Elizabeth Bishop and Her Poem "Filling Station"
Elizabeth Bishop's skill as a poet can be clearly seen in the thought-
provoking poem entitled Filling Station. She paints the different language
levels of poetry with the skill of an artist-- she seems to have an eye for
detail as she contrasts the dark and dim reference of a filling station to a
more homey, pleasant atmosphere. Bishop aptly arranges her words and
expressions through the language devices of voice and metaphor.
In Filling Station, Bishop uses tone of voice brilliantly, through the
use of phonetics, to create the poem's initial atmosphere. The opening seems to
be offering a straightforward description of the filling station: "Oh, but it
is dirty!/ -this little filling station,/ oil-soaked, oil-permeated/ to a
disturbing, over-all/ black translucency". A closer inspection of the passage
reveals quite a visual oil-soaked picture. This is created in large part by the
oily sounds themselves. When spoken out-loud the diphthong [oi] in oil creates
a diffusion of sound around the mouth that physically spreads the oil sound
around the passage. An interesting seepage can also be clearly seen when
looking specifically at the words "oil-soaked", "oil-permeated" and "grease-
impregnated". These words connect the [oi] in oily with the word following it
and heighten the spreading of the sound. Moreover, when studying the [oi]
atmosphere throughout the poem the [oi] in doily and embroidered seems to
particularly stand out. The oozing of the grease in the filling station moves
to each new stanza with the mention of these words: In the fourth stanza, "big
dim doily", to the second last stanza, "why, oh why, the doily? /Embroidered"
to the last stanza, "somebody embroidered the doily".
Whereas the [oi] sound created an oily sound of language throughout the
poem, the repetitive [ow] sound achieves a very different syntactical feature.
The cans which "softly say: /ESSO--SO--SO--SO" create a wind-like blowing
effect from the mouth. Each SO allows for a sort of visual metaphor to be
seen-- cars or the personified "high-strung automobiles" as they pass on by.
Not only are [oi] and [ow] sounds effectively used in this poem to create a
unique tone but so is the use of the cacophony [k] sound. In-between the oozing
effect of the oil, the reader is drawn to the sharp clicking of the [k] in words
like "comfy", "crochet", "comic","color" and "cans". Bishop seems to be paying
special attention to these words as the words themselves have double meaning.
The poet does not want the reader to forget that they are in the harsh
conditions of the filling station, hence the jarring [k] sound, yet the meaning
of the words suggest a kind, comfortable atmosphere.
Bishop's attention to the sense of sound throughout the poem aids with
the metaphoric meaning of the poem as a whole. At a very simplistic level, the
poem begins with the setting of a filthy gas station, or perhaps somewhere else
where conditions are not very clean, like a ghetto for example. Combining the
oily nature (ie- "oil-soaked" and "oil-permeated")and the depressing concretness
(ie- "cement porch" and "grease-impregnated wickerwork") the reader prepares
for a very somber and even corrupt story-line. Oil and concrete are usually
associated with the spoiling of the natural, wholesome environment. The reader
is then introduced to the type of character thought to inhabit an environment of
this nature: a "Father wears a dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit" and "greasy sons
assist him". At this point Bishop shifts the metaphoric meaning of the poem
with the introduction of the word "comfy". Although the dog is "dirty" or "oil-
soaked" it does not seem to mind the surroundings. Oil is still very much part
of the atmosphere but its effect is not as disastrous. If a match was lit, as
warned in the line "be careful with that match!" it would not be as lethal as
suggested. Instead of oil, beauty begins to seep between the lines. The
brightness of comic books, an embroidered doily daintily sitting upon the table,
a huge, shaggy plant --these little touches of pleasantries add to a much homier
environment. Someone seems to have taken great care and pride into preserving
what little cleanliness they can manage as, afterall, "somebody embroidered the
doily" and "somebody waters the plant". Although still somewhat out of place in
this filling station these cheerful additions are really what make the station.
Even a wild and foreign plant like that of the begonia finds a home among the
family's guardianship. Although in reality this family lives in the run-down
station they, themselves do not have to actually become the station. Bishop is
perhaps trying to suggest that although each of us live perhaps always or at
times, in disarray and turmoil there can be that small part in us that still
searches for hope and normalcy. We each need a "comfy" filling station. And
although judgmental onlookers, or as Bishop writes the "high-strung automobiles",
may only want to see the dirtiness of an individual character, a family or
situation, they need to realize that if they look deep enough, light will shine
through. "Somebody loves us all" if we are only to give the thought and time.
Afterall, even an automobile needs oil every once in a while to continue down
In conclusion, it can be clearly seen that Elizabeth Bishop in the poem
Filling Station has wonderfully played with different levels of language like
voice and metaphor. The reader becomes actively involved in questioning their
own filling station and the care they give toward it. Is he or she the station,
one who drives by the station or one who gives to the station?
Bishop, Elizabeth. "Filling Station." An Introduction to Poetry. Eds. Dana
Gioia and X.J. Kennedy. Eighth Edition. New York: HarperCollins College