Elizabeth Bishop

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Having studied the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop as part of my Leaving Cert course I would very much agree that her poetry gives us a deep insight into both her own life and life in general.

Bishop is a very personal poet, who is extremely passionate about her work. Her coloured childhood features regularly throughout. Bishop, unlike many poets, refuses to write about any random topic or issue. She will only write about something that she is truly passionate about. Having studied an array of her work, I have noticed that, although her poetry is personal, it is also extremely universal and easy to relate to.

One of Bishop's greatest poems is “The Fish.” This is a poem where both poet and reader are uplifted by a positive, reassuring insight into human life. She uses her keen eye for detail in noting the fish's “frightened gills.” Furthermore, domestic imagery is used when comparing the fishes “skin” to “strips of wallpaper.”  The fish, like Bishop, has lived a hard life. We are told that there was “five old pieces of fish-line” hanging from “his lower lip.” When she catches it, she describes how it comes “straight out of water/into the terrible oxygen.” Here a link can be made with oxygen being a struggle for both the fish and Bishop, who suffered from a severe form of asthma. The poem ends on a high as we hear that Bishop “let” the fish “go.” A use of alliteration was used to describe the new mood of the poet when she reveals everything is now “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow.”  I think that, in letting the fish, both it and Bishop get a new lease on life. Another truly personal poem of Bishop's is “Filling Station.” Here, direct references can be made to her mother who was hospitalized due to mental illness when she was young. There is no mother in the poem, but we are constantly reminded of the need for one. The tone is maternal as we are told “oh but it is filthy” and “don't light the match/ it's a family filling station.”  The place is, overall, described as being dirty. We are told that it's “oil-soaked” and “a dirty dog” sits on “a wicker sofa.” However, we are told that it is “comfy.” The homely feeling continues as we are told of “Father wears a dirty suit” and his “greasy sons assist him.” Despite the filth described, it's clear that there is love in the poem between the them.  I also liked the assonance in the way the barrels of oil were arranged - “ESSO-so-so-so.” This repetition of the soothing “so” sound is a clever use of personification. The poet concludes that there is always someone doing their best to quietly.  The sense of family life in “Filling Station” can, again, be felt  in “First Death in Nova Scotia.”

Here, Bishop is coming to terms with the death of her “little cousin Arthur.” She tries to come to terms with this by asking  “Why did he die so young/clutching his tiny lily/in the snow.”  As a child, Bishop was very observant and this allows her to create memorable imagery of even the most insignificant things. The image that stood out most to me was her description of the marble topped table as being a “white, frozen lake” and Arthur's coffin on top of it as being like “a little frosted cake.” Additionally, the description of the lifeless loon as “cold and caressable” effectively conveys the child's confusion when confronted by death.  The simile comparing “little Arthur” to “a doll that hadn't been painted yet” is very moving as it highlights the tragedy of the child's death.  Bishop sadly concludes this poem saying that her lifeless cousin, trapped in the embrace of death and “clutching his tiny lilly” will be unable to travel “roads deep in snow.” It is the child’s perspective on death that makes this poem so poignant. 

“In the Waiting Room” is another poem rooted in a childhood experience. What makes the poem particularly interesting is the manner in which it portrays the dawning of adult awareness in the young Elizabeth Bishop. Once again, the use of the first person and the...
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