April is Poetry Month – The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

fisherman unloading their catch of "snoek" at Kalk Bay, South Africa

It’s April, which means it’s poetry month over here in the United States. Each day, for the thirty days of April, thousands of us are receiving daily poems from sites like The Academy of American Poets, and Knopf Poetry

in the hope that we’ll enjoy, comment, share on our Facebook pages, and forward the works we love to others who may want to read them

I’d like to share this beautiful Elizabeth Bishop poem (which the Academy of American poets used yesterday)

The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and vulnerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
was infested
with tiny white sea-lice
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
-the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly –
I thought of the course white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
– It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
– if you could call it a lip –
grim, wet and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
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.


Elizabeth Bishop




Elizabeth Bishop 1911 – 1979.
“Her poetry avoids explicit accounts of her personal life, and focuses instead with great subtlety on her impressions of the physical world…”


The Academy of American Poets suggests that we memorize poetry

Select a poem from the book you’re reading, or an old favorite, and begin to memorize it. While memorization may seem like a relic from your school days, the rewards of recalling a private anthology of well-loved poems are both immediate and long-lasting.

Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize (edited by John Hollander 1996) is a great guide to choosing easy poems to learn.

I’m memorizing The Fish.


About dearrosie

We think we need so much, when all we really need is time to breathe. Come walk with me, put one foot in front of the other, and get to know yourself. Please click the link to my blog - below - and leave me a comment. I love visitors.
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6 Responses to April is Poetry Month – The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

  1. Jo says:

    What a poignant and powerful poem (alliteration unintended)!
    Thank you for introducing me to Elizabeth Bishop.
    I’m going to attempt to memorize it, even though I can barely memorize even a new phone number these days…

    • dearrosie says:

      I’m glad that I have introduced one more person to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Thanks for writing.
      Also glad to know you’re going to try learn the poem. It’s not easy.

  2. Priya says:

    “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.”

    Love it. It’s beautiful. But then you already know that!

  3. souldipper says:

    I cheered. I saw and felt and cheered! I’m exhausted!

    • dearrosie says:

      Thanks for stopping by souldipper. I’m glad someone else took the time to read this beautiful poem.

      I wonder whether Elizabeth Bishop knew she wrote such exquisite poetry?

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