February 8, 2010
ELIZABETH BISHOP (1911-79) wrote many great poems, but “The Fish” is both my favorite and her best. She grew to dislike it, so requested and anthologized did it become; she told Robert Lowell that she wanted to rewrite it as a sonnet. Without rhyme or regular scansion, it is a tour de force of precise description: “the coarse white flesh / packed in like feathers”; “the irises backed and packed / with tarnished tinfoil.” “She has such a marvelously simple way of delivering it,” says the narrator of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist of her recorded reading style. “She just seems to shrug it off her. It’s of no interest to her that it’s poetry.” Her friend and mentor Marianne Moore dissuaded the young Vassar graduate from going on the medical school, but she became a surgeon nonetheless. Bishop’s small lifetime output — less than a hundred highly polished poems — is marked by the detached, apparently clinical eye for detail which somehow makes ordinary objects and things shimmer with transcendent energy. World traveller, winner of every major literary prize, survivor of tempestuous lesbian relationships, Bishop is most alive in the precise, formal brilliance of her verse. Each poem is a sly ars poetica, description that doubles as meditation on the act of shaping the world, for a slippery triumphant moment, in words. “I caught a tremendous fish,” that hated favourite poem begins. Eighty-five lines later it ends: “And I let the fish go.”
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