Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 1)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2295

Bishop, Elizabeth 1911–

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Pulitzer Prize-winning American lyric poet, now living in Brazil. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

"The Fish" and "Roosters" are two of the most calmly beautiful, deeply sympathetic poems of our time; "The Monument," "The Man-Moth," "The Weed," the first "Song for a Colored Singer," and one or two others are almost, or quite, as good; and there are charming poems on a smaller scale, or beautiful fragments—for instance, the end of "Love Lies Sleeping." Miss Bishop is capable of the most outlandish ingenuity—who else could have made a witty mirror-image poem out of the fact that we are bilaterally symmetrical?—but is grave, calm, and tender at the same time. It is odd how pleasant and sympathetic her poems are, in these days when many a poet had rather walk down children like Mr. Hyde than weep over them like Swinburne, and when many a poem is gruesome occupational therapy for a poet who stays legally innocuous by means of it…. Miss Bishop's poems are almost never forced; in her best work restraint, calm, and proportion are implicit in every detail of organization and workmanship…. Her work is unusually personal and honest in its wit, perception, and sensitivity—and in its restrictions too; all her poems have written underneath, I have seen it. She is morally so attractive, in poems like "The Fish" or "Roosters," because she understands so well that the wickedness and confusion of the age can explain and extenuate other people's wickedness and confusion, but not, for you, your own; that morality, for the individual, is usually a small, personal, statistical, but heartbreaking or heart-warming affair of omissions and commissions the greatest of which will seem infinitesimal, ludicrously beneath notice, to those who govern, rationalize, and deplore….

Randall Jarrell, in his Poetry and the Age (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf-Vintage, 1953, pp. 212-13.

Miss Bishop is civilized in a special way: in being herself and in telling the truth, she supersedes manners by setting superior standards. By choosing so carefully what and whom she sees, she is never forced toward the half-lie. What is here in place of manners is a rare combination of naturalness and elegance—elegance of mind, spirit, taste—the real thing, for it is neither learned nor fashionable, but inherent. Not being rarefied there is no need to be colloquial. Miss Bishop never confuses the natural with the primitive or the elegant with the mannered—their debased counterparts. And what is more to the point, she couldn't.

She is an instinctive storyteller, too faithful to the truth to use what passes for the devices of drama. She has had to create a small theater of her own in which character and setting become dramatic not through oddity or conflict but through the charm, the susceptibility of the perceiver. It is a theater of depths as well as surfaces, and it both suggests and defines where questions of travel are truly answered….

Miss Bishop is one of the true masters of tone. She has an absolute sense of what the English language can do, of how much to say, how much to leave unsaid. There is no fiddling around with syntax, no evident concern with the sounds of words, no special effects of typography. We never have to search for a verb or wonder if a pronoun has an antecedent. What she brings to poetry is a new imagination; because of that, she is revolutionary, not "experimental." And she is revolutionary in being the first poet successfully to use all the resources of prose….

Her work has hardly been ignored; she has won just about every distinction and prize a poet can. But her poems are oddly unknown to the public, even that part of it that is supposed to be interested in poetry. And...

(The entire section contains 2295 words.)

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