Bishop and Heaney

September 1, 2010

I don’t know about everyone else,¬† but I found parts of Heaney’s essay, “The Redress of Poetry” quite tough to follow. It seemed like he was continuously shifting his analysis back and forth between poetry’s connection to political and societal ideas, traditions etc., and to its inherent relationship to the natural world through language and the complex interaction between the two. But I really couldn’t say much more about it, and certainly nothing more concrete. However, one passage in particular stuck out to me, and I thought about it after reading¬† Elizabeth bishop’s poem ” The Fish.” The passage from Heaney is on page 15 of his essay:

“On the contrary, I want to profess the surprise of poetry as well as it’s reliability; I want to celebrate its given unforseeable thereness, the way it enters our field of vision and animates our physical and intelligent being in much the same way as those bird-shapes stenciled on the transparent surfaces of glass walls or windows must suddenly enter the vision and change the direction of real birds’ flight. In a flash the shapes register and transmit their unmistakable presence, so the birds veer off instinctively. An image of the living creatures has induced a totally salubrious swerve in the creatures themselves. And this natural, heady diversion is also something induced by poetry and reminds me of a further (obsolete) meaning of ‘redress’…“Hunting. To bring back (the hounds or deer) to the proper course.’ In this ‘redress’ there is no hint of ethical obligation; it is more the matter of finding a course for the breakaway of innate capacity, a course where something unhindered, yet detected, can sweet ahead into it’s full potential.”

Obviously, Heaney is relaying (or trying to relay) a lot in this passage, but I’m most taken in by his thoughts on the relationship between the representation of the “real world” through poetry (and language) and the physical form of the thing itself, the actual animal–in Bishop’s case: the fish. Here’s an excerpt from the last 21 lines of Bishop’s poem “The Fish”:

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. (55-76)

I’m sure there can be many readings of this poem: maybe the rainbow that flows forth over the oil and the rusted engine symbolizes the romantic idea of the triumph and power of nature over mankind’s attempts to control it; maybe the fish’s “victory” in this poem, and perhaps the narrator’s as well, is that same triumph–the continuous ability of the fish to outlast and survive a man’s (or woman’s) attempts to capture and kill it. Or maybe the fish is a metaphor for something else entirely.

Regardless of these readings, I found Bishop’s presentation of the fish to point back to the passage from Heaney’s essay. Through her language, Bishop has re-created this particular fish for us, and maybe this image of the “real” creature is the one that touches that intelligent part of one’s brain, that through her capacity to reproduce the “real world” through poetic language, Bishop has presented to us the “unhindered potential” of her poetic form of the fish.

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