The American poet Mary Kinzie believes that no poem worthy of the art can depend only on a mastery of technique and craft. She claims that aesthetic talent alone cannot define a poem. Instead, she argues that “the aesthetic mission is also a moral one.” Craft, in other words, must be connected to morality insofar as every poet is responsible for the vision, imagery, tone, and story of the poem. Kinzie adds that “the poet and the poem alike must be held responsible for the nature of their insights.”
This is a controversial but necessary position to take with regard to poetry because it implies that the poem communicates information that must be judged in both ethical and moral terms for its insights. Kinzie refuses to ignore the ethical, moral message of a given poem. Whatever its story may be, no matter how ugly, how painful, how potentially upsetting, Kinzie insists that the reader nonetheless make the poet responsible for the story he or she tells. This position is controversial because so many critics prefer only to discuss craft and form. They even prefer to ignore what the poem and the poet say.
This way of discussing poetry was particularly common with regard to the work of Elizabeth Bishop. For most of her life, Bishop’s poetry was plagued by a critical failure of insight. Praised for her talent and her craft, her stories were dismissed as minor, unimportant, merely descriptive. She was said to lack vision, depth, grand themes in her work. Critics would praise her imagery, her metrics, her precision, her ability to make a story come to a conclusion, but they had very little to say about her themes. Even after her death, critics continued to dismiss the force of Bishop’s intellectual depth. Even when they did acknowledge the deeper potential of so many of her poems, they often dismissed what she said as either a cliché or too typically sentimental.
Reacting to “Filling Station” in 1984, for example, the notable literary scholar and Yale professor, David Bromwich, commented that the poem was laden with “awkward condescension.” He felt that like so many of her poems its first impact on a reader will “dwindle as one comes to see them more clearly.” To Bromwich, in other words, Bishop’s poems are too often more flash than fire. On the other hand, Bromwich did do what the poet Mary Kinzie called for: he did take Bishop’s story more seriously than most. With regard to “Filling Station,” he felt that the poem suffered from a class bias. He felt that in this poem one reads the inner thoughts of an upper-class snob unable socially or emotionally to cope with the poor. Bromwich, therefore, judges the poem as a failure not only for its lack of a deep complex psychological story, but also for its decidedly elitist views.
Bromwich was very much on the right track insofar as he did discuss the poem in terms of the speaker, but he was also very much mistaken in his evaluation of the poem’s psychological depths. Returning then to “The Filling Station” with Mary Kinzie’s charge in mind, one must acknowledge, as Bromwich does, the gender of the first-person narrator. But to make this assumption that the narrator is a woman, and nothing in the poem argues against that assumption, one also must entertain the gendered vision on which the poem depends. The speaker is a woman, possibly Bishop herself, and given that premise, one must also imagine the psychological complexity of gender relations that would pertain to the scene of the poem. After all, here is a decidedly middle-class woman in a working class, all-male environment. One knows what her class position must be from her language and from what she chooses to describe. Similarly, one knows that a man and his sons, as she tells us, run this filling station. They are decidedly working-class men who earn their money through hard work and sweat.
Given this scene, this situation, one can only find a class bias and general attitude of condescension by refusing to engage the psychological drama of a respectable woman alone in an entirely male, even aggressively male and slightly disreputable, potentially frightening, place. In short, there really is not much of a class war in this poem if one uncovers and works through the poem’s set of complex relations between men and women. With regard to gender relations, this poem holds a great deal of interest.
Turning to the specific gender issues, then, one finds that the title alone begins to make the subtle case for gender as a primary condition of experience. The title, “Filling Station,” refers not just to this gas station but also to the larger concept “Station” from the Christian story of the journey of Jesus and the stations of the cross. In poetry, every word harkens back to its larger cultural, social, and literary history. In a poem, the word “station,” when it appears in the story of a journey refers back to that Christian use of the term. And, from that perspective, this poem describes one woman’s station on her long journey through the world.
