Elizabeth Bishop Essay - Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 4)

Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 4)

Bishop, Elizabeth 1911–

Elizabeth Bishop, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, has lived in Brazil since 1952. She writes witty, fanciful, and imaginative poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Elizabeth Bishop's Poems seems to me one of the best books an American poet has written, one that the future will read almost as it will read Stevens and Moore and Ransom. Her poems are quiet, truthful, sad, funny, most marvelously individual poems; they have a sound, a feel, a whole moral and physical atmosphere, different from anything else I know. They are honest, modest, minutely observant, masterly; even their most complicated or troubled or imaginative effects seem, always, personal and natural, and as unmistakable as the first few notes of a Mahler song, the first few patches of a Vuillard interior….

The poet and the poems have their limitations; all exist on a small scale, and some of the later poems, especially, are too detailedly and objectively descriptive. But the more you read her poems, the better and fresher, the more nearly perfect they seem; at least half of them are completely realized works of art.

Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; copyright © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969, p. 325.

Elizabeth Bishop is not a poet who finds inspiration in public events, political issues, or socioeconomic ideology; reading her, one is unaware of Hitler and World War II, just as one is unaware of Napoleon and his wars when reading the works of Jane Austen. Unlike many of her Auden-influenced contemporaries, she distrusts history, with its melodramatic blacks and whites, and prefers geography, with its subtle gradations of color…. And, like a geographer, she delights in the landscapes, animals, customs, climates, and changing lights of the world, which are very real to her: she is no solipsist. Her sense of the existence of objects relates her to William Carlos Williams and, especially, to Marianne Moore, who has a similar passion for precise rendering of the scenes and inhabitants of the world. Restless as an explorer or a tourist, Miss Bishop moves along many roads in search of objects and insights….

As a peripatetic poet and geographer, Miss Bishop avoids that concentration on the self which often leads to emotion that "too far exceeds its cause," like that which a map maker perhaps feels as he runs the names of cities across neighboring mountains. Perhaps it is an extraordinary vulnerability that makes her look outward rather than inward. At any rate, she registers those increments of awareness that experience of many latitudes brings. Her verse does not lack feeling—it is merely directed to the objects that elicit feeling. These objects point to the ambiguities, beauty, and suffering of a world subject to time and death….

The poet's characteristics are fully evident in her first book, North and South, which appeared in 1946 and contained poems written mostly before 1942. It reveals her wonder and excitement as she looks at the world and describes what she sees. Some of this excitement derives from her discovery that language can perform miracles of exactness in description….

Much of the effectiveness of these descriptions derives, of course, from the figures of speech, from the correspondences that the poet discovers between the objects she is describing and other objects, not present, that her imagination entertains. For example, who besides Miss Bishop has ever seen a relationship between the grating sound of a wet match and the croak of a cock at dawn? One often finds such a delighted yoking together of disparate elements….

Most of the poems in North and South are strikingly imagined and ordered, but, now and then, as in the case of the poem "Florida," the poet's exuberance provides a scattering of images whose relevance to the total structure is open to question. It is as though Miss Bishop stopped along the road home to examine every buttercup and asphodel she saw. The images are dazzling; they call attention to themselves like ambitious actors in minor roles; but they contribute very little to the total effect. Some of the descriptive poems are saved from disintegration by a metaphor, an apt unifying image, in the concluding lines….

[The poems in the] group entitled "A Cold Spring" … are rich in reports of the colors, shapes, and temperatures of the world; they contain vivid contrasts, sometimes held in paradoxical suspension as unities….

Again, as in North and South, it is the beauty, pain, wealth, poverty, and sorrow of a world caught in the processes of time that stir Miss Bishop; she is indifferent to politics. When she writes about Washington, D.C., it is not to make a comment on the political scene or to describe congressmen in debate, but, rather, to suggest the power of the sun and the trees….

Clearly, then, Elizabeth Bishop is a poet who, early in her career, chose to avoid politics and public issues without, at the same time, abandoning the objective realities that constitute the otherness of the world. She believes in that world, especially when it shocks or baffles her, and she renders it with precision and clarity.

Stephen Stepanchev, "Elizabeth Bishop," in his American Poetry Since 1945: A Critical Survey (copyright 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 69-79.

