Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in Sewanee Review, Summer 1947.]
On the surface, [Elizabeth Bishop's poems in North & South] are observations—surpassingly accurate, witty and well-arranged, but nothing more. Sometimes she writes of a place where she has lived on the Atlantic Coast; at others, of a dream, a picture, or some fantastic object. One is reminded of Kafka and certain abstract paintings, and is left rather at sea about the actual subjects of the poems. I think that at least ninetenths of them fall into a single symbolic pattern. Characterizing it is an elusive business.
There are two opposing factors. The first is something in motion, weary but persisting, almost always failing and on the point of disintegrating, and yet, for the most part, stoically maintained. This is morality, memory, the weed that grows to divide, and the dawn that advances, illuminates and calls to work, the monument "that wants to be a monument," the waves rolling in on the shore, breaking, and being replaced, the echo of the hermit's voice saying, "love must be put in action"; it is the stolid little mechanical horse that carries a dancer, and all those things of memory that "cannot forget us half so easily as they can forget themselves." The second factor is a terminus: rest, sleep, fulfillment or death. This is the imaginary iceberg, the moon which the Man-moth thinks is a small clean hole through which he must thrust his head; it is sleeping on the top of a mast, and the peaceful ceiling: "But oh, that we could sleep up there."
The motion-process is usually accepted as necessary and, therefore, good; yet it is dreary and exhausting. But the formula is mysterious and gently varies with its objects. The terminus is sometimes pathetically or humorously desired as a letting-go or annihilation; sometimes it is fulfillment and the complete harmonious exercise of one's faculties. The rainbow of spiritual peace seen as the author decides to let a fish go, is both like and unlike the moon which the Man-moth mistakes for an opening. In "Large Bad Picture," ships are at anchor in a northern bay, and the author reflects, "It would be hard to say what brought them there / Commerce or contemplation."
The structure of a Bishop poem is simple and effective. It will usually start as description or descriptive narrative, then either the poet or one of her characters or objects reflects. The tone of these reflections is pathetic, witty, fantastic, or shrewd. Frequently, it is all these things at once. Its purpose is to heighten and dramatize the description and, at the same time, to unify and universalize it. In this, and in her marvelous command of shifting speech-tones, Bishop resembles Robert Frost.
In her bare objective language, she also reminds one at times of William Carlos Williams; but it is obvious that her most important model is Marianne Moore. Her dependence should not be defined as imitation, but as one of development and transformation. It is not the dependence of her many facile contemporaries on Auden, but the dependence of Herrick on Jonson, the Herberts on Donne, or of Pope and Johnson on Dryden. Although Bishop would be unimaginable without Moore, her poems add something to the original, and are quite as genuine. Both poets use an elaborate descriptive technique, love exotic objects, are moral, genteel, witty, and withdrawn. There are metrical similarities, and a few of Bishop's poems are done in Moore's manner. But the differences in method and personality are great. Bishop is usually present...
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in her poems; they happen to her, she speaks, and often centers them on herself. Others are dramatic and have human actors. She uses dreams and allegories. (Like Kafka's, her treatment of the absurd is humorous, matter of fact, and logical.) She hardly ever quotes from other writers. Most of her meters are accentual-syllabic. Compared with Moore, she is softer, dreamier, more human and more personal; she is less idiosyncratic, and less magnificent. She is probably slighter, of course, being much younger, she does not have nearly so many extraordinarily good poems.
Bishop's faults leave her best poems uninjured…. A few of the shorter poems seem to me quite trivial. On rereading them, one is struck by something a little pert, banal, and over-pointed—it is as though they had been simplified for a child. Occasionally the action seems blurred and foggy especially when she is being most subjective, as in "Anaphora." In others, such as "The Map," "Casabianca" and "The Gentleman from Shallot," she is self-indulgent, and strings a whimsical commentary on an almost non-existent subject.
Few books of lyrics are as little repetitious as North & South. It can be read straight through with excitement. About ten of its thirty poems are failures. Another ten are either unsatisfactory as wholes, or very slight. This leaves "Roosters" and "The Fish," large and perfect, and, outside of Marianne Moore, the best poems that I know of written by a woman in this century. (pp. 186-88)
Robert Lowell, "From 'Thomas, Bishop, and Williams'," in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess, The University of Michigan Press, 1983, pp. 186-89.∗
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[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was written in 1977.]
In Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, geography is not for adventurers looking out from a center at the horizon, not for imperialists seeking to appropriate that horizon. Rather, it is the recourse of those hoping to discover, out of the flux of images, where they are and how to get home again. Bishop's poetry accepts our uncertain relation to other times, places, and things, suggesting we have no "self" otherwise, and no home.
It is in this context that I would like to discuss the pervasiveness of the impersonal and the interrogative in her work. I want to show that, paradoxically, for Bishop, questions are assertions. However open-endedly, they structure experience and self-awareness. Like compasses, they point to something absolute we can neither see nor get to; yet in their pointing, they show us where we are. These questions, posed to an impersonal world, turn inward when it refuses to reply. Questions about the world become, then, obliquely, questions about ourselves. While the personal begins in assumptions about the self, the impersonal usually undermines or ignores the self. But in Bishop's poetry the impersonal is not depersonalized because its form is interrogative rather than negative.
These impersonal and interrogative modes tend to promote a feeling of disunity and disorientation, but for Bishop these are precisely the conditions conducive to discovery. Not surprisingly, travel is her major metaphor. Almost every poem treats the experience of travel ambivalently, for while finalities may be static or illusory, constant change is unsettling. Bishop does not resolve this ambivalence, but she eases it by offering her characters, and her readers, fleeting but calming moments of coalescence. (pp. 109-10)
The epigraph to Geography III, from First Lessons in Geography, begins with questions and answers; but the answers are soon dropped and only the questions continue. They are, we learn, firmer and more real than the answers. Bishop was always a student of geography, but her third level of geography steps back, slightly, from all the travelling, charting, and measuring, to consider the motives and impulses behind these activities. She still asks, Where is Nova Scotia? and Where is Brazil? but in the latest work she opens up previously implicit questions: "What is a Map?" and "What is Geography?", versions of: What am I doing? and What and where am I? (p. 110)
The seven-year-old heroine of "In the Waiting Room," the first poem in Geography III, asks no questions at first, having little trouble knowing who or where she is…. But wintery Worcester recedes into twilight, and the apparent hierarchy of time and space goes with it. Her aunt seems to be inside a long time, while she reads and studies the photographs of far-off places in the National Geographic. Then, the hinges of distance and duration come loose and the constructed self flaps precariously. The very layout of the magazine presses ordered differences into explosive proximity, forcing a violently widened definition of the human. The decorously English, well-protected "Osa and Martin Johnson / dressed in riding breeches, / laced boots, and pith helmets," stand side by side with the vulnerable and contagious "dead man slung on a pole," "babies with pointed heads," and "black, naked women" with "horrifying" breasts, creating a "perspective by incongruity" on humanity.
The child doesn't articulate her fascination, of course, but the very fact that she is "too shy to stop" implies that she is somehow brought home to herself here. She fixes her eyes on "the cover: / the yellow margins, the date" as a way of avoiding contact, but these form a fragile interface. The date, which should be a way of protecting boundaries, becomes rather, a sign of contact between this strange world and her own. She loses her balance over the side of the cover, and in a sudden moment of undifferentiation between Aunt Consuelo and herself, a cry "from inside" the dentist's office seems to come literally "from inside" her mouth. "I—we—were falling, falling, / our eyes glued to the cover / of the National Geographic, / February, 1918." She clings to the cover as to the rung of a ladder which has come loose from the structure supporting it. The bits and pieces of the personal ("three days / and you'll be seven years old") no longer have much meaning.
The intensity and strangeness of the experience derives not only from the slip into undifferentiation, but from the sense of difference preserved. This is not a pure moment of symbiosis, for there is always an emphasis on how "unlikely" this likeness is. The similarity between Osa and Martin Johnson and the "black, naked women" is never expressed except in the fact of juxtaposition, although the image of the volcano forces them together by its implied threat to human life. Similarly, the difference between the child and her "foolish, timid" Aunt is preserved even while it is denied by the cry of pain. This sense of differences is especially clear in the awkwardness of the child's attempts to come to terms with the experience: "you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them." Making self both subject and predicate, she still preserves the difference.
A shocking experience of identification, as we have seen, creates a simultaneous loss of original identity, and this loss is never overcome. The inscrutable volcano, the inside of the child's mouth, the dentist's chamber, are all figures for the abyss the child has discovered, and as she peers into it she is full of questions, another and another—why? what? how?—until she is thrown back into the exclamatory "how 'unlikely'" and it is clear they will never be answered. But the transformation of question into exclamation does create a sense of recognition, even if it is the permanently strange that is recognized. We get only a "sidelong glance," not fulfillment or total recognition. Yet, for a moment, this glance does begin to organize the dualities toward some unutterable simplicity. The questions mediate between absolute difference and undifferentiation, between stillness and total flux, and in this way, however fleetingly, accommodate the self most. The experience in the dentist's office never attains a new, more genuine orientation. But in a fundamental way, the speaker is "brought home to herself" by moving through these questions, even while they are left unanswered. Indeed, many of Bishop's characters lose themselves to find themselves. Like the speaker in George Herbert's "Love Unknown," which Bishop has juxtaposed with this poem, the young Elizabeth is made "new, tender, quick" through her sudden disorientation. It serves as a kind of baptism. In one sense, then, the child experiences a traumatic leap into the impersonal, the unfamiliar. But in a more profound sense, she discovers the personal. Somehow she would have been less herself, finally, if she had picked up Dick and Jane, a mirror of her own complacent sense of herself, rather than the National Geographic. Probably both were there for her on the waiting room table. But the inquisitive mind goes toward what is not obviously of the self, and it is clear that even then, Bishop was a traveller at heart. (pp. 111-13)
We have seen that Bishop constantly questions her surroundings, and inevitably in the process, questions her perspective. The usual comfort of home is, of course, that we can take it for granted, but for this very reason Bishop is never quite "at home." In the poem under discussion she is, in fact, in a "waiting room." There is certainly no place more impersonal. But precisely because she is not "at home," discovery is possible. A waiting room has very little definition as a place in itself—it is not a home or a destination, but only a transitional space where transitional time is spent. The object of those gathered there, what binds them, does not take place in the room they share but elsewhere, individually. And because it has no function in its own right, it is a place where anything can happen.
Most of the enclosed places Bishop describes are waiting rooms in one way or another (the most extreme being a wake). Her ports, islands, bights, are not microcosms of, or escapes from, history; they contain the tides of unity and discontinuity, of presence and absence, with much the same incompleteness as any wider experience of flux. But while they do not frame or displace the world, do not define us as a home does, they do become places to encounter the world in a focused way. (pp. 114-15)
Bishop's characters never appear in places of origin or destination. Her poems are not without idealized dwellings, but these are only viewed from the outside, in a speculative attitude…. The proto-/crypto-dream-house of "The End of March" where otherness is happily contained in self-reflection, in the "diaphanous blue flame … doubled in the window," is "perfect" but "boarded up." The reality of the beach strollers is temporal, and so is their knowledge. Their vision of the house remains conjectural…. (p. 115)
We have been dealing with the mode of the impersonal primarily in terms of theme, setting, situation. But of course the term is most applicable to a discussion of the speaker. Personal narration is precluded by Bishop's view that the self is amorphous in an amorphous world. Instead, we get a variety of distancing techniques, which bring order to the poems without belying their vision of flux, and without lending privilege to a single perspective.
