Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop: Two Small Fish in a Big Sea

It is no secret that Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop were close friends. Although written decades apart, poems titled “The Fish” were created by both authors. Upon reading Bishop’s poem against Moore’s, we can see that both of the poems deal with themes of endurance against a greater force and of the unpredictability of life. The poems are not entirely alike, of course, with differences in form, speaker, and subject matter. Important to fully examining Bishop’s “The Fish,” she and Moore’s correspondence was well-documented, including letters on Bishop’s “The Fish.” Their back-and-forth letters reveal the influence Moore had on Bishop’s poetry, as well as instances in which Bishop stood up for the more independent choices in her writing.

While Bishop’s “The Fish” can easily stand alone as a magnificent poem, analyzing it with Moore in mind leads readers to underlying themes that one might not pick up on alone. The two poets met through a mutual friend in the mid-1930s and instantly became friends, corresponding via letters. As Lynn Keller notes, “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” (Keller). Bishop frequently asked Moore for advice on various poems, making Moore’s influence on Bishop’s poetry is undeniable. Keep in mind that Bishop was still a young poet when the two first met; “the older writer soon placed her protégée’s work in an anthology, writing an insightful preface to the new poems” (Sweeny). Especially important, Bishop and Moore corresponded about Bishop’s “The Fish.” “I am so much longing,” Bishop wrote to Moore in January of 1940 (the same year Bishop’s that “The Fish” was published), “to see some of your new poems. I am sending you a real ‘trifle’ [‘The Fish’]. I’m afraid it is very bad” (Keller). Moore responded with criticisms and suggestions for change. A month later, Bishop replied, “I have been reading and rereading your letter ever since it came … Thank you for the marvelous postcard, and the very helpful comments on ‘The Fish.’ I did as you suggested about everything except ‘breathing in’ (if you can remember that), which I decided to leave as it was” (Keller). Here, one sees how seriously Bishop took Moore’s advice.

Bishop begins by mentioning that she has read the letter multiple times, and Bishop goes on (in the full version) to describe exactly what edits she, Bishop, made in response to Moore’s letter. However, one also sees that Bishop does not let Moore decide what changes must be enacted. In the letter mentioned, Bishop refers to what becomes the twenty-second line of “The Fish,” where she does not change the words “breathing in.” This shows how Bishop was an independent poet, but a poet who still truly valued Moore’s input. Their correspondence, in part, surely led to “The Fish” being published by Partisan Review in March of 1940.

Moore’s influence on Bishop’s “The Fish” is present in more than just the changes that Bishop made. It is important to have a somewhat in-depth understanding of each poem, on its own, in order to compare and contrast the two. Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” describes a scene in which sea creatures are exposed by sunlight while the sea crashes upon a cliff. The end of the poem indicates that the cliff will continue to endure while the sea and all of its creatures grow old at its side, thus making the cliff the most permanent object in the poem. Moore experiments with the space on the page to make a poem that takes on its own physical shape that has the appearance of ebb and flow. The poem’s appearance echoes the persistent imagery of the sea that Moore describes as “a wedge/ of iron through the iron edge/ of the cliff” as the poem crashes up against the margin of the page and retreats with its indents (Moore 18-20). Moore’s “The Fish” is a poem full of contrasts. The rigidity that the form (syllabic verse combined with an AABBCC end-rhyme scheme) creates is directly contrasted with the natural flow of the ocean that is portrayed in the physical appearance of the poem. There is also a contrast between the form and the content of the poem: the mysterious life beneath the water against the predictability of the end rhyme and syllabic verse. When the sun hits the water, it turns from “black jade” (Moore 2) to “turquoise sea” (Moore 17). The water is illuminated, an illumination which comes along with the reader’s discoveries of the “jelly fish … crabs … toadstools” (Moore 23-25). Moore’s “The Fish” thus describes a scene with immense detail, but the meaning of the poem is meant to extend beyond the descriptions given, as will be touched upon later in this essay.

Bishop’s “The Fish” also contains considerable and precise detail, including a wide variety of colors that culminate to the ultimate “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” epiphany at the end of the poem (Bishop 75). Bishop’s “The Fish” tells the story of a fisherman (presumed to be male in this essay, although Bishop is not specific) who catches “a tremendous fish” (Bishop 1). He examines the fish from its scales to its eyes to the five frayed lines and hooks that remain lodged in its mouth. The fisherman ultimately decides to release the fish that has endured so much. The poem is written in free verse but contains short and controlled lines. This structure echoes the nature of the fish that is controlled by man, hooked many times, but is ultimately free in the sea. Bishop utilizes long, descriptive sentences, rich in color and figurative language, that flow throughout the poem, like the sea itself flows. Many colors are present in the composition as well: brown, lime, green, and white to name a few just within the first third of the poem. By the end of the poem, as touched upon earlier, the speaker exclaims, “everything/ was a rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!/ And I let the fish go” (Bishop 74-76). This final epiphany represents all of the details (all of the colors in the poem) coming together, and the speaker realizes that this fish has endured so much that it deserves to live on. To take life from this fish would be a shameful act.

