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“At the Fishhouses”: The Ascent

The lecture notes how Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” begins in a voice that’s quite plainspoken, but ends up in a higher, more lyrical kind of language. This movement from ordinary to extraordinary contributes to the poem’s reach: the intensity of the ending reflects a somewhat mysterious process of rising. The gradual crescendo, as in music, somehow embodies discovery while it also suggests inevitability.

But another way to look at that slow ascent is in terms of dynamics: the power of well-timed contrast. Great works of art, in many different forms, involve conversations, shifts, and contentions between opposites: quiet and loud, plain and contorted, remote and immediate, evident and mysterious, familiar and bizarre. In the Bishop poem, she can talk (and “talk” does seem an appropriate word for the poem’s first sentences) about workaday things like fish scales, wheelbarrows, gangplanks, and also about the metaphysical nature of “our knowledge” and its historical foundation. The physical details carry weight because they’re involved in counter-balancing the more abstract moments—making the poem’s unfolding a kind of lever between the weight of physical presence and the force of time, both embodied in the cold, hovering water of the poem’s more incantational conclusion.