Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3829
Bishop held a unique place in American poetry during her lifetime, and after her death she has come to seem one of the few truly durable and original voices of twentieth century poetry. An accessible voice in a period of frequently puzzling poets, Bishop’s style was marked by precision and clarity, so that many critics have spoken of her work as a logical development of Imagism, the short-lived school of precise observation and clipped phrases of Pound and F. S. Flint in the early years of the century. The single most frequently evoked model, however, is Moore, with whom Bishop was friends, and whom she addressed directly in one of her poems, “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” in A Cold Spring. Certainly the link between the two comes readily to mind, not only because of the biographical connection between the two poets but also because of Moore’s equally effective choice of precise words to evoke unitary states of things. Recently, however, some critics have challenged this linking.
The particular qualities of her poetry aside, it certainly added to Bishop’s mystique that during the period of her greatest fame she lived in Brazil and was rarely seen in the United States. Another factor contributing to her reputation, perhaps paradoxically, was the fact that she wrote relatively little, a factor in part of her recurrent bouts of alcoholism. Her complete poems are contained in a single volume, like those of T. S. Eliot, and can conceivably be read through in a single sitting. In the glut of print in the modern world, the very parsimony of her production came to seem a virtue, as did her insistence on continual revision of the poems.
The impression that an initial reading of Bishop’s poetry makes is certainly that of the polished surface. Her words are carefully chosen, her evocations of the physical world precise, ranging from the description of scales on the floor of the fish house (“At the Fishhouses”) to the sensations of a child reading National Geographic in a dentist’s waiting room (“In the Waiting Room,” from Geography III). Her poems lack an easy moral; critics tend to agree that they avoid coming to overall, or perhaps overly pat, answers about the great themes of human existence. The reader must tease out the meaning, if indeed there is such, from under the shining surface.
As a result, some critics have found that Bishop’s poetry lacks substance, an accusation more frequent with respect to her earlier, pre-Brazil poetry (which nevertheless contains many of her most celebrated single works). It is a refusal to disclose secrets, if secrets there be, that the reader senses in these early poems, or an unwillingness on the part of the author to get involved with the world. This changed to some degree when Bishop began to write about Brazil, from whose culture she evidently felt sufficient distance to allow herself to characterize it from the outside, as she was not able to do with North American culture. From the poems about Brazil, as a result, a number of more elemental, slightly less intellectualized human themes emerge, longing for other climes and satisfaction with daily living among them.
A number of critics have therefore seen the theme of Bishop’s poetry taken as a whole to be that of involvement or noninvolvement with the world. By and large, the earlier poems are perceived as remaining within the bounds of the self, and the later poetry as being willing to step outside these bounds. Such easy dichotomies are not satisfactory, however, as there are early poems that clearly do take stands on human issues and later ones that do not seem to do so at all.
Critical stances such as these underline the curiously negative quality of most attempts to place Bishop in a larger context, whereby what she does...
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