menu Arc Poetry Magazine
Essay

Yvonne Blomer on Elizabeth Bishop's "12 O'Clock News"

(How Poems Work, February 2005)
… In the poem, “12 O’Clock News”, Bishop looks at our ability to feel alienated from the world around us, even when that world is occupied by familiar objects.
Each object on the left and each description on the right works in interplay between object and image to create metaphor. The objects from her desk are metaphors for the descriptions that go with them, but the descriptions are also metaphors for the objects, for the wider world, the mass media and the writer herself. Bishop builds from the light (i.e. her gooseneck lamp) and works outward to show all the objects that are illuminated and what they are capable of being.
The poem can be read as a commentary on the mass media and how it portrays foreign landscapes. During the early part of the Iraqi war the grey-green surveillance footage depicted an alien world in a way that could only heighten the viewer’s sense that Iraq is different and its people “in the dark”….

h3. The Mass Media and the Writer
in Elizabeth Bishop’s 12 O’Clock News
… In the poem, “12 O’Clock News”, Bishop looks at our ability to feel alienated from the world around us, even when that world is occupied by familiar objects.
Each object on the left and each description on the right works in interplay between object and image to create metaphor. The objects from her desk are metaphors for the descriptions that go with them, but the descriptions are also metaphors for the objects, for the wider world, the mass media and the writer herself. Bishop builds from the light (i.e. her gooseneck lamp) and works outward to show all the objects that are illuminated and what they are capable of being.
The poem can be read as a commentary on the mass media and how it portrays foreign landscapes. During the early part of the Iraqi war the grey-green surveillance footage depicted an alien world in a way that could only heighten the viewer’s sense that Iraq is different and its people “in the dark”….


h3. The Mass Media and the Writer
in Elizabeth Bishop’s 12 O’Clock News
Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. After her father’s death, when she was less than a year old, her mother entered a sanitarium and Elizabeth lived with her mother’s family in Great Village, NS. She had poor health during her childhood and spent much of her time reading, writing poetry and playing the piano.
In the poem, “12 O’Clock News”, Bishop looks at our ability to feel alienated from the world around us, even when that world is occupied by familiar objects.
Each object on the left and each description on the right works in interplay between object and image to create metaphor. The objects from her desk are metaphors for the descriptions that go with them, but the descriptions are also metaphors for the objects, for the wider world, the mass media and the writer herself. Bishop builds from the light (i.e. her gooseneck lamp) and works outward to show all the objects that are illuminated and what they are capable of being.
The poem can be read as a commentary on the mass media and how it portrays foreign landscapes. During the early part of the Iraqi war the grey-green surveillance footage depicted an alien world in a way that could only heighten the viewer’s sense that Iraq is different and its people “in the dark”.
Similarly, in the first stanza of “12 O’Clock News”, Bishop compares the dim light her reading lamp gives to the light emitted by the moon. She writes, “tonight is the night of the full moon, half the world over,” which has something in common with where the reader is, while the place the ‘reporter’ is in is different, less illuminated. In fact, the reporter suggests that the moon where she is “could be dead”, reinforcing the contrast between being in the light and knowing, and being in the dark and not knowing.
In an essay on “12 O’Clock News”, Karen Lee argues that Bishop wants to question our trust of perceived truths (“Clouded Perceptions in Elizabeth Bishop’s ’12 O’clock News'”). In questioning these perceptions, Bishop highlights the different ways we see the world based on how familiar we are with a place, or object. Because the reporter in the poem can not see well, her perceptions are thrown off. However, she still makes judgments: “In this small, backward country, one of the most backward left in the world today.”
In addition to providing a commentary on mass media, Bishop, as a writer, bestows symbolic value on the seven objects in “12 O’Clock News”. From the mechanics of the lamp and typewriter grows the pile of manuscripts that, in turn, brings about the typed sheets and envelopes. The objects combine to create a landscape as well as a sense of writerly progression.
Her typewriter is the very thing that her welfare, as the “tiny principality”, depends upon; her manuscripts form a landslide whose soil is of poor quality. Each typed sheet is either an airstrip or a cemetery, and envelopes, either that she sends letters to friends or that she sends her poems out into the world in, are crude forms of communication.
The ink bottle takes on indescribable religious power. The idea of it as a savior, to the poet, as the “last hope of rescue” from her “grave difficulties” is literal and figurative. Bishop is living off her writing, but also the act of writing is mysterious and only meaningful if illuminated in some way, if understood.
The “ashtray” stanza shows several “soldiers” in a heap, “all dead”. They are ineffective and there is little in the way of sorrow at their deaths. We’ve been set up not to empathize with the people in this foreign place.
Bishop presents us with items and a description of those items that allows for more than one reading: she shows both their proximity and distance. But she is as cool and calculating in describing these objects as a reporter would be showing war. In doing so, Bishop makes not only the news media culpable but also the act of writing´┐Żand thus the poet herself.
==
==
fn1(#columnistbio). CAUTION: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.