Bishop, Elizabeth 1911–
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...
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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, it is that she is finally given more to necessity than they are. She is more willing to see life as a dialectical process involving man and his environment rather than a process of man's will being imposed upon his surroundings. Although man may not be improving in her view, he will survive much as other animal life has survived and he will need whatever beauty may be preservable. To accept this vision she must abandon the superstructures that most critics rely on to handle poets—those structures of thought which by their very separation from experience seem to define the ego. By minimizing the organizational nature of such separations and placing her definition of being on specific interactions with objects, she embraces a relativism like that of other post-modernist poets but based on situation rather than on voice. Her diverse "characters," as [James G.] South-worth points out, lie not in personae but in her manner of selecting subjects, in a tonality, and in her varied ways of massing detail into significant form. She emerges, therefore, as a balance to the tendency of other poets of her generation to overstress will and rarity. She reminds one how narrow the choices in life are and how unimportant rarity is. Erosion takes its toll of that, too. All discussions of psychology in Bishop's writing and attempts to connect her work finally with post-modernism begin by acknowledging these beliefs. (pp. 142-44)
Jerome Mazzaro, "Elizabeth Bishop and The Poetics of Impediment," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1974 by Skidmore College), Summer-Fall, 1974, pp. 118-44.
I first read Elizabeth Bishop's book North & South when it was published in 1946, and I had the experience in the very first poem, "The Map," of being drawn into a world that seemed as inevitable as "the" world and as charged with the possibilities of pleasure as the contiguous, overlapping world of poetry. Here, as in so many of her poems, the very materials—ink and paper—seemed to enlarge the horizons of the poem as they simultaneously called it back to the constricting dimensions of the page, much as a collage by Schwitters or Robert Motherwell triumphs over its prosaic substance by cultivating its ordinariness and the responses it can strike in our minds, where in a sense everything is ordinary, everything happens in a perpetual present which is a collage of objects and our impressions of them. (p. 8)
It is [the] continually renewed sense of discovering strangeness, the unreality of our reality at the very moment of the becoming conscious of it as reality, that is the great subject for Elizabeth Bishop. The silhouette of Norway unexpectedly becomes the fleeing hare it resembles; the names of cities conquer mountains; Labrador is yellow on the map not by chance but because the Eskimo has oiled it so as to make it into a window for an igloo; the universe is constantly expanding into vast generalizations that seem on the point of taking fire with meaning and contracting into tiny particulars whose enormous specific gravity bombards us with meaning from another unexpected angle….
In many of her poems Bishop installs herself as an open-minded, keen-eyed, even somewhat caustic observer of the life that is about to happen, speaking in a pleasant, chatty vernacular tone which seeks in no way to diminish the enormity of it, but rather to focus on it calmly and unpoetically. (p. 10)
Behind the multiple disguises, sometimes funny, sometimes terrifyingly unlike anything human, that the world assumes in Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, [the] moment of almost-transfiguration is always being tracked to its lair, giving the work a disturbing reality unlike anything else in contemporary poetry. (p. 11)
John Ashbery, "Second Presentation of Elizabeth Bishop," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 8-11.
In the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop things waver between being what they are and being something distinct from what they are. This uncertainty is manifested at times as humor and at other times as metaphor. In both cases it is resolved, invariably, in a leap that is a paradox: things become other things without ceasing to be the things they are. This leap has two names: one is imagination, the other is freedom. They are synonymous. Imagination describes the poetic act as a gratuitous game; freedom defines it as moral choice. The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop has the lightness of a game and the gravity of a decision.
Fresh, clear, potable: these adjectives that are usually applied to water and that have both physical and moral meanings suit perfectly the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Like water, her voice issues from dark and deep places; like water, it satisfies a double thirst: thirst for reality and thirst for marvels. Water lets us see things that repose in its depths yet are subjected to a continual metamorphosis: they change with the merest changes of light, they undulate, they are shaken, they live a ghostly life, a sudden blast of wind scatters them. Poetry that is heard as water is heard: murmur of syllables among stones and grass, verbal waves, huge zones of silence and transparency.
Water but also air: poetry in order to see, visual poetry. Words limpid as a perfect day. The poem is a powerful lens that plays with distances and presences. The juxtaposition of spaces and perspectives makes the poem a theatre where the oldest and most quotidian of mysteries is represented: reality and its riddles. Poetry in order to travel with eyes open or closed:… voyages within the self or outside the self, to the past or to the present, to the secret cities of memory or along the circular corridors of desire.
Poetry as if water spoke, as if air thought…. These poor comparisons are but ways of alluding to perfection. Not the perfection of the triangle, the sphere or the pyramid, but the irregular perfection, the imperfect perfection of the plant and of the insect. Poems perfect as a cat or a rose, not as a theorem…. We have forgotten that poetry is not in what words say but in what is said between them, that which appears fleetingly in pauses and silences. In the poetry workshops of universities there should be a required course for young poets: learning to be silent. The enormous power of reticence—that is the great lesson of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. But I am wrong to speak of lessons. Her poetry teaches us nothing. To hear it is not to hear a lesson; it is a pleasure, verbal and mental, as great as a spiritual experience. Let's listen to Elizabeth Bishop, hear what her words say to us and what, through them, her silence tells us. (pp. 15-16)
Octavio Paz, "Elizabeth Bishop, or The Power of Reticence," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 15-16.
Bishop is singular in that she moves into prose with no apparent hesitation, using the same eyes and ears, the same "tone of large, grave tenderness and sorrowing amusement" that Robert Lowell describes in her poetry.
Her most classically perfect piece (I deliberately avoid the word "story"—it has less "story" than most of her poems) is probably "In the Village," an impression of childhood in Nova Scotia. This was first published in The New Yorker over twenty years ago and was wisely included in the selection of poems entitled Questions of Travel published in 1965—"wisely" because it deserves, to my mind, as great a chance of immortality as any of her more well-known poems.
