The Fish

Christian Reed: On "The Fish"

 “The Fish” refuses to be caught. This poem seems, on some fundamental level, irreducible to any one interpretation, “high-sounding” or otherwise. It functions as an embodiment of the poetic that cannot be collapsed into the conceptual, the philosophical, the arguable. “The Fish,” as such, functions as an exemplary poetic utterance. Attempts to reduce this utterance to the easily comprehensible always produce some remainder, always admit some error that allows “The Fish” to swim away with the bait.

Formally, as many critics have noticed, Moore’s “Fish” is very striking. The poem is composed of eight stanzas, each of which (1) has five lines, and (2) follows the rhyme scheme a a b b c and (3) the syllable count 1, 3, 9, 6, 8. This triple-mark of order is not immediately apparent; the reader’s first glance at the text suggests the disorder of lines at radically different lengths and pervasive enjambment. However, while reading, the sense of the pattern nonetheless gradually suggests itself – an experience that, as many critics, beginning with Wallace Stevens, have noticed, mimics the sensible apprehension of waves on the sea. Each stanza, like a wave, builds (in the first two lines) and breaks (in the second two), giving way for the one that follows (and repeats the same cycle). In this way, we get a poetry in which the structure of the lines, their inherent rhythm, lines up their descriptive content perfectly. The force of this utterance, under this kind of reading, derives from the special conjunction between the poem’s formal structure and the substance of its descriptions.

Although this reading of the poem does account for a measure of the poem’s power, and is important to understanding how the poem works (read, in the terms of “Poetry”: makes itself useful), “The Fish” cannot simply be reduced to this gloss. The attempt to apply this interpretive scheme to the poem inevitably produces some significant remainder, some inassimilable poetic material. For instance, the c is a recurrent remainder: if the stanza derives its structure from the wave, building (a a) and breaking (b b), the presence of the last line (c) is systematically ignored, discarded, thrown back. If the wave-like rhythm of “The Fish” marks its poetry, then the c is excluded from this poeticism. The c, of course, is a homophone for “the sea” – the very name of the image the c is being excluded from. The site of exclusion, of the remainder, then, covertly names that from which it is barred, and hence names this act of exclusion as such. The formalist reading of the poem also has no place for the title, which (as in William Carlos Williams’ “The Yachts”) is made to function as a semantic unit within this poem: “The Fish” “wade / through black jade,” (1-2). The title, then, also is a manifest remainder, an element of the poem reduced or excluded in the act of explaining the poem.

Another provocative reading of “The Fish” finds it to be “a poem about injury of wholeness, resentful but resigned deprivation,” a poem saturated with “a sense of infringement, violation, and injury,” (Hadas, MAPS). This reading embraces the poem as “the work of a thirty year old woman whose rather unnervingly cool sympathies lie with a battered and violated nature.” However, this pessimistic reading also produces a significant remainder. The critic propels herself into pessimism by reading the image of “the / turquoise sea / of bodies” (16-18) as a phantasmal image of the water an overfull grave (also as in Williams’ “The Yachts”), so that the sea is “not deliberate, not playful; not an expansive sea…” This reading captures some of the power of this image, but at the expensive of its true richness. The “sea / of bodies” seems not only to be an image of death, but also an image of flourishing, thriving, healthy life – an image supported by the emphasis on light and the play of illumination in the preceding lines:

The barnacles which encrust the side 

of the wave, cannot hide 

there for the submerged shafts of the


split like spun

            glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness

            into the crevices – 

in and out, illuminating


turquoise sea 

of bodies. …                        8-18

The “sea / of bodies” is not only a collection of physical remnants forsaken by death, but also a profusion of living, moving, embodied creatures. And so, once again, the poetic language of “The Fish” is compromised, reduced, exploited, by explanation.

This, of course, is not to say that no attempt at explanation should be made. It is more to say that many attempts should be made, that no one attempt to render - in conceptual, philosophical, arguable, language - the power of the poem can function perfectly, can avoid leaving behind some significant remainder, can avoid performing some uneasy motion by which “The Fish” manages to slip away.

Copyright © 2006 by Christian Reed

Daniel Tiffany: On "The Fish"



    marks of abuse are present on this 

    defiant edifice— 

    all the physical features of




    of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and 

    hatchet strokes, these things stand 

    out on it; the chasm-side is




    evidence has proved that it can live 

    on what can not revive 

        its youth.


