Elizabeth Bishop Essay - Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 1)

Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 1)

Bishop, Elizabeth 1911–

Pulitzer Prize-winning American lyric poet, now living in Brazil. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

"The Fish" and "Roosters" are two of the most calmly beautiful, deeply sympathetic poems of our time; "The Monument," "The Man-Moth," "The Weed," the first "Song for a Colored Singer," and one or two others are almost, or quite, as good; and there are charming poems on a smaller scale, or beautiful fragments—for instance, the end of "Love Lies Sleeping." Miss Bishop is capable of the most outlandish ingenuity—who else could have made a witty mirror-image poem out of the fact that we are bilaterally symmetrical?—but is grave, calm, and tender at the same time. It is odd how pleasant and sympathetic her poems are, in these days when many a poet had rather walk down children like Mr. Hyde than weep over them like Swinburne, and when many a poem is gruesome occupational therapy for a poet who stays legally innocuous by means of it…. Miss Bishop's poems are almost never forced; in her best work restraint, calm, and proportion are implicit in every detail of organization and workmanship…. Her work is unusually personal and honest in its wit, perception, and sensitivity—and in its restrictions too; all her poems have written underneath, I have seen it. She is morally so attractive, in poems like "The Fish" or "Roosters," because she understands so well that the wickedness and confusion of the age can explain and extenuate other people's wickedness and confusion, but not, for you, your own; that morality, for the individual, is usually a small, personal, statistical, but heartbreaking or heart-warming affair of omissions and commissions the greatest of which will seem infinitesimal, ludicrously beneath notice, to those who govern, rationalize, and deplore….

Randall Jarrell, in his Poetry and the Age (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf-Vintage, 1953, pp. 212-13.

Miss Bishop is civilized in a special way: in being herself and in telling the truth, she supersedes manners by setting superior standards. By choosing so carefully what and whom she sees, she is never forced toward the half-lie. What is here in place of manners is a rare combination of naturalness and elegance—elegance of mind, spirit, taste—the real thing, for it is neither learned nor fashionable, but inherent. Not being rarefied there is no need to be colloquial. Miss Bishop never confuses the natural with the primitive or the elegant with the mannered—their debased counterparts. And what is more to the point, she couldn't.

She is an instinctive storyteller, too faithful to the truth to use what passes for the devices of drama. She has had to create a small theater of her own in which character and setting become dramatic not through oddity or conflict but through the charm, the susceptibility of the perceiver. It is a theater of depths as well as surfaces, and it both suggests and defines where questions of travel are truly answered….

Miss Bishop is one of the true masters of tone. She has an absolute sense of what the English language can do, of how much to say, how much to leave unsaid. There is no fiddling around with syntax, no evident concern with the sounds of words, no special effects of typography. We never have to search for a verb or wonder if a pronoun has an antecedent. What she brings to poetry is a new imagination; because of that, she is revolutionary, not "experimental." And she is revolutionary in being the first poet successfully to use all the resources of prose….

Her work has hardly been ignored; she has won just about every distinction and prize a poet can. But her poems are oddly unknown to the public, even that part of it that is supposed to be interested in poetry. And if obscurity is a general issue in the public's ignorance of poetry, it is not an issue here. Admired by critics, poets, and anyone genuinely interested in writing, her work is not easily labeled. Having no thesis, standing for no school of writing or thought, she is not the kind of poet who attracts public attention. This is partly due to a reticence in the writer herself, to the fact that she has lived in Brazil for the last decade, but mostly to the independence and quality of the poems themselves. Miss Bishop is not academic, beat, cooked, raw, formal, informal, metrical, syllabic, or what have you. She is a poet pure and simple who has perfect pitch.

Howard Moss, "Elizabeth Bishop: All Praise," in Kenyon Review, March, 1966. pp. 255-62.

Elizabeth Bishop seems to me rare among contemporary writers in that she has preserved, not only in [her] stories but in much else that she has written, [a] distinctively childlike vision with regard to human tragedy. This observation is not meant to indicate that she is naive; rather, I mean that for all her witty sophistication—and many of her poems are very witty indeed—she has refused to be theoretical about life. She has accepted what she has seen, and she has faithfully observed a great deal. But she has never developed her observations into a philosophy, never explicitly associated them with a central core of thought or belief. (p. 31)

The kind of poetry Elizabeth Bishop writes at her best—a style of poetry which owes as much to the French poets Apollinaire and Laforgue as it does to Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore and other American poets of her generation—is not now in vogue in the United States. In recent years there has been a reaction against formality, emotional restraint, and humor among American poets; what particularly characterizes the poetry of the 1960's is its intense and very personal seriousness. Yet, in spite of her love of conceits, of her personal reticence, of her tendency to laugh at the very things she takes most seriously, Elizabeth Bishop is among the few American poets writing today who has been able to say something uniquely true about the way modern life is experienced. At moments she has been able to divorce herself from habitual modes of interpretation and to receive sensations independently of her predisposition to judge them. That is, the sensations themselves have been questionable; they could mean one thing, they could mean another. And because there is doubt about the meaning of everything, Elizabeth Bishop refuses to settle for any comprehensive philosophy. She does not offer any consoling answers, but she does show us that the world can be accepted and even enjoyed without answers. For her, the world is, in spite of its terrible confusions and injustices, a rich one, and in her poems she repeatedly strikes a clear, unwavering note of personal acceptance. (pp. 49-50)

