Elizabeth Bishop and the Postmodern


When discussing current art practices, it is important to include the main ideas associated with the “politics of representation.” This collective term makes a distinction between the content of an image and the form of the image, or the sublime versus the visual. However, the idea goes even further by suggesting that the content or the sublime cannot have its own form or visual nature, but that the visual nature, by simply existing, can be, and is indeed indivisible from, the content whether the creator intended this connection or not.

The reason for this phenomenon being that art is not static, but rather interactive with its audience and the political and social ideas of the audience’s present as well as the symbols inherent in the particular forms used. The postmodern movement, with its emphasis on illuminating the sublime, brings these ideas to the forefront. “The political and the aesthetic are inseparable, simultaneously present, faces of the postmodern problematic” (Burgin, 1982, p. 14).

While ideas of Imagism predominated in the early 1900s, an approach to the humanities that rejected the sentimentalism and lengthy descriptives of the Romantic era that preceded it, the postmodern movement growing out of the middle 1900s began to take on new explorations of the various levels and complexities of meaning inherent within any attempt at communication. This concept can be made clearer by first understanding the basic concepts that were coming into consideration as a part of the postmodern movement and then applying it to a postmodern poet, Elizabeth Bishop, as these ideas are found within her poems.

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Postmodernism can be associated with the ideas of Globalization in much the same way that Imagism can be associated with the Industrial Revolution. Globalization, as it is generally understood, is a process by which temporal space has been diminished between cultures thanks to advances in technology, continuously decreasing the time necessary to effect this communication as well (Harvey, 1989).

The expected result of this is that many people are able to communicate at a much deeper level than has previously been possible. Zygmunt Bauman (2000) points to all this technology and suggests that it has created easily as many divisions as it has connections. As the world has become increasingly distanced through the modern conveniences of the impersonal keyboard and monitor, so has it become easier to dissociate with others leading to an overall sense of isolation and alienation.

In addition, the world has had a tendency to become more polarized along many lines, constantly attempting to define the other and constantly being foiled in this attempt as definitions and conceptions become increasingly questioned and discovered to have both multiple levels of meaning and no meaning at all. This begins to associate the postmodern with ideas of frustration and anxiety as these meanings are explored.

It is the role of the arts to explore this paradox of division and connection in the postmodernist period. The typical approach was to challenge conventions to “allude to something which does not allow itself to be made present” (Lyotard, 1979, p. 80), which is, Lyotard insisted, central to a definition of postmodernism itself. Lyotard argued that a “postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work.

The rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for” (Lyotard, 1979, p. 81). This is an idealistic conception of artistic production. It implies that an ‘innocent text’ can be produced, detached, by the conscious effort of the individual artist, from the categories established by preceding works. Kant’s theory of the sublime, on the other hand, states that “the aesthetic of the sublime is where modern art (including literature) finds its impetus, and where the logic of the avante-garde finds its axioms” (Kant, 2005, p. 10).

For Kant, the feeling of the sublime is a feeling of both pleasure and pain, the pleasure one feels at the pain inherent in the conflict between the subject’s capacity to conceive something and to represent it. For example, we have the idea of the totality of what is, but we can make no representation of it. Modern art devotes itself “to presenting the existence of something unpresentable”; “it will make one see only by prohibiting one from seeing” (Kant, 2005, p. 11) while postmodern art attempts to provide essential clues or hints as a means of evoking a more physical connection with the experience. These are sometimes difficult concepts to comprehend, but they become easier with practical application to an artist of the period such as Elizabeth Bishop.

Written with a grace and flow that paints an alarmingly clear picture of more than just the obvious words, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry depends upon the use of adjectives and other literary devices to make its meaning plain in a world where nothing seems to provide any meaning. Trying to reduce her sentiments into the confined language of Imagism, the literary movement that preceded her, would have lost a great deal of the subtext, where a great deal of her meaning resides.

It is through the literary devices rejected by Imagism that the life of the poet emerges, making statements of alienation, isolation and frustration even while discussing something as innocuous seeming as the moon. Not scrimping on the use of extended metaphors to express her ideas, Bishop is a master of the lyrical phrase. By looking at poems such as “The Man-Moth,” “The Fish,” “Filling Station” and “Pink Dog,” one can get a sense of how the use of adjectives within her poetry provides Bishop with the power to capture some of the postmodern life experiences of alienation and frustration in allegorical settings.