("The Fish" 32-33)

Two things about this passage (aside from its great beauty) are significant: first, the reader is deprived of any reference indicating that the phenomenon described so vividly and concretely is an animal, much less a fish. The virtuosity of Moore's observation decomposes the intuitive coherence of objects. Second, like Schrodinger's cat—though much more explicitly—the "defiant edifice," whose mesmerizing facade defies the reader's comprehension, swims in the element of adversity, thereby betraying a world of mortal danger: the animal is, to be more precise, a picture of "accident" and "abuse"—a ruin. Indeed, half of it is gone ("the chasm-side is dead"), though "it can live" on other living things. Again, like Schrodinger's cat, the creature in this traumatic (though somehow neutral) milieu is both dead and alive, "mixed or smeared out in equal parts."

Despite the wealth of visual and sensory evidence, Moore's poem does not represent a fish-object; instead, it depicts a "blurred reality," or complementary aspects of it, that resist integration into a coherent or determinate picture of physical reality. The ruined creature of Moore's virtuosity is poised between the visible and the invisible, a picture of ephemerality; yet it is also a cipher, a corporeal anagram combining social, imaginative, and material realities. In all of Moore's fables, however, the animal-cipher is born from the meticulous observations of the naturalist. . . .

From Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © by the Regents of the University of California.

Darlene Williams Erickson: On "The Fish"

Moore’s poem "The Fish," written in 1918, is widely anthologized. It is also alomost universally admired as a "beautiful" poem. However, at that point, critics rapidly part company. There are marked differences in interpretation given to this single poem. Moore made at least three major revisions of the text, and we have access to her original work notes on the piece from Chatham, so one can be fairly confident that she had some objective in mind and that she worked diligently toward that objective. Once again she was trying to be as clear as she could, given her natural reticence. In this poem particularly, one is reminded of Moore's own words in "Subject, Predicate, Object": "As for the hobgoblin obscurity, it need never entail compromise. It should mean that one may fail and start again, never mutilate a suspicious premise. The object is architecture, not demolition." What follows is the text as she prepared it for the 1924 edition of her poems called Observations. . . .

The poem does indeed have a haunting, almost eerie beauty. It takes the reader into an undersea world seldom actually experienced by human beings, at least not in 1918. All the action occurs in an ethereal, surrealistic kind of slow motion, a movement suggested both by the undulations of the sea world and by the rhythm of the lines themselves, which operate in a peculiar and repeated cycloid pattern. There are eight stanzas with syllabic lines of 1, 3, 8, 1, 6, 8 and an exact rhyme scheme of a a b c c d; the stanzas themselves are a carefully contrived repetition of waves of sound. But at that point, anything obvious falls apart, as good critics devise very different explanations of Moore's intent.

Wallace Stevens was among the first to recognize the poem’s accomplishments. In a 1935 review of Moore's Selected Poems, he wrote: "In ‘The Fish' for instance, the lines move waving to and fro under water with the rhythm of sea-fans. They are lines of exquisite propriety." Sensitive to the scrupulous craftsmanship of the poem, Stevens also applauds Moore's daring in managing to incorporate what might seem to be aesthetically inappropriate language (e.g., "external / marks of abuse") and diverse subjects ("defiant edifice") into a clearly effective representation of the sounds and sights of the sea. He demonstrates how Moore’s light rhyme, predictable rhythms, and visual word placement give pleasure to the reader.

Sue Renick deals with both interpretation and aesthetics when she suggests that the poem’s unity comes from a "central consciousness that identifies itself with the movement of the sea." She reads the poem as representative of the paradox of destruction and endurance. The movement of the sea has the power to destroy both small fish and, at the same time, the surprisingly vulnerable cliff. Yet that very movement also grants survival to both the fish and the cliff. And ironically, the powerful sea grows old in it; that is to say, the primeval sea actually grows old before the ever-enduring cliff. She senses in the structures of Moore’s lines an attempt to capture the throb of the ocean current and in the rhyme "the organic sound of the sea as it might be heard by fish."

Donald Hall agrees that the subject of the poem is probably the sea and its power and potential for injury, but he, like Stevens, prefers to stress aesthetics over meaning, arguing that the poem exhibits "some of the loveliest images in all poetry." He admits that he does not "fully understand the poem" and that he finds the last lines particularly moving, without being able to penetrate them.

Bonnie Costello comments that "The Fish" has been justly admired by critics for the precision of its images (William Pratt included it in his anthology The Imagist Poem), for its skillful ordering of sounds and syllables (which Hugh Kenner has discussed at length), and for its poignant theme of defiance and endurance (which Bernard Engel elaborates in a close reading). Costello maintains, as Stevens had long before, that our experience is sensuous long before it is intellectual or moral. She reads the shells as the fans, the piled up mussels as the ash heaps, and offers the additional insight that the predictable rhyme and rhythm of the verse offer stability in a world of flux.

