Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 13)
Bishop, Elizabeth 1911–1979
Bishop was an American poet, short story writer, editor, translator, and critic who spent much of her life in Brazil. Her poetry and prose is noted for its attention to detail and masterful craftsmanship. She often employed elaborate rhyme schemes in poems marked by an ironic sense of humor and a subtle use of fantasy. Bishop has been the recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 9, and Contemporary Authors. Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The body of [Elizabeth Bishop's] work is relatively small, yet one cannot read a single line either of her poetry or prose without feeling that a real poet is speaking, one whose sense of life is as delicately and finely strung as a Stradivarius, whose eye is both an inner and an outer eye. The outer eye sees with marvelous objective precision, the vision is translated into quite simple language, and this language with the illuminated sharpness of an object under a microscope works an optical magic, slipping in and out of imagery, so that everything seen contains the vibration of meaning on meaning.
In "The Armadillo," for instance, there is the baby rabbit on whose peaceful world a fire balloon falls: "So soft!—a handful of intangible ash / with fixed, ignited eyes." Bishop makes such an image stand for a whole world of violence, vulnerability, helpless terror and protest. One cannot read the poem without quivering with a sense of the pain inherent in every form of beauty. Or she can say something that seems to mean exactly what it says, such as "we are driving to the interior," in "Arrival at Santos," although we have been prepared earlier by "Oh, tourist, / is this how this country is going to answer you" for the idea that every great personal change is a country waiting to be explored in its interior.
Yet Bishop is not personal as Lowell or Plath or Berryman is personal. Everything we know about her from her...
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[The] Brazil in which Bishop so recently lived is already of another era. The early days which the poet spent in the emperor's old summer resort, Petropolis, represented a kind of latter-day Golden Age of Brazilian letters. Bishop was personally acquainted with a good number of the nation's most famous writers, many of whom had been active in the extremely important Modern Art Week of 1922, which sought to make Brazilian literature, painting and music more true to contemporary realities as well as native roots….
By 1971, when she left the country to resume life in the US, Brazil had undergone a significant number of profound changes. Most of the great artists were dead, and so, in a sense, was Brazil's age of innocence. While authoritarianism and economic dependency coupled with severe poverty for a large percentage of the populace are problems which have plagued Brazil throughout its history, the nation of the 1950s and 60s appeared somehow freer. Even though much of what makes Brazil Brazilian has not changed, present realities are clearly different from those of five, and certainly twenty-five years ago. Therefore, while Bishop's poems remain fresh in their sense of discovery, they mirror a society which has changed and will change even more dramatically.
Questions of Travel contains two sections: "Brazil" and "Elsewhere." Both reveal the most characteristic traits of Bishop's poetry: rueful humor, exquisite images, a highly developed if unobtrusive control of metrical forms reinforcing a marked insistence on psychic as well as material limits. ("Continent, city, country, society," declares the poet, "the choice is never wide and never free.")… Elizabeth Bishop's poetry is wry, low-key and, above all, cumulative in effect…. [She] phrases universal "questions of travel" in a particularly Brazilian way.
Although the "Brazil" section of Questions of Travel contains a number of not surprising references to coffee beans and waterfalls, one is struck by allusions to Brazilian folklore as well as underlying Portuguese speech patterns and verse forms, as in the "Burglar of Babylon" ballad. Aside from these more obvious elements, there are also a number of recurring Brazil-linked themes. The nation's exorbitant beauty, its delightful illogic and the powerful cycles marking its tropical climate reappear...
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William Jay Smith
It is with the location, both factual and spiritual, of places that [Elizabeth Bishop's] poems often begin. It is with journeys, real and imaginary, to these places that they develop. Her definition and consideration of herself as a rational being, and her reaction as a sensitive instrument to her surroundings, to her place in the world and in the universe, have been, and continue to be, the central concerns of her poetry.
