"THE FISH"
Elizabeth Bishop as Painter
“Conversations and Class Notes” by Elizabeth Bishop and Wesley Wehr    
These selected comments from Bishop are taken from both class notes and from an interview with Wesley Wehr in 1966. They first appeared in The Antioch Review (39, no. 3 [Summer 1981]: 319-28). Bishop came to Seattle from Brazil, her long-term residence, to teach a poetry class at the University of Washington. After fifteen years, Bishop considered Brazil her home; according to Wehr, she was at the time of the interview both homesick and “terrified” about her first teaching experience.

“Conversations and Class Notes” by Elizabeth Bishop and Wesley Wehr
(1966)


The following comments by Elizabeth Bishop are from my conversations with her and from class notes taken during her 1966 poetry workshops at the University of Washington.
She had just arrived in Seattle from Brazil. The prospect of teaching a poetry class terrified her; she had never done such a thing before. But the University of Washington had made her a very good offer, and her house in Ouro Preto needed a new roof.
It was January. It was pouring rain. Already she was desperately homesick. Every other day she was on the verge of canceling the whole thing and going back to Brazil.

EB: I wish my students wouldn't spend so much time trying to “discover” themselves. They should let other people discover them. They keep telling me that they want to convey the truth about ourselves despite ourselves. It’s just that quite often we don’t like how it comes out. If my students would concentrate more on all the difficulties of writing a good poem, all the complexities of language and form, I think that they would find that the truth will come through quite by itself.
There’s another thing that bothers me very much: a tendency in my class for the students to write a kind of mood poem—about love, loss, dripping leaves, damp moonlight. Their poems are too vague. And if anyone in that class uses the word “communicate” once more, I’m going to scream! I hate that word! Those students are not there to “express” themselves; they’re there to learn how to write a good poem.
I found out the other day, to my horror, that they don’t even know the difference between a colon and a semicolon! Some of them speak so badly that I can’t tell whether they’re dumb or it’s some kind of local speech affectation or impediment. They keep saying things like, “Oh, Miss Bishop, you know how it is.” And I’ll say, “No, I don’t know how it is. Why don’t you tell me how it is? I’m not a mind reader.”
I asked them if any of them possibly knew what was wrong with that ghastly slogan, Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should? There was a complete silence in the classroom. I finally had to get out my Dictionary of English Usage and slowly read to them the definitions of like and as. When I got through, most of them were staring blankly at me. I could have walked right out of the classroom at that point. But I said, “If you students want so badly to express yourselves, why don’t you bother to learn even the simplest things about your own language?” You studied with him—what did Theodore Roethke do about this sort of thing? What was I brought here to teach anyway?

EB: [to the class] Everyone in this class likes Shakespeare, and after that, Dylan Thomas. But what about the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets? And the nineteenth century? I was shocked yesterday when you didn’t spot those quotations from Keats, Tennyson, and Swinburne. We had a whole year of Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley when I was in high school. The romantics are still awfully good poets. You should like Wordsworth. You’re nature people here, and I’d expect you to like him.
Have you read Keats’s letters? I recommend them highly. I think I enjoy them more than his poetry. He had a wonderful brain and a very strong character. People wrote better letters in those days. Also, you should read [Gerard Manley] Hopkins’s letters to Robert Bridges. They contain some of the best statements I’ve ever read. His journals—for sheer observations—are superb. He and Marianne Moore are the finest observers I’ve ever read.

EB: You should use more objects in your poems—those things you use every day . . . the things around you. Pop art had brought so many things to our attention, whether we like them or not. One can write very good poetry without vivid images, but I myself prefer observation. I just don’t find enough things in your poems. There are so many things you students are not taking advantage of—alliteration, for instance. My view from the fourteenth floor of the Meany Hotel depressed me. I want you to write a poem, about thirty lines long, about Seattle. Here’s a list of words to work in: viaduct, Space Needle, sea gull, “scenic drive” sign, cars. I’ll give a special prize to whichever one of you manages to come up with the best rhyme for Seattle.

EB: [to the class, 5 January 1966, first day of class] I’ve gone through the poems which you handed in to me, and I’ve never seen so many haikus in my life. They’re not very well written either. They’re more like the sort of thing one might jot down when one is feeling vaguely “poetic.”
Some of your rhymes are simply awful! And you seem to write a lot of free verse out here. I guess that’s what you call it. I was rather appalled. I just couldn’t scan your “free verse”—and one can scan [T. S.] Eliot. I think some of you are misled about free verse. It isn’t that easy. Look at Eliot—you scan his descriptive pieces about Cape Ann perfectly, and the same goes for The Four Quartets and The Wasteland. [She reads aloud a passage from The Wasteland.]
You see, you’d never take this for prose. It’s good free verse. You can also look at e. e. cummings and the rain poems of [Guillaume] Apollinaire. But these poems of yours are spattered all over the page and I don’t see any reason for it. I guess I’m rather old-fashioned.
I’m going to have to be very strict with you, I see. Let’s do something like [A. E.] Housman for the first assignment. I just want something very neat—like a hymn. Some of you have good ears. I think it’s a gift of God. But your sense of rhyme and form is atrocious. I’m going to be giving you some strict meter assignments, and later on we’ll do something with iambic pentameter.

