Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 4)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1718

Bishop, Elizabeth 1911–

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Elizabeth Bishop, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, has lived in Brazil since 1952. She writes witty, fanciful, and imaginative poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Elizabeth Bishop's Poems seems to me one of the best books an American poet has written, one that the future will read almost as it will read Stevens and Moore and Ransom. Her poems are quiet, truthful, sad, funny, most marvelously individual poems; they have a sound, a feel, a whole moral and physical atmosphere, different from anything else I know. They are honest, modest, minutely observant, masterly; even their most complicated or troubled or imaginative effects seem, always, personal and natural, and as unmistakable as the first few notes of a Mahler song, the first few patches of a Vuillard interior….

The poet and the poems have their limitations; all exist on a small scale, and some of the later poems, especially, are too detailedly and objectively descriptive. But the more you read her poems, the better and fresher, the more nearly perfect they seem; at least half of them are completely realized works of art.

Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; copyright © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969, p. 325.

Elizabeth Bishop is not a poet who finds inspiration in public events, political issues, or socioeconomic ideology; reading her, one is unaware of Hitler and World War II, just as one is unaware of Napoleon and his wars when reading the works of Jane Austen. Unlike many of her Auden-influenced contemporaries, she distrusts history, with its melodramatic blacks and whites, and prefers geography, with its subtle gradations of color…. And, like a geographer, she delights in the landscapes, animals, customs, climates, and changing lights of the world, which are very real to her: she is no solipsist. Her sense of the existence of objects relates her to William Carlos Williams and, especially, to Marianne Moore, who has a similar passion for precise rendering of the scenes and inhabitants of the world. Restless as an explorer or a tourist, Miss Bishop moves along many roads in search of objects and insights….

As a peripatetic poet and geographer, Miss Bishop avoids that concentration on the self which often leads to emotion that "too far exceeds its cause," like that which a map maker perhaps feels as he runs the names of cities across neighboring mountains. Perhaps it is an extraordinary vulnerability that makes her look outward rather than inward. At any rate, she registers those increments of awareness that experience of many latitudes brings. Her verse does not lack feeling—it is merely directed to the objects that elicit feeling. These objects point to the ambiguities, beauty, and suffering of a world subject to time and death….

The poet's characteristics are fully evident in her first book, North and South, which appeared in 1946 and contained poems written mostly before 1942. It reveals her wonder and excitement as she looks at the world and describes what she sees. Some of this excitement derives from her discovery that language can perform miracles of exactness in description….

Much of the effectiveness of these descriptions derives, of course, from the figures of speech, from the correspondences that the poet discovers between the objects she is describing and other objects, not present, that her imagination entertains. For example, who besides Miss Bishop has ever seen a relationship between the grating sound of a wet match and the croak of a cock at dawn? One often finds such a delighted yoking together of...

(The entire section contains 1718 words.)

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