A Poet’s Inner Eye

A literary scholar looks for Elizabeth Bishop in the fishing waters of Florida.

HUMANITIES, March/April 2009, Volume 30, Number 2

In the summer of 2000, I spent several days in the Vassar Library Special Collections reading Elizabeth Bishop’s Key West notebooks. I started with an idea to verify that the poem “The Fish” was based on the jewfish pictured on a postcard she sent to Robert Lowell, and I was looking for all her references to fish she had caught. What started as a small curiosity about accuracy turned into questions about a poet’s memory and imagination. How does the imagination alter an experience as modest as fishing in the Keys to create a memorable work? I never found a reference to the jewfish, but the notebooks revealed many surprises, including her sketch, in a rather careless hand, of the monument on which her poem “The Monument” is based.

Her notes below the drawing

This is the beginning of a painting
A piece of statuary, or a poem,
Or the beginning of a monument.
Suddenly it will become something.
Suddenly it will become something.

are altered in the poem: “It is the beginning of a painting / a piece of sculpture, or a poem, or monument, / and all of wood. Watch it closely.” The change, any change in lines for a poem, should come as no surprise, for revision, we know, is at the heart of making art.

In graduate school, I’d regarded the monument in the poem as finished, as the poem was finished, and as a result my attempt at a drawing was architectural and neat. It was also upside down. The phrase “like several boxes in descending sizes” is responsible for that. The petals of the fleur-de-lis atop my “temple of crates” are more petal-shaped than those in the Bishop drawing; hers are more vague. And I had drawn what looks to me now like pieces of springy wood or metal arching downward with little gizmos at the end, which Bishop describes in the finished poem as “slanted like fishing-poles or flag-poles,” and which are barely suggested in her sketch. One has a clear sense that the monument in her notebook is being assembled, is coming into focus: “beginning,” becoming. The fleur-de-lis, for instance, looks like it is just about to be placed by an invisible hand onto the top crate. What intervenes between the monument of the drawing and of the poem is time. “Now,” (my emphasis) the speaker asks in the first line, “can you see the monument?”

What else is at work concerns the inner eye of the poet and the reader, insofar as the drawing seems a depiction of the inner eye’s power to generate, focus, manipulate, and enhance images in the mind, and the poem shows the future of that power.

My interest in Bishop’s mind’s eye had drawn me to her Key West notebooks in the first place. I was looking for images and fragments of lines purportedly jotted into her diary or notebook near the time “The Fish” was written in the winter of 1939. I had an idea that the fishing trip in “The Fish” was a conflation of several fishing trips and that the noble and “homely” fish of the poem might not have been the jewfish pictured and named as the fish on a postcard to Lowell in 1948.

The largest of the groupers, the jewfish is abundant in Florida waters, and can be found near shore in deep holes, on ledges, and around pilings. Now called the goliath grouper, its old name is a reminder that it was kosher under Levitical law. Jewfish are olive brown or green-gray and present irregular, vertical bars, called “strips” in the Bishop poem. However, their most notable features for identification are the small black spots that cover the head and fins. Doesn’t it seem unlikely that a poet with celebrated observational powers would fail to record them? Jewfish grow to tremendous weight. The Florida record is over 680 pounds. Of course, one person’s “tremendous” fish can be another’s much smaller fish, and there are plenty of examples of deliberate liberties with scale in Bishop (as in sun and crumb in “A Miracle for Breakfast”), but the fish in the poem is also old—“venerable” and “speckled with barnacles.” The skin is compared to “ancient wallpaper,” the pattern “stained and lost through age,” and the boat the fisherman is in, in the poem, has oarlocks for rowing, besides a motor. An old fish (the lifespan of the jewfish is thirty to fifty years) with its weight range of up to nearly seven hundred pounds would be much too large to be held “half out of water” by a lone fisherman in a small craft, perhaps the “catboat” she writes to Frani Blough in February 1938 that she is “thinking of renting” for “$25 a month.”