One can make this case particularly strong when one considers that this poem appeared in the book, Questions of Travel (1965), a book of poems whose major subject is travel and whose principle metaphor is the concept of the journey. Furthermore, “Filling Station” appears in the part of the book titled “Elsewhere,” as if to suggest that the moment captured in this poem is but one station of many.
Once the station metaphor is achieved, the full impact of the title can be realized. For in the poem itself Bishop is the one who fills up the site. Rather than depict a simple anecdote where a woman stops to get gas in her car, this poem reverses the logic. Here, a woman stops at a station on her long journey of life. This station is a male zone in a wilderness of neutrality. In the midst of this male environment, Bishop fills up the station with decidedly feminine qualities. Her vision makes of this potentially alienating place a pleasant, feminine atmosphere. What ought to be a trial, a test of her feminine integrity, a typical “station of the cross” in a Christian sense becomes, instead, a site for her particularly powerful transformative power. She makes the strange and alienating place seem, if only for a moment, a little bit more like home when she fills it with domestic, feminine meaning. Such transformations are the work of all great poets.
Turning from the title to the first two stanzas, one sees that the poem begins in dirt. The word “dirty” is repeated three times in two stanzas. Also, it is placed in such a way that every time it is used it forms the final pause at the end of a line and of a sentence. Dirt, in other words, pervades this place, and the reader is forced to notice it.
But what is the speaker’s attitude toward dirt? Here, the tone of this poem is particularly tricky. Every good poet knows to use exclamation marks rarely, if at all. This is because they often have the effect of cheapening, even deadening the emphasis one wants them to have. Nonetheless, the first line of the poem uses just such a mark: “Oh, but it is dirty!” How is one to read this? In a tone of horror? Disgust? Given the rest of the poem, one would have to conclude that it is to be read only as mock horror, pretend disgust. A playful, even possibly sarcastic means of noting the obvious and saying, in effect, “well, what did you expect?” A tone of mock horror indicates that Bishop is not really a snob here. Instead, she is far more willing than many might suppose to engage a place so terribly different from her more obviously feminine, clean world.
From the first stanza, she stands for domestic life, cleanliness: traditionally feminine attributes. This place, by contrast, through its dirt, stands for the traditionally masculine attributes of mechanical devices, technology, industry: dirt, sweat, and work. After all, it is a gas station! To make the point Bishop adds:
—this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
The color scheme, the texture, the very feel of the dirt is now made even more tangible as a thick coat of oil. But here, too, disgust and horror are not the right tone. Rather one should instead here have that same mocking willingness to say, with a little shrug, “oh well, here I am, how exciting.” Bishop concludes: “Be careful with that match!” This use of another exclamation mark only five lines after the first indicates the sort of light, playful detachment she means to convey with her tone.
Given that the scene is utterly alien to a woman like this speaker, one must realize that the playful tone is a brave means of trying to accommodate and cope with the strange. Think of all the ways a woman alone might describe the three men of this place. Of all those ways the least expected and most obviously challenging is to call them “father” and “sons.” By commenting on their domestic relationship she not only identifies them in her domestic terms, but she also removes them from the working-class context in which they actually exist. Not workers come to service her car and threaten her sense of decorum and security, but rather a father and his sons.
His sons, the speaker tells us, are “quick and saucy.” One can only imagine what specific words, leers, and other typically aggressive gestures gave rise to such descriptions. But rather than focus on what they say and how they behave, the speaker rewrites the boys out of their hyper-masculinity and into a domestic scene. In a parenthesis, Bishop says: “(it’s a family filling station).”
By this point in the poem, it is evident that Bishop is in supreme control of the meaning and implication of her punctuation. Her exclamation marks created a mock-heroic tone, and now her parenthesis deflate the cocky aggression of the “saucy” boys. The final line of the third stanza must, therefore, be read as a woman’s defensive reaction to the pretense of the men: if they are fathers and sons, if this is a family, then, there must also be, somewhere, a woman. And, if there is a woman, this is not a male zone at all: the three men, from a domestic perspective, exhibit a male pretense, not some genuine male animalistic instinct.