A nameless woman, a mother, screams; the scream hangs high over the village, "its pitch … the pitch of my village. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it." From then on, however pastoral the landscape below, however comforting the sights and sounds of a child's summer afternoon, we know we are involved in tragedy. But tragedy seldom reveals itself plainly to a child; it slips round corners, lurks in the shadows, hides, ready to pounce, in sunny meadows. And having started in the high sky, on top of the church steeple, we are now at child-level, looking up at most things. As in the best primitive painting (Rousseau rather than Grandma Moses), the appearance is pastoral, placid. But in the blacksmith's shop "things hang up in the shadows and shadows hang up in the things"; in the pasture where the child has gone to pick mint, she is suddenly faced with "an immense, sibilant, glistening loneliness"; the cow, Nelly, and the dog, Jock, are surely immense creatures, dwarfing the dressmaker ("She slept in her thimble") and the milliner, the little people of the village. (pp. 17-18)
"In the Village" is an invocation of childhood, ending with a cry of an adult heart; "The Sea and its Shore" …, with its childish title—a coloring book, perhaps, for the sea-glass and shells, pebbles and starfish, crabs and sandpipers with which Bishop feels such affinity—turns out to be a very sophisticated, airy piece about a man called Edwin Boomer, whose job it is to keep the beach clear of litter. An observant fellow even when drunk, he compares the flight of scraps of paper with the flight of birds and concludes that the paper "made more subtle use of air-currents and yielded to them more whimsically than the often pig-headed birds…."… [He] returns to his house to read the strange information (messages to Boomer from the unknown?) stacked on his pointed stick. All night he reads—"He made no distinction between the bewilderments of prose and those of poetry"—trying to piece together "any instructions or warnings" he may find; and at dawn it is time for the burning….
Nothing more than this happens to Boomer. His house does not catch fire, he does not encounter people or speak or love or die. Bishop's words enclose his turmoil as a glass dome encloses a miniature snowstorm, perfectly fitting, transparent and snug, transfixing him "in his house, at four one morning, his reading selected, the conflagration all over, the lantern shining clearly." "It is," she writes wryly, "an extremely picturesque scene, in some ways like a Rembrandt, but in many ways not"—a typically enigmatic tease of an ending…. (p. 18)
Penelope Mortimer, "Elizabeth Bishop's Prose," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 17-18.
[Elizabeth Bishop's poems vibrate] between two frequencies—the domestic and the strange. In another poet the alternation might seem a debate, but Bishop drifts rather than divides, gazes rather than chooses. Though the exotic is frequent in her poems of travel, it is not only the exotic that is strange and not only the local that is domestic. (It is more exact to speak, with regard to Bishop, of the domestic rather than the familiar, because what is familiar is always named, in her poetry, in terms of a house, a family, someone beloved, home. And it is truer to speak of the strange rather than of the exotic, because the strange can occur even in the bosom of the familiar, even, most unnervingly, at the domestic hearth.)
To show the interpenetration of the domestic and the strange at their most inseparable, it is necessary to glance back at some poems printed in Questions of Travel. In one, "Sestina," the components are almost entirely innocent—a house, a grandmother, a child, a Little Marvel Stove and an almanac. The strange component, which finally renders the whole house unnatural, is tears….
The absence of the child's parents is the unspoken cause of those tears, so unconcealable though so concealed. For all the efforts of the grandmother, for all the silence of the child, for all the brave cheer of the Little Marvel Stove, the house remains frozen, and the blank center stands for the definitive presence of the unnatural in the child's domestic experience—especially in the child's domestic experience. Of all the things that should not be inscrutable, one's house comes first. The fact that one's house always is inscrutable, that nothing is more enigmatic than the heart of the domestic scene, offers Bishop one of her recurrent subjects.
The centrality of the domestic provokes as well one of Bishop's most characteristic forms of expression. When she is not actually representing herself as a child, she is, often, sounding like one. The sestina, which borrows from the eternally childlike diction of the folktale, is a case in point. Not only the diction of the folktale, but also its fixity of relation appears in the poem, especially in its processional close, which places the almanac, the grandmother and the child in an arrangement as unmoving as those found in medieval painting, with the almanac representing the overarching Divine Necessity, the grandmother as the elder principle and the child as the principle of youth. The voice speaking the last three lines dispassionately records the coincident presence of grief, song, necessity and the marvelous; but in spite of the "equal" placing of the last three lines, the ultimate weight on inscrutability, even in the heart of the domestic, draws this poem into the orbit of the strange.
A poem close by in Questions of Travel tips the balance in the other direction, toward the domestic. The filling station which gives its name to the poem seems at first the antithesis of beauty, at least in the eye of the beholder who speaks the poem. The station is dirty…. The speaker, though filled with "a horror so refined," is unable to look away from the proliferating detail which, though this is a filling station, becomes ever more relentlessly domestic. "Do they live in the station?" wonders the speaker, and notes incredulously a porch, "a set of crushed and grease-/impregnated wickerwork," the dog "quite comfy" on the wicker sofa, comics, a taboret covered by a doily, and "a big hirsute begonia." The domestic, we perceive, becomes a compulsion that we take with us even to the most unpromising locations, where we busy ourselves establishing domestic tranquility as a demonstration of meaningfulness, as a proof of "love." Is our theology only a reflection of our nesting habits? (pp. 23-4)
Domesticity is frail, and it is shaken by the final strangeness of death [as in "First Death in Nova Scotia"]. Until death, and even after it, the work of domestication of the unfamiliar goes on, all of it a substitute for some assurance of transcendent domesticity, some belief that we are truly, in this world, in our mother's house, that "somebody loves us all." After a loss that destroys one form of domesticity, the effort to reconstitute it in another form begins. The definition of death in certain of Bishop's poems is to have given up on domesticating the world and reestablishing yet once more some form of intimacy. Conversely, the definition of life in the conversion of the strange to the familial, of the unexplored to the knowable, of the alien to the beloved.
No domesticity is entirely safe. As in the midst of life we are in death, so, in Bishop's poetry, in the midst of the familiar, and most especially there, we feel the familiar as the unknowable. This guerrilla attack of the alien, springing from the very bulwarks of the familiar, is the subject of "In the Waiting Room." It is 1918, and a child, almost seven, waits, reading the National Geographic, while her aunt is being treated in the dentist's office. The scene is unremarkable: "grown-up people,/arctics and overcoats,/lamps and magazines," but two things unnerve the child. The first is a picture in the magazine: "black, naked women with necks/wound round and round with wire/like the necks of light bulbs./Their breasts were horrifying"; and the second is "an oh! of pain/—Aunt Consuelo's voice" from inside. The child is attacked by vertigo, feels the cry to be her own uttered in "the family voice" and knows at once her separateness and her identity as one of the human group…. The child's compulsion to include in her world even the most unfamiliar data, to couple the exotica of the National Geographic with the knees and trousers and skirts of her neighbors in the waiting room, brings together the strange at its most horrifying with the quintessence of the familiar—oneself, one's aunt, the "family voice." In the end, will the savage be domesticated or oneself rendered unknowable? The child cannot bear the conjunction and faints. Language fails the six-year-old. "How—I didn't know any/word for it—how 'unlikely' …".