Often these homeless figures are presented by a detached, third-person narrator, who sees their familiar structures foundering but can imagine a larger womblike mystery. The "Squatter's Children" "play at digging holes," at creating roots in the wider, mysterious world which is more meaningful than the "specklike house," the shelter from which their mother's voice, "ugly as sin," calls them to come in. The description repeatedly reveals their vulnerability. Their laughter, "weak flashes of inquiry," is not answered; their "little, soluble, / unwarrantable ark" will not sustain them far. And yet their questioning, digging natures are never really criticized. The narrator intrudes to affirm and reassure their "rights in rooms of falling rain." They are, in a sense, housed in the obscurity of the storm, even as the ark of their selves founders.
Above the mist, from where this impersonal narrator views the landscape, humans look as insignificant as Brueghel's Icarus. Among other things, the impersonal mode puts humanity in perspective. We are continually reminded of a reality that goes on quite aside from our human frame of reference. In "Cape Breton," signs of humanity are almost completely absorbed by the vaster landscape…. In this deeply impersonal world, where the "thin mist follows / the white mutations of its dream" humanity looks slight and transient indeed. And yet, as in Brueghel's paintings, the human element is privileged, as a focus of interest if not power.
These detached narratives are among the most placid of Bishop's poems precisely because they put human confusion and loss, as well as human authority, "in perspective." By looking from above, they locate humanity in its wanderings. In a way they can be seen as acts of self-location. The tiny figures are our surrogates and thus soften our own pain in the midst of uncertainty. In "Squatter's Children" the narrator speaks directly out of a perspective from which obscurity no longer threatens. The children are safe in their unawareness, the speaker in a higher awareness. (pp. 117-18)
The impersonal, distanced narrator, then, admits a certain stability where experience is troubled. But Bishop never lets this perspective get complacently ironic. A "believer in total immersion," she continually returns to write poems from a more limited, more bewildered point of view. She enters the consciousness of characters lost in a world bigger than themselves or their ideas and lets them speak out of their limitations. We are invited into an intimacy with these speakers, but the impersonal mode is still doubly preserved. These are masks, not Bishop's own voice, or ours. And it is precisely the problem of the personal that these poems engage. In the dramatic monologues of "Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics" for instance, Bishop makes experience particular, while at the same time juxtaposing contradictory views in order to show the limits and errors of each. (p. 118)
We have seen how Bishop protects the reader from the disorientation she depicts, first by impersonal narration and second by a series of masks from which we feel an ironic distance. But in Geography III these masks are dangerously familiar. The narrative distance of "In the Waiting Room" was not between a character and a creation simply, but between the poet and a memory of her past self. There, the problem of memory became, indirectly, another aspect of the instability of time and place. Crusoe of "Crusoe in England" is the most realized of Bishop's first person narrators, and here she allows us almost no ironic distance. Because he is human, because he is less certain in his delusions, because his is the only point of view presented, we are shipwrecked with him. Self-admiring but out of proportion, cut off from his surroundings, he is like the tropical creatures, but more aware of the relativity of his own dimensions. And his attempts to find himself are inquisitive and creative, even if they don't entirely succeed. This is the longest poem in Bishop's [Geography III], one that brings together a great many of the themes, motifs, and images of her other work. Here again is the shipwreck, the self and its structures foundering in an impersonal reality of empty volcanoes, waves that close in (but never completely), mist, dry rock, inscrutable cries of goats and gulls. The island is an odd combination of elements from Cape Breton, scenes in the National Geographic, South America, all places where characters have earlier lost themselves in order to find themselves. Here again the speaker begins by putting questions to an outer world, but turns them inward from frustration. Like other characters, Crusoe tries to construct meanings "out of nothing at all, or air" when the world won't provide them; as before, such constructs fail to satisfy or protect. But more powerfully than before the experience is affirmed, despite discomfort and struggle, because of the creative, inquiring and self-reflective attitude it provides. (pp. 119-20)
The first theme of Crusoe … is that human order imposed on the landscape never "takes" as real presence. But neither does the landscape answer our questions about its objective order. (p. 122)
When the mind fails to find external objectifications it necessarily turns inward for its comfort. Bishop's position on such gestures is ambivalent. On the one hand they are surrenders to solipsism; on the other hand, they are all the meaning we can manage. From "Crusoe" it seems that self-explanation, achieved with self-awareness and humility, is justified. Like the Toad, Snail, and Crab [in "Rainy Season; Sub-Topics"], Crusoe begins explaining himself to himself; indeed, like the Snail he carries his own house around with him. But unlike the tropical creatures, he does more than complain or flatter himself; he attempts to construct a home out of the alien materials. Since his surroundings cannot be appropriated, and fail even to register his existence, he creates his own world to reflect himself in. Where love is not offered externally, he discovers self-love: "I felt a deep affection for / the smallest of my island industries." He rejoices over "home-brew" (imagination?) and his weird flute (poetry?).
But as a hero of self-consciousness, Crusoe sees the limits of his creations, and this in turn limits his ability to rejoice in them…. Bishop does not finally negate these inventions: by confronting an impersonal world in an inquisitive attitude, we do not verify our own values or self-images, but neither do we replace these constructions with anything else. What we gain, what is missing without this experience of disorientation, is a clearer awareness of the relative nature of our identities and our creations. Such self-consciousness is positive, though it may be disturbing in that it disrupts our notion of the genuineness and discreteness of the self. Finally, to locate ourselves in the world, we need both to carve out definitions and to know their limitations. (pp. 122-23)
At the time of the narration, Crusoe is, as the title indicates, "in England," home again. We would expect that homecoming to be the subject of the poem, and yet all but three stanzas deal with Crusoe's experience of shipwreck on a strange island. The point the title makes, of course, is that England is no more "home" than the place of miserable empty volcanoes. In this version of the Crusoe story, civilization is not exalted over nature…. Here, he desires that continual struggle he so much hated before…. Nostalgia persists as part of the human character, transferred now to the former center of pain. He has moved from questions of place and purpose to questions of the past, as he tries to locate himself now in terms of his former hardships. In England the objects of his past have lost all the moisture of vitality; they are empty symbols. For Crusoe the island is "un-rediscovered, un-renameable." He feels the failure of imagination to give presence to the past: "None of the books has ever got it right." And yet the story he tells does become authentic, even in reviving images of desire. For all his world-weariness, Crusoe does succeed in gathering a sense of self precisely in images of desire.
Clearly, Bishop does not believe in settling down. We never "find ourselves" in any stable location, but rather in transit. As all her critics point out, travel is her natural, dominant metaphor for the human condition. (pp. 125-26)
In many ways at once, the poem "Questions of Travel" is central in Bishop's work, for it both comments on and repeats the structure of the other poems. It again deals with travel, and with the feeling of being lost, overwhelmed by change. It is structured in a series of observations that generate questions rather than answers. And again, the questions move increasingly inward, so that the quest for the external world becomes a quest for the self. The self-reflection at the end of the poem is affirmative in mood, even while it is interrogative in form. (pp. 127-28)
[The poem] finally asks, not only: "Should we have stayed at home" but: Where is home? Home seems to be in question, or rather, in questioning.
But travel without pause is tiring and unsatisfying. The problem of these poems becomes how to present moments of rest and coalescence which nonetheless preserve the sense that our condition is inherently restless. Bishop's solution is to create places, objects, figures representing a unity around which we collect ourselves, but at the same time symbolizing our transience. The double function of these images satisfies our ambivalence about travel. The self is kept expansive even while it experiences a needed coalescence.
The "strangest of theatres" at which the characters of "Questions of Travel" arrive, for example, reflects their own condition of motion and confusion. The "streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling, / the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships." The waterfalls even look like "tearstains." Surely the "strangers in a play" these travellers are watching are themselves…. Imagining an absolute other is always a way of imagining an absolute self. Perhaps this is why we are attracted in "Questions of Travel" to the "inexplicable old stonework, / inexplicable and impenetrable, / at any view, / instantly seen and always, always delightful." There is no limit here, but neither is there complete flux. Another poem, "The Fish," makes clear that these moments of sudden awareness depend upon the extension as well as the retention of difference. Here the narrator confronts, embodied in a fish she has caught, a universe of other parasitical life, and an infinite past of other similar encounters, thus locating herself in relation to other life and history.
All these are examples of the sudden feeling of home. The strange is suddenly familiar; history and change are brought into immediate focus and coherence. But of course, time and space cannot really be concentrated; the poems draw us back into extension. Though victory fills up the little rented boat in "The Fish," it is not properly ours, and we must let the fish go. "The power to relinquish what one would keep, that is freedom," wrote Marianne Moore, and it seems to be a maxim Bishop took to heart. The pain of loss and confusion is never trivialized in her poems, and yet it is overpowered by a sense of the value of process. "The art of losing's not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster." In mastering the art of losing we master ourselves.
Possession is not the highest of goals for Bishop, but rather, engagement with the world and with one's self through inquiry, even when distance and difference result…. In the human world distances are not … easily overcome; questions persist beyond all presences. And yet there is no preference for the nonhuman here. Acts of memory may indeed aggravate our losses, but they may also, like brief encounters with the strange, offer experiences of a sudden coalescence of feelings and associations. (pp. 128-30)
["The Moose"] brings together all the elements—disorientation, dream, travel, sudden strange appearances, memory—which the other poems, in various combinations, introduce. All are elements that help us lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. In "The Moose," the stability of the homeland is transformed into a locus of gentle flux, and the journey begins, travel in space corresponding here to travel in time, to memory. The passengers are again surrounded by fog, by a drowsy confusion, but as the distant narrator, looking sympathetically down on them, knows, it is a homey kind of confusion, softening the "hairy, scratchy, splintery … impenetrable wood[s]." Out of this oblivion we overhear a conversation "in Eternity," about pain and loss, where things are "cleared up finally," where an unqualified "yes" is possible. This is not the voice of the people on the bus, nor do they hear it except in a vague dream, and yet it belongs to them as their heritage. And as the moose emerges from the wood, simple in her otherworldliness, an emblem of all that the Grandparents have accepted, the passengers do not understand the relation they have to it, and yet they are moved by it. Strange as it is, it is also "homely as a house / (or, safe as houses)." It offers them a sudden feeling of liberation but also of placement. They coalesce for an instant around this mystery. And like the experience in the waiting room, this one is never defined but only embraced in a question the travellers ask, a question about their own natures and identities:
Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy?
The impersonal and the interrogative are essential and pervasive characteristics of Bishop's style, linked by their common source in her uncertain, exploratory relation to the world. Inherent in them are certain aesthetic problems with which she has had to grapple. Since these poems lack the intimacy which urges our attention in other lyrics, they risk our indifference or our disbelief. In her early poetry, Bishop tries to surmount this problem by contriving a "we," "I" and "you" who interact, but only distantly. The impersonal requires that images speak for themselves, and at times in the early work, they are too reticent. But the details that introduce "The Moose" accumulate quietly, so that even while we are taken by surprise when events suddenly lift into dream, we are not disturbed because we have been guided by a silent ordering presence. Bishop does not falsify her sense of our situation by interpreting all the details she sets adrift towards us. But neither do we feel entirely alone in the wilderness she creates.
