Elizabeth Bishop

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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.)

Anne R. Newman

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[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...

(This entire section contains 587 words.)

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group does add power and meaning to the images which seem overly esoteric in the very early poem. It is as though the rhythm of black music and the consciousness of black experience give the poet a framework of meaning for the images. (p. 39)

Anne R. Newman, "Elizabeth Bishop's 'Songs for a Colored Singer'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 37-40.

Eleanor Ross Taylor

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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 need for travel and exploration…. How much do we need to know? All that we can know.

"Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance" (another fine poem that deserves an essay in itself) seems the essence of Bishop. "Thus should have been our travels: / serious, engravable," it begins falsely. But all that is transitory, flowing and flown, uncapturable, is the stuff that's precious. The images given impart a joie de vivre delightful and characteristic of Bishop's work. Even fright, that inescapable part of being alive, is cherished. In the final stanza the lines "Why couldn't we have seen / this old Nativity while we were at it?" shifts the perspective to the travels of mankind, history, to what human beings see and come to. Would we have observed the Nativity merely as "a family with pets"? (p. 45)

As the explorer travels with the best, most economically allotted provisions and can continue to go forward almost without provisions and rise to brilliancies of physical performance and inventive contrivance, so Bishop's style and vocabulary seem to be the most practical and economical, the most even-paced and carefully planned, yet equipped to rise to astonishing inventive performance as required by her subject. This note says nothing of the many poetic forms also explored with great skill in these poems, does not attempt to treat her wonderful art of language—both factors in the importance of these poems. It says nothing of several masterpieces such as "Sestina" and "Visits to St. Elizabeths"; they are the vistas of the undiscoverable—almost mystical in their reach—that fall outside the narrow text I have taken. Nor does it take into account the poems printed since the publication of The Complete Poems in 1969. I do not have them at hand, but my feeling as I read them in magazines was that they are of a mastery perhaps even beyond these. The new book, Geography III, will be a real event in poetry, for these poems are an important fact in our literary history. (pp. 45-6)

Eleanor Ross Taylor, "Driving to the Interior: A Note on Elizabeth Bishop," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 44-6.

David Shapiro

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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" remind us how much the poet was tempted to go there. "… practice losing farther, losing faster," writes Bishop, and by the spatial and temporal modifiers she reminds us that we are going into the hallucinatory modality of the ephebe's first negative way. (pp. 77-8)

Bishop is a writer dedicated to the fitting proportions of consciousness and unconsciousness. She has separated herself, like Auden, from the French tradition of automatism and surrealism. Yet both no doubt have undergone an interpenetration with that system of thought and thought-lessness. One thinks of Auden's debt to St.-John Perse and Bishop's own relations to Valéry and even Laforgue through Auden and Eliot. She is constantly warning us, and warning us against bétise and sottises, but her poetry therefore and nevertheless bespeaks an extraordinary interest in the buried life and the drunken boat of possibility. "So many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost" is a phrase that seems to have wandered out of the haunted wood of Baudelaire's "Correspondences." We correspond and respond indeed in a haunted universe to objects and subjects that seem to have no other object but to haunt us. Bishop is all too often in the pays des merveilles.

Throughout the poem, one imagines a certain congruence between text and psyche, until what we are astonished by is that this has indeed become a text of transgression and madness. The poem has not at its coda but at its very non-Aristotelian heart the art of losing oneself, the art of losing a self, the art of almost losing a text, the art of losing the shifty shifter "you." Bishop is involved with the dangerous theme of solipsism and she shows us the horror of private language in her parenthetical asides that are a tribute to her reticence. "(the joking voice, a gesture / I love.)" She tries to keep these parentheses as Proustian delays, as suspenses, as adornments, but what they seem to come to mean are multiplicities, transversals…. At any rate, her parentheses function paradoxically as breakdowns of the syntax and as rhetorical abundance and advantage.

What is appalling in the poem is that one comes to see indeed the facility of mortality, the easiness of oblivion, of mastery. The art of remembering is hard; the art of forgetting is the natural one of any ephebe. (p. 79)

[This is a poem that is not tied down to things], though it is filled with a tension created by the feeling-tone of dependency and passivity and self-doubt…. Like Emily Dickinson, Bishop is indeed part of the tradition addicted to possibility, "a fairer house than prose." The poem, however, must be argued as abstract, a poem of sullen surfaces, a poem of shattered facets. It is a villanelle, not because as Graves would have it as regards the sonnet, Bishop wandered into the sonnet and woke up when it was half finished. It is a villanelle, that most plotted and formal of probabilistic gardens, because suffering could demand no other strategy than the abstract choreography of the villanelle. It is not a dance of tensions along Cleanth Brooksian lines, it is not a well-made urn, but a kind of well-wrought emptiness. It begins with the abstract statement "The art of losing isn't hard to master" and it concludes with the force of syllogism: "It's evident / the art of losing's not too hard to master." The little difference of the colloquial "not too hard" is all the difference in the world. It's not too hard, one reads, and why this significant difference?