That understatement, so common in Bishop, gives words their full weight. As the fact of her own contingency strikes the child, "familiar" and "strange" become concepts which have lost all meaning…. The child in "In the Waiting Room" discovers that she is in no intelligible relation to her world, and, too young yet to conceive of domination of the world by will or domestication of the world by love, she slides into an abyss of darkness. (pp. 24-5)
"The Moose" [is] a poem in which no lasting exclusive companionship between human beings is envisaged, but in which a series of deep and inexplicable satisfactions unroll in sequence, each of them precious. Domestication of the land is one, domesticity of the affections is another, and the contemplation of the sublimity of the nonhuman world is the third. (p. 27)
[In Frost's "The Most of It"], as in Bishop's poem, a creature emerges from "the impenetrable wood" and is beheld. But Frost's beast disappoints expectation…. Frost's beast is male, Bishop's female; Frost's a symbol of brute force, Bishop's a creature "safe as houses"; Frost's a challenge, Bishop's a reassurance. The presence approaching from the wood plays, in both these poems, the role that a god would play in a pre-Wordsworthian poem and the role that a human being—a leech-gatherer, an ancient soldier, a beggar—would play in Wordsworth. These human beings, when they appear in Wordsworth's poetry, are partly iconic, partly subhuman, as the Leech-Gatherer is part statute, part sea-beast, and as the old man in "Animal Tranquillity and Decay" is "insensibly subdued" to a state of peace more animal than human. "I think I could turn and live with animals," says Whitman, foreshadowing a modernity that finds the alternative to the human not in the divine but in the animal. Animal life is pure presence, with its own grandeur. It assures the poet of the inexhaustibility of being. Bishop's moose is at once maternal, inscrutable and mild. If the occupants of the bus are bound, in their human vehicle, to the world of village catastrophe and pained acknowledgment, they feel a release of joy in glimpsing some large, grand solidity, even a vaguely grotesque one, which exists outside their tales and sighs, which is entirely "otherworldly." "The darkness drops again," as the bus moves on; the "dim smell of moose" fades in comparison to "the acrid smell of gasoline."
"The Moose" is such a purely linear poem, following as it does the journey of the bus, that an effort of will is required to gaze at it whole. The immediacy of each separate section—as we see the landscape, then the people, then the moose—blots out what has gone before. But the temptation—felt when the poem is contemplated entire—to say something global, something almost allegorical, suggests that something in the sequence is more than purely arbitrary. The poem passes from adult observation of a familiar landscape to the unending ritual, first glimpsed in childhood, of human sorrow and narration, to a final joy in the otherworldly, in whatever lies within the impenetrable wood and from time to time allows itself to be beheld. Beyond or behind the familiar, whether the visual or the human familiar, lies the perpetually strange and mysterious. It is that mystery which causes those whispered exclamations alternating with the pained "Yes" provoked by human vicissitude. It guarantees the poet more to do. On it depends all the impulse to domestication. Though the human effort is bent to the elimination of the wild, nothing is more restorative than to know that earth's being is larger than our human enclosures. Elizabeth Bishop's poetry of domestication and domesticity depends, in the last analysis, on her equal apprehension of the reserves of mystery which give, in their own way, a joy more strange than the familiar blessings of the world made human. (p. 28)
Helen Vendler, "Domestication, Domesticity and the Otherworldly," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 23-8.
Elizabeth Bishop comes from the North, and like a lot of Northern people, she went south; but the title of her first book, North & South, tells us only part of the story. Its North is New York City and its South, Key West; yet the limits it suggests have wider boundaries, earlier and later counterparts: a more distant North, Canada, and a further South, Brazil. And so in the later poems the earliest Canadian landscape is revived, and Brazil replaces Florida. That the two connections are similar we have no doubt; that they are different explains why a poem like "The Moose"—a late poem—restates and enriches several Bishop themes: a journey, a rediscovery, the magical appearance of an animal, the sudden awareness of a particular kind of consciousness. Though its setting is New Brunswick, one can cross the border quickly into Nova Scotia, where the poet grew up, an area with pastoral views, snow and an insistence on its Anglo connection. There is in Bishop's Nova Scotia something odd, as if the South Pole had been settled by an English middle class. It is exotic and at the same time—to use a word she uses so tellingly in "Filling Station"—"comfy."
One figure, not middle-class, appears early, and he focuses a concern of Bishop's throughout: the off-creature, the person not part of the comfortable world she found herself in, a comfortable world that had its attendant horrors. One doesn't become a poet for nothing. That figure is the blacksmith who plays such an important role in "In the Village." A counter to a world that has suddenly become impossible—the mother's scream, her madness, are facts, feelings a child cannot take in or, if taken in, cannot bear—he is interesting in himself: he makes something, horseshoes, and he works in the natural world, his ultimate clients being horses. A native and a craftsman—two good Bishop things to be—he is also an outsider, in the sense of being exotic to the child's world at the time. His peculiarity is to normalize the situation; that is, through his oddity he makes things all right. This sense of normalcy and oddness in tandem appears many times in the poems…. And since the poet is concerned with the domestic in the exotic (a primitive oil lamp, say, hewn out of old Milk of Magnesia bottles and oil drums), some distancing is required. This is supplied by an obvious source, travel, but also by a more subtle one, perspective. If one is in Key West, New York takes on special aspects, and the same is true of Nova Scotia and Brazil. The imagination, of course, has its own cameras, and if any example were needed of what Bishop can do without traveling six thousand miles, "The Monument" would be a good one. But her particular imagination is excited by new places, or old ones that become new by the switch in viewpoint which great distances provide. If "questions of travel" are never resolved by literal answers, distance at least allows for optical shifts and refreshments of thought. (p. 29)
[The] lures of anthropology are present everywhere, because in primitive cultures phenomena are reduced and made clear; the combination of the practical and the occult, of the humdrum and the godlike is taken for granted, and the poet searches for that fusion in places where it has never existed before, in subjects not considered to be the stuff of poetry…. There is an interest in reading a new Elizabeth Bishop poem not quite like reading anyone else's. We are surprised to be led not only to a change of viewpoint but to a widening of perception in general. Who else would have connected a sandpiper and William Blake? Or Baudelaire and marimba music? (pp. 29-30)
By its accuracy, by its choice of what is to be put in and left out, Bishop's world begins to take on moral properties. These involve manners in particular and judiciousness in general: there is no scope in her poems that is not measured by a true balancing of weights. And when enlargement occurs—say, in "Roosters," in the introduction of the figure of St. Peter—we move from the chicken coop to the Vatican, to "old holy sculpture" where "a little cock is seen/carved on a dim column in the travertine," without jarring the imagination or shifting the tone. We move quickly but with absolute grace from nature to art and from there to perceptions that have ethical force. And we believe the lines that explicitly make their points—"There is inescapable hope, the pivot" or "cock-a-doodles yet might bless,/his dreadful rooster come to mean forgiveness"—because we have been led to them by a process as natural as it is artful. It is not difficult to lend one's assent, finally, to the statement that "'Deny deny deny'/is not all the roosters cry."