At its weakest, the interrogative mode seems a tic, as pat as any assertion it might overturn. In "The Map" and in "The Monument," some of the questions seem contrived. But in "Filling Station," "Faustina," and "First Death in Nova Scotia," the questions emerge from a change of consciousness; in Geography III, they always seem genuine. We come to poetry with the desire for wholeness and order, and the poet of the interrogative mode must somehow satisfy that need without reducing experience to simple answers. When it works, this is Bishop's greatest poetic achievement: to give us satisfaction even as she remains elusive and reticent, even as she reveals that the question is the final form. For through the impersonal mode she makes the questions our own, our most valued possessions, the very form of our identity. (pp. 131-32)
Bonnie Costello, "The Impersonal and the Interrogative in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop," in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess, The University of Michigan Press, 1983, pp. 109-32.
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[The essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in The New Republic, November 10, 1979.]
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. After painting the hallucinatory, vivid island, with hissing volcanoes and hissing giant turtles—an unforgettable terrain—Bishop's Crusoe muses on the dried-out, 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. (pp. 255-57)
Robert Pinsky, "Elizabeth Bishop, 1911–1979," in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess, The University of Michigan Press, 1983, pp. 255-58.
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[Elizabeth Bishop once] told me that Poe's best poem, for her taste, was a little-known piece called "Fairy-Land." Years of re-reading that poem have brought me close to her opinion, and have led me to see that her fondness for it was based on a true affinity. "Fairy-Land" is a charming dream-vision, written in a transparent style unusual for Poe; at the same time, its weeping trees and multitudinous moons are repeatedly and humorously challenged by the voice of common sense; out of which conflict the poem somehow modulates, at the close, into a poignant yearning for transcendence. All of the voices of that poem have their counterparts in Elizabeth's own work.
Reticent as she was, Elizabeth Bishop wrote several autobiographical pieces in which she testified to a lifelong sense of dislocation. That is, she missed from the beginning what some enjoy, an unthinking conviction that things ought to be as they are; that one ought to exist, bearing a certain name; that the schoolbus driver should have a fox terrier; that there should be a red hydrant down at the corner; that it all makes sense. (pp. 10-11)
If the world is a strange place, then it readily shades into dream. So many of Elizabeth's poems take place at the edge of sleep, or on the threshold of waking, lucidly fusing two orders of consciousness. Some of them are written out of remembered dreams. And then there are superb poems like "The Man-Moth," in which a tragic sensibility is portrayed under the form of dream. In a later poem, "The Riverman," her capacity for navigating the irrational enabled her to enter the mind of a witch-doctor, and visit the water-spirits of the Amazon. All this has little to do with the influence of French surrealism, I think; as her Robinson Crusoe says of his artifacts in Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop's poems are "homemade."
In another kind of poem, she sets some part of the world before her and studies it with a describing eye, an interrogating mind, and a personality eager for coherence. This is the kind of poem, written in a style at once natural and lapidary, in which her stunning accuracies of perception and comparison make us think of her friend and early encourager, Marianne Moore. A sandy beach "hisses like fat;" she sees on a wall "the mildew's ignorant map;" on a gusty day in Washington she notes how "Unceasingly, the little flags / Feed their limp stripes into the air." One could go on quoting such felicities forever, and it is such things which have led the critics to use the words wit, delight, precision, elegance and fastidiousness; at the same time, her descriptive genius has led some to say that her poetry is a poetry of surfaces…. But in fact her poems, for all their objectivity, are much involved in what they see: though she seldom protests, or specifies her emotions, her work is full of an implicit compassion, and her friend Robert Lowell justly ascribed to her a tone "of large, grave tenderness and sorrowing amusement."
That expression "sorrowing amusement" is wonderfully exact, and of course it would be quite wrong to overstress the sorrow part of it. If she was afflicted by the absurdity of things, she also took delight in everything curious, incongruous, or crazy; that's one reason why she was the best of company. (pp. 11-12)
When she looked in her poetry for ultimate answers, she generally expressed the search in the key of geography, of travel. And she always reported that such answers were undiscoverable…. In and out of her poetry, she lamented her want of a comprehensive philosophy; yet I cannot be sorry that so honest a nature as hers refused to force itself into a system, and I question whether system is the only way to go deep into things.
Though she had no orthodox convictions, and wondered at such certainties in others, Elizabeth Bishop had religious concerns and habits of feeling. I think of her poem about St. Peter; I think of the "pure and angelic note" of the blacksmith's hammer in her story "In the Village," and the way that story ends with the cry, "O, beautiful sound, strike again!"… Above all, I think of her poem called "Twelfth Morning;" it is a poem about Epiphany, the day when things are manifested, and its opening lines say:
Like a first coat of whitewash when it's wet, the thin grey mist lets everything show through …
One thing that comes through the mist is a sound from the shore, the sound of "the sandpipers' / heart-broken cries," and that I take for a sign that grief is a radical presence in the world. But there is also another phenomenon, a black boy named Balthazar who bears the name of one of the Magi, and on whose head is a four-gallon can which "keeps flashing that the world's a pearl." The vision of Balthazar and his four-gallon pearl is qualified by amusement; nevertheless it is a vision. It seems to me that Elizabeth Bishop's poetry perceives beauty as well as absurdity, exemplifies the mind's power to make beauty, and embodies compassion; though her world is ultimately mysterious, one of its constants is sorrow, and another is some purity or splendor which, though forever defiled, is also, as her poem "Anaphora" says, perpetually renewed. (pp. 12-14)
Richard Wilbur, "Elizabeth Bishop," in Ploughshares, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1980, pp. 10-14.
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Some of the enchanted mystery which permeates Elizabeth Bishop's poetry arises from her preoccupation with dreams, sleep, and the borders between sleeping and waking. Her poems contain much of the magic, uncanniness and displacement associated with the works of the surrealists, for she too explores the workings of the unconscious and the interplay between conscious perception and dream. Although she draws very little from the surrealists' extreme experiments in technique, she does inherit the liberating bequest of their imaginative breakthroughs, and in an original and unobtrusive manner, she assimilates various surrealist aspirations into her poetic practice. (p. 63)
Although Bishop shares the surrealists' interest in the unconscious, her methods for incorporating oneiric qualities into her poetry differ fundamentally from their approach. She does not seek to subvert logical control, and she refuses to accept the "split" between the roles of conscious and unconscious forces in our perception of the world. Unlike the surrealists, she does not endow the unconscious with a revolutionary power to remake experience. Instead, within her poems the realm of dreams, like our waking perceptions, remains problematical. (pp. 63-4)
Another link between Bishop's poetry and the surrealists' discoveries is her delineation of the "otherness" of objects. Within her poems, one finds an awareness that, somehow, whatever seems recognizable to her calm, eclectic consciousness is only part of what is there. However, her techniques for evoking the enigmatic qualities of things differ from the surrealist process of dissociation. To discredit conventional perception, the surrealists deliberately placed the object in an unexpected surrounding and obtained a new source of aesthetic energy. This procedure, whether verbal or plastic, was essentially dissociative. Unlike the surrealists, Bishop rejects the shapeless poetics accompanying the derangement of consciousness, and she enhances the mysterious oddity of things by her unique prowess for ingenious association.
Many of her poems can be explicitly identified as verbal recreations of a dream; for example, "The Weed," "A Summer's Dream," "Sleeping Standing Up," "The Riverman," and "Some Dreams They Forgot." However, in other poems, such as "Chemin de Fer," "Cape Breton," "Squatter's Children," "First Death in Nova Scotia," and "The Bight," the reliance on visual detail is so dominant that the created settings also seem oddly dream-like because they radiate with a disturbing ambiguity similar to the manifest content of dreams. From one perspective, the visual imagery in her poetry is grounded in exact and precise observation of natural detail, yet the uninterrupted accumulation of those details often forms settings which seem to emerge from a dream as well as to encompass the external world. (pp. 64-5)
Bishop was intrigued by the frottage technique [used by Max Ernst with the surrealist aim of breaking "loose from the laws of identity" by advocating uncontrolled association and by ascribing greater importance to the imaginative apprehension of an object rather than the object itself]…. Although this interest in Ernst's techniques for composition should not be over-amplified, it does indicate her sympathy for the surrealist sensibility and provides a means for comprehending the complex way in which this awareness is implemented in "The Monument."
The poem is eighty lines of free verse marked by occasional approximate rhymes. An objective and detached description of the visual qualities of the monument begins the poem and continues throughout, interrupted by four quotations from a second unidentified person (II. 31-34, 40-45, 47-49, 54-58) and various speculations about the purpose, origin and nature of the object by the original speaker. The description of the box's visible features concentrates on the geometric properties of contiguous details. Its shape, angles, texture, slant and perspective are mentioned, much as one might describe the formal abstract elements of some twentieth-century sculpture. Indeed, the monument does resemble a piece of so-called junk sculpture in both its haphazard construction and mundane material, as described by the unappreciative second speaker…. It also resembles some Cubist sculpture because its intersecting geometric planes create a multifaceted surface which eleminates front, back and center. The monument is described following the line of sight—first bottom to top. (II. I-ii) and then vice versa (II. 11-17). The emphasis on surface description in this first part of the … [poem] plays against the later speculations about its purpose. This thematic distinction is emphasized grammatically—the visual description is written in the indicative mood while the speculation is placed in the subjunctive. "It is an artifact / of wood" which "may be solid," "may" contain the bones of its creator, and "may" have been painted.
Twice in the poem the first speaker interrupts the account to correct the description…. Bishop uses this rhetorical device of correcting herself within the poem (epanorthosis) quite frequently. By halting and rebeginning in this way, she colors the tone of the poem with some of the rambling and discursive qualities of natural conversation. The device also gives the impression of accidental or spontaneous composition, an effect which indicates a feature of her surrealist awareness. Like so many twentieth-century poets who desired to bring the colloquial and spontaneous into their language, Bishop recognizes the power which such expansive informality can add to a poem. However, it is typical of her controlled sensibility that this rambling openness is presented through the sheath of a classical rhetorical device. It is also indicative of her poetic talent that she is able to utilize rhetorical forms so artfully that her naturalness does not seem stilted even though it does not issue from the exposure of her personal feelings. Nor does the seeming spontaneity arise from the derangement of consciousness so exalted by the surrealists.
This colloquial and matter-of-fact description of the monument's surface contrasts with the curiously dream-like perspective of the poem…. (pp. 67-9)
The ambiguous blending of subject and object and foreground and background within the poem enhances the dreaminess of the scene. As in many other poems, Bishop uses "and" to subvert causal connection: "there is no 'far away,' / and we are far away within the view." This illogical displacement of perspective applies not only to the observer but also the "sea" which is simultaneously too far away to hear, yet so close it can be described, along with the sky and sunlight, in terms of its fibres, grains and splinters—as if one were examining it under a magnifying glass. This dream-like condensation of distance employed while describing the setting of the monument also owes something to surrealist painting techniques; specifically, to the use of a background foreign to the objects presented. (pp. 69-70)
The setting may be surrealistically-oriented; however, the poem itself is not. Although it contains many pictorial elements, it is, like all poems, made of words. And within Bishop's poetry, despite the specific surrealist parallels here, there is never the attack on the Word itself which underlies all surrealist verse. (p. 70)
Bishop rejects the surrealists' attack on the conventions of language. Accordingly, she never employs the radical juxtaposition of verbal elements which permeates so much surrealist poetry. She does not break clauses, phrases or words into fragments; rather she stays within the confines of accepted linguistic and poetic conventions. In short, she uses syntax and grammar for her own needs rather than eliminating them as useless anachronisms.
