Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Elizabeth Bishop’s poems are noted for their precise visual details. Her vision has been called aerial, as it often presents a broad overview and then zeros in on details. The poems incorporate “thingness” more than any other quality: Bishop writes of the sea, travel, animals, clothes, sleeping, and waking up. Her poems insinuate that, through close observation of a thing, one will absorb the object or the object’s intrinsic meaning. Bishop’s descriptions of physical reality hint at a truth that cannot be seen. Her descriptions also serve as a filter through which one can see Bishop’s inner landscape; they are a way of dodging yet finally encountering a lost inward world.

Loss is a dominant motif in Bishop’s works, a motif accompanied by the theme of exile. These themes no doubt originated in her early loss of her father (Bishop was eight months old) and the subsequent breakdown and institutionalization of her mother when Elizabeth was only five. Bishop remained with her maternal grandparents after her mother’s hospitalization until her paternal grandparents took her in, a move that she remembered as a kidnapping. Although she undoubtedly began writing to exorcise herself of these early losses, she turned to poetry professionally through the influence of poet and mentor Marianne Moore. Moore’s independent lifestyle influenced Bishop even more than her artistic advice. The older woman’s career suggested that Bishop too could succeed in an art practiced primarily by men.

Emily Dickinson is Bishop’s “foremother,” in that both poets imply through physical description that the truth worth seeing cannot be...

(The entire section is 678 words.)