Questions of Travel
by Elizabeth Bishop
Analysis: Sound Check
We love us some Liz Bish, but her poems aren't exactly known for their crazy sound qualities. "Questions of Travel" doesn't have a regular rhythm or a regular rhyme scheme. It's certainly not sing-songy. Bishop's writing is actually pretty conversational. When we read her poems, it's like we're listening in on someone's deep philosophical discussions. Bishop is subdued, careful and slow. She's like your super smart study buddy who you talk to in the wee hours of the morning.
So when suddenly a Bishop poem is all about sound, our ears definitely perk up. There are two really sound-y moments in "Questions of Travel." First, there are the poem's opening lines, which repeat the S sound over again in words like "streams," "sea," "spill," "sides," "soft," "slow." Hello, letter S!
These lines are all about flowing water—and they sound like they're about flowing water, because of all of the repeated S sounds. That's a little device we like to call sibilance. In this opening moment, we feel a little unstable. The sibilance make us feel as if we're traveling along these "crowded streams" ourselves. In other words, watch out for the waterfall ahead.
The very end of the poem is also very sound-y. The rhymes so far have been few and far between, but suddenly, everything seems to rhyme in the final stanza. There's "city," "country," "society," "free," and "be." In this moment, the traveler is thinking about the reasons we travel to faraway lands, but the actual language—all of the rhymes—make everything seem compact and close together. The repeated rhymes seem to suggest that new cities and countries are not as far apart as we might think.
The sound-y moments of the poem really stick out and hammer their points home because they contrast with the rest of the poem's conversational tone. If you really want your reader's attention, Bishop knows, just start up some strategic alliterations and rhymes. That'll get them listening.