Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 9)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11800

Bishop, Elizabeth 1911–

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Bishop is an American poet and prose writer currently residing in Brazil. She is generally regarded as a poet who has created a small but significant body of very individual lyric verse. Her poetic world is the real world, which she draws with meticulous detail, then often unexpectedly laces with the fantastic and the surreal. She has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Bishop has created a significant poetry out of the manipulation of "precious objects," and just as one might say that she in her return [to her origins, to childhood or a primitive equivalent] is not so individualistic as Robinson, Frost, or Stevens, and hence different from that generation, one may add that she is never so mystical as Roethke or so involved with gaining reader understanding as are the "confessional poets." Regardless of their conclusions, her poems are still active, and despite their searches for self and their emphases on dream, her reconstructions are not inspired by Freudian analysis and its wish to have one's direction altered by the conscious. Although Bishop returns mentally to her origins, it is not with any of the pathological compulsion that [Sherman] Paul detects in Crane's reveries of childhood or with the therapeutic aims that seem to lie behind the returns of Roethke, Lowell, Jarrell, and Berryman. One has the sense particularly in [the] late poems that she has lived the life she imagined—with all its necessary disappointments—and, despite the narrow range of choice and the pain of disappointment, she is willing to see her past as the only kind of life she could have lived. She is not, as are Lowell and Berryman, trying to fix blame or necessarily, as are Roethke and Jarrell, trying to sympathize. Like Baudelaire's voyagers, she seems instead to be accepting the conditions of voyaging as the process of a life which itself will arrive meaninglessly at death.

In their consistent pessimism about ultimate purpose, the ranges of Bishop's vision relate her both to the views of modernist poets like Robinson, Frost, and Stevens as well as to the major questionings of their successors. Her work is perhaps more profoundly Existential than the poetry of any of her contemporaries and questions even the evolutionary thrust on which occasionally a poet like Jarrell relies. She can and does believe in "tradition" and a sense of linear history, but not a tradition or history that concedes the immortality of art. Her "tradition" with its accumulation and reinforcements of feeling is no different from the cumulative effects of experience. Her incorporation of former works functions more to reinforce than, as in Jarrell, to effect a death struggle with a father figure and supplant his image. Her "precious objects" give the reader the only durability that she has discovered and, in presenting this durability, she never fights for an idiosyncratic idiom. Such an idiom would distort the reality she values and would finally prove immaterial, an exercise in will without regard to environment. She thus opposes the "rarity" that poets of her generation have assumed to promote their own egos and work and which, by its occasionally strident assertions of importance, can be as self-pitying as her denial of will. Nonetheless, one may wonder what her poetry would have been like if she, like her man-moth, had relinquished her "one tear." A more militant stoicism like that she admires in [Flannery] O'Connor may have resulted and produced an equally interesting body of work, but one with far less emphasis on detail and inclined more to allegory.

If Bishop's approach to life by its inclusion of impediments seems less "intellectual" than that of other poets,...

(The entire section contains 11800 words.)

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Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 4)