Hugh Kenner, always fascinated by Moore’s poetics, finds the poem "primarily visible," a poem for the eye, one meticulously arranged on the page. He feels sure that the poem is "like a mosaic which has no point of beginning." He clearly understands Moore's fascination with the visual.

Laurence Stapleton argues against complexity in the poem, feeling sure that "The Fish" cannot be said to be complex in the usual sense of that word, "although it fuses image and idea with fine disregard for open statement." (She does not, however, offer to explicate the "uncomplicated stanzas.)

Grace Shulman sees "the sea, the sun, and rock set in opposition to one another, acting and acted upon as they are watched by an unobtrusive perceiver." The rays of the sun penetrate the sea and are fractures (i.e., refracted); the fish must wade, they cannot swim freely; the water "drives a wedge of iron through the iron edge of the cliff." "Only the rock, scarred though it is by the sea and by the other elements, does not deteriorate because it can survive ‘on what cannot revivie its youth.’"

John Slatin, noticing the publication of "The Fish" beside "Reinforcements" in Observations, feels sure that "The Fish" is a war poem prompted by the assignment of Moore’s brother, Warner, a Navy chaplain, to the North Atlantic in 1917. Slatin builds a case for a horror poem wherein a "strange, ominously silent landscape filled with ruins" suggests that "we are moving in a sea of bodies" and recalling some terrible wartime disaster, or perhaps a tragedy symbolic of all disasters at sea. There is no cliff at all, but rather "the iron hull of a ship which looms clifflike above the surface." The concussion caused by a torpedo has sent the undersea world into a ghastly chaos,

        ... whereupon the stars


rice grains, ink

        bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like


            lilies and submarine

        toadstools, slide each on the other.

Margaret Holley argues that the poem's power is the water itself, with its colored delicacies and the verbs of motion, which

        ... drives a


        of iron through the iron edge 

of the cliff.

Holley notes that while "we may allegorize the subject, the poet has refrained from doing so."

Which turn of the critical kaleidoscope is correct? Is there something valid in each of them? How can a poem be complex and not complex; meticulously crafted and yet a mosaic with no point of beginning; primarily about the power of the sea and about the observations of fish; a war poem and a beautiful portrait of peace; violent and terrifying and also serene and enobling; a communication about endurance and a portrait of despair; allegorical and literal? (One is reminded of the famous tale of the blind men and the elephant. Each has a sensitive hand on a part of the animal and is describing his perception accurately, but none can report the nature of the whole.)

In her paper on marianne Moore entitlted "The Machinery of Grace," Elizabeth Bradburn has suggested that too many of Mooore’s critics feel such satisfaction when they decode an enigmatic line or two in a poem that they gloss over other lines, even entire passages, reading them as somehow obvious to the reader when they are not obvious at all. (I think Schulman’s line "Only the rock, scarred though it is by the sea and by the other elements does not deteriorate because it can survive 'on what cannot revive its youth'" is in precisely that category. Schulman makes the assumption that the phrase "on what cannot revive / its youth" is somehow obvious to the reader, when, in fact, it is not at all. What is it that cannot revive its youth? The sea? Time? Endurance? Steadfastness? Faith?) Similar assumptions occur in the various interpretations of "The Fish" presented here. The critics’ readings are not necessarily incorrect or bad; they are merely partial.

Margaret Holley offers a useful idea when she suggests that many readers rush too quickly into allegorical readings of the poem, while Moore herself carefully refrains from doing so. The critical kaleidoscope must be turned with greater care. It may also be helpful to know that Moore was a great admirer of T.S. Eliot’s work as well as his personal friend; she frequently referred to him as a trout. In "English Literature since 1914" Moore wrote: "The sheen upon T.S. Eliot’s poems, the facile troutlike passage of his mind, through a multiplicity of foreign objects recalls the ‘Spic torrent’ in Wallace Stevens’s Pecksniffenia. Mr. Eliot does not mar his subject by overdoing it and he does not bring too heavy a touch to bear upon it. His nonchalance together with his power of implication make him one of the definite spirits of our time." (One recalls alos Moore’s 1916 poem "In This Age of Hard Trying Nonchalance Is Good." According to Lane's Concordance, Moore used the word "nonchalance" only once in her poetry, giving some support to the notion that Eliot's figure as a representative poet remained in Moore's mind.) I do not mean to suggest that this is a poem about T. S. Eliot, but it is important to remember that the poem is entitled "The Fish" and that Moore may well be associating the job of the poet with a "troutlike passage . . . through a multiplicity of . . . objects." And that is a good way to approach the text. It is essential to keep Moore's title and her subject, "fish," uppermost in mind as one moves toward assessing her meaning. Moore associates fish, like elephants and roses, with certain characteristics of the poet, or for that matter, of any artist.

