Elizabeth Bishop, “Large Bad Picture”

languagepoetry

Remembering the Strait of Belle Isle or
some northerly harbor of Labrador,
before he became a schoolteacher
a great-uncle painted a big picture.

Receding for miles on either side
into a flushed, still sky
are overhanging pale blue cliffs
hundreds of feet high,

their bases fretted by little arches,
the entrances to caves
running in along the level of a bay
masked by perfect waves.

On the middle of that quiet floor
sits a fleet of small black ships,
square-rigged, sails furled, motionless,
their spars like burnt match-sticks.

And high above them, over the tall cliffs’
semi-translucent ranks,
are scribbled hundreds of fine black birds
hanging n‘s in the banks.

One can hear their crying, crying,
the only sound there is
except for occasional sighing
as a large aquatic animal breathes.

In the pink light
the small red sun goes rolling, rolling,
round and round and round at the same height
in perpetual sunset, comprehensive, consoling,

while the ships consider it.
Apparently they have reached their destination.
It would be hard to say what brought them here,
commerce or contemplation.

~ ~ ~

I recently picked up a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, and it has been an incredible read so far. What I especially love about her work is her use of rhyme. She doesn’t draw attention to it the way old poets used to, constructing elaborate mechanisms to build rhyme structures into their poems. Bishop uses her rhymes casually but deliberately, like the way you might crack an egg into a frying pan. Rhyme in this fashion adds another level to the wordplay of the poem, amplifying meaning across words and lines, without erecting an artificial structure to hold the thing up. This is exactly why rhyme is used in poetry and why it is so important, a reason often lost on poets across generations.

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