The hen house leads us by steps to the New Testament; the blacksmith is commonplace but begins to take on mythical proportions. If "mythical" seems too broad a word, then a "fictional illumination" might be more accurate. The point is: he is much more than he first appears to be….
Bishop's cool eye for detail is also a dramatic lens, and her feeling for character is shaded but pronounced. Her little dramas, even the family that makes its greasy appearance in "Filling Station," suggest the theatre, in fact, suggest that strange combination of talents I have mentioned elsewhere: those of the painter and the playwright. I do not disparage Bishop's infallible ear when I say she is closer to the painters than to the composers in most of the poems. Abstraction is not particularly interesting to this poet, and music is not famous for dealing with particulars. What can be handled, looked at, examined, walked around, reperceived, turned in different lights, hung up or laid down—that is of much more interest. (p. 30)
The traditional "character study" is absent. The attendant world, falling into place before and behind, gives the poems their interest, their power and their wit. The personal has little to do with it….
[Slantwise] is the way this poet looks at character: from a side, obliquely, as if she had caught it in its natural habitat without its being aware. There is an assumption of character in creatures, in her moose, her fish, her roosters, the boy leading the horse in "Twelfth Morning," even the little toy horse of "Cirque d'Hiver." These are characters, at least of a sort, because insight is not this poet's thing; the world revealed is everything, its immediacy, its exactitude, but not necessarily its significance. The historical and the confessional rarely crop up in these poems. And one would have to search hard for psychological interest of the kind we have become used to: the inner life, neurotic conflict, Baudelaire's "wing of madness." Yet by plainly presenting character—human, animal or metaphysical … and giving it its eccentricities right up front at the footlights, by some miraculous process of foreshortening or enlargement, Bishop causes it to make a permanent imprint…. If one could think of a playwright fascinated by drama and incongruity but rather indifferent to personality, one might have something analagous: the whole surround intensely filled with single objects and directed and lit by an expert.
This gift is partly a matter of clarity, of wakefulness, and it is informative, I think, to go over the poems and note how many of them begin at dawn or at daybreak…. And conversely, sleep and dream are mentioned often, as if they were opposing conditions from which it were necessary to be roused. With the exception of "The Weed," dream itself is rarely invoked, but it runs like a thread through the fabric of the poems—important in itself, but more important, I think, as an opposing force—not the place where knowledge is to be found but the one that precludes physical observation. (p. 31)
[What the] portraits suggest is sympathy, kindness, judgment—behind them all a set of moral standards is shifting gears—but neither intimacy nor love, though one line explicitly says, "I love you, I guess." That guess is as far as Bishop goes, yet an understated love poem like "The Shampoo" moves one by its restraint, its minimal claims.
Strength and independence under the façade of weakness arouse the poet's interest. It is not a matter of dissimulation but of the simultaneous perception of power and vulnerability, a doubleness manifested over and over again, culminating perhaps in "The Armadillo," where all the armor the animal possesses is not proof against fire. This doubleness is also present in the choice of servants as subjects, because a second character is always implicit; servants, after all, are hired and, in one way or another, play roles. They present the poet with a person and a persona, observable at close range without the risk of presumption. Familiar but aloof, being around so often, they allow for the sureness of external fact and a tacit affection, and around each of them a world, unlike that of the poet's but peculiarly congenial to her talents, materializes. One would not imagine, for instance, a Rio society hostess as the subject of an Elizabeth Bishop poem, or even a nice middle-class Canadian lawyer. Duality is also manifested in the canny manipulation of odd couplings of words, particularly adjectives and nouns, where a tension is set up between them that creates a kind of verbal magnetic field: "awful but cheerful," "the uncontrolled, traditional cries," "commerce and contemplation," "a grave green dust," "the blurred redbud," "the somnambulist brook," et cetera.
In fact, in spite of the clarity of vision, this two-faced perception may be the key to what makes these poems work so beautifully, enhancing their surfaces with an electric undercurrent. A deep division undercuts the authority of the poems, and it is more telling than geographical polarities, the disparity implied between "master" and "servant" or the yoking together of dissimilar notions like "awful but cheerful." That division is: reserve at war with the congenial. A New England iron in the manner—or, I should say, in the lack of manner—in conflict with an easygoing willingness to accept life as it is, its perkiness and variety, is everywhere present. Critical judgment in these poems is more likely to suspend itself for what is harmless or distant or struggling or moving in its persistence than it is for the suffering or conflicts of peers. No drug addicts, drunks or suicides make an appearance; no poets, academics or white-collar workers are alluded to. Infused with a compassion that knows by instinct where true feeling ends and false sentiment begins, the poems are remarkably trustworthy on human terms, considering how descriptive they are generally taken to be. It is as if we discovered in a landscape painter not a psychologist but the surprising gift of portraiture. And when social protest becomes explicit, as it does in "Squatter's Children" or in "Going to the Bakery," there is no sudden tearing of fabric or gnashing of teeth. A style has been arrived at which allows for wider circles of emotion and more direct social comment than is at first apparent…. Part of the effect of lower depths and widening circles stems from a sub-rosa notion steaming away under a grating: if Bishop wanted to, she could tell us more, because we always feel that more slides have been taken than are going to be projected. (pp. 31-2)
The poems, then, seem to me to explore emotions more profoundly than is usually acknowledged. They reject many alternatives—one need merely turn a page or two in The Collected Poems to come across the Bishop translation of Andrade's "Don't Kill Yourself" to be startled. It's a marvelous poem, but the sudden rise in temperature produces a different kind of weather. Having been pigeonholed for so long as a cool customer, Bishop is ladylike but tough, but also much warmer, much more involved in life than a mere map-maker or tourist guide. If passion is missing from these poems—and I don't think it is—so is self-absorption. Their seeming casualness belies their extraordinary concentration, a concentration reminiscent of Emily Dickinson at her best. The discarded temptations of the printed Bishop canon have made it a small one, and its smallness has given rise too easily to the word "minor." What we find in these poems is elegance and withheld power. What else does "restraint" mean? One has to have something to restrain, and these poems, so easy to read, give up their secrets slowly. Shedding moral light, affection in these works extends itself more easily to the victor who has battled and won than to the loser who merely survives.