At face value, the poem is about fish moving through the greenish black (black jade) sea and along the sea bottom. On the sea floor they find various objects, including a mussel shell, opening and shutting itself like an injured fan. Nothing in the darkened undersea world is entirely hidden because shafts of sunlight "split like spun / glass" move themselves like spotlights down to the ocean floor,

        . . . illuminating


turquoise sea

        of bodies.

The phrase "split like spun / glass" is so similar to "split like a glass against a wall" in this "precipitate of dazzling impressions" (in "Novices") as to invite comparison. Many critics have pointed out Moore's use of the sea as a metaphor for facing innermost terror. In "The Fish," she is doing precisely that, placing herself--and analogously, her readers--directly into a grave where both she and they must wrestle with life's deepest fears. Yet on the very edge of terror one also encounters life's heights, for even the deepest sea is lit by the


split like spun


The light is refracted but still moving "with spotlight swift- / ness." Even in the depths, the light is always there, illuminating the frightening darkness and making it appear surprisingly beautiful, comprehensible, and safe. All that is foreign and alarming--barnacles, crevices, the turquoise sea of bodies, the eerie sea creatures (all characters from childhood nightmares and even adult dreams)--are clarified and identified for what they are: merely mussel shells, jellyfish, and crabs. And regardless of what damage the sea is capable of doing to the earth, it cannot totally destroy the cliff, the permanence of land. It can wreak terrible--and oddly beautiful--damage to the civilizations that earth has nurtured, damage identified by lack of cornices, dynamite grooves, burns, and hatchet strokes. The destruction can be so dreadful that "the chasm side is / dead." But the cliff--solidity, earth--

. . . can


        on what cannot revive

its youth.

It does endure. And "fish" can observe that.

Whether the forms at the bottom of the sea are Slatin's human bodies or merely the multiplicity of objects on the ocean floor, the fish "see" them there in the muted turquoise gloom. Because the way is lit by rays of sunlight, the fish glimpse "pink / rice grains" (sea anemones?), jellyfish that are "ink / bespattered," (suggesting perhaps that they appear to be inked over with shadows, or more probably that their air bladders are marked by a curious purple inklike dye), crabs like green lilies, moving eerily in the murky water, and sea toadstools, all giving the impression of oozing against one another and undulating onto each other in the sea currents.

Although the water may seem an amorphous and disarmingly innocuous commodity, once one actually "wades through black jade," one discovers that it is still powerful;; it drives an iron wedge "through the iron wedge / of the cliff." Through the power of natural persistence, the apparently formless and harmless water eventually erodes its way even through the rocks of a cliff, the edifice characterized by its "iron edge." The cliff has seen and has weathered great adversity, all the external "marks of abuse" that humans and nature can provide. Yet the great rock persists; it lives in the sea, that which "cannot revive its youth." The sea can slowly provide destruction, erosion, but it cannot reverse the process and make the cliff young and unmarked again. And yet the sea grows old in it—while at the same time the rock continues to be battered by the power of the sea. The two are locked in a mutually nurturing and mutually destructive embrace.

If one keeps the poem "underwater," these are the images one sees. Moore demands no more. But it is obvious that critics instinctively move toward possible layers of meaning, and then the kaleidoscope begins its turn. One can use the data of the poem to argue convincingly, as Renick has, for a statement about the paradox of destruction and endurance. The movements of the sea--perhaps of human history, or perhaps of time--both grant life and destroy it at the same instant. As Costello has suggested, the very structure of the poem, the predictable rhymes and rhythms, themselves marking "time" in another sense, offer stability in a world of flux. And Schulman's notion that there is a resistance in all of life against which all must push, fracture, wade, and drive (the sea against the cliff, the cliff against the sea) contributes further to understanding the poem's intuition about the importance of struggle. And even Slatin's mental leap to an undersea world of destruction may work as well. Certainly Moore's own treatment of the sea in "A Grave" offers mute testimony to the possibility of his reading (note there "the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave" and "men lower nets, unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a grave").

Once again, Moore seems to lead her readers to ambiguity. Like the abstract painter, she demands that her audience participate in the lines, turning them slowly until meaning takes shape within the parameters of her images. In the poem entitled "Charity Overcoming Envy" (1963), Moore addresses her own design, using again the metaphor of the poet as elephant.

The elephant, at no time borne down by self-pity,

    convinces the victim

that Destiny is not devising a plot.


The problem is mastered—insupportably

Tiring when it was impending.

