We've left Chicago, and are now in Georgetown KY, located in the rolling hills and white fences of horse country. This is also bourbon country, though we discovered (on trying to get a couple of beers at a filling station--it had been a long day of travel with an ornary toddler) it is a dry county. We'll be driving today to Bloomington Indiana, and stopping at filling stations along the way. Which in turn has been making me think of Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station." I am an ardent admirer of Bishop, but it has taken me years and years to get over an initial dislike of this poem.

I had never much liked the "Oh, but it is dirty!" opening, or the somewhat self-consciously humorous "Be careful with that match!" The tone is hard to pin down (oily?)--bemused, almost affectionate, but also... well, condescending. The narrator finds it difficult to imagine why (oh why) someone would bother with such niceties as a doily or a begonia in such a dirty place. And then the flatness (deliberate of course) of the ending, "Somebody loves us all."
Even when I recognized the skill in it--the control of the diction (grease-impregnated wickerwork" "quite comfy" "hirsute begonia"), which, perhaps implied, is above the diction level of the attendants, the control of assonance ("heavy with grey crochet")--how "dirty" and "oily" somehow combine to make "doily"--I still had trouble liking the poem. The only parts I liked without reservation were "Somebody waters the plant,/ or oils it, maybe" and the ESSO-SO-SO-So part.
It doesn't seem so condescending to me now, more arch and poised and humorous. I can see in the second to last stanza a shift to a more empathetic stance (for at the end it is the automobiles that are high-strung, and we are suddenly looking out from the vantage of the filling station, rather than looking down our noses at it.) And the "Somebody loves us all" has the homespun flatness of a motto fit for embroidery, perhaps on the doily. There has been a shift in the voice, a broadening of sympathies. This is subtle stuff. So many poems nowadays strive for such plain-spoken flatness, and achieve only the store-bought sincerity of cliche. Such "accessible" poems offer a different kind of condescension altogether--a condescension towards the reader, which is never present in Bishop.
So I guess what I mean to say is I've come around to "Filling Station." I like it, I admire it, though it still isn't my favorite Bishop poem. And I'm curious of fellow bloggers and readers out there--what poem or poems by a favorite admired poet do you, or have you, disliked? Have you come around?

Originally Published: October 17th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. October 17, 2007

    "Diving Into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich. But let me explain: the first time I came across this poem was in an SAT test in high school. I had no idea what this poem was about so I knew for sure I had failed that part of the test--the explication of a poem--miserably. Since then, I have come to appreciate and admire this poem (and many others by this poet). I had the same encounter with Sylvia Plath's "Metaphor." There it was, a puzzle in a textbook I couldn't crack. And when I finally did, years later, I was pleasantly surprised by the spill of the inventive language of poetry.

  2. October 18, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    I adore Plath's "Metaphors", though I do think she tips her hand a bit when she says "a cow in calf". That might be another discussion--lines in good or great poems you wish you could tweak!