By its physical characteristics, the black drum may be a better possibility for the fish in the poem. The one I caught from my kayak last year weighed thirty-nine pounds, and the native fisherman who identified him for me told me he was about forty years old. The drum was silver-brown with drab brown bars on the flanks, and he grunted—“He hung a grunting weight”—when I finally landed him, trailing the heavy fish behind my little kayak about a mile to shore. Drums are so called because of this deep, reverberating sound they make when in danger. The shapes of their swim bladders are, as one fishing manual says, “remarkable, and differ from species to species. Like sharks’ teeth, the distinctiveness is so characteristic that in most cases species could be identified by the bladder shape alone.” Perhaps Bishop’s black drum had a “pink swim-bladder / like a big peony.” Bishop’s description of the fish’s lethargy—”He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all”—matches the behavior of the black drum, which uses its weight, sticking stubbornly on the sea bed. The eyes of Pogonias cronis are also a better match for the Bishop lines— “his eyes / . . . were far larger than mine”—than jewfish eyes, which are described in fishing manuals as being unusually small. One last interesting feature is the jewfish’s dangling chin barbels, not unlike “a five-haired beard of wisdom.”

Another possibility is the amberjack, which grunts, can be found near shore in South Florida, is golden brown, with a darker vertical strip, and commonly weighs forty pounds. There are several references to the sixty-pound amberjack Bishop caught on her first trip to Key West in late 1936. Her letter to Frani Blough from the Keewaydin fishing camp on January 4, 1937, describes the fishing trip:

You go out with two men in a motor boat, about seven miles off-shore. At the stern are two swivel chairs with sockets in front to steady the pole in. The water is the most beautiful pistachio color, ice-blue in the shade. It is so pretty when you have actually caught one of these monster fish and have him all the way up to the side—to see him all silver and iridescent colors in that blue water. We had awfully good luck—we must have caught about twenty fish and all over twenty pounds. I caught (as I guess I couldn’t resist telling you on the postcard) the biggest one—an Amberjack about 60 lbs. Of course Ernest [Hemingway] gets them, or something, up to 1,000 but we were pleased to learn he began fishing off a pier.

Was the fish she caught the amberjack or a jewfish? (I personally think that the amberjack is too pretty to have been the fish described in her poem.) A black drum? She has said that the catch was in 1938 in Key West and that “that was exactly how it happened.” She goes on to say that she changed the number of hooks the fish had hanging from its mouth from three hooks to the five in the poem. “Sometimes,” she said, “a poem makes its own demands. But I always try to stick as much as possible to what really happened when I describe something in a poem.”

The point isn’t to cast doubt on Bishop’s memory or her accuracy but to begin to suggest that other fishing trips, other fish, and other imagery that only relates to a remembered event by the associative power of the imagination, contributed to the writing of the poem, insofar as any poem begins, like the monument in the first Key West notebook, diffuse and in shambles, and takes time to assemble. The inner eye’s potential for visualizing (and remembering) seems almost measurable in the creative act—physical entities that are blurry seeming to serve less well as elements in thought than the clearer images that can be produced, reproduced, combined, and recombined voluntarily. I’m not speaking of the simple, if fundamental, ability to visualize the door lock in the dark, but of how in a changing mental landscape, self and sensibility, emotion, language (spoken, written, dreamed, and thought), image, abstraction, and pattern combine, balance or balance imperfectly, and come to have meaning. Antithetical to the poet, if possible at all, is what some psychologists and philosophers dream of—thinking in pure meanings, as if in thin but shining air.

The raw, natural process of the mind’s eye is a little like dreaming and it’s physical—a panoply of images appearing in the darkness of the mind. Bishop’s poem “The Weed” offers a compelling description of her, and our, inner visuality. In the early part of the poem, the narrator, “dead, and meditating” in the dark, notices a “slight, young weed” which melts the heart’s frozen thought, so that two “rushing half-clear streams” pour from the heart’s sides. Bishop continues: “A few drops fell upon my face / and in my eyes, so I could see / (or in that black space thought I saw) / that each drop contained a light, / a small illuminated scene; / the weed–deflected stream was made / itself of racing images. . . .”