“The Man-Moth” is actually a poem that arose out of a misprint in the New York Times for the word “mammoth.” (Rzepka, 2001) and is thus immediately predicated on the confusion of the mass media.

For Bishop, this was a perfect example of the New York persona and an irresistible opportunity to poke a little fun at The Big Apple. Despite the teasing tone of the piece, with such phrases as “when the Man-Moth / pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface” (Bishop, 9-10) and “The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way / and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed” (29-30), this poem provides a glimpse into the postmodern feelings of isolation and alienation that had become associated with the big cities of the modern world. Here, the Man-Moth “cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards” (32) and “does not dare look out the window” (36).

Through this descriptive language, she indicates the motion of individuals trapped within the city’s subways and patterns are not traveling forward, yet are not exactly traveling backward either. That the individual doesn’t have the nerve to look out the window indicates they are fearful of what they might find, even should it be nothing more than their own reflection, who has now become alien to them. Finalizing her poem, Bishop capitalizes her statement regarding the emptiness of the Man-Moth in her description of his eye. “It’s all dark pupil, / an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens / as he stares back, and closes up the eye” (42-44). There is no individual here, no subjectivity. When one attempts to establish a connection, they are met with a tight stare before the eye is closed against them.

In “The Fish,” Bishop describes the perfect catch of a venerable old fish as she observes him hanging from her line. The fish hasn’t fought at all to prevent being reeled in and his skin hangs in strips “like ancient wallpaper” (11), the pattern reminding her of “full-blown roses / stained and lost through age” (14-15). These images conjure up thoughts of the family home, old and empty now that the children are grown and gone, maintenance no longer a priority in this advanced age.

The fish is coated with barnacles, lime and sea-lice, with strings of seaweed attached to his underside. Through this imagery, Bishop is not only telling us about the ancient nature of the fish she caught, but also about the nature of the outer life, in which an individual can sit around gathering all this coating about them, yet still remain nothing more than a fish. In describing the various parts of the fish, Bishop indicates just how average he is, containing “coarse white flesh” (27), “big bones and the little bones” (29), “shiny entrails” (31) and a “pink swim-bladder” (32).

This fish is not an individual, he is a sum of his parts and nothing more just as the worker is reduced to a sum of his usefulness to the organization. However, this fish has a surprise for her in the five strands of fishing line seen dangling from its jaw. “This fish, with his hook-filled mouth, emerges as a symbol of pain, an occasion for the speaker to confront that which is normally repressed and unseen.

But with her elaborate, lyrical description, the speaker can be read as an artist who is able to translate this anguish into a ‘fivehaired beard of wisdom.’ As she celebrates her mastery over the fish, the poem ends triumphantly with the paradoxical suggestion that creativity is produced through destruction: suffering, Bishop concludes, can be the impetus for the imagination” (“Elizabeth Bishop”, 2006).

Like the deliberate play on the typography mistake in the New York Times that led to the development of “Man-Moth,” “Filling Station” is a playful exchange on how words that sound the same but have different meanings can lead one into much deeper thoughts than the surface seems to indicate. After describing the very dirty conditions of this family filling station in which everything is “oil-soaked, oil-permeated / to a disturbing, over-all / black translucency” (Bishop, 3-5), she finally arrives at some comic books that provide a little color as “They lie / upon a big dim doily / draping a taboret” (23-25). The repetitive nature of the dirty and oily theme has the reader progressing through the poem in a rather sing-song sort of way.

“When Bishop proceeds to the metaphysical question – ‘Why, oh why, the doily?’ – the very question seems generated by the literal pattern of the poem: ‘doily’ includes ‘oily.’” (Blasing, 1987). This doily has been “Embroidered in a daisy stitch, / with marguerites, I think” (Bishop, 31-32). Bishop makes the observation that someone had to embroider the daisy, someone had to water the plant that sits next to it, yet that someone doesn’t seem to be affected by the overwhelming pervasiveness of the oil surrounding these things, even going so far as to arrange the oil cans “so that they softly say: / ESSO – SO – SO – SO / to high-strung automobiles” (38-40).