Admiring action, there may be behind Bishop's poems a fear of passivity in itself: the reduction of the status of the observer to that of the excluded. If one were to try to station the writer behind a movie camera in these poems, it would be hard to say from just what angle the movie was being shot. The object is everything, the viewer and the viewer's position—except by inference—the merest assumption. Yet how remarkably consistent that lens is, how particularly keen the eye behind it! There is a great deal to be said for scope, but more to be said, I think, for the absolutely achieved. These poems strike me as ageless; there are no false starts, no fake endings. None of the provincial statements of youth, none of the enticements of facility are allowed to enter. Starting with "The Map," we are in the hands of an artist so secure in the knowledge of what makes and doesn't make a poem that a whole generation of poets—and remarkably different ones—has learned to know what a poem is through her practice. She has taught us without a shred of pedagogy to be wary of the hustling of the emotions, of the false allurements of the grand. Rereading these poems, how utterly absent the specious is! There is no need to revise them for future editions, the way Auden revised and Marianne Moore revised and Robert Lowell revised. Nothing need be added, nothing taken away. They constitute a body of work in which the innovative and the traditional are bound into a single way of looking. From a poet's point of view, these poems are the ones of all her contemporaries that seem to me most to reward rereading. (p. 33)
Howard Moss, "The Canada-Brazil Connection," in World Literature Today, (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 29-33.
North & South is a book very much about the double meanings of things. The images—the frequent images of landscape or travel, for example—are not meant only literally, for ultimately they suggest the complicated, elusive geography of the inner world. It is a book aware of alternatives: assertion and withdrawal, movement and stasis, surface appearance and past history, reality and imagination, waking and sleeping, body and spirit, "commerce" and "contemplation." It is a book about coming to terms with the alternatives with which the real world confronts us; and the alternatives Bishop chooses to inspect in her microscopic, understated way come to embody her profound statement about the kind of world we live in and what it means to be living in it….
"Cirque d'Hiver" and "Florida" are both extraordinary poems. Neither needs the other for its own survival, but their context in North & South gives both of them another dimension. They form an emblematic juxtaposition of images, dramatizing what Bishop calls in an earlier poem in the book "that sense of constant re-adjustment"—a phrase that suggests how she herself looks out at the world and how we in turn might best look at her work.
The Cirque d'Hiver was a real circus in Paris noted especially for its ponies. The "winter circus" in the poem is located on the floor of someone's home, the star performer a single mechanical toy. The atmosphere is diminutive, miniature; the tone is understated. The poem is obviously formal, arranged in regular stanzas with rhymes of subtle consistency and variety. Metrically it is one of Elizabeth Bishop's most regular poems, syntactically one of her most direct. But the whole sense of formality and understatement that dominates this poem makes the few deviations, when they come, devastating. (p. 41)
"Little" is perhaps the most frequently repeated adjective in Elizabeth Bishop's poetry…. Randall Jarrell calls Elizabeth Bishop "minutely observant" and says that "her best poems … remind one of Vuillard or even, sometimes, of Vermeer." She herself has said …, "I'm not interested in big-scale work as such. Something needn't be large to be good." Such titles as "Large Bad Picture" and "Little Exercise" clearly reflect this sense of values. "Little" or "small" or "delicate" things are not to be taken lightly in these works. The close observation of details is not precious or arch….
[There] is a moral quality to the detail, a sense not only that small things are worth looking at and paying attention to or that they are simply "good," but that also, more than anything else, they represent what we have: the triumph of survival of the meek, encompassed round with danger, "the little that we get for free," as she writes twenty-six years after North & South in "Poem," "the little of our earthly trust. Not much." The small, unobtrusive objects, the reticent unself-dramatizing figures of Vuillard or Vermeer, are sometimes heroic, monumental, almost in direct proportion to how "insignificant" they may at first seem. And in ["Cirque d'Hiver" and "Florida"] it is the small objects, observed with intensity, respect and wit, with which the poet herself most identifies….
The seriousness of the horse [in "Cirque d'Hiver"] is … specifically contrasted with the frivolity of the dancer ("her pink toes dangle"). However, the two figures are inextricably connected by a "little pole/that pierces both her body and her soul/and goes through his." "Pierces" is the most violent word in the poem, and it is shocking in this context. We must not forget that the horse and the dancer, like Blake's "contraries," are the opposite, alternate elements of a single entity which is incomplete without either part. But we are also reminded that this entity is only a toy. Only a mechanical toy could be so gaily indifferent to what we could consider a torment—the piercing "little pole" turns into the "big tin key" under the horse's belly. It winds them up, brings them to life; for them this is not a crucifixion. (p. 42)
The poet herself, on some level, becomes implicated in what the horse does. Mechanical or stoical, or both, it "looks at me": it precipitates a confrontation. The dancer, "by this time, has turned her back." She is too trivial to confront anything; "he is the more intelligent by far."
The note of melancholy, of suppressed anxiety (especially at "pierces"), is now openly admitted as part of the confrontation: "Facing each other rather desperately."… What they say to each other in their confrontation is a mutual recognition of their similarity, a sense of both accomplishment and defeat, an awareness of the slightness of what has been accomplished and of how difficult it has been to achieve even that. With a cautious eye on what is in store, "we stare and say, 'Well, we have come this far.'"
The "formal, melancholy soul" of the mechanical horse is also characteristic of this whole poem, with its final mixture of fear and resignation, desperation and acceptance. The particular poignance of the poem is that Bishop chooses this childish, trivial object in which to see reflected her own "formal" and "melancholy" soul. Coming "this far" assumes the actions of a whole life, a life seen in the image of a toy—one with a capacity for intelligence, insight, vision, self-awareness—yet unable to detach itself completely from frivolity, artificiality and the sad necessity of endless mechanical repetition of the only action it is capable of. In its understated way, the moment of identification and self-awareness in this poem seems one of the most touching and painful in modern literature.
"Florida" is about as far away as one can get from the "Cirque d'Hiver." The latter is nothing if not civilized. There is nothing civilized about what happens in "Florida." The winter circus is all artifice, with artificial roses; "the state with the prettiest name" is a perpetual summer, a "flowery" state with real flowers only. "Cirque d'Hiver" is a poem about restraint, necessity. "Florida" is about letting go—hysteria, tantrums, ferocity, "strong tidal currents." It is a vision of a Dionysian world in contrast to the Apollonian "Cirque d'Hiver," the primitive world of the dead "Indian Princess" fulfilling its natural functions of living and dying not on principle but driven by pure instinct, the id, "careless, corrupt."
Two basic contrasting attitudes are interwoven throughout the poem: the objective and the subjective. The latter projects human emotions into the natural scene: "hysterical birds … in a tantrum," blushing red tanagers "embarrassed by their flashiness."… The objective sees clinically the contrasting and contradictory sides of everything: "The state with the prettiest name" is also "the state that floats in brackish water."… Life and death coexist…. (pp. 42-3)
There is a sense of continuous present, that all of this is what happens all the time… [All] the verbs in the poem are in the present tense. Yet there is also a sense of history, of time passing, in the immediacy of the point of view of the poet who is actually living through this scene….
