If "Huh?" was your first reaction to this poem, you're in good company, since most people find the subject matter to a bit of a head-scratcher to start with. In fact, the inspiration for this poem came from a typo in a title for a newspaper article about a mammoth, so it began as a mistake that likely confused plenty of people. The confused probably even included Elizabeth Bishop's editor back in 1936, when "The Man-Moth" was first published in Bishop's first collection of poems: North and South. That typo gave Bishop a chuckle and an idea. (Don't worry though; mammoths have absolutely nothing to do with any of this.)
The initial confusion is part of the charm of the poem, piquing your curiosity just long enough to pull you into the Man-Moth's world. The poem follows the Man-Moth through a rare appearance above ground where he seems to be some kind of odd, defeated superhero, who is still somehow persistent and philosophical. He scales walls, looking to reach what he believes is a hole in the sky.
Once he's checked that off his to-do list, he flutters down into the subway where we get to see him and his quirky behavior in his natural habitat. In some places in the poem, the Man-Moth behaves much like a moth, just like we would expect. However, in other places, he behaves an awful lot like a human. Though he is an imaginary creature, Bishop uses this crazy idea of a man and a moth smooshed together to talk about human behavior in a way that is both honest and entertaining, and without doing a lot of finger-pointing.
Bishop had a complicated relationship with New York City, and this poem reflects her emotional experience of living there for the first time. She was in her mid-20s, and though the city represented major opportunities for a young poet, it was also intimidating and even a bit suffocating for young woman who was used to the wide open spaces of Nova Scotia and Central Massachusetts. There's a lot of struggle in this poem, but there's a lot of hope too. Sounds like life in general.
Have you ever aspired to something? Ever lay in bed at night thinking about a goal, but then found yourself restless and sleepless because you keep thinking about all the different ways that things could go wrong? We all have. Well, all of us except the Man-Moth. He doesn't think about his goals as something that might happen; he thinks of them as things that will simply come to fruition provided he makes the attempt enough times. He isn't without fear, mind you, but he doesn't over think things like we humans do. You'll never see him paralyzed by his fear of failure or spending time coming up with a plan B.
Really, we could all learn a thing or two from the titular hero of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Man-Moth." He's brave, determined, and has a unique perspective on the world that allows him to handle even the most difficult and frightening things with ease and grace. He's also quite willing to share his wisdom with us if we are willing to pay attention. Most importantly, the Man-Moth never gives up on his dreams. Who couldn't use a little pep talk once in a while?