Description, Distraction, Disruption, Destruction: Notes and prompts on a practice, part 2

by Jeff Oaks

To describe is tricky, isn’t it? How to describe faithfully and without bending the world toward your needs? Robert Hass’ poem The Problem of Describing Trees speaks to this.

By Robert Hass

The aspen glitters in the wind.
And that delights us.
The leaf flutters, turning.
Because that motion in the heat of summer
Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.
The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.
It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.
Dance with me dancer. Oh, I will.
Aspens doing something in the wind.

How can we withstand the tempting and ubiquitous anthropomorphic belief that the world is sending messages all the time to us, sympathizing with or mocking our heartache, our happiness, our difficulties? It’s tempting to stage every murder of our feelings on a dark and stormy night. What’s the harm in telling people that it was? Well, it erases a level of richness from the story, for one. Hopefully your characters are better than clichés. It is a practice of trusting the mystery of the real world.


At this point, I’d like to turn from my defense of description and descriptiveness and look at a poem that uses description in a conscious way. Here’s the prompt that goes with it.

Writing Prompt #2:

Read Elizabeth Bishop’s At the Fishhouses out loud and then put it out of sight.

Write down at least twenty nouns or verbs you remember from the poem.

Then write a descriptive piece about a place where your life changed but maybe only you knew it. Try to use all the senses somehow. Use at least 15 of the 20 words you remembered from Bishop in the piece somehow.

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.

Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

“At the Fishhouses” from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop.

Why does she include so much description? In most of the workshops I took, my fellow students would’ve suggested she cut most of it out. It slows down the poem. It makes the reader wait. The “dignified tall firs” image doesn’t really “work”, I can almost hear them say.

Sometimes I remind myself that she wrote this and a number of other descriptive poems right after World War 2; she was in her thirties and visiting places where she’d lived as a child. She lived in a culture where public feeling was apt to be boiled down to something simple—the patriotic and the nostalgic, both common forms of the sentimental in a time of war. It can be hard to get to something authentic, something individual, to see what an authentic feeling or new idea might look or feel like in a culture of noise and cliché. Here it’s probably not a coincidence that it’s the narrator’s looking into the ocean that elicits the particular insight of the poem, that thing we might call its Depth. The word used in the poem is “knowledge”. [ Of course, in typical Bishop style, this knowledge is arrived at but then almost immediately swept away by the last line “flowing and flow”. From water to air, scales to feathers.]

Elizabeth Bishop was restless and for reasons that were both personal and historical found it hard to feel at home anywhere. Another way to think of it was that she found the process of moving, seeing, and thinking important and maybe even pleasurable. Her poems, which often begin in elaborate physical descriptions of a place, often slip into insight or knowledge or feeling afterward. What does it mean not to begin with one’s feelings?

Description may also be a way to remember (as in “put back together”) a world that was cut up for Bishop. It’s also a guess of mine in that description in these poems gives her a way to grieve. Through describing, one remembers; through remembering one can begin to feel. Which can lead to happiness as well as grief, I should add. I’m undoubtedly staining this reading of the poem with my own needs.