem to lead nowhere. While it is remarkable that someone actually pays such close attention to everyday settings, most of the poems just plain bore the INTP in me.

Other more symbolic poems like “The Weed” are more interesting, but nearly impossible to comprehend, as if the narrator’s dream were recorded directly on to the page without any effort to interpret it.

Perhaps it is finding “The Fish” in this context that made it seem so extraordinary, a poem of minute detail that explodes into a vision of nature:

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 its 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.

Perhaps I merely liked this poem because it brought back old memories of the picture of the magical flounder in Grimm’s fairy tale “The Fisherman’s Wife.?

Though Bishop goes out of her way to paint a “realistic picture? of her fish, in the end it’s the “fabulous? aspect of the fish that nets this reader.

The poem also reminds me of Faulkner’s fable of “The Bear,? where an ancient, larger-than-life bear represents Nature. In terms of fish tales, this is The One That Got Away, the giant fish fishermen the world around talk about when they gather. And the only way one can hang on to This Fish is to let it go, to continue the legend.

Of course, it could be that I liked this poem simply because it reminds me of the joy I sometimes experience when I’m totally immersed in the moment in a particular place, a brief moment when I feel at one with nature and myself.

Not surprisingly, this much-anthologized poem has inspired considerable commentary, some of which is discussed here.

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish””

  1. Something Fishy is the name of a website about recovering from eating disorders. There is something fishy about this poem that I like, although I have not been a big fan of Elizabeth Bishop. I appreciate your accompanying children’s book illustration! There is another kind of fish called a remora. It has a sucking disk on its head with which it attaches itself to sharks, whales, sea turtles or hulls of ships. I am in my 19th year of recovery from an eating disorder. Recently another recovering eating disordered person referred to the “remoras” in her life that attached to her as she tried to put her life back together. That helped us all to laugh in recognition. My remoras are my stubborn tendencies to stir up trouble for myself when I already have more than enough trouble. That fish can suck the life out of a person. Everyone has a fish story.

  2. It often pays to reread poets, and Bishop absolutely rewards rereading. The best art is usualy different from what is normal and familiar to us, and so doesn’t always grab us right away. Bishop doesn’t merely describe situations in detail. Her uninqueness is the opposite: she draws meaning from details. Read her again and again. Why did she let the fish go?

  3. I think this poem is representing her fathers death.the fish is just hanging there like…. she thought that her fathers was venerable and maybe because she was always sick that could be it to it’s just an awsome poem in all shapes and sizes!

  4. the picture that you used do you know who drew it b/c its from my old grimm’s book that i had as a child and i would like to find another copy now…thank you

  5. “I’ve been struggling through the first eighty-four pages of Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems 1927-1979 and finding it impossible to identify with most of the poems as they are long, detailed examinations of ordinary, everyday situations which seem to lead nowhere.”

    Where should they lead? Bishop’s poems are quite deceptive, in that her emphasis on domesticity and ordinary situations masks their true confessionalism. This miniaturism is only a medium by which she presents the most intimate joys and pains of her life, the genuine “specialness” of these seemingly-mundane moments. I think Bishops use of domestic imagery in this poem represents her longing for the home she never had. I also think (but this is just a fancy of mine) that the fish is herself and when she releases it, its a sort of catharsis, whereby she forgives herself for what she percieves as her faults – her alcoholism, her lesbianism, whatever.

  6. Such attention as Bishop pays to the ordinary also raises questions about the notion of “ordinary” and ‘mundane’ itself. After all what is the significance of human life? Have we lost touch we reality being immersed in all the glitz and distractions of the ‘unmudane’ and ‘extraordinary’–or what is so ordinary about the oridnary?

  7. The question of what is the ‘ordinary’ versus the ‘extraordinary’ is a good one because it points to the significance of human life and our ideas of what is mundane and ordinary. Will we allow the media to dictate to us these things?

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