Deliverance accounts for what sounds like an axiom,


    The Gordian knot need not be cut.

It is not the poet’s business to "devise a plot." And as eager as the reader may be to be delivered by something that "sounds like an axiom," that is also not the poet’s concern. What does begin to emerge is a poem that is indeed beautiful, that does give pleasure; it appeals to the sensual before the intellectual and the moral. It is a poem that is visual, both as it appears on the page and in the images it evokes. Its sounds and rhythms capture the life force of the sea. Through the poet's power to strike "piercing glances into the life of things," one is offered some momentary insight into the fragile tension of life, caught always between endurance and destruction, but life which is real and precious nonetheless. The poet's power to swim with "troutlike passage . . . through a multiplicity of . . . objects" offers an illumination of propriety, accuracy, beauty, and insight into the fragile tension and rhythms of existence.

From Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Alabama Press.

Taffy Martin: On "The Fish"

In "The Fish," for instance, Moore employs a typically intricate stanzaic pattern along with evocative, sensual language to create a scene as unfathomable as it initially seems specific. The first three sentences are clear enough. The fish "wade through [the] black jade" of a sea where "submerged shafts of the // sun ... move themselves with spotlight swiftness." Nevertheless, even within those sentences, Moore has hinted at the broken vision to follow. She describes the movement of one of the "crow-blue mussel-shells" with curious indirection. The movement of the sand helps a viewer to infer rather than to observe directly the broken movement of the shells. We know only that "one keeps / adjusting the ash heaps, / opening and shutting itself like // an / injured fan." The rest of the poem develops this hint of submerged movement and emphasizes its potential for violence: "The water drives a wedge / of iron through the iron edge / of the cliff" and the cliff itself shows "external / marks of abuse," both natural and deliberately inflicted. Having developed the apparent specificity of the poem to this point, Moore dissolves the scene in a flood of ambiguity. One side of the cliff provides a sheltered pool for sea life. In describing it, Moore begins a new stanza with a new sentence, a technique which, in her poems, often foretells dissolution.



    marks of abuse are present on this 

    defiant edifice-

        all the physical features of




    of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and 

    hatchet strokes, these things stand 

        out on it; the chasm side is




    evidence has proved that it can live 

    on what it can not revive

        its youth. The sea grows old in it.

Contradiction dominates these images. "Lack of cornice," if it means a natural curve to the edge of the cliff, is certainly a physical feature of accident; but "dynamite grooves, burns, and / hatchet strokes" are just as surely not accidental. They are human interventions that "stand out" on the cliff. Thus, it should not be surprising that "the chasm side is dead." That announcement, however, makes the next two sentences entirely incomprehensible. If the chasm side is dead, ravaged as it clearly has been by the force of the water it contains, how does it live on the barnacles that adhere to its surface, on the shifting mussel shells that may or may not contain live mussels, and on the rest of the sliding mass of sea life that it shelters? Finally, why does the sea, clearly the most active and powerful force in this scene, grow old within this teeming shelter? Moore not only does not answer these questions, she does not even admit that she has asked them. The poem pretends that it works visually, whereas it should warn readers that images in poems are not always what they seem to be.

From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by University of Texas Press.

Pamela White Hadas: On "The Fish"

"The Fish," not properly an "animal poem," though its title suggests it, deepens our sense of this "unpreventable experience," this quality of life that despite the exuberance of living forms and immortal art, contains our death. It is an immensely powerful and bitter poem. It is full of a sense of infringement, violation, and injury; it is also resigned. "The Fish / wade / through black jade." It is not an easy, fishlike movement, but laborious. and the water is not liquid but stone, not translucent, but dark. One of the morosely-colored "crow-blue" mussels "keeps adjusting the ash heaps" on which it lies by opening and shutting itself; it is not a happy animal expression. The shell moves "like an injured fan." "The barnacles which encrust the side / of the wave"—again the water is seen as an unpleasantly solid substance—do not have privacy; "the submerged shafts of the / sun . . . move themselves . . . into the crevices— / in and out." It is deliberate, not playful; not an expansive sea, through which anything can freely move, but a "sea of bodies." (Recall the sea of "A Grave" into which "men lower nets, unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a grave.") The water, this evilly forceful and solid mass, "drives a wedge / of iron through the iron edge of the cliff." This violence is followed by a chaos where starfish, jellyfish, crabs, and submarine toadstools "slide each on the other." The sea is full of internal revulsion. What stands out on the "defiant edifice" of the cliff are "all / external / marks of abuse . . . ac- / cident—lack / of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and / hatchet strokes." The side of this chasm is dead. The poem ends:


        evidence has proved that it can live 

        on what cannot revive 

                its youth. The sea grows old in it.