This theme of endurance is present in both Moore’s and Bishop’s “The Fish.” Besides sharing a title, the poems also share common thematic elements. For one, both Moore and Bishop’s poems remark upon the alternating predictability and unpredictability of life. Moore does so through contrasting the unknown life that is lurking beneath the surface of the sea with the fact that the sea will always be confined by the boundaries that the cliff creates. One does not know what is in store for the sea-life other than that the creatures will, at some point, die. Bishop takes Moore’s original theme to a new level; what is predicted or expected is not what actually happens. Bishop expresses this theme by contrasting what the speaker is doing, catching a fish, with what the speaker ultimately decides to do, release the fish. Based on the setting, the reader may predict that the speaker will keep (and ultimately kill) the fish. However, the speaker unpredictably decides to set the old fish free. In Bishop’s case, what is predicted or expected is not what actually happens. While the speaker is not able to foresee what is in store for the weathered fish (whether or not another hook will grow “firmly in his mouth” [Bishop 55]), he does know that its life is finite. Still, the speaker leaves the fish to endure. Reading the poem, one knows the fish must die, but it is left to live out its life, whatever might happen.

The idea of “endurance” is also present in both poems. The end of Moore’s “The Fish” suggests that the cliff will continue to endure, while the sea and its inhabitants grow old and die at the cliff’s side, thus making the cliff the strongest force in the poem; it is riddled with “dynamite grooves, burns, and/ hatchet strokes” yet still endures and stands strong (Moore 32-33). The fish that is itself described by Bishop is the strongest force in her poem, which features a creature that has endured (and escaped) multiple fishermen, as five hooks and frayed lines hang from this fish’s lip (Bishop 54-56). Various parts of the fish are described as “battered and venerable” (Moore 8), “ancient” (Moore 11), and “speckled with barnacles” (Moore 16), emphasizing how long this fish has been alive and how much it has withstood. Everyone knows that fish are living creatures with finite lives, but the description of this fish may actually leave readers second-guessing the axiom that all living things must die. The reader will never know what happens beyond Bishop’s “The Fish,” as the creature of the title is released into the sea, perhaps the same sea that crashes against Moore’s persistent cliff.

Despite these thematic divergences, the most obvious difference between the two poems is that of form. Moore’s is less than half the length (line-wise) of Bishop’s, is written in syllabic verse with an end-rhyme scheme, and experiments with the space on the page to create a particularly distinctive appearance. Bishop’s poem is written in free verse, yet with short and controlled lines, and is much longer. These two different forms have entirely different effects on each of the poems. The most notable difference in the content of the poems is the subject matter. While they are both named “The Fish,” the two poems are overtly about different things. Moore’s poem is titled “The Fish,” in part, because the title runs into the first line; the fish are merely a part of her description of what lies beneath the sea. Bishop’s poem is centered around the fish; there is no poem, here, without it. Bishop’s fish holds all of the power, symbolism, and description within the poem. By arranging this poem around a fish, Bishop calls attention to the most minute of details, one fish in an infinite sea. The fish is minuscule but is the most important being in the universe of this poem, as it leads to the speaker’s ultimate epiphany: this fish has endured so much that it must live on, because this is not a life that the speaker deserves to take. The difference in the handling of the fish marks a stark contrast between these two poems.

Reading Bishop’s “The Fish” with Moore in mind helps the reader to pick up on the importance of endurance and unpredictability as central poetic themes. Comparing and contrasting the two poems calls attention the poets’ forms and to how the poets handle their fish, whether as a detail in the sea or as a center of a poem’s universe. Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” can clearly stand on its own without the additional reading of Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” and even without knowledge of the women’s friendship and correspondence. However, knowing that Bishop was a long-time reader and friend of Moore’s enhances how one might read the poem and casts particular themes in an especially lucid light.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Fish.” Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 17-19. Keller, Lynn. “The Bishop/Moore Correspondence on “The Fish”” Modern American Poetry. Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. Moore, Marianne. “The Fish.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 319-320. Sweeny, Emma Claire. “Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore.” Web log post. Something Rhymed. WordPress.com, 1 May 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

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