[What] provides the greatest feeling of immediacy, of the particular moment as opposed to the continuous present, is not what events occur, but rather how they are observed. The individual voice of the poet, observing—and evaluating—the natural world, is the only other important "constant" in the poem. That voice reveals itself in the uniquely precise and personal descriptions, in which metaphors illuminate not only the objects observed, but also the life and varied interests of the observer…. It is a voice expressing complex attitudes as uniquely personal as the choice of metaphors—the alternation, for example, of external description with the projection of human emotions…. (p. 43)
Nature and art are oddly interwoven. There are "birds who rush up the scale" and mosquitoes with "ferocious obbligatos," and also that "delicately ornamented" coastline. Personal opinion and critical distance combine when a final esthetic judgment is made, as if the whole place were fashioned by man…. From the esthetic point of view of the humanist, ironically, Florida is a failure as a work of art. But Florida, after all, is not a work of art. It is only treated so by the observer who has to be detached and critical, who has to use her sharp sense of irony, her wit and her awareness of her own ability to bring a scene dazzlingly to life with words in order to keep from getting too close and falling in….
[Juxtaposed] with "Cirque d'Hiver," it is the awesome alternative, the other side of the coin—contrast, corollary, corrective, completion—necessary to see objectively and to evaluate…. The ultimate discovery of these explorations is that, after all, the mechanical horse and the Indian Princess are not so very different. Both are trapped by the necessities of their own existence….
Every vision is a potential revelation. How deeply we see, how much we see, even in the most apparently insignificant things around us, and how much of ourselves we see in those things are for Elizabeth Bishop the way of measuring and understanding who we are. (p. 44)
Lloyd Schwartz, "The Mechanical Horse and the Indian Princess: Two Poems from 'North & South'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 41-4.
Distinctive to many of [Elizabeth Bishop's] descriptive poems is the fact that they culminate in an epiphany—that flash of recognition which Joyce understood as a revelation occurring by a process of imaginative perception. In Bishop's poems, however, the epiphanic discoveries are almost always the result of close perception and personal meditation. They allow her readers striking poems which minutely detail exterior appearances of the entities about which she writes. (p. 49)
In Bishop's poetry the experience of epiphany, although it is the dawning of something extraordinary, sometimes even a sort of mystical consciousness, is both the accompaniment and culmination of the ordinary. What Joyce describes as the object's achieving of its epiphany is in her poems the rendering of her synthetic vision of the essential value of natural entities or personal experiences. Value in her poems is always initiated and grounded in perception and is related through description. The attributing of worth in Bishop's work, however, is the result of a vision which coalesces both objective and subjective impressions of the landscapes, persons or artifacts she describes. Her poetry begins with perception, but quite often it transforms what she perceives via meditation; the effect of these processes is imaginative revelation.
Involved in Bishop's epiphanic poems are not only discoveries originating in and pertaining to the external world but also radical self-insights…. In "Poem" the poet experiences the shock not only of remembering a familiar scene which a great-uncle painter had painted, but even more important, of realizing that for her particular esthetics experience, memory and imagination are inseparable. In "The Bight" Bishop implies that she becomes, during the process of the poem's discovery, the person who chooses to continue living her life; in "Poem" she becomes the poet who would create poems, even as she creates "Poem," out of a certain sensibility. (pp. 49-50)
Elizabeth Bishop's work reveals that she can know only what is apparent to the eye. To her way of seeing and thinking, mortals can never immerse themselves fully (even if one is, as she says of herself in "At the Fishhouses," a believer in "total immersion") in knowledge itself. Even so, her poetry consistently reaches from personal experience toward an interior vision. In "Cape Breton," as in other of her poems, the meaning of whatever scene is before her is not apparent, and she senses that congruent "sense making" either has already been or must now be "abandoned." Yet real if temporary discoveries of interior meaning evolve. It is these implicit epiphanies which her readers must pursue, even as the poet herself pursues them….
Perhaps it is because she has such a tenuous grasp on a knowledge of the reality of any interior that Bishop continues to describe the exteriors of scenes, of actions, as accurately and as exactly as could any poet. Most persons who read her poetry agree that she seldom fails to describe everything within the scope of her works in its most minute detail, its most intricate nuance. Yet she is not simply an objective poet. An intriguing paradigm of the contemporary sensibility, she ultimately relates scenes or events to herself. By the processes of perceiving and meditating in an epiphanic manner which is inherently quite personal, she teaches us much about the interior of her own sensibility. (p. 52)
Sybil Estess, "Toward the Interior: Epiphany in 'Cape Breton' As Representative Poem," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 49-52.
Elizabeth Bishop's poetry is full of invitations. Look, it says; watch; think; listen. Yet it is never bullying. These are invitations, not instructions, and when they begin to sound bossy, a note of parody usually creeps in…. One of the most brilliant, as well as the most representative, of Elizabeth Bishop's poems is called "Little Exercise," and it invites us to "Think of the storm roaming the sky uneasily/like a dog looking for a place to sleep in,/listen to it growling." It is worth noting, incidentally, how soon the thought grows sounds we can listen to. We are then asked to think of the storm's progress, mangrove keys under lightning, bedraggled palm trees along a wet boulevard, and then as the storm goes away, we should
Think of someone sleeping in the bottom of a row-boat tied to a mangrove root or the pile of a bridge; think of him as uninjured, barely disturbed.
We are invited to enjoy this picture of a magical immunity, but not to act on it. How could we? The moment such repose was planned, it would become something else, and we should find ourselves in another Bishop poem, called "The Unbeliever," where a man "sleeps on the top of a mast/with his eyes fast closed." He keeps company up there with clouds and gulls, but they are assured of being where they are supposed to be, and he, grimly hanging on to his nightmare, is not…. The first man is careless, the second is desperate. Both poems offer images of human possibility and they elegantly and honorably refuse to moralize about them. Possibilities are to be entertained, not ordered about.
It is true, as Randall Jarrell said in Poetry and the Age, that Elizabeth Bishop understands that "it is sometimes difficult and unnatural, but sometimes easy and natural," to "do well," and the two poems I have just mentioned illustrate precisely those possibilities. But doing well here seems to be a matter of how we fare, not of what we choose…. Certainly the mechanical horse and the speaker of the poem "Cirque d'Hiver" say, "Well, we have come this far," and the tourists of "Santos" are berated for their "immodest demands for a different world,/and a better life, and complete comprehension/of both." And certainly the tone as well as the contents of many Bishop poems suggest a belief in strictly disciplined expectations….