[She] is a poet who lives in a painter's world in which shapes and colors are enormously significant and in which the meaning of experence is inextricably connected with the appearance of it. Language, for her, is primarily a means of description (although it is not only that); and yet she seldom uses it impressionistically, as Wallace Stevens did, but with an attention to the particular and the definite which makes her poetry both more traditional and more realistic than his. (p. 51)

Elizabeth Bishop stands apart from life at the very moment she engages with it. In this respect her attitude is "Classical" as opposed to "Romantic."… Yet all of Miss Bishop's poems have a great deal to do with life. What they express is a way of looking at it. They present us with an interpretation which is at once a simplification and a rough approximation of the world she sees around her; but the interpretation has life and meaning as perhaps the "true" world ultimately never can. (p. 75)

Elizabeth Bishop's debt to [Ezra] Pound and to his kind of Imagism is as great as that of any poet of her generation. Stylistically, she profited from his example and learned to write in form without depending upon it—and without abandoning her own intuitive sense of rhythm. Her diction is spare, her ear sure, her standards of craftsmanship high. Like Pound, she has borrowed from many sources. As a girl she was passionately fond of Whitman and later of Hopkins. She admires Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Apollinaire, and Lorca among modern Europeans; but her delight in paradox has given her a special affection for the English lyricists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Her Baptist upbringing in Nova Scotia taught her the virtue of simple hymns. She has tried her hand at writing in most of these styles and has developed her own voice out of them. She is, in short, a master of her craft. (pp. 76-7)

Elizabeth Bishop (like Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, the English poet Ted Hughes, and many others) is a poet much concerned with the truth of nature; and her sense of this truth appears as a kind of ironic counterpoint which plays against or under her conventional metaphors of description…. The reader is reminded all the time that the poet knows she is pretending. The tone of the poem absolves her from believing in her personifications so that, like La Fontaine's animals, they are apt and acute descriptions without being falsifications of fact. When she personifies four deer who "practice" leaping over fences, she is, in describing them, obliquely commenting on human behavior. (p. 98)

Perhaps the best that can be said of her "philosophy" is that it is not a philosophy at all but a remarkable instinctive awareness. Her poetry implies that there is an inscrutable equality among all human and natural things and that they are subject to the same ruthless, mysterious forces. At the same time, she sees man as a conscious being, capable of understanding, or of at least feeling, something of these forces. His life is meaningful as his eye (and his mind's eye) sees and as his imagination interprets. Without vision or understanding, however, he is wholly absorbed into the universe which, after he is gone, continues…. (p. 105)

Elizabeth Bishop is more doubtful, more secular, more pessimistic, and in a certain sense more "modern" than many poets who are objectively "greater" than she is because she is always true to her sense of ignorance. Eliot and Pound, for instance, have had more to say; their command of language and their scope of knowledge are far more impressive. Yet each of them, in the end, needed the support of an artificially resurrected tradition. The unbearable uncertainty of the contemporary world let Eliot back into a conservative religion and Pound into a madhouse. Wallace Stevens shared Miss Bishop's secularism, as well as her painter's passion for color and form; but his obsession with the apparent discrepancy between ideas and things diverted his attentions to philosophy; and, in the end, this concern warred against the clarity of his imaginative perceptiveness. As for Marianne Moore, she is a poet who is, above all, fascinated by the stage set, by the sheer scenery of the world. Her work therefore (and perfectly legitimately) begs philosophical questions altogether. Its resonance derives from its fanatical precision, its exotic angles of vision, its "priceless set of vocabularies," and its resolute denial of despair. This denial is in contrast to Elizabeth Bishop whose poetry, for all its wit and whimsicality, comes from the heart of despair itself. But despair, for Elizabeth Bishop, is rarely an occasion for romantic despondency or for virulent sarcasm as it sometimes was for her mentors Laforgue and Apollinaire. It is rather an opportunity for elegance…. For Elizabeth Bishop … beauty is all that can be salvaged from the ambiguity and the chaos of existence. It is a kind of answer, a kind of resolution. However, Elizabeth Bishop's beauty has a very subtle and elusive existence so that she is not always sure that it is beauty at all. (pp. 120-21)

For a poet whose work will, in all probability, survive after many names and reputations of the twentieth century are forgotten, Elizabeth Bishop has written surprisingly little. Moreover, those poems for which she is famous … are not poems of a kind that are, for extra-literary reasons, especially popular today. They do not reveal the bruised spirit of an artist made callous (or mad) by a brutal society. They do not plead for sympathy. They are not pathetic, violent, sentimental, theoretical, or cynical. They are not self-flattering and show no trace of egomania. They are not mystical; they are not even, very often, social criticisms. Yet I believe that Elizabeth Bishop's poems will survive because they reflect some very personal qualities which are rarely found in conjunction with a creative personality. Elizabeth Bishop is modest, and she is dignified. Because she is modest, she has not presumed to assign to her artistic sensibilities an importance incommensurate with their value. Hers may be a minor voice among the poets of history, but it is scarcely ever a false one. We listen to it as one might listen to a friend whose exceptional wisdom and honesty we gratefully revere…. Elizabeth Bishop is a realist, but she sees miracles all the time. In her poems it is as if she were turning again and again to say to us: "If man, who cannot live by bread alone, is spiritually to survive in the future, he must be made to see that the stuff of bread is also the stuff of the infinite." The crumb which becomes a mansion in "A Miracle for Breakfast" is more than a clever poetical conceit. It is a symbol of hope in a world which can be bearable—for some mysterious reason—in spite of its evils. (pp. 126-27)

Anne Stevenson, in her Elizabeth Bishop, Twayne, 1966