The accident is lack. The chasm side is permanently mutilated and abused by some mysterious unpurposeful purposefulness of nature. This strange poem is the work of a thirty-year-old woman whose rather unnervingly cool sympathies lie with a battered and violated nature. It is a poem about injury of wholeness, resentful but resigned deprivation. It contains the prophecy of "foiled explosiveness" that is suggested by the late poem "Then the Ermine:." The sea, with all its rushings of individual lives, all its bodies injured and insulted, grows old within its "dead" walls. How does one make up for such unintentional, natural desecration?

For what it is worth, one can invent a personal myth. One can try and convince oneself that life is worth efforts of affection and loving observation, that vicarious pleasures are real, that loss and desecration are only temporary setbacks in a vision that is essentially whole and infrangible. Myths, like dreams, express wishes, wishes to do away with limitations. Marianne Moore expresses her wishes with as much directness as she does her sense of limitation.

From Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Copyright © 1977 by Syracuse University Press.

Lynn Keller: Bishop/Moore Correspondence on "The Fish"

… Bishop seems to have recognized that she, like Moore, was far more observant than most people. Once she even assumes a tone of smug complicity, implying "you and I see what others carelessly overlook," when commenting on the obtuseness of those who label museum exhibits: "Some of their inscriptions baffle me – a perfectly sensible crystal fish, for example, something like a perch, labelled ‘Porpoise.’ And a young man on a Greek vase who is obviously cutting the ends of his hair with his sword, called ‘Boy Washing Hair (?)’" (letter of 25 January 1935). Bishop seems also to have been always conscious that the women she was writing to was not only "the World’s Greatest Living Observer" (a title Bishop used in her contribution to the Marianne Moore issue of A Quarterly Review of Literature, 1948) but one of its greatest describers as well – and therefore the most qualified judge of Bishop’s own descriptive achievements. …

… As early as 1935 Bishop demonstrates the knack for narrative, the interest in colorful human characters, and the playful humor that are distinctly hers. … The following vignette … contains surprising images and an understated, half-serious moral that bring to mind Moore’s writing, but the casual, anecdotal manner could only be Bishop’s:

I must tell you about the beautiful tree down the street – covered with fine yellow blossoms and the most delicate, wire-like, of green leaves – it scarcely looks like a tree at all, but some sort of transcendental lighting fixture. An old Negro with white hair was sitting underneath it reading the ‘Congregational Record’ and I asked him the name – Jerusalem Thorn. I said isn’t it beautiful, and he answered me very severely, ‘It’s worth-while looking at.’" (letter of 5 March 1938)

Yet despite the obvious differences between their descriptive styles (and the temperaments determining them), Moore’s writing clearly provides Bishop’s standard for successful description, the standard against which she measures her own achievement.


The care Bishop apparently took composing her early letters and the descriptions they contain reflects, then, not only her desire to share with Moore intriguing or delightful experiences, but also her awareness that this correspondence provided a unique opportunity for monitored practice in writing skills. After all, Moore was the ideal audience: well disposed and genuinely interested, possessing rigorous literary standards and reliable judgment; her praise, when earned, was significant. Without in any way diminishing the genuine affection binding these two women and the mutual rewards of their correspondence, it seems fair to regard Bishop’s letters of the ’30s as a format for literary exercise and experiment, as vehicles for locating her own voice and manner, for testing her audience’s response in preparation for more public forays. The activity of composing them seems to have been part of Bishop’s self-imposed training.

From Lynn Keller, "Words Worth a Thousand Postcards: The Bishop / Moore Correspondence," American Literature 55.3 (October 1983), 411, 413-414. 

James Longenbach: On "The Fish"

In her famous poem "The Fish" [. . .] Bishop was able to demonstrate the value of openness and discovery within the poem's unfolding of its thematic content. She provides at the beginning of "The Fish" no sense of its conclusion; instead, the poem seems to discover its direction only as we read it, and (as in Bishop's parable) both the target and the hunter are in motion. The fish and the fisherman become apprehensible to us through the sequence of similes characterizing the fish. (Metaphors, suggesting firmer equivalencies, are avoided.)

Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper: shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost though age.

This fish is not "imaginary" (Bishop emphasizes its brute otherness by dwelling on its sharp gills and sea-lice) but it is, unlike the iceberg, "imagined": that is, it makes sense—tentatively--only as values are attributed to it. By its very otherness the fish seems to teach the speaker how to imagine and therefore appreciate her world. The epiphany in the poem's final lines, when everything is "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow," becomes possible when the speaker turns from the fish and sees a rainbow in the oil spread out in the ugly rented boat. Having begun by setting down the poem when still "incomplete" (to borrow the terms of her essays), Bishop ends by demonstrating "not a thought but a mind thinking."


