Ode to Gumbo by Kevin Young Analyzing Diction Essay Assignment


Write an essay that focuses on the diction (word choices) of the poem. Begin with an introduction that names the poem/poet and provides background information on the subject matter and/or the writer, plus a clear statement of your thesis. Follow with at least three paragraphs that support your thesis using “evidence” (direct quotation) from your chosen poem. Finish up with a short conclusion that restates your thesis and leaves a lasting impression and sense of closure. Dont forget to cite the source.

Sample Work Cited entry:

Work Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “”The Fish.” The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink. Ed. Kevin Young. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012. pg. 34-36. Print.

Please refer to the sample essay on analyzing diction in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” Please read it to get a feel for how a poem is broken down into parts to prove a thesis (point) about Bishop’s word choices, especially how she chooses to describe the fish she has caught. Notice that there is an introduction (which includes the thesis), and several body paragraphs that directly relate to the thesis. A conclusion finishes off the essay.

Note: do not attempt to imitate the sample essay in terms of what the thesis states! Please come up with your own, original thesis about your chosen poem. Also, please avoid imitating its style. If your rough draft sounds a little too much like the sample, or your thesis resembles it a little too closely, I will suggest that you revise.


Ode to Gumbo (Kevin Young)

For weeks I have waited

for a day without death

or doubt. Instead

the sky set afire

or the flood

filling my face.

A stubborn drain

nothing can fix.

Every day death.

Every morning death

& every night

& evening

And each hour

a kind of winter—

all weather

is unkind. Too

hot, or cold

that creeps the bones.

Father, your face

a faith

I can no longer see.

Across the street

a dying, yet

still-standing tree.


So why not

make a soup

of what’s left? Why

not boil & chop

something outside

the mind—let us

welcome winter

for a few hours, even

in summer. Some

say Gumbo

starts with file

or with roux, begins

with flour & water

making sure

not to burn. I know Gumbo

starts with sorrow—

with hands that cannot wait

but must—with stirring

& a slow boil

& things that cannot

be taught, like grace.

Done right,

Gumbo lasts for days.

Done right, it will feed

you & not let go.

Like grief

you can eat & eat

& still plenty

left. Food

of the saints,

Gumbo will outlast

even us—like pity,

you will curse it

& still hope

for the wing

of the chicken bobbed

up from below.

Like God

Gumbo is hard

to get right

& I don’t bother

asking for it outside

my mother’s house.

Like life, there’s no one

way to do it,

& a hundred ways,

from here to Sunday,

to get it dead wrong,


Save all the songs.

I know none,

even this, that will

bring a father

back to his son.

Blood is thicker

than any water under

any bridge

& Gumbo thicker

than that. It was

my father’s mother

who taught mine how

to stir its dark mirror—

now it’s me

who wishes to plumb

its secret

depths. Black

Angel, Madonna

of the Shadows,

Hail Mary strong

& dark as dirt,

Gumbo’s scent fills

this house like silence

& tells me everything

has an afterlife, given

enough time & the right

touch. You need

okra, sausage, bones

of a bird, an entire

onion cut open

& wept over, stirring

cayenne in till the end

burns the throat—

till we can amen

& pretend

such fiery

mercy is all we know.


Sample essay using Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. The numbers in parenthesis are LINE numbers.

And I Let the Fish Go: Suspense through Pointed Descriptive Details

in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”

Most of us are familiar with storytelling on the subject of fishing, especially ones about “the fish that got away.” Fishing tales are an integral part of American literary culture. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway have made their living sharing macho yarns about landing big fish in books such as Big Two-Hearted River. In contrast to the standard “one that got away” fishing tale, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” reverses the standard trope. In her poem, instead of the fish breaking off its line and swimming away, the fisherperson frees it. From the beginning of her poem and all way through to its glorious finish, Bishop describes her prized catch with words that pave the way for the final utterance of the poem to take on a more powerful and nuanced meaning.

Nearly the entire poem is a description of a fish she has caught and is now beside her boat, “with my hook / fast in a corner of his mouth” (3-4): its size, demeanor, color, gills, eyes, face, jaw, its lip and what she finds hanging from it. We learn in line one that it’s a “tremendous” (1) fish, and, soon after, that “he hung a grunting weight, / battered, and venerable / and homely” (8-9). These adjectives, plus the news that his skin is like “ancient wallpaper” (11) and that it is “infested / with tiny white sea-lice” (19) add up to make it clear this fish has been around for a while; he’s large, old, and experienced.

In addition, Bishop chooses to describe the fish’s gills as “frightening” (24), reminding us that they “can cut so badly” (26). This is a fish that can put the hurt on a person! Then she turns to describing its bones, entrails, and swim bladder “like a big peony” (33), reminding us that this is a live creature with beautiful and vital organs. Next, she turns to the fish’s eyes, larger than hers yet averting her gaze, and onto its lip, “grim, wet, and weapon-like” (5)—driving home the fact of her fish’s fearsomeness; she then focuses on what’s hanging from its lips—“five old pieces of fish-line (51),” which she describes in intricate detail in no less than fourteen lines. “Five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth” (54-55), she states, letting us know that the most important part of her story is that this fish has gotten away at least five times. The leaders are “like medals with their ribbons / frayed and wavering, / a five-haired beard of wisdom” (61-63). It’s essential, if the last line is going to zing, that we view this creature as venerable, frightful, and wise.

After sixty-four lines of describing the fish, Bishop veers toward the setting, where motor oil has “spread a rainbow / around the rusted engine” (69) and all the other parts of the boat. Victory’s been filling up her rig since line sixty-six, but now that there’s a flotilla of colors at her heels the speaker is shouting “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” (74), which happens to rhyme, quite beautifully, with “go,” as in “And let the fish go,” a simple and understated way of saying she is (adamantly) not going to keep (and kill) this now-mythical creature of the deep. It’s a very machismo (machisma?) moment, outdoing all the men (presumably most fisher-people were men in the 1950s when she penned “The Fish”) who tried and failed to catch that hog. Faced with being the victor in a decades-long fishing contest, she passes it up for another kind of victory, one that we learn of by reading her poem.

Without her meticulous choosing of exacting words to describe the caught fish (as she wanted it to be viewed by the reader, not a random portrayal), the poem would not be as successful. Imagine, for instance, if she had not shared that “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all” (5-6). Without these two lines, the reader would not be able to consider that the fish is too old and weak to battle anymore, that he may soon die of old age. This adds a layer of possibility to the poem. Perhaps Bishop is not being macho but rather showing her compassion toward a fish too old to fight off the hook; perhaps the fact she reeled him in is more an indication of the fish’s proximity to death than her wily ways with a rod.

Because Bishop chooses nouns, verbs, adjectives, along with apt metaphors and similes, to portray the fish as wizened, frightening, and fierce – a tough fish to catch—the reader gains a very strong sense of the fish as a venerable warrior, more sage-like than trophy-worthy. Once we know that the fish is something of an elder, it makes more sense why she decided to release him. Without the careful unfolding of specific imagery and adjectives to describe him, the last line of the poem would lose much of its power and punch.

Work Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “”The Fish.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/fish-2 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. Accessed January 4, 2018.