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Bishop, Elizabeth 1911–1979

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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.)

Anne R. Newman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

[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….

We sense an empathy between the poet and her "singer" in the way that each recognizes loss as a natural part of life. But the rather stoical acceptance incorporates a quality of self-directed humor, the saving grace which counteracts both despair and naïve optimism. Though the singer's story is essentially an unhappy one, she is perfectly aware of the comical ironies of her predicament; and no matter how she laments her troubles and betrayals, she somehow avoids succumbing to self-pity.

The value of looking reality squarely in the face has been a major theme throughout Elizabeth Bishop's work….

Bishop does not attempt to reproduce any black dialect through the narrator of these poems; instead she merely suggests the idiom in such a way that it reinforces the rhythm and the personal tone…. (p. 37)

The attitude expressed by the woman in the first two poems is generally restricted, in Elizabeth Bishop's work, to personal loss. The individual directly concerned can master the art of losing by looking upon the situation with some sense of balance and humor. But when "losing" is forced upon others or upon the natural world through limited vision or carelessness, Bishop's tone changes. This change is apparent in "Song III," in which the relationship moves from adult male-female to parent-child. The first-person narrator is no longer used; and whereas the earlier singer could view her own personal situation with some humor and without bitterness, here her tone is one of universal and almost unalleviated sorrow and loss. (p. 38)

Possibly "Song IV" loses some of the universality of visionary poetry in a context which makes the association with blacks explicit, but its position as the last poem in the group does add power and meaning to the images which seem overly esoteric in the very early poem. It is as...

(The entire section contains 3857 words.)

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Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 13)


Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 32)