Check out any high school or college poetry anthology, and you’ll likely find Elizabeth Bishop’s classic “The Fish”. As one of American literature’s most popular poems, “The Fish” is arguably the classic American poem about angling and how the sport can restore our souls. Its popularity in classrooms throughout the country is not only a testament to fishing, but also the lessons we can learn from such venerable fishing tales.
Narrated in the first person, the author weaves a powerful tale about a catch that ultimately helped her resolve an internal struggle popular among anglers (most critics believe Bishop caught the fish in Key West in January 1939, possibly a parrotfish). The poem begins with her catching a “homely” fish that “hadn’t fought at all”. At first, she was awe-struck and frightened by its gills, “coarse white flesh”, and shallow eyes. However, looking into the fish’s eyes was like “the tipping of an object toward the light”.
Suddenly, admiration fills her soul; her encounter with the repulsive creature rapidly turns ironic because the tough, venerable old fish – with five fish-lines dangling from its lower jaw “like medals with their ribbons” – reveals this epiphany: art and death are inseparable, and only through art can we make sense of the destruction that surrounds us, which we’ve often caused. Essentially, art transforms the grotesque into beauty.
Few stories capture this contradictory tension in angling better than Bishop’s poem: to appreciate, revere, and ultimately preserve our quarry, we must understand it, ourselves, and our interactions—acts that can be discovered by pursuing, catching, and studying fish in detail.
Bishop’s message has been reverberating ever since the poem appeared in her first poetry collection, North and South, in 1946. In fact, the poem’s popularity eventually annoyed Bishop. In Art and Memory in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop, Jonathan Ellis writes, “For many years, Bishop was known mainly as the writer of ‘The Fish’. She called it ‘that damned Fish,’ so sick was she of requests to anthologise it. As she complained to Robert Lowell in 1970: ‘I seem to get requests for it every day for anthologies with titles like Reading as Experience, or Experience as Reading, each anthologizer insisting that he is doing something completely different from every other anthologizer.”
Ellis explains that part of her poetry’s appeal, exemplified in “The Fish”, was her straightforward celebration of experience: she saw something, reflected on and analyzed it, and wrote poetry about it. As Ellis notes in a complimentary tone, “There was nothing avant-garde or difficult about it.” Perhaps, but Bishop herself was far from simple.
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1911, Bishop, a frequent angler, lost her father before she turned one, and her mother suffered a mental breakdown four years later. She moved in with her father’s parents in Nova Scotia, but after 1916, never saw her mother again.
After graduation from Vassar College, she considered medical school, but the poet Marianne Moore convinced her to pursue writing. Bishop was independently wealthy due to an inheritance she received from her father, so she traveled extensively across Canada, Europe, and North and South America, finally settling in Rio de Janeiro in 1951. She also lived in France and Key West. After her long-time lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, committed suicide, she returned from Brazil to North America, but a profound appreciation and love for Latin America remained with her.
Although she published only four poetry volumes, North and South won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, and Geography III won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1976. She was a close friend of Robert Lowell; the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1949-1950; a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress; and in 1969 was Harvard University’s poet-in-residence, where she taught until 1979, when she died from a cerebral aneurysm. She had also taught at New York University, the University of Washington, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Known for her use of various poetry styles, including her keen observations and confessional approach to poetry, and her insistence on not becoming known as a “lesbian poet”, the poet Randall Jarrell once stated, “all her poems have written underneath, ‘I have seen it.’”
In “The Fish”. Bishop saw more than “it”. Among the poem’s many striking features is her use of colorful descriptions; at times, her ichthyologic epiphany borders on hallucination. More importantly, her colors – brown, white, green, red, black, pink, yellow, and orange—coalesce toward the poem’s conclusion into a revealing rainbow “spread” by the most ironic, potentially unattractive of sources: oil.
Nevertheless, the aesthetics inherent in fishing cannot be overlooked, as Bishop reminds us: the brook trout’s spots, the redfish’s tail, or the azure body of a blue shark … there are paintings under those waves, one of many reasons why anglers flock to water.
The poem’s narrative twists line it with irony only Nature’s vagaries can inspire. Although the fish “hadn’t fought at all”, Bishop describes it as owning “medals”, possessing “wisdom”, and having a “weaponlike” jaw, all overt references to its warrior-like qualities. Later, “victory filled up the little rented boat”, suggesting some type of metaphysical contest had been won.
While the fish may not have offered a fight, it did contribute to Bishop’s victorious revelations. Interestingly, while the fish early in the poem is described as “battered” and “homely”, it’s the boat – a man-made structure – that is “rusted” and “sun-cracked”, obvious signs of our frailties and not Nature’s or the fish’s.
These juxtapositions fuel her revelations: although the fish is beaten down, its life force – its genuine survival instincts – surpasses anything we could ever create, which is why she “let the fish go”. The poem’s conclusion is an early but important demonstration of what has become a vital ally in fisheries management: catch and release fishing.
As Bishop revels in the mysteriousness of Nature, other unique aquatic creatures cling to the fish symbiotically. The fish is “speckled with barnacles” and “infested with tiny white sea-lice” and “two or three rags of green weed hung down” off it. Not coincidentally, these life forms understand the fish’s value, something Bishop must learn to appreciate.
The poem’s narrative flow moves quickly from Bishop imposing descriptions upon the fish, to the fish’s eccentric personality imposing reverence upon Bishop. From the start we know this is a “tremendous” fish, but it takes the poem itself to convince the poet of the fish’s grandeur.
This seemingly mundane experience leads the profoundly observant Bishop to conjure great empathy for this unique fish. “I admired his sullen face,” she writes, a feeling many anglers have experienced whenever landing an impressive catch. I’ve looked many a fish in the eye and have stood awe-struck by their predatory tenacity, migratory strength, hydrodynamic shape, and sheer beauty. That’s what fishing offers: close encounters with mysterious aquatic specimens that shake us from our pretensions, assumptions, and habits and push us into exotic experiences that redefine, reshape, and recreate our souls.
The poem’s deceptively simple style and form reflect the fish’s and her angling experience’s deceptively simple appearances. However, like Bishop’s poem, angling too – although simple on the surface – is full of treasures. Like the lakes we fish in, there are great treasures lurking in those depths, and great depth lurking in those treasures.
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.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung like strips
like ancient wall-paper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wall-paper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip-
grim, wet and weapon-like,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.