Therefore, in the final line of the stanza, when Bishop declares that “all” is “quite thoroughly dirty” she is saying, implicitly, that these men, as a family, have failed even the most minimal task of creating a healthy environment for themselves. This is not a workspace for men, it is a home for a family. Well, Bishop knows all about homes. And, having declared this place a home she has now given herself the right to judge it on her terms. She can say in no uncertain terms that this home is a mess!
To Bishop’s credit the plot of the poem ends with this judgement, just after the third stanza. What follows, however, complicates this plot in fascinating ways. Specifically, Bishop adds four stanzas, each of which depends on a question or series of questions raised by the issue she charted in the first three stanzas. To summarize, in the first three stanzas, Bishop transformed the gas station workspace into a home and, as a home, a familiar place to her, she felt she was able to deal with it, judge it, even be superior to it. While the boys appear to be a threat to her with their “raciness” she can claim a new superiority by denying their premise. If this station is a home, they cannot be men in a male-zone competing for a woman in a Darwinian sexual struggle. Transformed into a domestic scene, they are just a family whose home she can judge as inadequate, filthy.
The final four stanzas of the poem question every aspect of this transformation. By the end of the third stanza, Bishop wonders if it is even true that this is a home? “Do they live in the station?” She asks. And rather than answer her question she offers only a series of speculations based on close observation. She offers abundant detail. Many readers might conclude that these details prove her point, this is a home just as she thought. But stanza five returns to the same question all over again. It must be a home, she decides, for if it is just another male workplace then:
Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
In other words, the details seem to be convincing but they do not finally convince Bishop. The real issue hiding behind these details is gender, and stanza five reveals gender’s importance. According to Bishop, the typical social roles of men and women in the United States suggest that no man, certainly no man in a gas station, would do anything associated with a feminine role. She all but asks, why on earth three men would domesticate their workplace? Why would such rolicking, leering, aggressively male mechanics even consider “plants,” “taborets,” and, of all things, a “doily?” What she means to say here is that only a woman could possibly have done these things, added these details. And, if there is a woman, then this must be, by definition, a home.
In this stanza, Bishop returns to her light humor, too. Certainly, the “doily” line is funny. When she says, “why, oh why” the exasperation is out of proportion to the problem. But the humor itself speaks to the larger problem of a feminine presence. For, finally, the speaker wants to know if she is the one making this place a home. She wonders if she is the one misinterpreting the facts, the details. She wonders if it really is a place where women already exist.
The poem’s final stanza makes another attempt to answer the gender-roll questions of the poem. But now these questions are filled, as is this station, with ambiguity, complexity, and an abundance of meaning.
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 Bishop sees cannot be denied. Therefore, somebody, as she says, must have put these typically feminine things there. Does it have to be a woman? Could the men be doing such womanly things themselves?
The joke Bishop makes about oiling the plant refers to the fact that the place is a mess: it is covered in oil. But this also assumes that perhaps the men are responsible for whatever domestic touches are to be found. Even the name of the gas station is made to have a gentle, whispering, pleasing, domestic, and feminine quality, “Esso.” (This name in fact once stood for Eastern Standard Oil. It tells the reader that this poem is probably taking place in Bishop’s favorite New England landscape.) Be that as it may, the oil cans with the gas station’s name on them even domesticate the wild “high-strung” cars that are nervously speeding past. This detail means that if even an oil can will soothe a car, if even a filling station like this can have doilies and the like, then the last line might well be true. Somebody really might love us all. There may be a benevolent spirit, a God, on this journey, even here in this strange station. For what is love but concern and compassion for one’s own space? Maybe, the poem implies, it is Bishop herself who makes the silly gender assumption that no man would domesticate his own space.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Elizabeth Bishop, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Jonathan N. Barron, Critical Essay on “Filling Station,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.