EB: You should have your head filled with poems all the time, until they almost get in your way.
A poet can’t write poetry all the time. So when he isn’t writing, there are various other things he can do: dissipation, or inventing theories about poetry, or writing his memoirs. It comes to about the same thing.
I would suggest you read one poet—all his poems, letters, his biographies, everything but the criticisms on him.
I believe in the fortunate accident, but you don’t sit down and try to have one. You have to be on the road before you can have an accident.
When you imitate the old poets, you have a better chance of sounding like yourself than when you’re copying your contemporaries.
There’s a Spanish proverb: a donkey who goes traveling comes back still a donkey.
People seem to think that doing something like writing a poem makes one happier in life. It doesn’t solve anything. Perhaps it does at least give one the satisfaction of having done a thing well or having put in a good day’s work.

EB: [to WW] All of the students in my class—with their trusting eyes and their clear complexions. Have you seen the expensive cars that some of them drive? I don’t know where they get all their money; perhaps their parents help them out. Most of them look quite well fed and rather well off. And what do they write about in their poems? Suffering, of all things! I don’t think most of them know anything about suffering, but their poems are just filled with it. I finally told them that they should come to Brazil and see for themselves what real suffering is like. Then perhaps they wouldn’t write so “poetically” about it.

EB: I hardly know any of them, but I’ve already started worrying about some of my students. Going insane is very popular these days, and it frightens me to see so many young people flirting with the idea of it. They think that going crazy will turn them into better poets. That’s just not true at all! Insanity is a terrible thing . . . a terrible thing! I’ve seen it first-hand in some of my friends, and it is not the “poetic” sort of thing that these young people seem to think it is. John Clare did not write glorious poetry while he was in the asylum, I’m glad to say. I’ve known Marianne Moore extremely well over a long time. Perhaps, I’ll tell my students about her some time—to show them what can be drawn from such a relatively limited life as she has had. I think it’s important that my students start to know some of these things. They have such narrow and sometimes destructive ideas about what it is to be a poet. I’ve been thinking lately that I really should say something to them about all of this. It’s a very serious matter.

EB: I’ve been fortunate from the start, winning prizes, having encouragement. Not that I’ve necessarily believed that I deserved it, but it’s just happened that way. Sometimes I don’t feel that I’m an especially good poet, but when I read some of the things that my contemporaries are writing, I guess I’m not so bad after all.
I’ve only had one rejection on a poem in my life. Somehow I always knew which poem to send to which magazine. But some of my students keep sending their poems to the most awful little poetry magazines. They seem to want so badly to be published that they just don’t care where it is. I told them the other day that they shouldn’t waste their time sending their poems to the bad little poetry journals. They should aim for the best ones. Some of these little magazines can be rather good at times, but so many of them will publish just about anything that’s sent to them.

EB: I’ve never been one of those poets who will write a poem and then dash around showing it to everyone . . . pretending that they want criticism. Most of the time—in recent years anyway—I’ve usually known what was wrong with the poem. If I’ve shown my work to anyone for criticism, it’s usually been to Cal [Robert] Lowell or Miss Moore. Cal likes my new poem, the one I call Poem. He says it’s very good. You can imagine how happy that made me.

EB: I always tell the truth in poems. With The Fish, that's exactly how it happened. It was in Key West, and I did catch it just as the poem says. That was in 1938. Oh, but I did change one thing: the poem says he had five hooks hanging from his mouth, but actually he only had three. I think it improved the poem when I made that change. Sometimes 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.

WW: Elizabeth, do you ever lose your motivation?

EB: Lose my motivation? You ask me the oddest questions. Let me put it this way. I would say that sometimes my “motivations” will come back for a day, maybe even for two days. And then I really have to get down to work! That happened to me a few weeks ago. I suddenly felt very “motivated” as you call it. I cleaned the kitchen oven and finally answered some letters. Is that what you mean by being motivated? Or did you mean do I have sudden fits of inspiration to write poems? Oh, I hope you didn’t mean something like that! I haven’t been able to write a single good line in Seattle. Once or twice most of a poem has come to me all at once but usually I write very, very slowly.

EB: Because I write the kind of poetry that I do, people seem to assume that I’m a calm person. Sometimes they even tell me how sane I am. But I’m not a calm person at all. I can understand how they might think that I am, but if they really knew me at all, they’d see that there are times when I can be as confused and indecisive as anyone. There are times when I really start to wonder what holds me together—awful times. But I feel a responsibility, while I’m here at least, to appear calm and collected . . . so these young people won’t think that all poets are erratic.

EB: Did you read what the interviewer wrote about me? What was his name? . . . oh yes . . . Tim Robbins. He described me as looking and acting like a schoolmarm. That really hurt my feelings a bit. I used to be quite a tomboy. I was very good at climbing trees, and did all sorts of wild things. And then they wanted a photograph of me to accompany the magazine interview. I hate being photographed. The only photograph that’s ever been taken of me which I rather like is one where I’m on a bear rug going, "Goo, goo!" at the camera. That one I don’t mind at all. I’m just not photogenic, and never have been.

 
Contributing author: Michelle Ephraim, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Responding to "Conversation and Class Notes" by Elizabeth Bishop and Wesley Wehr
Answer the following questions in your notebook—this will be collated so that you can print or e-mail your work when you are finished.
 
 

1). What does Bishop mean by her advice that her students should stop trying to “discover” themselves and let others discover them?

 
 

2). Make a list of Bishop’s complaints about her students’ poetry.
 
 

3). Make a list of what Bishop suggests a student should do in order to become a good poet.
 
 

4). What kinds of assumptions about poets and poetry does Bishop challenge in this interview?
 
 

5). Bishop boasts of “always” telling the truth and claims that “The Fish” was inspired by a real incident in Key West. Based on what she says in this excerpt, why do you think that she believes that a poem should tell the truth? What kinds of “demands” does the poem make that would compel her to add two hooks to the fish’s mouth? Based on your reading of the poem, why do you think she made this artistic decision?


 


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