In 1996 the Academy of American Poets developed National Poetry Month, a month dedicated to all things poetry: writers, publishers, libraries, etc. So with only 4 days left of National Poetry Month we’ll be posting poems that have moved us personally. Poems that are as relevant to the creative growth of an audience as they are crucial to the being and becoming of the poet.
Of course how can we not begin with Vassar’s own Elizabeth Bishop ’34, and one of her most famous poems, “At the Fishhouses” (1947). And to complement her beautiful lyric, consider listening to the New Yorker’s recent podcast, where renowned Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky speaks to Bishop’s poem.
At the Fishhouses
Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.
For the full poem please visit the link here from the Poetry Foundation.
“At the Fishhouses” was originally published in the New Yorker in 1947.