From Modern Poetry after Modernism. Copyright © 1997 by James Longenbach.

James McCorkle: On "The Fish"

Perhaps nowhere else in Bishop's poetry is the eye's journey so celebrated as in her much anthologized poem "The Fish," The journey begins with the external, in the realm of the unseeing self, with the prosaic opening lines:

I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water, with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth.

The first word, "I," a pun on the self and the self that sees, preludes the opening--and flowering--of our eyes and our language. The direct and graphic description of a situation remains a moment when we look but are not yet actively and imaginatively engaged. We are external and separate since we have no connection with the other.

While Bishop examines the fish, she also begins to enter the body of figurative language:

his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper: shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through age.

The simile creates depth: we enter the house of language, where things stand behind things and each is dependent on the others--for they are linked by the trope's marker "like." By repeating the wallpaper simile, the apparent domesticity of the narrator is revealed and there is a convergence of two distinctly different worlds. Implicit in this convergence is a revelation of decay and mutability through the lucidity of her observation of the fish's patterned and peeling skin.

After continuing the examination of the exterior of the fish with an increasing degree of metaphor and precision--barnacles are "fine rosettes of lime," the fish is clothed with "rags"--the poet is rhetorically self-defined and imaginatively penetrates the fish:

I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers, [. . .] and the pink swim-bladder like a big peony.

The power of observation and looking resides in and rises with the power of imagining. We move closer to the certainty we believe lies in the tactility of physical presence--be it fish or rhetoric. At each of these liminal moments transformation takes place, since we cross the abyss between the two halves of a metaphor or simile.

The movement into the fish also initiates self-interrogation. Through the use of self-reflexive tropes, the narrator crosses the threshold of exteriority--where objects remain either marginalized or idealized discretes--into a realm where objects are interrelated not only among themselves but with us. The narrator stares into the fish's eyes, only to have the fish "not / ... return my stare" and deny any anthropomorphic pathos and sympathy. Self-reflexivity at this moment becomes transparent: the narrator acknowledges her own regard, seeing herself in relation with the other as two beings, rather than a subject distanced from (and desiring appropriation of) an object. The aside that qualifies the event--"It was more like the tipping / of an object toward the light"--qualifies the perception and makes presence more provisional. The fish mediates between the narrator and a language with which she can picture herself. The description of the wallpaper, the flower imagery, and the metaphors of ornament and clothing comprise a taxonomy that composes the speaker and creates the mystery of the speaker's presence. She is both present in these details and absent, in that the details are metaphors whose other term is left unstated. Figurative language becomes the common and defining ground that both the fish and the speaker, in their mutual mysteriousness, share.

The narrator implicitly acknowledges the limitations of language through the use of such asides as "if you could call it a lip." In using language, we impose it upon the world either to bring the world and ourselves into renewed relation or to subject the world to discipline, thus imprisoning the world and refiguring language as disciplinary. Yet figurative language also subverts the subjective and repressive qualities of language. To realize this double bind becomes a form of transcendence, though not the hierarchical transcendence of unicity. Transcendence here is the process of the dialectical movement of figurative language. The sharpening of observation, exemplified by the correction of "five old pieces of fish-line" to "or four and a wire leader / with the swivel still attached," reflects the process of reifying the self, the other, and language. Speculation is transformative and interminable, as exemplified when the fishing equipment becomes medals of valor "with their ribbons / frayed and wavering," before they are transformed again into "a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw." The fish can never be defined or gazed upon as a totality--any definition of any particular is exchanged for another. The generation of metaphors, one displacing another, grants language its continuation and life; thus, the narrator is caught in an interminable process of focusing her vision--but at some point the vision can no longer be sustained; instead it must be relinquished.

Bishop's imperative in "The Monument" ("Watch it closely") echoes "The Fish" ("I stared and stared") and describes this potentially interminable movement of perception, which is tantamount to the poem. During the process of increasing attentiveness, the speaker glimpses a provisional fullness:

I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat, from the pool of bilge where oil had spread a rainbow [. . . ] until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go.

