Timothy Morris: On "At the Fishhouses"

As so often, the most discerning discussion of a poet comes from more negative assessments. Edwin Honig, reviewing Poems for the Partisan Review in 1956, finds the same surface qualities that appeared to Hall and Nemerov but fails to discover refreshing universals beneath. "The poems arrest one by their brilliant surfaces and transparency. But underneath is a curious rigidity, a disturbing lack of movement and affective life, betraying a sprained and uneasy patience." We are verging back on "frigidity" here, but Honig elaborates his argument in other kinds of terms as well. From the last line of "The Map" ("More delicate than the historians' are the mapmakers' colors"), Honig deduces "the poet's aim--a scrupulous representation of the world reduced in scale and line to something like a cartographer's depiction of geographical areas. It is a plan for suppressing rather than compressing contours, dimension, tonality, emotion. A slow hard gaze moves behind the deliberately drawn-out ironies.

Honig knows that he is begging the question whether a poetry based on suppression might not be just as valid as a poetry based on the more traditional lyric virtue of compression. His comment that Bishop's verse plans systematically to suppress the usual poetic qualities is highly suggestive. It offers a way to read behind and around the surfaces of the poems, to arrive at a sense of them as correlatives--though maybe not objective--for emotions that are at least the reader's if not reliably the poet's. Honig does not go as far as making that transvaluation; he sees the typical Bishop poem as "a baneful asking of meaningful questions of a meaningless or essentially unmeaningful object.... She fails with the image when trying to make it over into a symbol because the nature of the precise image is to defy symbolization. For similar reasons, her forced synaesthesia reduces reality not to poetry but to a dressing up of coy attitudes.... Instead of relieving, the devices call attention to, the flatness of her prosaic lines." From the perspective of the 1990s, Honig seems largely accurate in his characterizations; the question, of course, is whether Bishop's texts are to be read as exploiting, or as immured in, the limitations of their lyric method. As Honig himself says, "I recognize that what I have called her risks and failure may all be understood precisely as her successes by another kind of reader."

Indeed, it can be instructive to read a text from the 1955 Poems in Honig's terms, but with the value sign reversed. "At the Fishhouses" seems promising for the experiment, because it is prosaic, ironic, synaesthetic, and, starting in imagery, ends in symbolism. It is also characterized by what Honig particularly likes about Bishop's work, "good camera-eye realism":

Up on the little slope behind the houses, set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass, is an ancient wooden capstan, cracked, with two long bleached handles and some melancholy stains, like dried blood, where the ironwork has rusted.

But even that camerawork is prosaic; and the poem promptly wanders into glaringly flat passages:

The old man accepts a Lucky Strike. He was a friend of my grandfather. We talk of the decline in the population and of codfish and herring while he waits for a herring boat to come in.

Coming from a poet who is supremely attentive to detail, this poem is one of an inability to pay attention, to concentrate. (Robert Bly would choose these very lines as the epitome of the flatness of modern American poetry, neatly ignoring the rest of the poem.)" Instead of compression/concentration, we sense suppression. The bloodstain-like markings on the capstan are suppressed in banal conversation, but the speaker's attention is then caught by the fisherman's knife--and keeps being drawn back to the water. The lyric necessity, which keeps butting up against the suppressions of the prosaic voice of the speaker, is to invoke the sea, to come to terms especially with its power to drown and its incipient fascination for the one who might drown in it. The lyric voice comes up momentarily, to be suppressed partially by a humorous aside:

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal, to fish and to seals ... One seal particularly I have seen here evening after evening.

He was curious about me. He was interested in music; like me a believer in total immersion, so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.

The sea continues to exert a fascination upon the speaker that ultimately purges her voice of anything but the lyric:

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.

The price of the lyrical "knowledge" that is drawn from this final symbolization is silence; the poem ends--and maybe the speaker too, if the poem is read as a dramatic monologue; the poem's dramatic situation ends in sleep, or trance, or suicide. But the poem's dialogic qualities make it hard to read as either prose sketch, lyric, or drama. Any of the genres that participate in it throw the others into disquieting perspective. If "At the Fishhouses" is its final lyric summation (as, for instance, Stevens's "Sunday Morning" in its final version is the passage beginning "Deer walk upon our mountains"), then the prosaic, ironic passages that proceed it are just so much waste of time (as the dialogue in "Sunday Morning" between speaker and questioning woman is not, being instead a productive dialectic). If the poem is essentially its "accumulated details," as Nemerov thought, then the final lyric summation is a false note, a "gnomic antictimax." And if the poem is drama, it is not very well realized drama; it is static and impertinent. "At the Fishhouses" is, then, something different, something created out of a dialogic confusion of genres; and Honig's sense that Bishop's "risks and failure" in such a poem could be revalued by other reading strategies seems to be borne out.

From Becoming Canonical in American Poetry. Copyright © 1995 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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Criticism Overview
Title Timothy Morris: On "At the Fishhouses" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Timothy Morris Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Becoming Canonical in American Poetry
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