But lively people settle for small comforts only when they have no other options, and what we have when we settle may not be enough at all; it may be simply what we have. When Bishop makes "The Gentleman of Shalott" say that "Half is enough," we need to remember the context…. The mechanical horse and the speaker of "Cirque d'Hiver" were "facing each other rather desperately" before they arrived at their timid, consolatory phrase, and obviously one reading of the poem about the art of losing would reverse almost everything it seems to say: the art of losing is horribly hard to master, and that is why it is being discussed in this studiously offhand manner.
This is not a complete reading of the poem, of course, and the whole story would include the thought that some losses can be overcome and others can't, and that it may be worth trying to slip some members of the second group into the first, even if the strategy doesn't work. But the ambiguity is the point. Even when Bishop's poems seem to make statements, they turn out to be contemplating complex possibilities….
The perfect poise of many of [Bishop's] poems, their ambiguity not in the sense of vagueness or indecision but in the sense of necessary hesitation in the realm of hypothesis, is such that they sometimes can't be ended without being broken. Even hypotheses seem to call for conclusions, and when Bishop gives in to this call, her poems tend to finish in flatness. Her last lines are often her weakest….
But then this is the limitation of a nearly impeccable poet, the corollary of her sense of wonder that a man could sleep through a tropical storm "uninjured, barely disturbed"—even then the poem only asks us to think of such a case, it doesn't vouch for its truth. Perched somewhere between the casual sleeper in the boat and the dogged sleeper on the top of the mast, but closer to the second, awake, but worried about the disproportion between geography and people, between the life of the world and our own "small shadowy/life," the poet practices her lucid and cautious art. Too cautious at times, it seems, locked in a willful, versified prose—
In Worcester, Massachusetts, I went with Aunt Consuelo to keep her dentist's appointment and sat and waited for her in the dentist's waiting room. It was winter. It got dark early. The waiting room was full of grown-up people…. My aunt was inside what seemed like a long time….
A child is speaking here, but mimesis is not much of an alibi for a poet, and the child seems to speak like Hemingway. Bishop is a discreet writer, and gives us only the rarest of hints at the unhappinesses, the bad weather, which provoke her to caution. Perhaps she "dislikes" poetry, as Marianne Moore did, but then her best work is built on the difficult conquest of this dislike, and not on a submission to it. She earns her finest effects, usually, by refusing rhetoric and then relenting, allowing the tactful return of a music which is all the more moving for being so subdued:
But everything must be there in that magic mud, beneath the multitudes of fish, deadly or innocent, the giant pirarucús, the turtles and crocodiles, tree trunks and sunk canoes, with the crayfish, with the worms with tiny electric eyes turning on and off and on. The river breathes in salt and breathes it out again, and all is sweetness there in the deep, enchanted silt.
Alliterations (magic, mud, multitudes), balanced syntax (or, and, and), modest lists (with, with, with), internal rhymes (trunks, sunk), off-rhymes (salt, silt), a lyrical vocabulary (sweetness, enchanted)—all these things are there, but none of them is obtrusive. The result is inimitable. (p. 29)
Bishop's most persistent suggestion is that life might turn out badly but hasn't so far. If you're lucky you can sleep through the storm, and she feels that it may be, as Jarrell said, "barely but perfectly possible" to get along in the world—"has been, that is," Jarrell added, "for her." But one can't afford too much "poetry" in such circumstances—it would seem an insult to the powers who have treated you relatively well….
Both ["Crusoe in England" and "Moose"] are skillful, casual, and witty; but both have a slightly desultory flavor, fail to ignite the feeling they seem to be after—fail, that is, by the exacting standards the poem herself has set. The moose, for example, looks the bus over, and all the passengers experience a "sweet/sensation of joy":
"Curious creatures," says our quiet driver, rolling his r's. "Look at that, would you." Then he shifts gears. For a moment longer, by craning backward, the moose can be seen on the moonlit macadam; then there's a dim smell of moose, an acrid smell of gasoline.
The scene is nicely observed, underplayed. But the "moonlit macadam" seems lazy, and the "dim/smell of moose" offers a reticence where the poem needed a perception. What else would a moose smell of?
What these poems are looking for—a narrative context for a proof that the natural world does speak to us, if only by chance or only in the past—is found in this book in "Poem" and "The End of March," where a tiny old landscape painting, "a minor family relic," and a walk along a cold and windy beach enable the poet to place people and their dreams and artifacts in a geography which does not diminish them. Geography figures in a number of Bishop's most successful earlier poems—"The Map," "Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance" especially—and it comes to suggest nature itself, representations of nature (like maps, or paintings, or poems), and whatever thoughts we may have about nature or its representations….
Elizabeth Bishop's delicate landscapes are not manifestations of states of mind, nor are they neutral descriptions of what she takes to be "there." They are natural scenes to be visited, and even transformed, but never to be plundered; they are places which people, if they were quiet and careful enough, might manage to inhabit. (p. 30)
Michael Wood, "RSVP," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), June 9, 1977, pp. 29-30.
There is more continuity between North & South, Elizabeth Bishop's first book, and the nine new poems of Geography III, her latest, than the familiar and central image of travel. The new poems dramatize even more painstakingly what is perhaps the most fundamental issue in all of her poetry—seeing the ways nothing about living in the human world is or can ever be simple: how isolation may be as necessary as communication; how looking back may be as comforting—or as terrible—as looking ahead, or around…. That is what these poems so poignantly and so powerfully do. And as they illuminate, and consolidate, earlier interests and techniques, as they insist on their similarity to the earlier works, they reveal them to be more "felt," less "objective," more "serious" than we may have assumed.
The title North & South expressed both the literal and metaphorical implications of Elizabeth Bishop's most persistent image. The world is full of differences, contrasts, and contradictions…. (p. 30)
"In the Waiting Room" … presents a disturbing answer to the disturbing questions raised in the earlier poems, as well as a consolidation of the issues themselves, in the most explicit and dramatic terms.
The connotations of the title are ambiguous, suggesting both a literal and a metaphorical situation. This is a poem of initiation, of a child, "an Elizabeth," beginning to learn what it means to live in the world, to be a human being, to be an adult…. Throughout the poem, a double perspective—the child's and the adult's—is subtly and consistently interwoven. It is an adult narrating, but an adult who is capable of reliving the point of view of the child, herself as a child. (p. 31)
These shifting perspectives refuse to allow us to remain complacently satisfied with literalism…. What "happens" in the poem is how we get from one point of view to the other, how both of these perspectives are true. (p. 32)
"Crusoe in England" contains similar issues in a vast metaphorical dramatic monologue. Just as the young "Elizabeth" can no longer feel at home either in the commonplace world of her home town or in the terrifying one far from it, because there is no escape from either; so this latter-day Crusoe (he quotes Wordsworth, ironically unable to remember the word "solitude" in "I wandered lonely as a cloud"), is tormented by memories of his isolation, yet can no longer feel comfortable in the "real" world.
