Perhaps many readers would take "The Fish," one of Bishop's most admired poems, as her most conclusively confident poem. There she catches a "tremendous fish" and surveys it closely in one of the finest of those precise descriptions she is famous for. Then, she says, "I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat," "until," in the poem's final words, "everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go." Here suddenly she catches what she wished for, and so no longer needs to wish. To preserve the edge of wish, then, she must give up what she has, so she can have again more truly by not having. It recalls Faulkner's claim that Hemingway failed by sticking to what he already knew he could succeed at, instead of daring the failures that, by overreaching, make the truest success. On the other hand, Bishop does not sound convinced that she really gains that much by catching her fish. For her cheerily sentimental word "rainbow," with its repetition that, rather than giving emphasis, only enhances the sense that she feels the word's inadequacy, together with the sudden exclamation point and its redoubled effect of straining too hard at the end of what had remained an understated, calm poem, all seem to compensate for some fear of ordinariness in her understatement and quiet. Her letting the fish go, dramatized by putting it all in the final words, seems too willfully a striving for conclusive wisdom. She can throw the fish back, if she likes, but to gloat over throwing it back sounds too easily superior, since most of us, rather than throwing fish back, enjoy eating them now and then. Instead of ending with a wish for something to say, she seems not to know how to end, and so she goes, in effect, fishing for profundity, violating at the end the modesty and indirection that she was to win such admiration for.
From The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana (University of Illinois Press, 1988). Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.