The fish fills with language until it can hold no more. It is at this moment that the generation of language can go no farther. The fish must be discarded and replaced. The self has also reached its own limits of creation and definition. Artifice, if it is to remain coherent, finds itself limited. Still unanswered is whether nature is equally limited, or if it is that which remains limiting and unapprehendable. The rainbow of oil leaking onto the water's surface replaces the fish and allows discursive connections to continue. This dispensation, however, is ironic: it takes place in a grubby rented boat, where the language wears out, indicated by the repetition of "rusted" in two successive lines. The "victory" is the rainbow of a thin film of oil spreading across the bilge waters, overrunning the "pool of bilge," to spread over everything. Similarly, the rainbow draws together the multitude of colors found throughout the poem, which parallels a rainbow's concordance of the undistorted visible colors of the spectrum. The rainbow spreads over the boat and over language "until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Though it is tempting to read the final lines as an ecstatic moment that marks the narrator's full recognition of the fish and interconnectedness, such a reading remains naive, for the poem has come to describe the generative and metonymical functions of language. Jerome Mazzaro considers these final lines a parody of "God's restoration of dominion to Noah" in which Bishop's wry evolutionist stance suggests that humans' dominion is only by accident and technology. Although the rainbow reflects a new dispensation, it is one that inscribes, as Mazzaro argues, departure and uncertainty. The simple rhyme of "rainbow" and "go" underscores the provisionality of any interconnection, since it recalls the passage and loss of childhood. We must let go any notion of totality or synthesis, either rhetorical or existential. Instead, the materiality of language and time comes to be emphasized; the poem lets go of the symbolic, and reinvents the relational. The poem moves toward transcendent closure with "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow," but opens up and initiates a new, though unfigured, process that subverts closure and death: "And I let the fish go."


From The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.

Jeredith Merrin: On "The Fish"


Throughout her work, she subverts the conventional Romantic trope of world-as-woman by insisting upon the indeterminate nature of nature--now female, now male, now ungendered other. And, as we might expect, Bishop is most subversive at her most Wordsworthian moments. In "The Fish," for example--strikingly Wordsworthian in its evocation of almost religious awe and joy in the presence of embodied nature--Bishop refigures the usual Romantic figure, making us see nature as a "He," a sort of finny five-star general:

[. . . .]

But even as she develops her own alternative figure, Bishop holds it up to question. She introduces this fiercely independent, masculine version of the fish with a contrasting version--domestic, and (as a result of the poet's sly adaptation of the timeworn girls-as-flowers trope) suggestive of the feminine:

[. . . .]

Determinedly "unpoetic" in her prosy rhythms, her patient agglomeration of seemingly random details and associations, Bishop here avoids poetic presumption, subjective sway. She acknowledges the tenuous relation of figurative language to reality with the tentativeness of simile ("Like medals"; "shapes like full-blown roses"; "like a big peony"). Humorously, she undercuts her own anthropomorphism ("--if you could call it a lip—"). And with a pile-up of arresting particulars, she tips the scale toward quizzical observation rather than controlling allegory.

Nevertheless, Bishop's frequently anthologized "The Fish" gradually accrues more allegorical point than most of her poems (one reason why it is a teachers' favorite). It slowly builds, as I have already suggested, toward a more Wordsworthian--more emotionally rounded, end-rhymed, and almost visionary--conclusion:

[. . . .]

Bishop avoids Wordsworth's egocentric, centripetal action by externalizing, focusing outward, as the title of her poem tells us, on "The Fish." Whereas Wordsworth internalizes and subsumes a naturalized human being (the almost moss-covered leech-gatherer), Bishop attends to a separate, natural creature: first by "catching" the fish both literally and figuratively (by hooking it and simultaneously "capturing" it with self-conscious anthropomorphic comparisons), and then by letting the fish--together with any suggestion of co-optive figuration--go. Her perceptions lead not merely to imaginative conquest or introspection, but to a sense of mutual "victory" and a specific action. She saves the creature's life. The undeniably serious conclusion with its Noah's Ark-like rainbow still has about it her very quiet, and very un-Wordsworthian, touch of humor (in what is, after all, a kind of elaborate "fish story").


From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.

David Kalstone: On "The Fish"

The poem is filled with the strain of seeing – not just the unrelenting pressure of making similes to "capture" the fish, but the fact that the similes themselves involve flawed instruments of vision, stained wallpaper, scratched isinglass, tarnished tinfoil. This is why, on some readings, the poem has the air of summoning up a creature from the speaker’s own inner depths – the surviving nonhuman resources of an earlier creation, glimpsed painfully through the depredations of time and the various frail instruments we devise, historically, to see them. The "victory" that fills up the little rented boat is one that more than grammatically belongs to both sides. Like "Roosters," though without its bitterness and fear, the poem taps and identifies nonhuman sources of human energies. What makes it different from [Marianne] Moore’s animal poems is its interst in the difficulties of locating and accepting such energies.


From David Kalstone, "Logarithms of Apology," Chapter 4 in Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), 87.