Ambiguity in Elizabeth Bishop’s “12 o’clock News”
Elizabeth Bishop constructs the poem “12 o’Clock News”to portray distinct settings with similar descriptions. In the first stanza, it is unclear whether it is the gooseneck lamp or the moon that “gives very little light” and “could be dead.” Though there is an implied distances between the desk setting and the world portrayed in the news with the phrase “half the world over,” the common theme of dim light gives the separate settings a common thread. The lines “We shall try to give you some idea of the lay of the land and the present situation” sounds like a reporter on the news, which incorporates the idea of limited perspective within, or of, the media. The descriptions of “poor visibility” could be a description of the lamplight, moonlight, and news perspective. Though the meaning of this phrase differs for each example, the all-encompassing element of the description connects the desk to the foreign land and to the news report. All the sources of light seem to shed very little light.
The connection between poetry and media can also be made through the relationship between the desk setting and the report, as both are created according to a limited perspective. The dim light of the lamp relates to Bishop’s own writing, as she has to begin to shape her poetry from a muddled, unclear place. Just as the mass media has to represent the other from a muddled, biased position. Bishop’s manipulation of a newsroom through her ambiguous descriptions parallels the way the media distorts our perception of the world. The process of writing and of presenting the news run parallel just like the columns of the poem.The choice to construct columns distances the desk on the left side from the world in the news on the right side, while the stanzaic form equates the two settings horizontally and with cleverly ambiguous descriptions.
A parallel could be drawn in the second stanza between the rows of keys in the typewriter and the rural terraces in the news. Bishop labors at her typewriter to produce poetry, or welfare, to support herself, just like the “tiny principality” labors endlessly on their farmlands to support themselves. By relating herself to the labors and welfares of these people, Bishop humanizes them to contrast the portrayal provided by the media. The connection of contemporary and rural activities, poetry and farming, also unites the divided halves of the world and poem with the universal relationship between labor and welfare. The third stanza connects Bishop’s writing process to the world in the news with the relationship between the pile of manuscripts and the “white, shaly” soil. In addition to evoking a similar image of stacked, white sediment/paper, the “poor quality” could refer to the soil or the stack of writings. By implicitly equating her own experience with writing to another news-worthy event, Bishop connects herself to the world around her and distances herself from the detachment of the media. Bishop follows this connection through the fourth stanza, with the dually applicable description of the “dark speckled” field, like a sheet of paper filled with typewritten words.. This sets up the question of whether the field was an “airstrip” or a “cemetery” to indicate a blankness, either literally or figuratively a lack of life or substance, on the sheet of paper. Either way, Bishop relates to the uncertainty of the news report, which structurally sets her up for empathy.
Bishop critiques the news report in the fifth stanza with a sarcastic tone and an increase in distance between the two worlds of this poem. Two different forms of communication are presented by the columns. The news report describes communications in the “backwards country” as “crude,” and in the form of gigantic signboards. In contrast, the envelopes on the left hand list reveal a very different form of communication. Signboards are an entirely public spectacle with indirect and impersonal messages, whereas envelopes are associated with direct communications of a personal intent. Bishop feels distanced from this country as the reporter describes it, but provides her own commentary by the repetition of the word “backward” and the quotes around “industrialization.” This draws attention to these two words and indicates that the country is only considered backward because it lacks industrialization. Here, we return to the limited perspective of the mass media, only considering and presenting the undeveloped world in relation to the familiarity of industrialization.
In the sixth stanza, the duality between the “secret weapon” and the “savior” relate to both the the ink bottle and the “oddly shaped, black structure” discovered in the news report. The “feeble” light of the moon reminds the viewer that the absence of proper illumination alludes to a lack of real understanding of the place. The “powerful and terrifying ‘secret weapon,’” first reveals a prejudiced assumption. The subsequent questioning of “what we do know” reveals a momentary reflection on the previously presented biases and assumptions. The short lived questioning quickly turns to another assumption of religious dependence and “helplessness..” The quotes around “savior” and the reference to “grave difficulties” indicates a lack of clarity of perspective as it makes it sound like the reporter is mocking the religion and culture of the country. The idea of an ink bottle as a savior, as the “last hope of rescue” for the poet could relate to the earlier connection to labor and welfare, as her writing, with ink if not a typewriter, supports her.
The “deceptive illumination” combined with the “typewriter eraser” present the unicyclist-courier as a kind of case study for the “elusive natives.” The phrase “elusive natives” sounds mocking, like from a show about wild animals, and, in this way dehumanizes these indigenes. The description of the “thick, bristling black hair” also evokes an animalistic image, as does the grouping of the individual within the “indigenes.” The dehumanization is manifested in the death of the unicyclist, and the metaphor is enhanced by the “deceptive illumination” that allows the news report such a limited perspective. The typewriter eraser relates the the erasure of the person’s life, both literally and in his dehumanization in mass media, and also indicates an editing process for Bishop.
The final stanza emphasizes the relationship between the ashtray and the dead bodies with ambiguous language. The “nest” of soldiers lying “heaped together” and “in hideously contorted positions, all dead” mirrors the image of an ashtray full of cigarette butts. This grim relationship raises the question of disposability, equating the writer burning through cigarettes like death burns through humans. The phrase “superior vantage position” re-enforces the idea of imperialistic representation of this unnamed country in the news report. And the quotes around “battle dress” and “winter warfare” draws attention to the representation of these people as “inscrutable” but “childish” and “hopeless” and their leaders as corrupt. It is only in this last stanza that the reality of war is realized, which offers further explanation for the biased presentation of the opponents. This ashtray could also represent the end of Bishop’s writing process, as she ends the life of a cigarette. The ambiguous visual description connects Bishop to the land of her country’s opponents one last time.
The title “12 o’clock News” presents the poem like a news bulletin, and relates to the theme of mass media and imperialism. The authority of her title relates to the presumedly deserved authority of the institutions that produce mass media. The news media are capable of creating a world beyond what we see everyday, presenting us with what appears to be the truth about cultures we will never encounter firsthand. Bishops shows how subjective the 12 o’clock news can be, but contrasts that with the directness of the title, “12 o’clock news.” Though the sarcastic tone Bishop adopts for occasional phrases indicates criticism, there is a certain resignation to be found in the normalness of the title. The cyclical quality, that 12 o’clock is a continually repeating time of day, conveys a kind of stagnant hopelessness, as if that is just the nature of the media. Mass media’s dimly lit portrayals of foreign nations run like clockwork.