As a poem, "The Monument" exhibits some of the methods which Bishop uses to capture the enigmatic qualities of objects. The monument is a pile of boxes; it might contain various secrets which are not apparent to our eyes. The dream-like rearrangement of the setting charges the poem with surrealist possibilities, yet the impulse of the poem, expressed through the dialogue, attempts to reconstruct the conscious associative elements of the monument. Although it owes something to the surrealist tradition of the poetic picture with its radiant metaphorical potential, it does not rely exclusively on dissociative techniques. The poem is set up as an argument, and this argument is resolved in the final lines by a declaration of the monument's aesthetic value….
The second work to be examined in relation to its surrealist features is "Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics," a series of three interlinking prose poems which display some resemblance to the writing of Francis Ponge. Like Bishop's poetry, his work captures the "thingness of things" in poems which tilt, magnify and upset rational perspectives through the delineation of particular natural detail. (p. 71)
Recognizable thematic concerns of her poetry—the confrontation between human desires and natural impenetrability, the need for self-protection, painful isolation within a homeless environment, and the bordering worlds of land and water—are carried over into the three meditations through the first person narration of the assorted creatures, all chosen from the older and lower orders of the animal kingdom. Such personification is rarely effective in twentieth-century poetry, yet Bishop successfully recreates the oddities of our experience within the ironic, incisive monologues. One of the richest qualities of her writing is her unfaltering ability to fuse description and narration into an alloy which accentuates the strengths of each contributing element. (pp. 72-3)
With the exception of "12 O'Clock News," these three monologues are the only prose poems Elizabeth Bishop published, and although they constitute only a small part of her entire corpus, they contrast with the other poetic forms she employs in The Complete Poems  and Geography III which rely heavily on strict rhymes and stanzaic patterns. A question thus arises about the choice of form: what is gained by writing in a mode which eliminates end rhyme, stanzas and the poetic line? (p. 73)
Trying to express the "undulations of the psyche" through a means unfettered by the formal structures of verse composition, Baudelaire initiated the attempt, which the surrealists later heralded, of exploring the creative possibilities of the unconscious through a mode which de-emphasized the artificial imposition of conscious controls.
By writing "Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics" as a group of prose poems, Bishop has attempted to draw on the special powers of this form. Yet within these three poems, the daylight clarity of consciousness dominates through the use of declarative language and crystalline imagery. Certainly, the rhythmic elusiveness of these poems uncannily exposes the "prickings of consciousness," but the language in the monologues releases its power through an admirable simplicity. In this series, as well as throughout her writing, Bishop's use of language imbues her poems with this unmistakable sense of everyday reality. The concreteness of the sensory detail, permeating both dreams and waking, is anchored within a grammar which reinforces this simplicity. Here, as elsewhere in her poetry, short simple sentences are dominant. An elementary vocabulary also adds to the uncomplicated texture of the language, as does the straightforward, colloquial syntax.
This simplicity of language belies the oddity and mystery of the monologues. The intense paranoia of the speakers and the wry pungency of their observations coalesce through the rhythmic pacing of the poems—a rhythm as persuasively effective as any formal metrical measure. (pp. 73-4)
By eliminating the artificiality of the poetic line, Bishop increases the chilling immediacy of the speakers' meditational flow as they muse on the eerie conditions of their primeval struggles. As in "The Monument," a fusion of description, narration and setting blurs the common distinctions between conscious and unconscious. These strange voices speak with such controlled eloquence and the foreground details of the setting stand out in such minute clarity that one forgets the background behind the scene is a dank, impenetrable forest. (p. 74)
In her poems, Bishop utilizes her own idiosyncratic kind of artistic displacement, and it is much less radical than that of the surrealist writers. Often, as in "The Monument," "Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics" or "The Weed," this displacement appears in a traditional manner in the isolation and unease experienced by a subject within a narrative setting. In her poetry one does not find the grotesque oneiric distortion which may occur, for example, in painting by Dali or Magritte or poems by Breton or Aragon. Instead, she prefers to investigate natural displacement, the "always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life," by describing the oddities of events or incongruities of detail which appear before her questioning gaze and which hint at some displaced meaning. This predilection for scrutinizing natural displacement permeates her poems.
Her use of titled, shifting perspectives is one way she draws attention to the quirkiness of our limited visions. (pp. 77-8)
Sometimes it is proportion which seems somehow out of balance. In "Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics" both the toad and snail ask pity because they are "too big." In "Questions of Travel" "there are too many waterfalls here." In "Chemin de Fer" the railroad ties are described as "too close together / or maybe too far apart."…
Sometimes the oddity of contiguous details is emphasized, creating the impression that displacement occurs in routine ways throughout the scenes she observes. It can appear in the countryside of Cape Breton or the exotically foreign jungles of Brazil…. (p. 78)
All of these examples indicate a specific use of displacement; namely, to accentuate the odd confrontation of internal and external worlds. Bishop's poetry delineates not only the confluent forces and ambiguities of interior conflicts expressed in dreams (as in "The Weed"), but also the elements of our waking struggle with external realities. Her landscapes may well possess qualities of dreamscapes, but simultaneously they are marked by an unusually rich appreciation of the natural world. Breton wrote that for the surrealists, there were no objects, only subjects. They had no interest in the natural world per se. Throughout Bishop's poetry, this strangeness of our subjective selves, the queer struggle between conscious and unconscious, is projected outward into a world where the "thingness of things" dominates. She often relies on accumulated visual images in order to blur the distinction between subject and object within a dream-like atmosphere which pushes beyond the "split" between conscious and unconscious. Yet at the same time she emphasizes a sense of displaced meaning in order to contradict this fusion by accenting the discrepancy between the inner and outer realms. (pp. 79-80)
Richard Mullen, "Elizabeth Bishop's Surrealist Inheritance," in American Literature, Vol. 54, No. 1, March, 1982, pp. 63-80.
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I have been thinking about the paradox of poetry's ability to show itself forth even while its maker seeks to remain hidden in it, because a book titled The Complete Poems: 1927–1979, by Elizabeth Bishop, has just been published…. [Elizabeth Bishop] was praised to the skies by Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, two poets who were quite tough, very acute readers. Lowell said: "I don't think anyone alive has a better eye than she has: The eye that sees things and the mind behind the eye that remembers." And Jarrell said, "They have a sound, a feel, a whole moral and physical atmosphere different from anything else I know. They are honest, modest, minutely observant, masterly…. The more you read her poems, the better and fresher, the more nearly perfect they seem…. These are what poems ought to be!" [See CLC, Vol. 4.]
As for Elizabeth Bishop's "eye," her friend and model, Marianne Moore, and a younger poet who also works in that mode, May Swenson, have an "eye" just as good, and often better, I think, most readers would agree. As for their "sound," their "moral and physical atmosphere different from anything else," that may be the dustjacket blurb Jarrell supplied in 1964 that offers us the clue to Bishop's work and hidden character. If I were to try to characterize Bishop's difference from Moore, I would say Moore is rather complexly elaborate, a sort of Yankee moralist in Baroque clothing, ornately decorated by literary and natural history allusiveness; and Swenson is, also, verbally elaborate and "scientifically objective and descriptive," so to speak, and impersonal almost always, except for a few emotional outbreaks when she allowed herself once in a very great while to talk about family or self. In Bishop there is something very bitter and strange at the core of her work, something frozen, and denied, and a great deal withheld by an iron will. Why are these three poets alike? What is not in their work? All three are women, to make a broad guess, who refused to gaze upon Eros, the god of Love; and it is precisely that lack, which is to my mind an essential lack, that marks them as strange, frozen, and ultimately deficient as poets. Not that they are not each passionate, in their own ways; but their passion, their powerful and energetic passion, is one that has gone profoundly awry, deflected by the force field of some dark and hidden star that, unknown though it is, nonetheless reveals itself by the very form and patterns and quality of their concerns and their work. The best poetry of personal statement in Bishop's The Complete Poems is that of the great Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which she translated; and another clue to Bishop lies in a wonderful poem from the French of Max Jacob, "Hell is Graduated." There is nothing as good, one thinks, in all of Bishop's own work. Her translations say what she herself never would, or could say, perhaps.
Not that Bishop is not an excellent poet, and not that she is ever anything but a first-rate model when it is a matter of saying in clear, resonant, crystalline language what it is she sees in nature, in the garden, the forest, the city landscape, the jungle and the shore. No one who wants to read and/or write poetry will not learn something about language and craft from her firm, clear expression….
Bishop was always concerned with what she terms losing; in the poem titled "One Art," she says: "The art of losing isn't hard to master." In fact losing becomes synonymous with the practice of life itself. What is it Bishop knew she had constantly lost, and would always lose? and even while she found the scenery of the world, or what she could take of it, and from it, images for poems? There are many fine poems in this book, always crafted superbly, that will, when read, reread and contemplated, begin to shadow forth her secret loss, and all the losses that followed from it, losses that she concealed and transformed into the art of her poems, which besides being masterly, as Jarrell put it, are also often cold and cruel, not merely long- and silent-suffering, or stoical if you will. I would say that Elizabeth Bishop's lifework, which like May Swenson's poetry, offers us products of disciplined and thoughtful observation of the world we see and hear, and so parallels the kind of detached gathering we think of "scientific," also does with the world what only art can do: it tells us something of its maker, and tells us much more than the maker wished to say, or even perhaps knew. If we care to try to apprehend this rather cold poet …, we have the opportunity now, with the publication of Elizabeth Bishop's The Complete Poems: 1927–1979….
Jascha Kessler, "Elizabeth Bishop: 'The Complete Poems: 1927–1979'," in a radio broadcast on KUSCFM—Los Angeles, CA, February 23, 1983.
