The fact that Elizabeth Bishop wrote The Bight on her 37th birthday is significant. In the poem, the poet looks out to sea and searches for symbols that have significance in her own life. She takes soundings from the sea, diving deep into her subconscious in order to examine what those soundings mean.
The metaphors Bishop employs in The Bight would appear to be representative of her own work. The ‘crumbling ribs of marl’ with clay and lime deposits indicate the poet’s preoccupation with time and what time represents in terms of the work.
Bishop tells us ‘the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches’ – the pilings being the piles of poems that lie stacked and unfinished on her desk. The Bight is the poem the poet is presently working on.
The ‘gas flame’ of the sea suggests the poem will burst into flame depending on the intensity of the heat applied. The poet working on combustible material and reasons that if one were Baudelaire it’s possible the heat applied would turn the words into ‘marimba music’.
The ‘flowsy sponge boats’ keep ‘coming in with the obliging air of retrievers’ as the poet searches for meaning. Sometimes she finds music, sometimes only words. Sometimes ‘the birds (the words)are ‘outsize’ like ‘Pelicans’, that ‘crash into this peculiar gas’ or lodge ‘like pickaxes’ until they are ready to take off and soar ‘like man-of-war birds’ on ‘impalpable drafts’. Then the drafts ‘open their tails like sissors on the curves’ or ‘tense….like wishbones’ showing what might yet be achieved. Then the poet waits tense and trembling on the age waiting to discover what the ‘correspondences’ may contain. Meantime, the other ‘little white boats’ (the many drafts) are ‘piled up against each other’ waiting to be ‘salvaged’ the poet is only too well aware that life is always littered with old correspondences. Nevertheless, she gathers strength from this knowledge – it allows her to move forward so that all the ‘untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful’.
The Bight is a beautifully conceived poem and demonstrates Elizbeth Bishop’s ability to think and write on several levels. The imagery is powerful. The poet at this stage finds the poem is ‘absorbing rather than being absorbed’ and can ‘smell it turning to gas’. The poem floats on the sea for the moment but it may be some time before the tide washes it ashore. In the meantime the ‘little ochre dredge’ is at work playing the ‘off-beat claves’. The word ‘claves’ is clever and infers much, the poet is keeping in touch with the poem’s rhythm as she chisels her way through lines and images, sculpts her way through to produce the final draft. She is fully engaged. The ‘tails’, ‘scissors’, ‘curves’ are all coming together but the ‘wishbone’ has yet to be achieved. Nevertheless, the boats are ‘bristling’ with ‘gaffs’ and ‘hooks’ and ‘decorated’ with ‘bobbles of sponges’ – soon a wire fence will be erected where the many drafts can be ‘hung out to dry’.
The unfinished work meanwhile, the ‘little white boats’ (the dry pilings) are still ‘piled up’ and ‘not yet salvaged’. The poet adds a cautionary note ‘if they ever will be’, since ‘the last great storm’ previous attempts may have ended in failure. For now the ‘boats’ remain like ‘torn-open, unanswered letters’. The poet tells us ‘the bight is littered with old correspondences’. Nevertheless, the dredge continues ‘Click. Click.’ and brings up another ‘jawful of marl’ – more clay and lime deposits. All this ‘untidy activity’ is nevertheless ‘awful but cheerful’ work.
Bishop may have had Baudelaire’s Correspondences in mind when writing The Bight. Correspondences is a fourteen line sonnet and the lines seem to correspond with Bishop’s thinking.
‘Nature’s a temple where the pilasters speak sometimes in their mystic languages; man reaches it through symbols dense as trees, that watch him with a gaze familiar. As far-off echoes from a distance sound in unity profound and recondite, boundless as night itself and as the light, sounds, fragrances and colours correspond. Some perfumes are, like children, innocent, as sweet as oboes, green as meadow sward – and others, complex, rich and jubilant, the vastness of infinity afford, like musk and amber, incense, bergamot, which sing the senses’ and the soul’s delight.’
What Bishop achieves in The Bight on a number of levels is not just the power of the sea, but also the vast infinity that Baudelaire speaks of where the poet works, writes and rewrites to create the best possible imagery for the poem. Bishop referred to The Bight on a number of occasions. In a letter to Dr. Anny Baumann she added a P.S.
‘I wrote it last year but I still think if I can just keep the last line in mind (‘all the untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful’), everything may still turn out all right.’
David Kalstone in his book Becoming A Poet – Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell – mentions another letter in which Bishop refers to Key West where ‘the harbour is always a mess……..it reminds me a little of my desk.’ The Bight, Kalstone states, is one of Bishop’s best poems. It is one of Bishop’s best poems because it is life affirming and shows that nomatter what the sea throws up in the flotsam and jetsom of life there is always something of value to be found there.