Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station"
Some of you may have read this on Wizzley. I published this piece there in March of 2012. It even won an Editors' Choice Award (although, after asking around, it seems like they hand these out like candy). While I think Wizzley is a fine platform for publishing, it wasn't right for me. As a result, i have closed my account and am moving my articles to hubpages once Google deindexes them. Thanks to everyone who followed me there.
I've made some tweaks to the Wizzley version, but it's still the same basic article.
This poem, "Filling Station", by Elizabeth Bishop, is one of her most famous. Like much of her work, the language is simple and accessible and, as such, on the surface and upon first reading, it's a simple poem that can be read simply. This article will explore the poem and discover that is actually very deep and complicated by tracking the language line by line. This poem is deeply human and discusses the capacity of a human being to change and, further, of looking past preconceptions and first impressions and really try to figure out what's going on.
Before we look at the poem, let's take a brief look at the life of this fantastic poet.
Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911 – October 6, 1979)
Born in Massachusetts, Bishop was primarily a poet and short-story writer, though she did draft copious letters and write introductions for several novels and poetry and short story collections. In addition to Filling Station, other famous poems of hers include A Summer's Dream, Exchanging Hats and Conversation. She was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956. In 1970 she was the National Book Award winner and in 1976, she received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Not surprisingly, she is considered one of the most distinguished and influential American poets of the twentieth century.
Elizabeth Bishop was mentored by poet and professor Marriane Moore (with whom she is rumored to have been involved with romantically), whom she met while attendiing Vassar University.She graduated from Vassar in 1934, after which she moved to New York. Soon after this, she packed up and began life as a vagabond, spending much of her adult life in Brazil. She was a lesbian, but did not like to think of herself as a lesbian writer-- or even as a woman writer, though she did consider herself a feminist. She was good friends with poet Robert Lowell, about whom she once said "I write only for you". He remained one of her closest friends (and possibly lovers) until his death from a heart attack in 1977.
Bishop was not a prolific writer and often noted that she would begin many projects and leave them unfinished. She died of a cerebral aneurysm in her apartment at Lewis Wharf, Boston and was laid to rest in Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts. Alice Methfessel, her long-time partner, was her literary executor. The Elizabeth Bishop House, an artists' retreat in Great Village, Nova Scotia, Canada, was dedicated to her memory.
Oh, but it is dirty!
--this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
Be careful with that match!
Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.
Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.
Some comic books provide
the only note of color--
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.
Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)
Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
What will this page explore?
The Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop tells the story of a gas station that is exceedingly dirty but is also the apparent home of the family that works there. The narrator’s initial reactions to this station could be considered disdainful. We know that it is dirty (evidenced by the use of that very word four times in the first three stanzas) and also somewhat dangerous (Careful with that match!). By the end of the poem, the tone changes from one of derision to one of curiosity and intrigue and finally to one of sweetness. It seems to be about how first impressions are not always accurate and can change with a little intimacy and observation. This page will primarily explore the words of the poem—which in true Bishop fashion are simple and straightforward.It will track the language stanza by stanza to show the change in tone and understand the persona of the speaker in an attempt to understand what they were trying to say and why this poem was written.
This page will not be discussing the merits of the poem itself nor my own opinions regarding the poet.
Before going any further, please acquaint yourself with the text of the poem to the right or listen to her read it here.
Even better, if you'd prefer, check out one of the poetry collections below and follow along that way.
Have you read/heard this poem before today?
What did you think of this poem?
Now that you've read the poem, let's proceed...
Oh, but it is dirty!
The poem opens with an observation in the form of an exclamation. “Oh, but it is dirty!” This idea of the station being dirty begins the poem and sets the initial tone of scornful derision. At first, the narrator seems to be describing a rather ordinary, nondescript filling station, permeated with oil and dirt (to the point where our narrator cautions someone to “be careful with that match”—perhaps the attendant, or, the way I picture it, the narrator, is smoking a cigarette). She then describes the workers of the filling station, also using the adjective “dirty.”
The second stanza, however, reveals more to us: it’s a family owned station. The father and his sons work there. The sons are cleverly described as “greasy and saucy”, and there are “several” of them. The use of the word “several” instead of a specific number is especially interesting when you consider how specific our narrator is with the details that precede and follow. How does our narrator know that this a father and sons as opposed to an uncle and nephews or a much older brother and younger siblings? How does she know the station is family owned? Perhaps the narrator is more familiar with this station then we are initially led to believe. The narrator must be taken at her word since we have no evidence that she is lying or exaggerating about the facts. The narrator ends the second stanza the way she begins the first one: by exclaiming that the filling station is dirty. The consistent use of that adjective throughout the poem is interesting. It doesn’t change; it’s always “dirty”. It is also interesting to note that there are no additional adjectives before or after the word “dirty”. It is not “very dirty” or “disgustingly dirty”; it is just “dirty”. "Dirty" is enough. Poets-- and all writers, really-- could learn from this. The over usage of adjectives is not always necessary.
