The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

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I learned that Bishop excels at taking the mundane and transforming it to something beautiful. Her poems are so beautifully written that one does not merely read her poetry, instead one can see her subject matter right in front of them. It would be easy to dismiss Bishop’s poetry as merely a descriptive look at the routine but Bishop’s poetry all holds a deeper meaning that really only becomes apparent when you look at Bishop’s own life. After losing her father at an early age and her mother’s institutionalization, Bishop led a largely nomadic lifestyle. Without a true home to call her own, a lot of her poems reflect Bishop’s musing on what makes a home and why humans feel the need to travel. She also examines how often times something that can seem so obvious, like returning home, can be the hardest thing in the world to do.

The poem The Prodigal is my favourite of Bishops’s poetry. The titular character in the poem reflects an image of the poet as one who is not in their own home and not surrounded by family. Although background reasons for this are not examined within the poem, it is clear that to return home would not be an easy decision. The prodigal has sought comfort in alcohol – ‘But sometimes morning after drinking bouts / (He hid the pints behind a two-by-four)’. Bishop herself battled alcoholism, a factor that contributed to her own isolation. The prodigal is isolated, battling an addiction and cannot face returning to their home. The situation outlined in the poem is the bleakest part of the biblical parable and yet Bishop writes it in such a way as the reader understands why staying away isn’t the hardest part of the story. Bishop has appealed to all of the reader’s senses in this poem. From the opening line ‘The brown enormous odour he lived by’ instantly sets a clear mental image for the reader. The smell is all consuming and one can only imagine it fills the nostrils to such an extent that it can almost be tasted. We can almost feel the ‘glass smooth dung’ that coats the walls. We can hear the pigs. We are in the pig shed with the prodigal. We can see and feel the squalor that surrounds him. We are immersed into the world of the Prodigal but the real testament to Bishop as a poet is that we can feel the comfort the Prodigal garners from his surroundings. The lines ‘even to the sow that always ate her young / tall, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head’ demonstrates the affection the prodigal has for the animals he shares his living quarters with. He takes comfort from their presence, even the sow that eats her young. The Prodigal recongnises the slivers of beauty that can sometimes infiltrate his world ‘the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red; / the burning puddles seemed to reassure.’ It is in these fleeting moments of beauty that the prodigal considers the possibility that perhaps his circumstances are not so bad and he will be able to stand it a little while longer – ‘And then he thought he almost might endure his exile yet another year or more’. Despite this, the ‘almost might’ anticipates the final decision of the Prodigal to return home. It is though not an easy thing to do but it is a hopeful ending to the poem. The final two lines ‘ But it took him a long time / finally to make his mind up to go home’ show that the prodigal has decided not only to return to his family but also perhaps to try to return to functioning society and away from hiding himself away with the animals so that he can embrace his alcoholism. The poem, although one of Bishop’s darker poems ends on an ultimately optimistic note and is perhaps a source of comfort to the poet. The parable of The Prodigal Son ends with the prodigal son being warmly welcomed back into the family fold by his father, something that is possibly a personal dream of the poets.

The idea of the strength of familial love is once again examined in Filling Station, although this time it is done with much more humor. The poem has a...
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