Despite her high reputation among poets and critics, Elizabeth Bishop has never had the recognition she deserves…. Though the body of her work is small, very few poets have a record of such consistent, stunning excellence. Miss Bishop has chosen not to repeat herself; she has the imaginative resourcefulness to surprise us over and over again. Like Marianne Moore, she has perfected a form, a tone, a style that is unmistakably her own; like Miss Moore, she is humble and honest, profound without rhetoric and subtle without obscurity; and she might vie with Miss Moore for the title of the World's Greatest Observer. But she never imitates Miss Moore; she imitates no one. Her poems have the effortless, natural grace that can only belong to poets who hear their own voice with utter clarity. Her best poems—such as "Roosters," "The Fish," "The Prodigal Son"—will surely be among the enduring poems of this century. "The Complete Poems," so full of insight and wisdom, and of language of astonishing beauty, is one of those books that makes us marvel, gratefully, at the gift of speech.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Autumn, 1969), p. cxxxii.

All the way through [The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop] the purpose appears to be one of rendering what she sees (occasionally, what she imagines) as accurately as possible. The view, put more plainly though in more complex a manner in the later poems, is of men and all other creatures suspended, incomplete and without complete comprehension, among the beauties and perils of this particular world….

Miss Bishop is perhaps willing to circumscribe the limits of our comprehension more straitly than many would like; beyond the immediately visible circumstances, of which she is very sure, the mystery closes in. She has made it her business, though, to make poems out of what does come clear, out of … isolated patches of understanding and vision.

H. T. Kirby-Smith, Jr., in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1972 by the University of the South), Summer, 1972, p. 484.

Elizabeth Bishop seems never to approach the questionable, whether in matters of good taste or topic or intention. She corresponds to none of the feminine stereotypes [Ms. Rizza refers specifically to three—Formlessness, Feminine Hysteria, and Female Confinement—defined by Mary Ellmann in Thinking About Women]: she is "confined" in neither her subject matter nor in her ways of seeing; hysterical emotion is hardly a consideration, since her poems seldom reveal her own emotions; her verse forms are at least as rigorous and consistent as those of Robert Lowell or Richard Wilbur. There is little autobiography in her poems that indicates that the writer is a woman. Yet, there is a delicacy of description, a certain mildness or innocence that might first be considered "girlish," though a deeper reading reveals a maturity and worldliness that has somehow failed to corrupt the writer's immaculate freshness. The pages of The Complete Poems offer constant alternations of type and form, on one page a song, and on the next, blank verse. And so it is with subject matter, a selection of garden flowers in a vase, none of them offensive or horrifying, all of them presented with considerate formality.

Great balance and integrity distinguish Miss Bishop's poetry. Neither subjective nor sterile, it possesses the qualities that we look for in writing: sensitivity, intelligence, artistry and compassion. We read poetry with the expectation that the poet will do a certain amount of fishing for us, so that, casting in unseen places, she will eventually serve us some undreamed of catch. We enjoy being surprised, but we also want to understand the poetry, we want to be touched exactly by the mention of something we might ourselves have experienced. Miss Bishop satisfies this wish by never writing about experiences limited to herself. She lets one feel that, in the special circumstance, one might have perceived the same thing.

Discipline is the key to Miss Bishop's achievement. And for her, discipline means not only writing in a specific form: it means avoiding the flamboyant statements of "apocalyptic" poets for whom reality warps to fit the metaphor or the imagination. Her discipline includes an almost objectivist restriction to the data perceived by the senses, described without recourse to abstraction. Always looking outward, she treats the visual world compassionately, but not sentimentally. The style is conversational, never flat or argumentative; it sometimes has the language but never the verbosity of prose…. Miss Bishop's descriptions demand careful deliberation, as though they were beautifully formed, internal dialogues….

Without qualifying as "apocalyptic," Miss Bishop treats objects, natural things, people, as though she loves them for themselves, and not for how she can use them to reflect herself or her metaphors. She possesses what might be called an "objective imagination."

Peggy Rizza, in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw (reprinted by permission of Dufour Editions, Inc.), Carcanet, 1973, pp. 169-70.