The only time I have really felt discouraged from my writing was when I assumed that writing had to add up to something profound. Over two months ago, I read “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop and it reassured me that what I was doing was fine. In my own writing, I spend a lot of time on the textual details of every sense—sight, taste, sound, smell, and touch. I think that my biggest insecurity came from believing that no one cared for the details. In a fiction story, the details are the most important part. Since my focus is in poetry at the moment, I was nervous to give too much to the reader. Naturally, I give everything away with taking the reader to the specific moment instead of telling them.
Every time I read “The Fish” it speaks to something different. The first time I read it, I was convinced that it was about the inevitable realization and last fight of death. In literal terms, I think that this poem is successful in showing that. It’s easy to get lost in the descriptive details. My favorite lines were “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.” I fell in love with these lines because it reminded me of the slippery love/anti love and triumph/victory that can be applied to any situation in writing. I was amazed how linear and cohesive all the images felt. Even reading the poem out loud was swift and rolled off the tongue easily. The couple of jarring lines added to the effect of disruption in the poem, which aided to the personal experience I felt. I wasn’t just thinking about this fish, I was thinking about myself.
Reading this poem when I was going through insecurities in my own writing has made me question if other writers feel the same. Recently, I learned that Elizabeth bishop went through countless and countless drafts of the poem before finally publishing it. She held on to the poem for years, probably altering a couple of words or staying up all night not knowing what was missing. Keeping the poem for so many years makes me wonder when Elizabeth decided that the poem was finally “done.” After reading the poem again, at a different point in my writing, I can see the vulnerability and beauty of the fish as symbolism of who the speaker is. Every time I read the poem, I find myself learning new things about myself and how I am feeling, solely based on the mood I am in. “The Fish” is coated in metaphors and descriptive language that speaks nothing but truth and identity.
– Evelyn Alfonso, Poetry Editor