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Elizabeth Bishop's steadily widening audience and her endurance among the readers she has once claimed are the reward of constancy to an ideal object. Her reputation is founded on perhaps 25 poems, among them "Love Lies Sleeping," "The Unbeliever," "The Shampoo," "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance," "Arrival at Santos" and "First Death in Nova Scotia." Altogether that looks like a modest achievement until one considers that most of the larger poetic reputations of the past century have been founded on similar evidence. The difference is that Bishop's masterpieces stand in a higher ratio to her work as a whole. She published little, because she would not release a poem that fell short of a complete conception; and what strikes one most in reading her poems again [in "The Complete Poems: 1927–1979"] is the way they answer each other across pages or volumes, so that each plays its part: "The Bight," for example, earning our esteem for the sake of its much fuller picture of the dream house sketched in "The End of March"; the figure of streets coupled to stars, a mystery in "Going to the Bakery," somehow clarifying a similar figure in "Love Lies Sleeping."…
[Marianne] Moore's influence on Bishop was real though narrow, like the influence of Edward Arlington Robinson on Robert Frost. An original-minded author can profit incalculably from this sort of dependence; the respect one feels for the master of an earlier generation who has shown an unshakable interest in one's own fate. The result in Bishop's case was more than elective affinity and less than discipleship. Of the poems in "North & South," only "Casabianca" is a simple imitation; "The Man-Moth" presumes an audience trained by Moore; "Wading at Wellfleet" uses her discipline with traces of her diction, but the sustained metaphor of the sea as chariot gives the closing lines a power that belongs uniquely to Bishop's fable…. So too with a later poem like "Visits to St. Elizabeths."…
Throughout her career Bishop aimed to bring morality and invention together in a single thought. One can feel this especially in "The Weed," with its Herbert-like meditation on the birth of a new feeling; in "The Armadillo," which shows the complicity of esthetic pleasures in any grand spectacle, even a scene of suffering; in "Roosters" and "The Fish," those guilty and strangely conciliatory professions of human strength. The best example is the rhetorical turn several stanzas before the end of "The Moose," in which the poet, having overheard a conversation in a bus about somebody's life, pauses to recollect the different voices that told similar stories in her childhood and quietly weighs the inflections of the ageless mutterings of sympathy…. (p. 7)
In four poems above all—"The Map," "The Monument," "At the Fishhouses" and "The End of March"—Bishop announced her task as a poet and confirmed her dedication to it. Varied as they are, these poems have the authority of self-portraits, and they depict her, poignantly at times but always masterfully, as a creator of more than secondary imaginings. Her errors, or wanderings from fact, have for her the finality of fact, and her wish is to make a reader see them that way. (p. 30)
From her very first poems, Bishop's fascination for travel was an interest in seeing the place the map told of, the "lion sun" that you meet after turning away from a dream house "littered with correspondences." She speaks too of the dangers of travel for those nourished on art: The title of "Brazil, January 1, 1502" alludes to the landing of the conquistadors, who brought to the New World what she calls elsewhere "an active displacement in perspective." A "tapestried landscape" was all European eyes were prepared to see in the jungle. The actual landscape, with its terrors, somehow evaded them….
In contrast with this, the other poems Bishop wrote about South America seem done from a traveler's perspective, as if the poet herself, four and a half centuries later, found the natives recalcitrant to all but esthetic treatment and yet had determined not to let them retreat. The poor of Brazil, her adopted country, were illegible and therefore marvelous to her. But for the same reason they were too rich for her poetry: Her portraits of them are half-bodied, insubstantial and oddly toneless for a poet usually so sure of tone. "Manuelzinho," the longest and best-known poem of the group, is an affair of careful high spirits; yet it is a monologue, and Bishop's effort to dissociate herself from the speaker is awkward and perfunctory….
Of the poems written since "Geography III," "Pink Dog" is the most unexpected: a description, full of perverse gusto, of a "depilated dog" with teats hanging to the sidewalk who advises her in instructive tercets to "Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!" An elegy for Robert Lowell also appears in this section. It is rather foreshortened, with an eloquence in the last two stanzas to which the preceding ones have not built a path, but it has great interest as an act of personal friendship that refused to be translated into a gesture of critical sympathy. Lowell's compulsion to change his poetry by rewriting the same poems is compared with nature's seasonal returns: Even the birds seem to say, "repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise."… The remaining new poems in ["The Complete Poems: 1927–1979"], "Santarém" and "Sonnet," confirm one's feeling that in her last years Bishop was working with undiminished powers, even if none of what emerged has the distinction of "The End of March," "In the Waiting Room," "The Moose," "Crusoe in England" or "Five Flights Up"—the poems that appeared together in "Geography III." It seems almost an impertinence to add that of the poets of her generation, with temperaments often more conspicuously adaptable than hers, Elizabeth Bishop alone now seems secure beyond the disputation of schools or the sway of period loyalties. Like all great poets, she was less a maker of poems than a maker of feelings. (p. 31)
David Bromwich, "Morality and Invention in a Single Thought," in The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1983, pp. 7, 30-1.
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I have been fascinated by the diversity of challenges that The Complete Poems, 1927–1979 raises, the questions—poetic and political—that it stirs up, the opportunities it affords. In addition to the four volumes published in her lifetime, this edition … includes late poems which appeared in magazines after Geography III (1976), some posthumously published late poems, eleven poems written between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two, some uncollected later poems, and translations. Part of the value of such a collection is the chance it gives to see where certain obsessions and motives begin to take hold and how they work their way through a lifetime of poems; how certain echoes sound and die away, how style metamorphoses over time. This collection offers not just challenges and questions, but very deep pleasure. In her later work especially, Bishop is difficult to quote from because her poems are so often hung on one long thread; the progression of language and images does not readily separate into extracts. By the same token she is a wonderful poet to read aloud.
Criticism of Bishop in her lifetime was mostly appreciative of her powers of observation, her carefully articulated descriptive language, her wit, her intelligence, the individuality of her voice. I want to acknowledge the distinction of all these, the marvellous flexibility and sturdiness of her writing, her lack of self-indulgence, her capacity to write of loss and of time past without pathos and with precision, as in poems like "Sestina," "The Moose," "Filling Station," "First Death in Nova Scotia," "At the Fishhouses." I want to pay this homage and go on to aspects of her work which I have not yet seen discussed. In particular I am concerned with her experience of outsiderhood, closely—though not exclusively—linked with the essential outsiderhood of a lesbian identity; and with how the outsider's eye enables Bishop to perceive other kinds of outsiders and to identify, or try to identify, with them. I believe she deserves to be read and valued not only for her language and images, or for her personality within the poems, but for the way she locates herself in the world. (pp. 15-16)
The child made "different" because parentless, the emigrant who thinks she would—understandably—"rather have the iceberg than the ship," the woman writing, consciously or not, "against the male flood" (Woolf's phrase), the lesbian writing under the false universal of heterosexuality, the foreigner who can take little for granted—all inhabit Bishop's poetic voice and eye. Outsiderhood is a condition which most people spend (and are often constrained to spend) great energy trying to deny or evade, through whatever kinds of assimilation or protective coloration they can manage. Poetry, too, can serve as protective coloration; the social person who is the poet may also try to "pass," but the price of external assimilation is internal division.
The pain of division is acutely present in some of Bishop's earliest poems, notably in "A Word With You," written when she was twenty-two, a tense, panicky, one-sided conversation during which a whole menagerie gets out of control…. (p. 16)
Poems examining intimate relationship are almost wholly absent from Bishop's later work. What takes their place is a series of poems examining relationships between people who are, for reasons of difference, distanced: rich and poor, landowner and tenant, white woman and Black woman, invader and native. Even in her first book she had taken on the theme of the Black woman's existence in a white world. The poem "Cootchie" addresses the fate of a Black woman who has died, presumably by drowning, perhaps by suicide. The white woman she has worked for is literally deaf but also self-absorbed; she will not "understand."… ["Songs for a Colored Singer"] is a white woman's attempt—respectful, I believe—to speak through a Black woman's voice. A risky undertaking, and it betrays the failures and clumsiness of such a position. The person as we adopt, the degree to which we use lives already ripped-off and violated by our own culture, the problem of racist stereotyping in every white head, the issue of the writer's power, right, obligation to speak for others denied a voice, or the writer's duty to shut up at times, or at least to make room for those who can speak with more immediate authority—these are crucial questions for our time, and questions that are relevant to much of Bishop's work. What I value is her attempt to acknowledge other outsiders, lives marginal in ways that hers is not, long before the Civil Rights movement made such awareness temporarily fashionable for some white writers.
Brazil, a multi-racial, yet still racist and class-fragmented country, clearly opened up a further range of understanding for Bishop. Her earliest poems about Brazil grasp the presence of colonization and enslavement…. Some of Bishop's best Brazilian poems are exercises in coming to terms with her location as a foreign white woman living as part of a privileged class in a city of beggars and rich people. I am thinking of "Faustina," "Manuelzinho," "The Burglar of Babylon," "Pink Dog." (pp. 16-17)
[It] is only now, with a decade of feminist and lesbian poetry and criticism behind us, and with the publication of these Complete Poems, that we can read [Bishop] as part of a female and lesbian tradition rather than simply as one of the few and "exceptional" women admitted to the male canon. Too often, the "exceptional" or token outsider is praised for her skill and artistry while her deep and troubled connections with other outsiders are ignored. (This is itself part of the imperative to be assimilated.) It is important to me to know that, through most of her life, Bishop was critically and consciously trying to explore marginality, power and powerlessness, often in poetry of great beauty and sensuous power. That not all these poems are fully realized or satisfying simply means that the living who care that art should embody these questions have still more work to do. (p. 17)
Adrienne Rich, "The Eye of the Outsider: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop," in Boston Review, Vol. VIII, No. 2, April, 1983, pp. 15-17.
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The eerie clarity and brilliant surfaces of Elizabeth Bishop's work have always been easy to see. Her first book, North and South (1946), contained poems that have been widely memorized, imitated, turned to as antidotes for slackness, and anthologized: "Wading at Wellfleet," "The Man-Moth," "The Monument," "Florida," "Roosters," and "The Fish" are among these early poems—not bad for a first book.
But though the achievement and the reputation increased with the publication of A Cold Spring (1955, Pulitzer Prize), Questions of Travel (1965), and Complete Poems (1969, National Book Award), the whole force and unique daring of Bishop's poetry may not have been visible until her last book before her death in 1979, Geography III (1976). In the light of that book, all of her work seemed to change. The poet who might have seemed lapidary and self-effacing emerged as a radical explorer of selfhood's very nature. Critics like Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom, and fellow artists like John Ashbery, have begun to show us the nature of Bishop's accomplishment.
Now, The Complete Poems, 1927–1979, including translations, uncollected poems, juvenilia, and occasional verses as well as a small number of new poems, shows the magnitude of this immensely readable, yet somehow oblique and elusive poet. It is an exciting, challenging corpus. Within her limitations—she was not prolific, she lacks boldness of scale—Bishop is original without the obvious rhetorical noises that sometimes pass for profundity.
Bishop is a lyric poet of solipsism yearning toward love, of metaphysical doubt acknowledging worldly charm and variety. But her isolated self is too proud to strut; and her doubt is too gravely absolute for certain heroic or Whitmanian manners. On the rare occasions when she reaches for the high style, the grandeur is based on a negative assertion, as in the conclusion of "At the Fishhouses," where the water is
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal.
The negative assertion, moreover, is tempered by the provisional counterpoint of supposition and simile, which further qualifies the sublime, limiting how much can be known even of the familiar…. [Other lines say the sea] is like what we imagine knowledge to be. The simile and … the qualifying adverb ("the surely burn your tongue") are hallmarks of Bishop's style and outlook. She reminds us that she is making or positing connections between separate things…. A steady fury with the very idea of falsehood leads her to make every connection explicitly an invention, and her own invention. That a person can be known, or the intensely visible world understood, is always left partly in doubt.
