Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4036
In her early poem “The Map,” Elizabeth Bishop writes that “More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.” Her best poetry, although only indirectly autobiographical, is built from those mapmakers’ colors. Nova Scotian and New England seascapes and Brazilian and Parisian landscapes become the geography of her poetry. At the same time, her own lack of permanent roots and her sense of herself as an observer suggest the lack of social relationships one feels in Bishop’s poetry, for it is a poetry of observation, not of interaction, of people as outcasts, exiles, and onlookers, not as social beings. The relationships that count are with the land and sea, with primal elements, with the geography of Bishop’s world.
For critics, and certainly for other poets—those as different as Moore and Lowell, or Randall Jarrell and John Ashbery—Elizabeth Bishop is a voice of influence and authority. Writing with great assurance and sophistication from the beginning of her career, she achieved in her earliest poetry a quiet, though often playful, tone, a probing examination of reality, an exactness of language, and a lucidity of vision that mark all her best poetry. Her later poetry is slightly more relaxed than her earlier, the formal patterns often less rigorous; but her concern and her careful eye never waver. Because of the severity of her self-criticism, her collected poems, although relatively few in number, are of a remarkably even quality.
History, writes Bishop in “Objects and Apparitions,” is the opposite of art, for history creates ruins, while the artist, out of ruins, out of “minimal, incoherent fragments,” simply creates. Bishop’s poetry is a collection of objects and apparitions, of scenes viewed and imagined, made for the moment into a coherent whole. The imaginary iceberg in the poem of that name is a part of a scene “a sailor’d give his eyes for,” and Bishop asks that surrender of her readers. Her poetry, like the iceberg, behooves the soul to see. Inner and outer realities are in her poetry made visible, made one.
In Bishop’s poem “Sandpiper,” the bird of the title runs along the shore, ignoring the sea that roars on his left and the beach that “hisses” on his right, disregarding the interrupting sheets of water that wash across his toes, sucking the sand back to sea. His attention is focused. He is watching the sand between his toes; “a student of [William] Blake,” he attempts to see the world in each of those grains. The poet is ironic about the bird’s obsessions: He is “finical”; in looking at these details he ignores the great sweeps of sea and land on either side of him. For every point in time when the world is clear, there is another when it is a mist. The poet seems to chide the bird in his darting search for “something, something, something,” but then in the last two lines of the poem the irony subsides; as Bishop carefully enumerates the varied and beautiful colors of the grains of sand, she joins the bird in his attentiveness. The reward, the something one can hope to find, lies simply in the rich and multivalent beauty of what one sees. It is not the reward of certainty or conviction, but of discovery that comes through focused attention.
The irony in the poem is self-mocking, for the bird is a metaphor for Bishop, its vision like her own, its situation that of many of her poetic personas. “Sandpiper” may call to mind such Robert Frost poems as “Neither out Far nor in Deep” or “For Once, Then, Something,” with their perplexity about inward and outward vision and people’s attempt to fix their sight on something, to create surety out of their surroundings. It may also suggest such other Bishop poems as “Cape...
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