Bishop’s notebooks are full of images, documenting the poet’s interest in the physical world. They consist, in good measure, of observations on natural phenomena—on color, shape, form—often with a view to their use as art, as, for instance, when in her parenthetical note after a description of the sea off Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts as “The creme-de-menthe sea,” she says “(for prose purposes only).” While Bishop was marking down her observations in the thirties and forties, and also quoting Samuel Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, Søren Kierkegaard on the dangers of abstraction, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Albert Einstein, and Blaise Pascal, she was working toward an aesthetic. An early passage in 1934 concerns the poet’s “material”:

i.e. immediate, intense physical reactions, a sense of metaphor and decoration in everything—to express something not of them—something I suppose spiritual. But it proceeds from the material, the material eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform and always kept in order, in its place. Sometimes it cannot be made to indicate its spiritual goal clearly (some of Hopkins, say, where the point seems to be missing) but even then the spiritual must be felt. Miss Moore does this—but occasionally. The other way—of using the supposedly “spiritual”—the beautiful, the nostalgic, the ideal and poetic, to produce the material is the way of the Romantic, I think, and a great perversity.

“The material eaten out with acid,” Bishop says, meaning that some astringent is brought to bear on the raw material for poetry—perhaps in reference to the use of acid in the etching of copper plates—as in Blake. Art, the implication seems to be, is the astringent (“made to perform and always kept in order, in its place”), but before art the material itself is “immediate” and there is “a sense of metaphor and decoration in everything.” The implication is that sensory information scintillates and that the mind of the poet responds with intensity.

Bishop’s readiness toward the world of sensory objects can be seen in other notebook entries. Describing being in Cuttyhunk in the fog as like being “inside a great fish skeleton,” for instance, Bishop goes on in the same paragraph to describe a mess of striped bass: “the stripes and the edges of the scales are so strongly marked that the fish looks rippled, rough. I was surprised when I felt it and it was smooth & slimy on top. They are not nearly as beautiful as sword fish. As they lay there, you could see a glimpse of the rose-colored sheaf of gills, crisp and bloody.” Bishop is clearly in the moment. The image of the gills is intense—intense enough, one can argue, to last, for only compare the description with two lines in “The Fish”: “—the frightening gills, / fresh and crisp with blood.” There’s no doubt that Bishop, who fished a lot, again saw the effort of fish to breathe as they died and saw blood in the gills from a hole or tear of the hook; but it would be hard not to notice—as Brett C. Millier has noted in her biography of Bishop—the surprising adjective crisp that appears both in the diary and the three-stress line of the poem. Another echo in “The Fish” to this early passage is “rose-colored,” appearing in the poem as “shapes like full-blown roses” and “fine rosettes of lime.”

I found many references in Bishop’s notebooks and letters to fish she saw and caught and dreamed of, and also to flowers. In the record of her 1932 trip to Newfoundland, for instance, Bishop notes the marshberries and butter-and-egg flowers, crabs and eels, “a statue of Jesus in a glass case, hung with paper roses,” “rose sheep and pink goats.”

While her Key West notebook makes no reference to the jewfish, it does offer some intriguing glimpses into the work of Bishop’s imagination in regard to fish—in dreams, when the inner eye is at work involuntarily, and in little snatches of phrasing about fish in incompletely drafted and unpublished poems. “The impetalled fish seriously swims,” Bishop jots, then further along writes “little (fish like zinnias) marigolds” next to the crossed-out phrase “The petalled fish.” The same flower / fish motif recurs. “I dreamed a dream of roses,” she writes, and then “of roses or of fishes.” The phrases here seem less a result of observation than of association. One associates for any number of reasons and often without reason, involuntarily, primarily to identify—something looks like, or smells like, or is like something one has seen, smelled or known, the simile coming into play when observation doesn’t recognize or know. The poet’s associations, however, are often conscious, “a sense of metaphor and decoration always,” Bishop said. The associations, involuntary and voluntary, are also personal, and it seems fair to say that a person who has no knowledge of fish or of flowers wouldn’t associate the two. Bishop was interested in fish and in flora, so that when in “The Fish” she says the swim bladder is pink “like a peony,” and the barnacles are “fine rosettes of lime,” one isn’t particularly surprised, though the similes are surprising.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when the references to rose in Bishop, the flower and the color, began to pile up in the same letters and diaries I had been scouring for the jewfish. I think that is how the mind’s eye initially works—the exterior eye gives to the inner eye immediate images, which accumulate, though notice is personal, flavored by interest, emotion, association, temperament, and any number of other colorations. Bishop’s, or any poet’s, collecting of images is this natural. In Key West, Bishop was attuned to flora and fauna, as seen in her letters to friends. Sometimes she writes about a plant someone has given her or a new species of rose bush—she liked roses, wax roses, the pale pink Rock Rose of her poem, and the one grafted by a Key West gardener (with its mixture of pink, yellow, and white flowers), and the Devil Rose and Rose of Hell given to her by her Florida neighbors. Then, in notebook descriptions, something like a natural predisposition to the color red seems to occur, often associated with roses, as in the rose-red sun and the fishermen’s sunburned backs “like rose-petals,” in the “10,000 Islands.” Perhaps most interesting is her description in her Key West notebook from 1936-37 of the fish she dreamed as “large, about 3 feet long, large-scaled, metallic gold only a beautiful rose color.”