Thus, the poet of gaiety and reticence also denies—all but arrogantly—that one person is likely to know another, or indeed that one particle of experience is more than provisionally linked to any other…. (pp. 24-5)
Nothing is more conventional in modern poetry than the valuing of metaphor above simile. The stark, unostentatious way Bishop's work reverses that convention is characteristic; she is too sure and proud to explain or to show off—partly because what she is sure of is the limitation, as of simile. The reader is free to misunderstand, or not, but italicizing rhetoric or self-explication will not be provided. Similarly, it is possible to make the false assumption that she describes the separate parts of the world, the sensory particulars, out of love for those physical details. But in fact, The Complete Poems 1927–1979 records at least as much rage as love toward that merely visible, carefully recorded array of distinct things. That is, for all the pleasure of the eye, the poet's drama also includes the mind separating itself from the sensible world that nearly drowns the individual—as in the dizziness of "In the Waiting Room"—and the mind separates itself by seeing and naming all that is not itself. The extraordinary power of sight yearns to "look itself away." Each acute observation or similitude that the self makes as it regards the world is also a defiant, negative definition of one's own boundaries.
In Geography III, her last work except for the four poems published after the book appeared, the separate self is associated with the figure of the island. In "Crusoe in England" the speaker has the nightmare of imagining all the other separate imaginations, each isolated subjectivity demanding the impossible, to be known:
I'd have nightmares of other islands stretching away from mine, infinities of islands, islands spawning islands, like frogs' eggs turning into polliwogs of islands, knowing that I had to live on each and every one, eventually, for ages, registering their flora their fauna, their geography.
Along with the other allegorized geographical feature of the volcano—the essential Bishop totem, molten rock pushed up from under the seemingly still surface—islands embody something in the poet's nature that is not merely pessimistic and enclosed, but antisocial. (The lines preceding the ones I've quoted narrate Crusoe's dream of slitting a baby's throat.) But even the lines about islands express the opposed, charitable and social side of the poet, and bring to mind the fact that—beside all that I have said—she is also a love poet ("Casabianca," "Chemin de Fer," "Insomnia," "One Art") and a poet of funny, charitable social comedy ("Filling Station," "Manners," "Letter to N.Y.," "House Guest," "12 O'Clock News"). I don't think any modern poet of her stature has a better sense of humor.
If the reticence of simile and the isolated, volcanic island suggest Bishop's philosophical orientation, her social person is represented by quite different aspects of her writing. The poems often give a mysterious glamor and sweetness to the ordinary and domestic (the almost Norman Rockwell quality of people saying goodbye at a bus stop while "a collie supervises") in a way that suggests a feeling of being ineffably an outsider, a tourist from some other star, in relation to the banal customs of middle-class life. (pp. 25-7)
The peculiar nature of Bishop's version of a Romantic theme—the self isolated in a world unlike it—was clarified by Geography III. That book might be described as the autobiographical writing of a nonautobiographical writer; it hovers near personal account without entering the terrain of memoir—much less "confession"—for very long. Yet it is entirely intimate and inward. (p. 27)
[Here] is a poet whose subject was the self, and whose work, on the level of personality, takes that self (in a way) for granted, without a moment of extraneous self-regard or anxious preening. (p. 28)
Robert Pinsky, "Geographer of the Self," in The New Republic, Vol. 188, No. 13, April 4, 1983, pp. 24-8.
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Obligingly, the titles of Elizabeth Bishop's volumes of poetry [included in The Complete Poems, 1927–1979]—North and South, Questions of Travel, Geography III—chart the range and nature of her literary world. Geography engrosses her. Fascinated by the foreign, she maps it in poem after poem….
Even when attempting other subjects, Elizabeth Bishop finds it hard to tear herself entirely away from her attachment to the geographical. A poem about queasy thoughts in a dentist's waiting-room soon has its protagonist's eyes 'glued to the cover / of the National Geographic'. In '12 O'Clock News', there is what amounts to an early exercise in the currently modish 'Martian' school of writing, with the implements of the writer's trade seen in terms of topography: her lamp becomes a 'full moon'; the typewriter is an 'escarpment'; sheets of manuscript represent 'a slight landslip' where 'the exposed soil appears to be of poor quality: almost white, calcareous, and shaly'.
Such visual conceits are among Elizabeth Bishop's favourite techniques—used especially often to capture aqueous effects….
Yet, for all its lustrous accuracy of metaphor, Elizabeth Bishop's poetry is eventually dulled by predictability. There is a readiness to rely on the same stylistic tics—particularly repetition. (p. 25)
This mannerism is perhaps symptomatic of a more general penchant for sameness, which limits Elizabeth Bishop's writing. Paradoxically, in view of the author's taste for travel, her poetry ultimately conveys a sense of narrow horizons. Travelogue and topography are virtually fixed features. Outside of this range, she seems uncertain. When treating of people instead of places, for example, the poems are likely to fall into off-putting coyness, punctuated by winsome little cries—'Oh! It has caught Miss Breen's / skirt! There!'—or arch imagery: as when Marianne Moore is conjured up 'with heaven knows how many angels all riding / on the broad black brim of your hat'. It is when confined to the sphere of geography that Elizabeth Bishop shows at her best. Her bulletins from abroad are perhaps as depth-less as a postcard, but they are also as picturesque…. Brightly responding to the earth's surface, Elizabeth Bishop ensures that, if her poetry is superficial, it is sumptuously so. (p. 26)
Peter Kemp, "Rainbow, Rainbow," in The Listener, Vol. 109, No. 2811, June 2, 1983, pp. 25-6.
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[In The Collected Prose] one will find Elizabeth Bishop's mastery of a moderate tone, find it even in the most searing fictions based upon painful recollections of her early life. One will note the characteristic curiosity, in her case often a curiosity about the curious, and it will be muted, as in her poems, by a respect and tolerance for what the curiosity discovers. There is also, here and there, the unusual visual sharpness that prompts her to challenge, as in a duel, the expected adjectives of description. She finds the words to make her victory convincing….
Poets can, of course, write prose. They can write it as well or as ill as they write verse…. (p. 32)
Elizabeth Bishop's prose, as we read it collected and whole, gives me the idea that she set about the writing as an enterprise, something she would do from time to time with the prose part of her mind. It was the same mind that wrote the poems, but that does not alter the fact that certain of her stories were composed in the generally acceptable manner of the time. I think particularly of "The Baptism," "The Farmer's Children," "Gwendolyn," and "The Housekeeper." (pp. 32-3)
These stories are a skillful blending of the parts; they know how to give information, how to dramatize a scene, and how to reach the popular drift of "epiphany" at the end…. The stories are genuine. You learn from them, and your emotions are solicited by the fate of the characters and the construction of the scene. They are fine examples of the kind of fiction still offered weekly and monthly by the more thoughtful magazines, and indicate to me that Elizabeth Bishop certainly could have been a fiction writer had she wished it.
Little in that to amaze. What is startling, on the other hand, is that her best prose fictions ("The Sea & Its Shore," "In Prison," "In the Village") are aesthetically radical, rich, and new in conception and tone. They are "experimental," as we used to say. In the late 1930s the fiction in the little magazines often struggled with the challenge of Kafka. It was possible to come up with an abstract and fixed situation of interest, but to uncover the mobility of the abstract is a rare gift. The static must move the mind, the invention, in a swirl of significance both intellectual and emotional. Much must happen from the point of stasis: otherwise there is a nullity, and with so much stripped away there is boredom.
"The Sea & Its Shore" is a magical instance of creative invention…. This little treatise and speculation on floating print, wind-tossed paper, fragments of literature, private letters, nonsense, mysterious truncations, arrives from the wonderfully resonant center of the given idea. The contemplation of the prodigality and expendability of print by way of the man on the beach and his stick with the nail in it is a pure and serene fiction exemplifying what we mean by inspiration.
Two stories are of great autobiographical interest and one, "In the Village," is a brilliant modern short story. The first, "The Country Mouse," was left unpublished, although it is a finished work. It is not more revealing and heartbreaking than the other, one might wonder why it was withheld….
[Unitl] the age of seven Elizabeth Bishop lived with her mother's family in Nova Scotia. At the age of seven she was suddenly removed to Worcester, to the father's family, taken from a simple farm and small maritime village to the well-to-do manufacturing Bishops of Massachusetts.
"The Country Mouse" tells of this removal. "I had been brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in, to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism, bare feet, suet puddings, unsanitary school slates…." In her new home she was miserable…. The last paragraph of the story underlines the year 1918, the recognition that she at seven years was doomed to her identity, to her "I, I, I," as a poem has it. The story ends: "Why was I a human being?"
"In the Village" tells of the mother's return from the mental hospital when the girl is five years old. A seamstress is brought in to make a new dress that will signify the end of the black and white mourning clothes. In the midst of the fitting the mother screams, the scream of a new collapse and the destruction of hope….
The story then becomes something else, a brilliant rendering and ordering of certain fresh fictional possibilities. It becomes a sort of sonata of sounds filled with emotion for the child. The scream is balanced by the sound of Nate, the blacksmith, at his anvil. "Clang. The pure note: pure and angelic." Another sound enters like a patch of color on a canvas. Whack. The little girl is taking the family cow through the village to a grazing space. Whack goes the child's directing stick when the cow meanders about and must be gently brought into line. (p. 33)
The sweet sounds of pastoral life, the timbre of the lost paradise, and the sound of lost hope in the scream are elements smoothly woven into an original fictional tapestry. The degree of composition is great—the pauses, the contrasts, the simplicity of it so very complicated. The story is true, but it cannot be accurate because of the artfulness.
"The Country Mouse" is finely written, but written in a spirit much closer to the documentary, to the statement. "My mother was not dead. She was in a sanitorium, in another prolonged 'nervous breakdown.'" And "I had been brought back unconsulted." For a sensitive and reserved nature, autobiographical accuracy is a greater deterrence to publication than the deeper and more disturbing transformations of experience by art. So, "The Country Mouse" lay in the drawer and "In the Village" was published. (p. 34)
Elizabeth Bishop was indeed a perfectionist. She was also a natural writer with an unusual patience; nothing appears to have been excavated with visible sweat and aching muscle. And yet perhaps it was that the great natural gifts seemed too easy, and she must wait to make everything just so in tone and rhythm, without insistence. (p. 35)
Elizabeth Hardwick, "The Perfectionist," in The New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 11, March 19, 1984, pp. 32-5.
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When [Elizabeth Bishop] accepted the Neustadt International Prize for Literature at the University of Oklahoma in the spring of 1976, she spoke about how all her life she had "lived and behaved very much like … [a] sandpiper—just running along the edges of different countries and continents, 'looking for something.'" Which is not unlike what her poetry is doing, what indeed it has to be doing, since there is no controlling myth to chart and guide its motions: it is forever turning to this and that and something else and saying (as does the final line in the great poem "The Monument"), "Watch it closely."… [Since] her poetry is unregulated by any metaphysic wherewith the things and creatures of earth might be ordered into a system of total meaning, it must be continually searching for significances, looking here and looking there till (in the final phrase of "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance") it has "looked and looked our infant sight away." We dwell, as she sees it, in a world whose variousness is beyond all calculation, a world of continents and cities and mountains, of oceans and mangrove swamps, of buzzards and alligators and fireflies, of dews and frosts, of light and darkness, of stars and clouds, of birth and death, and of all the thousands of other things that make up the daily round of experience. And, amidst "the bewilderingly proliferating data of the universe," a poet of her stamp must take it for granted, as John Ashbery says, that "not until the senses have all but eroded themselves to nothing in the process of doing the work assigned to them can anything approaching a moment of understanding take place." The attention bestowed upon whatever comes one's way must be so pure, so absolute, so intransitive, as to allow us to hear (as she phrases it in her story "In the Village") "the elements speaking: earth, air, fire, water." And, in this way, even without myth or metaphysic, we may win through to knowledge, fundamental knowledge…. (pp. 255-56)
Indeed, the posthumously issued Complete Poems might well have been given the title that Bishop chose for her book of 1965, Questions of Travel, for, in its search for significant particulars, the poetry is constantly moving from Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to Paris, from Florida to Nova Scotia, from New York to Brazil, and on to still other scenes and regions. "There are in her poems," says David Kalstone, "no final visions—only the saving, continuing, precise pursuits of the travelling eye." Which may well be why, as one moves through her work from her first book North & South (1946) to A Cold Spring (1955), Questions of Travel (1965), Geography III (1976), and on to the last poems, one has no sense of any progress or growth, as one does in contemplating the whole career of Eliot or Auden or Lowell: poem after poem is recording utterly discrete perceptions, and though, taken poem by poem, her work is powerfully unified and cogent, the poems altogether seem to be an affair of "Everything only connected by 'and' and 'and'" ("Over 2,000 Illustrations …").