What seems most remarkable in this long poem is the complexity of feelings Elizabeth Bishop succeeds in conveying. The terror as well as the liberation of loneliness; pride; self-pity; self-irony…. (p. 34)
Elizabeth Bishop usually writes in her own voice—there are few personae (the "Riverman," the "Colored Singer," "Jeronimo"). "Crusoe" is one of the exceptions to the particularly and emphatically personal voice of the recent poems; so the implications of the choice of this mode are especially revealing…. "Crusoe" more clearly, more fully than any of the other "character" poems illustrates how useful it is to think of the personal lyrics as metaphorical monologues. These poems are no more simply confessions or self-defensive anecdotes than is "Crusoe"; they are moments of revelation, and models of the process of revelation. (p. 36)
"Crusoe in England" is the most emotionally exhaustive study of a single character in all of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry—even more impressive because it is the result of a capacity for total empathy….
One of the many ironies of "Crusoe in England" is the way one may become nostalgic about what was essentially painful. "In the Waiting Room" has this kind of painful nostalgia—for the exciting and terrible moment when the child first perceived the tragic "complexities" she will eventually have to deal with. In these poems this nostalgia is not self-deception, but an awareness of the profound dilemma created by the question of how much pain we require, how trapped we need to be, to find the fullest life. (p. 37)
"12 O'Clock News" … develops techniques of surrealism used much earlier. "Sleeping on the Ceiling" (1938) metamorphosed the image of a room into an allegorical topography, "the Place de la Concorde." Thirty-five years later the landscape is more intimate, more personal, more complex. In this poem in prose, the focus is tighter: the top of a writer's desk—typewriter, manuscripts, paper, lamp, ashtray. We are given a guided tour of the paraphernalia of writing—as if it were an archeological discovery. "The Monument," a poem dealing with the mysteries of the creation and the effect of a work of art, also employed the voice of some sort of guide; so does "The Man-Moth," which deals with what Yeats might characterize as a "subjective," lunar figure, at least on one level an image of the artist. In the witty and sinister surrealism of "12 O'Clock News" we get closer than ever to Elizabeth Bishop's view of herself as a writer.
Once again, but in a new way, we face a double tone—the dramatic irony of a speaker who doesn't fathom the full implications of what he reports, and the poet's own voice, laconically indicating her own capacity for perception. (p. 41)
[In "Poem," art], the equivalent of memory, has the capacity to keep things—even little things, especially little things, things we love, things that die—alive. The elms in the painting are "yet-to-be-dismantled." The memory of them is the memory of life that no longer exists in the world of time and practical values, trust funds and price tags. What is "free" may be a small thing, but its life is essential to ours; and in fact, because we die, identical to ours, "our abidance," "our earthly trust."
The ultimate irony is the initial one—the title. When we think back to the title, it ceases to function as a mere generic indicator. "Poem" is about what it means to be a poem—whatever the particular incarnation. It is the preservation of perception and emotion—the perception of details, the details that "touch" us—the maintenance of the ability to see and love whatever is alive, through a coalescence of empathies, the artist's and the viewer's. This poem provides the human and moving definition of its title. (pp. 44-5)
[Even] at their most highly artificial, Elizabeth Bishop's poems have never been manufactured out of nothing. Her interest in small things, in "details," if we hadn't noticed before, is—as "Poem" reveals—not a mannerism, but part of a profound vision (not "too serious a word"). The wonderment that some squiggles of paint can make an iris or cows expresses what life-giving possibilities lie behind technical ability. As "12 O'Clock News" suggested, though with a different emphasis, a work of art has the potential to soar (if it doesn't die). These attitudes towards her work have always been present, but never before so clearly articulated. (p. 45)
In "Poem" loss is implicit: inherent, inevitable, but pending, "yet-to-be." In "One Art" loss is all pervasive. "Poem" only implied what is stated here as fact: "so many things seem filled with the intent/to be lost …" The poem, with its unexpected self-irony, tells us "how to" deal with loss, to "master" the "art of losing." It is a kind of lecture by an expert, a master, an artist. (p. 47)
"One Art" is a villanelle, one of Elizabeth Bishop's rare excursions into a complex, pre-existent verse pattern…. Perhaps—without the fiction of a character like Crusoe, who experiences similar losses—the framework of a formal pattern was a necessary structure for the use of so many personal details (details corresponding especially to the image of travel, which has been so central to her work for so long). Certainly the formality of the structure contributes to a universalizing element in this poem. But the repetitions of the villanelle also heighten the dramatic immediacy of the poem. As we learn at the end that the poet has tried to persuade herself that her losses can be survived, the repetitions, with their slight but suggestive variations, emerge as the principal vehicle by which the lesson can be drummed not only into our ears but her own. The formality of the verse increases the emotional pitch and, paradoxically, contributes to the sense of personal pain.
Unlike "Dover Beach," where being "true to one another" may stave off the disaster of the collapse of the civilized world, "One Art" denies the possibility of Matthew Arnold's final option. Elizabeth Bishop's only faith seems to be in loss, or at least in her desperate refusal to be defeated by it; not in "one another" but in oneself, one's art. The "one art" is the need to "write it"—recognizing, and naming, the loss itself and finding the form that will arm one against all the disastrous losses.
Many of these new poems dramatize some sort of conflict between the past and the present: the passing of time, the pain of loss, the nature of what endures, the need to remember, the need to forget. "The End of March" has a kind of reverse nostalgia, a mellower resignation to the limitations of the future…. (pp. 48-9)
Elizabeth Bishop is too much a realist to give herself completely to … fantasy; she also has too much imagination to ignore its presence. In these new poems, each side of these profound and central issues is observed, explored. A myth can be created if necessary; if necessary the painful facts of autobiography—past, present, or future—can be touched on or dramatized. The fear of isolation and the desire for it are seen in their equal power; the need to escape and the desire to explore are recognized as equally powerful motivations; the value of holding on to the past and the need to forget it are both understood with clarity and compassion. Human understanding and the refusal to sentimentalize are always present, have always been present. The richness of her earlier poems is still present, with a new confidence and broader vision. These new works, each in itself and all together, develop those very qualities which have always been the source of Elizabeth Bishop's real greatness. (pp. 51-2)
Lloyd Schwartz, "One Art: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, 1971–1976," in Ploughshares (© 1977 by Ploughshares, Inc.), Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4, pp. 30-52.