I REMEMBER the first time I read "The Fish." I was in ninth grade at a new school, very timid and very scared, and I knew nothing about poetry. My favorite poem was "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which my father recited to us frequently because it was written about my brother's birthday. I didn't enjoy reading poems; they were difficult, and I didn't think they were interesting enough to make the difficulty worthwhile. But I had a young and very good English teacher that year, and he put "The Fish" in front of us, so I read it.
I caught a tremendous fish
and held it beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
It baffled me; it seemed like a story. It was so matter-of-fact that I couldn't quite believe it was poetry. But it went on, about the skin that "hung in strips/like ancient wallpaper," and about the eyes with "irises backed and packed/with tarnished tinfoil," and then about the five hooks in the fish's mouth:
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
And all of a sudden I realized what a fish it was, and what a feat it was to catch such a fish, and the poem broke over me like the rainbows that fill its last lines. I was thrilled by this poem that started so quietly, and yet could bring me to a pitch of emotion I had never before experienced in literature. I read it over and over, in wonder, and I am still reading it with the same sense of discovery. "The Fish" taught me my first lesson about the mysteries of poetry. For me, it will always be a mysterious, moving poem.
IGNORING convention and fashion, Elizabeth Bishop has gone about her work making poems as quiet and stunning as "The Fish" for nearly 40 years. She chooses her words carefully: she has published only four volumes in the course of her career. But her work has won her an honored place among our best writers along with general critical admiration. In 1955, she won the Pulitzer Prize for North and South and A Cold Spring, and her Complete Poems was awarded the National Book Award last year. This Fall she is teaching at Harvard.
It would be presumptuous of me to attempt a critical appraisal of the celebrated eye, or the subtle, reserved personalism of Miss Bishop's poems. Besides, you can feel them for yourself when you read her. All I can say is that they strike me as poems without equivalent. They are unique because they are so honestly hers; straightforward and unliterary, these minute recordings of a strong and observant spirit are limitlessly suggestive. After close reading, these poems reverberate with insights that have come upon us unspoken, unexpected, but always there. This is the end of "At the Fishhouses":
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
This kind of genius, and that is what it is, comes to us so rarely that when it does, it defies all our expectations, all our pretentious preconceptions, all our prejudices. Elizabeth Bishop caters to no one, except to the careful reader. Her poems are not easy, and they make no attempt to be popular. I myself find them so vivid, so intensely compressed that I can only read a little at a time. But Miss Bishop's poems are not consciously difficult by any means; they are almost too clear to look at. She is the least esoteric of poets: when she speaks, she speaks to us all out of her own peculiar wisdom. For those who want to listen, the rewards are vast.
IN a recent article in Encounter, the English poet and critic John Wain complained about the present "flabby, soggy period of instant poetry," and said that "the poet is seen more and more as a person who appears in public and strikes attitudes. As rhetoric disappears from political life . . . it seems to be making a backstairs re-entry via the 'poetry reading.'" Wain thinks we have lost our sense of discipline in the search for immediacy, and he predicts that if crowd-pleasing has become a criterion of excellence, poetry, which has lasted for thousands of years, has a future "no longer than the future of the Beatles." We all have our own ideas about the Beatles, but as long as there are writers who give themselves entirely to the relentless pursuit of their conceptions of truth, poetry has nothing to fear. Luckily, we still have such writers working among us. Elizabeth Bishop's work promises, by every standard I can think of, to be timeless. Caught as we are in frenzy, we need more of her considered wisdom and temperate common sense.
(The author is president of the Harvard Advocate