So, for the reader tackling Elizabeth Bishop's poetry for the first time, it makes little difference where one begins, since, in whatever one turns to, one finds oneself in the hands of a poet who is saying, "But surely it would have been a pity / not to have seen" this or "not to have pondered" that—as she does in the beautiful poem called "Questions of Travel."… [The] tone in which the closing question of the poem ["… should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?"] is asked clearly indicates that this poet wants it to be answered in the negative. For she takes a skeptical view of Pascal's injunction that we forswear the temptations of divertissement and remain quietly in our own chamber. (pp. 257-59)
It is … with an unblinking clarity that Elizabeth Bishop views the world, and she has no recourse to any kind of sentimental pastoralism. Her way of rendering the natural order would have made it wholly appropriate for her to say, with the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, "Man looks at the world, and the world does not look back at him." Yet, hard as it is, for all its blazoned days, she bestows upon it and all its creatures an attention so passionate that very often the distinction between the self and the not-self seems nearly altogether to have been dissolved…. (pp. 260-61)
Elizabeth Bishop did, to be sure, have a great admiration for George Herbert, but her own idioms would suggest that she was perhaps far more immediately influenced by Hopkins and Stevens and Marianne Moore than by the Metaphysicals in general. Certainly she was most insistent on her neutrality in regard to any form of religion. Yet, again and again, her own style of thought moves from a "composition of place" or object to reflection on its anagogical import and on to a "colloquy" either with herself or with her reader. The central masterpiece in A Cold Spring, "At the Fishhouses," presents a case in point. The setting of the poem is a town in Nova Scotia, in the district of the local fishhouses. And the "composition" of the scene, for all its apparent casualness, is wrought with the utmost care…. (p. 262)
Thus it is that, with a most deliberate and meticulous kind of literality, the scene is "composed" with such an exactness as will lock us up within the closet of that which is to be meditated. At a later point in the poem the speaker declares herself to be "a believer in total immersion," and this is what she wants for us: total immersion in the tableau presented by [the] old fisherman weaving his net on a bleak, cold evening down at the waterfront where everything seems to have been either iridized by the sun or plastered and rusted over by the erosive power of the sea. Indeed, it is not until we have been fully drawn into this scene that the poem allows it to quiver into life: the speaker offers the old man a cigarette, and they begin to "talk of the decline in the population / and of codfish and herring," as "he waits for a herring boat to come in."…
[Having] been made to contemplate the "cold dark deep and absolutely clear" waters of the sea, waters "bearable … to fish and to seals" but "to no mortal," the scene is at last fully composed, and thus the meditation begins, issuing finally into a colloquy with the reader who is directly addressed as "you"…. (p. 263)
By this point the lone fisherman and his shuttle and net have quite faded into the background, and the speaker has realized that what most urgently asks to be pondered is the sea itself, "dark, salt, clear." And the rippling sibilance with which it is described—"slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, / icily free above the stones"—does, as it echoes the rising and falling of the waters, make for a very intense realization of the briny, inscrutable abysm beyond the land's edge. But the result of this meditation is the grave recognition that the sea is much like something in the affairs of human life with which we must reckon, and thus the poem is ready to eventuate in the final colloquy which the speaker addresses at once to herself and to her reader. "If you should dip your hand in, / your wrist would ache immediately, / your bones would begin to ache…." "If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, / then briny, then surely burn your tongue." And then, with what is for her an uncharacteristic explicitness, Bishop specifies the referent of which the sea is a symbol: "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be…." Here it is that the poem at its end formulates the idea to which it would have the "whole soul" give heed, that a truly unillusioned awareness of our place and prospect is won only by facing into the cold, hard, bedrock realities of our mortal condition and that, however circumspect and sober it may be, even at its best it remains something "historical," something needing to be revised over and again, flowing and flown—like the sea. So to render Bishop's final lines is, of course, to betray them, but it is, one feels, to something like such a conclusion that she is brought on that cold evening in a Nova Scotia town, down by one of the fishhouses where an old man sits netting, as he waits for a herring boat to come in.
Now it is undoubtedly her deep formation by the kind of meditative discipline underlying this poem that accounts for the extraordinary sympathy with which Elizabeth Bishop approached a world which, however intently it is scanned, seems not to look back at us. In this connection one will think of such poems as "The Weed" and "Quai d'Orléans" and "Rooster" in North & South, "The Riverman" and "Sandpiper" in Questions of Travel, and "The Moose" in Geography III. And certainly one will think of the beautiful prose poems, "Giant Toad" and "Strayed Crab" and "Giant Snail," that make up the sequence called "Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics." … [In "Giant Snail"], like Wordsworth, [Bishop] is looking steadily at her subject, but—again, like Wordsworth—not from a merely analytical, matter-of-fact perspective: on the contrary, she is facing a wordless creature with so much of affectionate responsiveness that not only (in Coleridge's phrase) does "nature [become] thought and thought nature" but there occurs even an interchange of roles, the snail becoming a speaking I as the poet becomes a listening thou. And the result is a well-nigh preternatural commingling of love and awe before the sheer otherness of the things of earth.
Perhaps the most notable instance in Bishop's poetry of this genius for empathy is the great poem in North & South that has been so frequently anthologized, "The Fish." (pp. 264-66)
Elizabeth Bishop's remarkable powers of sympathy are not, however, reserved merely for fish and snails, for birds and weeds, for rocks and mountains, for the insensible or subhuman things of earth: they also extend far into the realm of what Martin Buber called "the interhuman," and she presents many poignantly drawn and memorable personages. Her readers will tend perhaps most especially to recall the Brazilian portraits in Questions of Travel which focus not on people of importance but on the humble and the lowly, on those who perch ever so lightly on some narrow and incommodious ledge of the world…. [There] is "Manuelzinho," with its account of a young man—"half squatter, half tenant (no rent)"—who is supposed to supply the poet with vegetables but who is "the world's worst gardener since Cain."… Manuelzinho is shiftless and improvident and unreliable, but, with his "wistful face," this "helpless, foolish man" is irresistible: so Bishop says: "I love you all I can, / I think." (pp. 268-69)
The poem, like so many of Elizabeth Bishop's finest statements, asks for no "explication": its plea is unmistakable, that, whatever the particular legalities may be, we give our sympathy to this poor devil who has never had any large chance at life or liberty or the pursuit of happiness and for whom the world has always been like a wilderness. And it is a similar triumph of moral imagination and fellow feeling that one encounters again and again in such poems as "Cootchie" and "Faustina, or Rock Roses" and the beautiful poem in Geography III, "In the Waiting Room."
The immaculate precision of her language has led many of the commentators on her work to speak of Elizabeth Bishop as a "poet's poet"—which is a bit of fanciness that, prompted by however much of appropriate admiration and respect, may be more than a little questionable. For the tag "poet's poet" tends to suggest an imagination sufficient unto itself, taking its own aseity for granted and, with a royal kind of disdain for the world, making poetry out of nothing more than the idea of poetry itself. But nothing could be further from the sort of métier to which Bishop kept an absolute commitment, for she was a poet without myth—even about the poetic vocation itself. And, as she makes us feel, when she in the act of composition crossed out a word and replaced it with another, she did so not for the sake merely of the particular mosaic of language being fashioned but because the stricken word did not adequately render this or that detail of something she had observed. Which is to say that her primary fidelity was to the Real and to Things. And though there are numerous poems—like "The Burglar of Babylon" and "Visits to St. Elizabeths" and "In the Waiting Room"—that find their space in the realm of "the interhuman," she was most principally a poet of the subject-object relationship.
So it is something like "Cape Breton"—one of the most perfect poems of our time—that presents her characteristic manner and method. (pp. 270-71)
One commentator has suggested that "'Cape Breton' is a glimpse into a heart of darkness," and this indeed is what the poem seems to be peering into, the dark, uncommunicative, and unknowable noumenality at the heart of the world. The speaker is looking at this landscape as intently and as piercingly as she can—but it does not look back at her: whatever there is of meaning remains hidden, and on this quiet Sunday morning "the high 'bird islands'" and the weaving waters and "the valleys and gorges of the mainland" and the road clambering along the edge of the coast and the man carrying a baby "have little to say for themselves." All is enveloped in mist, and the scene is overborne by "an ancient chill."
Yet, recalcitrant though the world may be, Elizabeth Bishop could find nothing else to depend upon except what she could see and observe; and thus she seems never to have been inclined to reach what was at one point Stevens' exasperated conclusion, that "reality is a cliché" which the poet had better try to do without; on the contrary, she represents a constantly unquerulous, and sometimes even exuberant, submissiveness to the hegemony of l'actuelle, always taking it for granted that (as Jacques Maritain says in his book The Dream of Descartes) "human intellection is living and fresh only when it is centered upon the vigilance of sense perception."
Unlike Stevens, it was not her habit to discuss her poetics in her poetry, but the endlessly absorbing and subtle poem called "The Map" conveys, for all its indirection, perhaps the best inkling to be found anywhere of how she viewed her special responsibility as a poet. She is looking at a printed map, and she notices how the land which is "shadowed green" appears to lie in water. But then she wonders if indeed the land may not "lean down to lift the sea from under, / drawing it unperturbed around itself." May it not be the case that the land is "tugging at the sea from under?" And, as she gazes at this map, she marvels at the transforming perspective that the map-maker's art casts upon the surfaces of the earth…. (pp. 272-73)
Now, of course, the unspoken premise of the poem is that the cartographer's craft is a mode of art. And his images, like those of any true artist, practice a very radical kind of metamorphosis upon the things of earth: they make the peninsulas of the land appear to be "flat and still"; they render the waters of the sea as calm and quiet, when actually they are roiled with agitation; they make it appear that Norway is a sort of hare running south; and—in, as it were, a spirit of frolic—they organize themselves into highly intricate patterns of figuration that belong to the order of the metonymic. Yet the cartographer's "profiles investigate" topographical actualities: he is not free to rearrange at will the contours of geography: he must be faithful to the given literalities of nature. And thus he supervises a very "delicate" art indeed—an art, as Bishop may be taken to be implying, not unlike that of poetry itself.
