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The Bight

Elizabeth Bishop

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2006-09-04
Added by: Sean Wayman
This exceptional poem was written in the mid 1950's and appeared in Bishop's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, "A Cold Spring". Like many of the best poems in that collection such as "At The Fishhouses" and "Cape Breton" it is based around nautical imagery. Whilst Bishop's use of description is so remarkable that she has a lot of admirers based on this trait alone, there is a lot more to her poetry than just a 'precise eye'. Reading her poetry carefully provides an entry into the inner life as well.
No one would be likely to describe this on first reading as a personal poem. Although it uses the lyric mode, there is not one use of a personal pronoun. The word 'I' does not appear once. The far more impersonal 'one' is preferred or the humbler object pronoun 'me'- used a single time . Yet when we read this poem we are very aware that we are seeing through the eyes of a subject. We feel the presence of Bishop's consciousness even if it does not declare itself. For one thing her use of metaphor is singularly original. "The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in/ with the obliging air of retrievers." Bishop is not a poet who resorts to poetic cliches to render the world in her poems, the freshness of her perception is immediately evident. It is also worth noting that the voice is knowledgeable and informative. This is no tourist perceiving this maritime scene. Bishop illustrates her knowledge in the way she is able to name and explain things to the reader, "the blue-gray shark tails are held up to dry/ for the Chinese restaurant trade". It is often said that Bishop is an objective poet but her subjectivity is clear felt in this air of knowingness and her inventive, quirky way of describing things. It is worth remembering that the poem's final line, "All the untidy activity continues/ awful but cheerful" was chosen by Bishop for the epitaph on her grave. Clearly these lines, however objective they seem on first reading, had an immense personal significance to the poet herself.
It is also worth noting that the poet returns to the motif of water turning into fire that she had explored in "At The Fishhouses" in 1952. This transformation of the elements introduces a note of magic, perhaps alchemy, to the poem. The poet's alchemy-like powers of metaphor may be the source of this interest. However outward-looking the poem seems to be, in sitting before the ocean and pondering the ebb and flow of tides and the flux of activity, she is also refkecting on the nature of her own being as a person and as a poet. The poem is not only a portrait of the ocean, it is also a portrait of the self.

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