The postmodern idea of the individual arising from the objectifying influences of the city can be read into these lines as the flimsy embroidered doily does its best to hold up under the weight of the metropolis’ dirt and grime and the people work not to make the environment comfortable or clean, but simply to meet the needs of the “high-strung automobiles.” This reduces humanity to nothing more than the tools with which the mechanics of modern society repair breakdowns in the system.

With these descriptive phrases removed and reduced down to their most component parts as the proponents of Imagism might have suggested, these underlying images and ideas are lost forever. The final line of the poem, “Somebody loves us all,” serves to neatly sum up this experience in the idea that although we are all alone in trying to deal with the dirt, perhaps there is someone out there leaving small traces of their actions, echoing Bishop’s own internal struggle to believe in a higher power.

In “The Pink Dog,” Bishop offers a stance on the ability of the individual to survive in the modern society. Bonnie Costello describes the dog as a dehumanized image of the physical body (1991). By advising the dog to cover itself with Carnival costume, the speaker in this poem is acknowledging that one cannot remain completely subjective in the modern day world. Instead, it is necessary to take on the form and shape of the surrounding culture or “go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights / out in the suburbs, where there are no lights” (Bishop, 17-18).

The costume is necessary “for the sake of its survival in a culture that wishes to deny the mortal body” (Costello, 1991). Without the costume, the reality of the individual proves too frightening for most as Bishop describes: “Of course, they’re mortally afraid of rabies, / You are not mad; you have a case of scabies / but look intelligent” (Bishop, 7-9). It is important to note that scabies in animals is an illness that causes the fur to fall out, thus removing the animal’s camouflage and revealing it for what it really is.

Any action that is different from the culturally prescribed action of the modern is viewed as crazy, different, bizarre and undesirable. One simply cannot allow any differences to show if they are to be a part of the culture around them. The surface levels of this poem reveal a playful stance on the triplet rhymes throughout and the joyful ideas of the Carnival, yet the descriptive adjectives and metaphors are what bring the heavier meaning and philosophical questions to bear.


Through her use of adjective and metaphor, Elizabeth Bishop provides both underlying meaning and surface appeal in full agreement with the postmodern approach of duality. It is with the adjective that she paints a picture to be seen with the mind’s eye that can then be translated into more specific, metaphysical considerations. While she entertains our vision, Bishop works to expound on the inequalities of life as she sees them, namely the isolation and alienation she has found in the modern city.

Although she supposedly has the right to do and be what she wants to be, she demonstrates in poetry like “Pink Dog” that she knows if one were to truly allow one’s subjective self to show through in everyday society nothing would be accomplished but the drowning of the individual in the metaphorical tidal rivers. Despite these feelings of isolation, Bishop continues to seek for a protective higher power in poems such as “Filling Station.”

This deity is perhaps not so caring anymore as the only traces of divinity or the natural world left are a plant, a trebuchet and an old, oil-stained embroidered doily. However, the cans are all ordered neatly to speak to the cars, so perhaps this benevolent being that takes such care isn’t gone, merely overwhelmed, another common condition of the postmodern state. Meanwhile, examples of strength and accomplishment can come from unexpected places, such as the capture of a fish on a warm afternoon and noticing that he has five fishing lines trailing out of his mouth from previous catches that he’s managed to evade as in “The Fish.”

These moments of triumph and recognition are what help us maintain our individuality even in the mind-numbing constrictions of everyday life as they are represented in poems such as “The Man-Moth.” Thus, through Bishop’s poetry, the elements of the postmodern condition can be seen as they are practiced and made clear through the expression.

Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization. Columbia University Press, 2000.

Bishop, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983.

Blasing, Mutlu Konu. “The Re-Verses of Elizabeth Bishop.” American Poetry: The Rhetoric of its Forms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Ch. 6, pp. 107-108.

Burgin, Victor. Thinking Philosophically. New Jersey: Humanities Press Intl., 1982.

Costello, Bonnie. “Attractive Mortality.” Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991. Ch. 2, pp. 85-86.

“Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’: A Psychoanalytic Reading.” Bedford St. Martin’s. (2006). Web.

Harvey, D. The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1989.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2005.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press, 1979.

Rzepka, Charles. “The Honourable Characteristic of Poetry”: Two Hundred Years of Lyrical Ballads.” Romantic Circles Praxis Series. Boston University, 2001. Web.

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