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Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is her most anthologized piece of writing. It’s so anthologized, in fact, that Dr. Donaldson said something to me after lecture about the poet growing to loath it. That’s too bad, I think, because it’s such a great piece of writing, but can you blame an artist for wanting the breadth of their work to not be outshone by one piece. We call it the “one hit wonder,” though Bishop certainly is not this, but knowing one poem gets so much more attention than the rest of her work it’s understandable that she would find this upsetting.

It’s “The Fish”‘s prosaic tone that I connect with. Admittedly, I struggle (a struggle I  enjoy) through noticeably molded poetry – by which I mean poetry steeped in play, experimentation, patterning upon patterning, stanzas packed with tongue-twisting and mind-dizzying schemes and metres and devices. Many of my favourite pieces of written art include such things, but at the end of the day, when I’m choosing something to read before my eyelids can no longer stay apart, I reach for prose, often spare prose. Which is why I like “The Fish.” It is prosaic, narrative. It reminds me of my favourite prose writers. Anton Chekhov. Ernest Hemingway. John Steinbeck. Raymond Carver. Amy Hempel. Denis Johnson.

In fact, when Bishop completed “The Fish” she sent a copy to her friend, the poet Marianne Moore, comparing it to something Hemingway would write. As it were, Bishop and Hemingway were neighbours in Key West. Bishop considered Hemingway’s wife, Pauline, a close friend and the wittiest person she had ever known. Of Hemingway himself, Bishop possessed mixed opinions, though she admired his work, especially his short stories. More on the Bishop-Hemingway connection can be found in Dr. Thomas Travisano’s article “Hemingway, Bishop and Key West: Two Writers’ Perspectives” (June 2011) at Berfroise: Intellectual Jousting in the Republic of Letters. 

Exchanging Hats book: The Armory, Key West, a painting by Elizabeth Bishop

But back to Bishop beyond “The Fish.”

As well as a poet, Bishop was a talented water-colourist. Her paintings are charmingly crude, lacking mastery over depth of field, but perhaps intentionally so, because Bishop’s eye seems to dwell (there’s that word!) on solids, big blocks of colour, small bursts of yellows and reds, quick brush strokes juxtaposed by large objects, light touches everything equally, but none of it without care. There’s honesty in the paintings. She’s faking nothing, nor is she trying to.

Exchanging Hats book: Brazilian Landscape, a painting by Elizabeth Bishop

I’m particularly transfixed by the painting called “Brazilian Landscape” (above), which bears a striking resemblance to a small water colour painting by my late grandfather, no painter himself, rather he was a military man. As a Canadian Peace Keeper in North Vietnam, he painted the landscape of Communist China as seen from the balcony of his accommodations, which he folded up and sneaked out of the country in his sock, or so the story goes.

More worthwhile readings on Bishop may be found here and here.

– Joe

Exchanging Hats book: Sleeping Figure, a painting by Elizabeth Bishop