The poem is about falling away, disaster, and as we fall towards the conclusion we realise that poetry itself affords us a mastery. While we cannot handle anything within the poem but imaginary door keys and uncomfortable or anguishing hours, within the poem we may keep these things by naming them. (p. 80)

The disaster of the poem is a self-reflexive one, like the self-reflexive breakdown of syntax at the end: "the art of losing's not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster." The immense repetition at the end bespeaks all trouble, all dreads, all stutterings that Freud said speak of mental contradiction…. The disaster is seen and grasped in the speaking music of the poem. Beyond the appearance of mastery is a Goethean statute of limitations. The poem is perceived as an erotic transgression that commits the poet to the poem. In the imaginary, in the construct, is a poignant redemption that redeems all losing whilst forgetting nothing: "(Write it!)" It is a poetry of parenthesis and pathos, of exclamation and the exaltations of falling.

Elizabeth Bishop is strong enough, and not necessarily in Harold Bloom's sense, to accept the canonic and the arbitrary and the given. She accepts the given of the form in the way that Jasper Johns accepts the dark given of the design of the American flag. There is nothing more arbitrary and almost stupidly arbitrary than the villanelle…. [The] more we discover the invisible rules of form the more we doubt and yet insure our only form of human mastery in self-encouraged, self-acknowledged Socratic failure. To write poetry is to die, as much as to philosophize is to learn how to die. This little poem is a little death, as erotic, as vital as any death, as filled with suffering and as vast as a glimpse of a new continent. It is a glimpse of the oldest continent…. The funniest rhymes (last or/master) remind us of the friction of experience within the Imaginary. The changes within the poem are vital admissions ("I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster") but never melodramas of the confessional. It is the anti-theatrical, a wordless theatre played between the stanzas. The poem has its ethos against any easy deception "I shan't have lied." Within its opacities, its labyrinths, the poem overcomes all obstacles to achieve a final pathos.

Mastery must always be mastery of disaster. There is no need for mastery except on the horizon of dread and death. All of the things lost within the villanelle are indeed metaphors for this death, this final divorcer, in Keats' great phrase. While writing itself seems like a separation, it is dedicated to the most final of separations…. Here wisdom is not wrought from suffering alone but from forgetting, too. Oblivion is a temptation and Elizabeth Bishop puts her cunning against oblivion. She says, wittily, Are you afraid to lose? afraid to forget? afraid to die? Then, with Frankl and his marvellous theories of paradoxical intention, she murmurs, Then lose, then lose door keys, lose hours, lose everything, and then you will become a master. Hard advice, but "how witty's ruine." (pp. 80-1)

David Shapiro, "On a Villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1979, by The University of Iowa), Vol. 10, No. 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 77-81.

Robert Pinsky

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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 awareness of their own power, Bishop's poems always show us, and never tell us, that they are the exception: in her poems, isolation is suspended, as the artifact rises from the dust to unfold its living soul.

She could afford her indifference toward celebrity, and her cool amusement at the literary museum of biography and criticism, because her work was unequaled in its particular intensity. Rereading Bishop's Complete Poems, and the more recent Geography III (1976), I find the emotional force and penetration of her work amazing. In a way, she had to write Geography III, and especially its first two poems ("In the Waiting Room" and "Crusoe in England") in order to teach us readers the full extent to which her poems were not merely what critics and fellow-poets had always called them—"perfect," "crafted," "readable," "exquisite"—but profoundly ambitious as well.

The critical cliché for years was to praise Bishop for her "eye"—a convention she mischievously, perhaps a bit contemptuously, abetted by remarking that her poems were "just description." The purpose of the "eye" and of the description (as "In the Waiting Room" makes explicit) is for Bishop an act of fierce self-definition: she saw the world with such preternatural clarity in order to distinguish herself from it…. She wrote so well about people and places because she had a powerful motive, embattled; that motive, in nearly all the poems, is to define oneself away from two opposing nightmares: the pain of isolation, and the loss of identity in the mass of the visible world.

In other words, "description" in Bishop is not the notation of pretty or quaint details, but the surest form of knowledge; and knowledge is the geography of survival. Her poems are "just description"—in the same sense that the ocean at the conclusion of her great poem "At the Fishhouses" is just the ocean….

     It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
     dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
     drawn from the cold hard mouth
     of the world, derived from rocky breasts
     forever, flowing and drawn, and since
     our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

The grandeur of this vision of knowledge, and the tragic sense of knowledge's limitations, are folded up carefully into the strict discipline of description like the ribs of Crusoe's umbrella. I'll stop for a moment over just one detail: the wit—the sublime wit, though it sounds too fancy to say so—of "flowing, and flown" at the end. In a lesser writer, the brilliant stroke that makes two distinct verbs seem like two forms of one verb would be a notable ornament; but in Bishop's line, the wit is made to bear up triumphantly under the pressure of a large intellectual construct—the way wit operates in Shakespeare. It is this kind of thing that led John Ashbery to call Bishop "a writer's writer's writer."

The obituaries for Elizabeth Bishop were not loud or hyperbolic; they were immensely respectful, and perhaps slightly uncomprehending, just like the "local museum" that she drily invented to accept for vague public use the loner Crusoe's chattels. The year 1979 may be remembered for her loss, long after many of the clowns, heroes, and villains of our headlines fade from memory. (pp. 32-3)

Robert Pinsky, "Elizabeth Bishop, 1911–1979," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 19, November 10, 1979, pp. 32-3.

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