Geography III refers, I take it, to elementary geography at a grade-school level—but it must bear the added reference to the fact that this is Miss Bishop's third book of geographical exploration, the first two being North & South and Questions of Travel. (p. 3)
Geography III is a short book, slighter perhaps than Miss Bishop's previous volumes, but it contains at least three poems that rank among the best that she has written: "In the Waiting Room," "Crusoe in England," and "The Moose." "In the Waiting Room," which opens the volume, is extremely personal, but it is so controlled as to seem almost clinically impersonal…. Her work relies frequently on personal experiences, but like the great autobiographical work of Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, it is as remarkable for what it omits as for what it reveals. Like Isak Dinesen she sets out to tell the truth, but in doing so, is reticent and highly selective. There is never a note of the self-pity that has become so often the badge of the confessional poet. Indeed, in "Crusoe in England" she examines self-pity in Crusoe's words:
I often gave way to self-pity.
"Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
I wouldn't be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don't remember, but there could have been."
What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiarly
over a crater's edge, I told myself
"Pity should begin at home." So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.
The irony here is that while describing the self-pity to which anyone in such a lonely situation would be reduced the speaker is able to joke about what was clearly no joke. The irony is all the greater when the reader realizes that the poem is concerned with home, with identity. Confined to his island, Crusoe dreamt of other islands…. [He] concludes:
Now I live here, another island,
that doesn't seem like one, but who decides?
My blood was full of them; my brain
bred islands. But that archipelago
has petered out. I'm old.
It is in registering in both daylight and dream the flora, fauna, and geography of places both real and imaginary that Elizabeth Bishop establishes her relationship to the world and to the universe. It is fitting that the epigraph to this volume should be from an elementary textbook on geography, for there has always been in Elizabeth Bishop's work a kind of childlike, primitive discovery of relationship. Children ask, "Why? What? Where? How?" Their speech is filled with prepositions relating one thing or one person to another. Kornei Chukovsky has spoken of the young child as a linguistic explorer finding his place in the world through a conquest of language, which involves a careful...
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With its calmly circumscribed being and elegant finish, deploying space in formally perfect patterns, each small portfolio of [Elizabeth Bishop's] work resembled classical architecture.
Living in Brazil most of the time, Bishop was unaffected by the shifts in fashion, the catholicity of taste and often bitter factionalism that have marked American poetry since the end of World War II … yet she has appealed to poets as radically different as Frank O'Hara, Robert Lowell, Octavio Paz and John Ashbery. Lowell, for example, has praised her "tone of large, grave tenderness and sorrowful amusement," while Ashbery, citing her "quirkiness" and "rightness of vision," has singled out her grandeur, "which,...
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[From] the very start, there was something about [Elizabeth Bishop's] work for which elegantly standard literary analysis was not prepared. Readers have been puzzled, as when [Stephen Stepanchev] writes about "Florida": "the poet's exuberance provides a scattering of images whose relevance to the total structure is open to question. It is as though Miss Bishop stopped along the road home to examine every buttercup and asphodel she saw." [See CLC, Vol. 4.] First of all, Bishop writes about alligators, mangrove swamps, skeletons and shells—things exotic and wild, not prettified. More important, there is some notion of neat and total structure which the critic expects and imposes, but which the poem subverts....
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Elizabeth Bishop's work issues from a disposition not even to consider the temptation [to be great]. For a long time she seemed content with the natural piety featured in observation, looking with care at things that happened to offer themselves to her attention. But her way of looking at things showed that her real subject is the mutuality of eye and mind in a world largely but not completely given. Since "Geography III," her readers have recognized that the brick-on-brick procedure has produced a building not at all grandiose but simply grand. "Crusoe in England" and "The Moose" are poems that could not have been written if their poet had allowed herself, even for a second, to luxuriate in a feeling of grand...
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In Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop teaches us once again that cartography can, in the right hands, be an exact science. Asking again her inveterate traveler's questions—What is in the East? In the West? In the South? In the North?—she answers them with the same miraculous (though seemingly offhand) clarity, the same order in apparent disorder, the same alchemy which changes, without our noticing, the exterior into the interior landscape. Bishop seems more preoccupied, as she travels that way, with what lies in the West; and, as corollary, with her own past. She seems to be revisiting, as several commentators have noted, the scenes and subjects of her earlier poems—Nova Scotia, the tropics, the New...
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