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 are noted for their attention to detail and masterful craftsmanship. She often employed elaborate rhyme schemes in poems marked by her ironic sense of humor and subtle use of fantasy. Bishop was the recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 9, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Elizabeth Bishop's] poetry as a whole is sensitive in its rhythm, which is always integrated with other aspects of forms and theme; but in the four poems which make up "Songs for a Colored Singer" the musical element is especially strong. In fact, when asked if she had composed the poems to tunes, Bishop replied:
I was hoping somebody would compose tunes for them. I think I had Billie Holiday in mind. I put in a couple of big words just because she sang big words well—"Conspiring root," for instance.
The poems certainly could be set to music; they also reveal Bishop's sensitivity to particular intonations, forms and themes of black music, and taken together, the four poems make a fine statement of what we now call the black experience. That Bishop could make this statement at all, and especially as early as 1944, shows the depth of her human understanding. The first two poems are in the style of blues expression in which rhythm and lyrics maintain a strongly personalized tone while they reflect certain qualities of the people. "Song III" is a lullaby in traditional comforting tones but with lyrics revealing a sorrowful recognition of the future realities for the child in the poem. "Song IV" has the powerful, passionate yet melancholy beat of a song which expresses the feelings of a group of oppressed people coming to a realization of their identity….
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Reading [Bishop's] The Complete Poems, where scarcely a poem is without its sea and travel image—coast, harbor, map, road—one is not long deceived by the maps and travel books, the fish and seabirds. This poet's role is not Haklyut nor Audubon, but Magellan, Henry the Navigator, the spirit of Clark accepting Lewis's invitation: "This is an amence undertaking fraited with numerous difficulties" and characterized by an irresistible enthusiasm not for lands untrod by foot, but for places—knowledge—heretofore unreached by the imagination. The paraphernalia of the navigator-explorer comes to mean the conscious explorer-discoverer beyond the realm of ordinary experience, even the sympathetic prodigal with his "shuddering insights." The folly of experience for experience's sake is debated in "Questions of Travel." But is there experience beyond The Experience? Does not the prodigal really know more? (p. 44)
The explorer is willing to lose all—ship and life ("the end of travel")—for enlarged experience. "We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship."… There is to be no safe harbor, no stopping place. The clearest statements of this significance are in "Questions of Travel," "Over 2000 Illustrations" and "At the Fishhouses."…
"Questions of Travel," one of Miss Bishop's finest poems, ends: Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?" This poem takes the form of a meditation on the human...
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Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art,"… [a masterly villanelle], is a convincingly drastic approach to the archaic French form. It shows what drabness may do for an all-too-golden repetitive form. It is superior to the maudlin manias of Thomas, finer than the cerebrations of Empson and still severe, and takes its place along with those of Auden, James Schuyler, and a few other premonitory practitioners' specimen stanzas.
The title is "One Art," and it identifies for us the integrity and lack of integrity that remain the polarizing tensions of the poem. It is indeed a poem of explicit art, of many-minded cunningness. The poem reminds us, as Freud does in his chapters upon the theme of forgetting in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, that the most buried life corresponds in its dynamic aspects to writing, to expression. The poem is necessarily self-referential and self-reflexive whilst it never gives up its bitter burden of referer tiality. The art of losing seems a mere theme, but it is also the central and active theme of themelessness, affording such a space of absence to the poem. The title is reserved and masterful. In a poem which conceives of mastery in the most negatively thrilling terms, it stands as a Keatsian "lone star" of hermitage over the poem. The title is an unadorned handle and forgets nothing.
A villanelle may be said to be the classic form of repetition and persistence. Like Kierkegaard, Bishop broods about the possible repetitions possible upon this mortal earth…. The poem is both an homage to poetry, a defense of poetry, and a terrifying lament about the weaknesses of poetry in relation to mortalia that touch us in the Virgilian sense. Each repetition furnishes a new twist of suffering. (p. 77)
The poem is filled with palpable dissonances of off-rhymes that link Bishop with the tradition of orality, desire, and dissonance, in Dickinson and Moore: fluster/master; gesture/master. These dissonances each lead to the incongruous congruent rhyme of master and disaster. It IS disaster that is the large fate of the master…. The poem is a circle from which we cannot escape anymore than Borges can escape from Odin's disk in his phantasmal story. The poem and its archaistic form are themselves a fine and almost comical fate. One modulates from dissonance to dissonance, as in Charles Rosen's sense of the "classical style," too often perceived as a constant turning towards harmonies. The harmonies are small interpolations in a prose world of suffering.
Bishop never speaks too much. Montale has said, "The false poet speaks." Her poetry is not the falsely deceived one of utterance. But her diction is properly humiliated and low in a Wordsworthian sense; she never rises too high or aspires too magically, though the whole is sublimated magic. She begins with art and ends with art, "The art of losing…. (Write it!)" and so the whole poem is an essay as much as it is, in Ong's slightly too mystical and logocentric sense, a cry.
Bishop is involved with difficulty. The art is one of making an absence palpable, and she draws attention to her poem constantly in the way the Russian formalists never tired of presenting. She is, moreover, a presentationalist; and thus, she is even more filled with pathos at the theme of presenting, in Ashbery's phrase, a fundamental absence. Within the poem, she offers advice, but as Frost does in "Provide, Provide," as a battered self making small invectives out of the world's demands. When she asks us to "Lose something every day," we understand this as a collapsed soliloquy and, along with Jarrell on Frost, we are most moved by her very lack of confidence in the injunction. The whole poem does throughout make a confidence out of a failure of Mnemosyne. Since poetry is memory, the art of losing is a form of anti-poetry which she transmutes most naturally into the poem. To forget is in a Freudian sense even more a symptom and displacement and metaphor than a memory. Forgetting traces our own shapes. It is Bishop's triumph to write it out in such disappearing ink.
Bishop is concerned with mastery, self-mastery too as a metaphor for mastery within form, not over and above form. She plays upon the versions of the word "loss" too with the erotic playfulness of Andrewes in those sermons that so charmed Eliot. The whole poem is one of drastic advice to the ephebe, as Stevens reminds us that writer and reader are in an essential Socratic relationship of rapport and disrupted rapport. The poem reproduces something of the hysteria that precedes the desire for mastery, just as Empson has noted that the negatives in Keats' "Ode to Melancholy"...
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In Elizabeth Bishop's bizarre, sly, deceptively plainspoken late poem "Crusoe In England," the famous solitary looks back on his life near its end, recalling his isolation and rescue in ways deeper and more unsettling than Defoe could have dreamed…. Bishop's Crusoe muses on the driedout, wan relics of a life. It's tempting, after Elizabeth Bishop's sudden death a few weeks ago, to understand that passage as a master-artist's commentary on the mere furniture of personality and biography—the facts, the manuscripts, the ups and downs of public reputation…. In the perspective of loss, and actual feeling, artifacts and art can seem withered remnants. In their modesty of outward manner, and their immensely proud...
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