Our narrator continues in her observation and something else is discovered, or at least pondered: perhaps the employees-- this family--live at the filling station. Behind the pumps, our narrator observes a small cement porch along with some wicker furniture and a dog. Of course the dog is dirty—but it is also comfortable. This is also the last use of the word “dirty” in the poem. The narrator’s tone seems to shift here from one of caution and subtle disdain, to one of curiosity, which turns to sentimentality and perhaps even envy and affection by the end of the piece.
A type of rhyming using the repetition of consonant sounds
Alliteration plays a huge role in how this poem is read, narrated and understood. It is also used to show that our narrator’s tone is changing based on the words—and more specifically the quality of the words—that are used throughout the rest of the poem. In the beginning, our narrator’s tone is superior, and perhaps even judgmental. She uses a lot of “d” sounds, which tend to be harsh sounding (Doily, Dog, Dirty). The final three stanzas, which cover the domestic, tenderer aspects of the filling station, use softer words, including a predominance of “s” sounds (Somebody. loveS, waterS, Softly Say). These softer words and tones further show the tempering of our narrators’ tone. She replaces the repetition of specific words (specifically “dirty”) with the repetition of specific sounds. Even the phrase, "Quite comfy" is alliteration, though at first glance, the words appear to be quite dissimilar. The change in tonal quality of the words furthers the idea that the attitude of the narrator is also changing. She would be considered a dynamic narrator, as opposed to a static one.
The Final Three Stanzas
From the fourth stanza onward, the details described are primarily domestic in nature. There are references to oil, but, the narrator spends stanzas four and five describing the furnishings. Comic books provide color and lend credence to the idea that children live there, a doily on top of a stool (the narrator refers to this as a taboret) next to a hirsute (hairy) begonia. These features seem oddly out of place at a filling station, especially the doily, and lead our narrator to question them for the entire fifth stanza: “Why the extraneous plant?/Why the taboret?/why, oh why, the doily?” Doilies are generally embroidered and purchased by women and would not be a common site in a solely male environment, especially when one considers this poem was written in the fifties. This detail, along with the notion that this is a family filling station, provide further evidence that a family lives at the site and that there is a woman—probably a mother—that takes care of the men.
The narrator spends three lines describing the doily parenthetically and in quite intimate detail: “embroidered in daisy stitch/with marguerites, I think/and heavy with gray crochet.” The specific details really bring this item to life and shows how seemingly out of place it is in contrast with the gas station. The phrase “I think” adds to the ponderous and curious nature of this portion of the narrative.
The question of the doily is discussed when the narrator comments that someone embroidered the doily. Then, humor comes into the piece when Bishop suggests that the plant is watered, “or maybe oiled.” This little snippet of humor (If you listened to the reading above, you will remember Bishop losing her composure and laughing at this point, along with her rapt audience.) is interesting because in the beginning of the piece, the tone of the narrator is much more serious, perhaps even critical and self-righteous. The humor shows that our narrators’ tone has changed from one of judgment to one of affection towards this family. She then comments that the oil cans are neatly arranged, and they almost sing “esso-so-so-so” which is an excellent way to bring sound into the piece.
The poem ends with the phrase “somebody loves us all” (which is a fantastic use of alliteration).This line is particularly intriguing. It’s not “somebody loves them”, it’s “somebody loves us all.” The use of “us” shows that the narrator now views them as equal with herself. The derision and judgment are gone. This dirty family living in a dirty filling station with a dirty dog is also loved. They have an embroidered doily, a plant, comic books and furniture. They have a life that is not just filling cars with gasoline, changing oil and fixing flat tires. These filling station employees are real people that love and are loved. Her ongoing observations keep her first impression from being her final one. She watches the people and notices their surroundings. By the end of the piece she has completed a one-eighty regarding her feelings towards the place she is in and the people that inhabit it. This idea of letting go of preconceptions and allowing oneself to look deeper seems to be the underlying theme of the piece and is, perhaps, why Bishop felt compelled to write it.