For all her observational powers, Bishop’s “The Fish” is a work of imagination. Whatever fish it was, the fish in the poem is recollected. Out of the dark of the mind, awake and dreaming, a stream of images occurs, a mixture of “black sand” and water, to put it in terms from “The Weed.” Whatever a poem is meant to be, the mind has a greater store of images. As the inner eye visualizes one, hundreds others flit by. The poet selects a part she is certain of (for being interesting or precisely right for the poem and, for that reason, exciting) and that part invokes other memories, other images. Sometimes in the midst of the new memory, the poet can recall a lost fragment of the original shadow or water memory.

To make the retrieval effort more personal or, to some, valuable, one may tell oneself that the recaptured piece of memory is equivalent to fact. Maybe only the poet saw it, but the poet was there; and, furthermore, its not having been seen by others makes it all the more unforgettable to the seer. For the reader, the fish can be any fish, various notions of fishing and fish existing regardless of the poet. But for a poet like Bishop, its having been and having happened can only move into significance if it is seen just so. This is personal. Not five pieces of line embedded in the fish’s lip, but four and a wire leader. Not a sea robin (as Lowell mistook the fish for when she sent him the fish postcard), or a snook, but a jewfish.

I don’t know what happens to memories that are never retrieved. Are they frozen, as in “The Weed”? Are they too dark or colorless for the inner eye? As for the memories that are retrieved, I think they can never be fully rinsed of association. Bishop’s starting place for “The Fish” was a particular fishing expedition, but I don’t doubt that earlier memories and memory fragments, snatches of experience, like the scales of the parrot fish a stranger on a dock in Key West gave her, touched her original memory. Bishop wrote “The Fish” with much more in mind, in the mind’s eye, than a single event.

Moreover, art, too, intervenes, as does language, which creates the word pictures the reader relies on to see the fish. “The Fish” moves from “the simple, or running image” through simile, then metaphor, to symbol at the end of the poem—the fish otherworldly and redemptive. Perhaps Bishop felt that jewfish or amberjack could compete with or distract from the more generalized symbol. The fish is everyfish. For the sake of the poem she withholds that information, perhaps overruling her mind’s eye, and the appeal, for her, of accuracy. “Pound out an idea of sight,” Bishop writes just above her sketch of her notebook monument, and I think her poems do that. The crude monument she first saw vaguely in her mind’s eye becomes the poem that tries to sort out what art is and what it does. The poem asks the reader to observe, to look closely at the surface shape and embellishments (the scrollwork and fleur-de-lis) of the monument, though “carelessly nailed, looking like nothing at all.” The decorations, however, “give it away as having life.” And so with the fish of her poem. As the speaker studies it, we do, and try to look inside where the meanings are. Can we envision something? If not, we can see the swim bladder and the entrails. Was there a rainbow of gasoline or oil on the water the morning she caught this tremendous fish? Was she in a catboat, a rowboat, an offshore motorized boat? It mattered most to her, not to her readers, whose inner eye is satisfied.

We can see the fish beginning to look like a fish, faintly at first, then its whole exterior, though not really; for art, she notes, in Kierkegaard is “illusion.” A fish like the ones Bishop saw in the water and in her inner eye appears on the page for the reader, though some parts are missing, the fins, for instance. We almost see it: turning into a fish. Fish, trying, recollecting, forming, folding into barely imaginable or remembered connections, in water, in black sand. Crisp gills, rose, rose-red, and the even darker, accurate rose of blood. The fish, in all but flesh is alive, caught, and freed.