The Bishop/Moore Correspondence on "The Fish"
"The Bishop / Moore Correspondence"
Bishop seems to have recognized that she, like Moore, was far more observant than most people. Once she even assumes a tone of smug complicity, implying "you and I see what others carelessly overlook," when commenting on the obtuseness of those who label museum exhibits: "Some of their inscriptions baffle me a perfectly sensible crystal fish, for example, something like a perch, labelled Porpoise. And a young man on a Greek vase who is obviously cutting the ends of his hair with his sword, called Boy Washing Hair (?)" (letter of 25 January 1935). Bishop seems also to have been always conscious that the women she was writing to was not only "the Worlds Greatest Living Observer" (a title Bishop used in her contribution to the Marianne Moore issue of A Quarterly Review of Literature, 1948) but one of its greatest describers as well and therefore the most qualified judge of Bishops own descriptive achievements.
As early as 1935 Bishop demonstrates the knack for narrative, the interest in colorful human characters, and the playful humor that are distinctly hers. The following vignette contains surprising images and an understated, half-serious moral that bring to mind Moores writing, but the casual, anecdotal manner could only be Bishops:
I must tell you about the beautiful tree down the street covered with fine yellow blossoms and the most delicate, wire-like, of green leaves it scarcely looks like a tree at all, but some sort of transcendental lighting fixture. An old Negro with white hair was sitting underneath it reading the Congregational Record and I asked him the name Jerusalem Thorn. I said isnt it beautiful, and he answered me very severely, Its worth-while looking at." (letter of 5 March 1938)
Yet despite the obvious differences between their descriptive styles (and the temperaments determining them), Moores writing clearly provides Bishops standard for successful description, the standard against which she measures her own achievement.
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. After all, Moore was the ideal audience: well disposed and genuinely interested, possessing rigorous literary standards and reliable judgment; her praise, when earned, was significant. Without in any way diminishing the genuine affection binding these two women and the mutual rewards of their correspondence, it seems fair to regard Bishops letters of the 30s as a format for literary exercise and experiment, as vehicles for locating her own voice and manner, for testing her audiences response in preparation for more public forays. The activity of composing them seems to have been part of Bishops self-imposed training.
From Lynn Keller, "Words Worth a Thousand Postcards: The Bishop / Moore Correspondence," American Literature 55.3 (October 1983), 411, 413-414.
Correspondence on "The Fish"
1. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: January 14, 1939
The other day I caught a parrot fish, almost by accident. They are ravishing fish all iridescent, with a silver edge to each scale, and a real bill-like mouth just like turquoise; the eye is very big and wild, and the eyeball is turquoise too they are very humorous-looking fish. A man on the dock immediately scraped off three scales, then threw him back; he was sure it wouldnt hurt him. Im enclosing one [scale], if I can find it.
From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 79.
2. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: February 5, 1940
I have one Key West story that I must tell you. It is more like the place than anything I can think of. The other day I went to the china closet to get a little white bowl to put some flowers in and when I was rinsing it I noticed some little black specks. I said to Mrs. Almyda, "I think we must have mice" but she took the bowl over to the light and studied it and after a while she said, "No, thems lizard."
I am so much longing to see some of your new poems. I am sending you a real "trifle" ["the Fish"]. Im afraid it is very bad and, if not like Robert Frost, perhaps like Ernest Hemingway! I left the last line on so it wouldnt be, but I dont know
From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 87.
3. Marianne Moore to Louise Crane: February 14, 1940
[Bishop was romantically involved with Louise Crane and shared a house with her at Key West.]
I had a letter from Elizabeth a day or two ago, which I am thinking of having tattooed on me in which she tells of Mrs. Almeydas identifying certain little specks in a white bowl, as "Thems lizard." And she enclosed a very valorous and concentrated poem about a fish. I thought of your somewhat pensive statement, "Elizabeth is writing some poems: she is working hard and will have more things" when we were pondering the probability of enough to make a book; I wondered where th fish had begun to be written, and if I have missed any companion piece to it.
From The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, Ed. Bonnie Costello; Assoc. Eds. Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 397.
4. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: February 19, 1940
I have been reading and rereading your letter ever since it came And 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. "Lousy" is now "infested" and "gunwales" (which I meant to be pronounced "gunnls" ) is "gunnels," which is also correct according to the dictionary, and makes it plainer. I left off the outline of capitals [for the first word of each line], too, and feel very ADVANCED.
From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 87-88.
5. Marianne Moore to Elizabeth Bishop: March 17, 1940
I am glad the Partisan Review wants the article, and since the canoe trip gives a picture of Florida, you could surely send it. And if you ask if I "could bear" to see it again and if I "have the time" to read it, Ill tell you a fib and say when I said I liked "The Fish" that I meant merely the title, not the poem itself. I dont feel I am any real help to you and should so like to be. But in anxiety to protect the work I scrutinize every detail.
From The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, Ed. Bonnie Costello; Assoc. Eds. Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 398.
6. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: March 14, 1940
Partisan Review has asked me to write a "Florida Letter." They are printing "The Fish" this month, I think.
From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 89
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