So it is amor mundi, never contemptus mundi, that one feels to be inscribed over her entire work. Though on occasion (as she suggests in "Wading at Wellfleet") she considers the sea to be "all a case of knives," she loves it nevertheless. Though the "huntress of the winter air" (in "The Colder the Air") consults "not time nor circumstance," she admires "her perfect aim." And, as she tells us ("The Imaginary Iceberg"), she'd "rather have the iceberg than the ship." Like the black boy Balthazár in "Twelfth Morning; or What You Will," she thinks "that the world's a pearl," and thus her poems want (as she says of the crude artifact being described in "The Monument") "to cherish something" and want to say "commemorate." Hers, as Robert Mazzocco says, is "the middle range, the middle style." "History as nightmare, man as a cipher"—these "de rigueur subjects … [she] subverts." And thus she has never claimed the wide popularity that is more easily won by those writers who offer some kind of existentialist frisson. But her deep influence is easily to be traced in the work of such poets as Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur and John Ashbery and James Merrill. And in "The Map," "The Monument," "Roosters," "The Fish," "Cape Breton," "The Armadillo," and scores of other poems she appears as one of the most remarkable poets to have graced the American scene, no doubt not a major figure—not in the range of a Frost or a Stevens or a Carlos Williams—but one whose legacy will long be a bench mark against which false sentiment and specious eloquence will be severely judged. (pp. 274-75)
Nathan A. Scott, Jr., "Elizabeth Bishop: Poet without Myth," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Spring, 1984), pp. 255-75.
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If Molière is right, and everything that isn't verse is prose, and everything that isn't prose is verse, then, with The Collected Prose of Elizabeth Bishop (companion-volume to The Complete Poems, out last year, from the same publisher), we shall have seen all we shall ever get to see of this wonderful author's work…. If the excellence of the Prose is quite unsurprising, then it should only be observed that it is not a separate excellence from that of the poems.
The virtues of the prose are the virtues of the poems: observation, wit, decorum, a sinuous intelligence and above all what Randall Jarrell called her 'moral attractiveness'—no abuse, no indiscretion, no protests. If this sounds prim, it isn't: it's only an indication of how far things have gone the other way…. The prose is odd and pleasant and sympathetic…. The subjects are largely those familiar from the poems: her family, her native Nova Scotia, life by the shores of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts and Brazil, paintings, human portraits and 'questions of travel'. The aller-et-retour form of many of the poems is discernible in some of the prose, in 'To the Botequim and Back' and 'A Trip to Vigia'. Sometimes, there are detailed correspondences between the poems and the prose: it is the same scene from childhood in 'The Country Mouse' and 'In the Waiting Room'. Or correspondences of genre: the realistically elaborated story 'The Sea and Its Shore' is charmed from its hypothetical premise in just the same way as 'The Man-Moth' from its newspaper misprint. Both are abstract fantasies indebted, it seems to me, to Kafka. Or again, one might identify two distinct styles in Bishop, in her prose as in her poems: a loose, probing, 'spoken' style and a stately 'high style', literary, fixed, almost artificial, hinting at Victorian prose and at Defoe. These similarities and others make the division of Bishop's prose into the two categories 'Memory' and 'Stories' rather factitious: after all, no such division is made among her poems.
If one imagined a square with admiration and sympathy, amusement and dignity as its four corners, the whole of Elizabeth Bishop's work would be situated inside it. Take for instance the account of only her second meeting with Marianne Moore, an outing to the circus at Madison Square Garden. Miss Moore was carrying.
two huge brown paper bags, full of something I was given one of these. They contained, she told me, stale brown bread for the elephants, because stale brown bread was one of the things they liked best to eat. (I later suspected that they might like stale white bread just as much but that Marianne had been thinking of their health.)
In a way, the scene is 'a gift', just as the remarkable Miss Moore and her mother are 'a gift', but how easy it would have been to collapse it into sentimental farce. Instead, all the parties involved, and not least the elephants, whose wishes are solicitously though never intrusively guessed at, are treated with the utmost respect—a smiling respect, though, not stiffness or stuffiness. Elizabeth Bishop marries generosity of spirit with generosity of style ('one of the things', 'just as much'): how well her memoir earns its title—itself an acknowledged and admired borrowing from Miss Moore—'Efforts of Affection'.
It is this kind of tact and attention—one should perhaps call it grace—that is maintained throughout this collection, and makes it so delightful and rewarding. Whenever it really matters to her, Elizabeth Bishop has the ability to procure for herself the reader's utter, unreserved belief, most obviously when she is writing, as a child, about her childhood. This, just as fraught with difficulties as the type of scene with Miss Moore, is managed with equal assurance. It is, I think, because Bishop is always so committed to the moment and the scene she is describing, and free from any ulterior purpose, that she is both so engaging and so trustworthy. (pp. 33-4)
There is so much more I would like to say about her: her ingenuity, her freakishness, her tendency to personify objects and places (another sign of generosity, for she doesn't do the opposite and reify people in the way, say, Dickens does), the wonderfully candid way she allows herself to be scrutinised and laughed at, just as she, in her writing, laughs and scrutinises. The freedom of her manner: 'he gave me his name and asked me to print it; here it is: Manoel Benicio de Loyola, "diamond-hunter of Curralinho".' The way virtue and virtuosity seem to be inextricably bound up in her work: Miss Mamie in 'Mercedes Hospital' who 'has the local reputation of a saint'…. I have helplessly and purposely left out of my account all mention of Elizabeth Bishop's masterpiece 'In the Village' that concludes [The Complete Prose], which, even without it, would be wholly admirable. If only there were another to come. (p. 34)
Michael Hofmann, "Four Square," in New Statesman, Vol. 107, No. 2768, April 6, 1984, pp. 33-4.
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Robert Giroux, the editor, mentions in his introduction [to The Collected Prose] a remark Bishop once made to him on the subject of the confessional poets: 'You just wish they'd keep some of those things to themselves.' He cites the example of that seemingly cheery villanelle 'One Art' ('The art of losing isn't hard to master'), written towards the end of her life, to demonstrate her freedom from self-pity. It is one of the ironies of her often fiercely reticent art that one senses her isolation and pain most keenly when he is celebrating the uniqueness of other creatures—people and animals—and the warm climates she sought in her maturity.
Elizabeth Bishop is that rarest of writers—a constantly attractive presence. She is all of a piece in her prose and her poetry—the same care has been generously lavished on the composition of both. She is always sharply observant in her shyness….
The most beguiling essay in [The Collected Prose] is the long memoir of Marianne Moore entitled 'Efforts of Affection.'… Bishop wittily, tactfully captures Marianne Moore and her fearsome-sounding mother in their cramped apartment at 260 Cumberland Avenue, with its bowl of nickels (later dimes, finally quarters) for subway fares on a bookcase by the front door. It was considered bad manners to refuse one of these upon leaving.
'The exact way in which anything was done, or made, or functioned, was poetry to her,' Bishop says admiringly of Moore. No wonder they remained so devoted to one another. A similar curiosity informs all the non-fiction in this collection….
A strain of autobiography runs through all the eight short stories included here, even 'In Prison,' which has a male narrator. The final story, 'In the Village,' is set in Nova Scotia, where Bishop was raised. A child hears a terrible scream—his mother's, presumably. She seeks reassurance in other sounds, one in particular the clang the blacksmith makes as he shapes a horseshoe. Elizabeth Bishop searched for and lighted on any number of consoling sounds in her exquisite art, any number of soothing cadences. Most other poets of her time contented themselves merely with imitating screams.
Paul Bailey, "Art of Reticence," in The Observer, April 8, 1984, p. 22.
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The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop sustains seemingly contradictory commentary: she is an autobiographical poet with an impersonal touch; a surrealist given to meticulous observations of natural facts; a formalist whose poems are open-ended accumulations of detail. Bishop's work resists analysis in terms of such romantic and modernist oppositions as art and life, subject and object, dream and reality, experiment and convention. While she revises the dualistic thinking of her predecessors, her strategy reverses that of other postmodernists: in her work, it is not art that is reduced to experience, but experience that tends to be reduced to art. The "objective" world of experience in Bishop is never a natural source but always an already represented world, and this given, original distance informs her poetry. For Bishop's uniqueness does not lie in her peculiar sensibility, as the largely descriptive criticism of her work—encouraged by her own irreverence toward theoretical discussions of poetry—would suggest.
For a more adequate assessment of Bishop's poetic, which remains consistent throughout her career, we might start with a poem like "The Gentleman of Shalott." Here, she rewrites Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," revising its opposition of reality and imagination. Tennyson's "Lady" represents the psyche as dwelling in an islanded, inner space of reflection, and such a figure implies a mutually exclusive relationship between the inner and the outer. (pp. 341-42)
In Bishop's "revision" of the poem, the dichotomy of inner and outer disappears; the bilateral symmetry of the human body renders her "gentleman" a mirror image of himself…. Bishop internalizes the mirror, replacing the subject-object duality not with a unity but with a duplication at the source. The dividing line lies within, and the "center" is itself a reflection…. With the internalization of the duplication, which preempts the inside-outside dichotomy, the spatial and temporal distinction between an original (nature, fact, or experience) and a subsequent reproduction (a copy, reflection, or art) vanishes. It is impossible to tell which side is the original and which the duplicate; since the "modesty" of the postromantic, peripheral man questions the need for two of him, however, only one side can be him, and the other must be a mirror image. There must be a duplication, then, but it is an atemporal, ahistorical doubling. (pp. 342-44)
"The Gentleman of Shalott" has significant implications for Bishop's poetics, for the confusion between the original and the representation, the uncertainty and alienation, are built into the "gentleman." Duplication, the formative principle enabling his existence, constitutes the beginning of discourse; it constitutes also the end or limits of discourse, for the "original" is itself a "reflection." If one starts with two halves without an historical order of priority and lateness, one inhabits a metaphor, the two terms of which—the tenor and the vehicle—are simply equal and coeval in a world "littered with old correspondences."… Indeed, the implications of "The Gentleman of Shalott" go beyond the poetic. The bilateral symmetry of the body and binary logic—which also demarcates and duplicates in order to generate distinctions and meanings—are themselves mirror images. In this hall of mirrors, the dialectic between Tennyson's and Bishop's poetics, or even the distinction between ladies and gentlemen, may be reduced to the same central pattern, thereby reducing physiological "distinctions" themselves to human duplications. The limitation of this arrangement is solipsism, hinted at by the disappointment registered in the enjambment of "his hands can clasp one / another." Yet the precariousness of the gentleman's position exhilarates: "The uncertainty / he says he / finds exhilarating." The line "he says he" both sets his limits and sets him free. The solipsistic flanking of "says" with two "he"'s suggests that the saying itself is the center that divides and duplicates; it is the spine of the duplicitous "book" that he inhabits, binding his fiction and his fact.
Bishop's poetry as a whole questions the priority of experience over representation. For example, her use of letters as visual images to depict nature suggests that representation may even be prior to the original. (pp. 344-45)
"The Map," which begins The Complete Poems, shows why she is interested less in landscape than in its representation on a map, of which her poem is yet another representation. The naiveté of the observer in the poem points up the thoroughly conventional nature of cartography. Representational artifacts, which help us navigate in the world, express a consensus and must be conventional. Yet representation liberates as well as limits. The rift between the original and its representation constitutes an "exhilarating" uncertainty that leads to discovery by prompting questions one could not put to a landscape alone or to a map as a merely conventional artifact. Only when the map is seen as a new landscape equal to its original is there room for questions and answers, thoughts and feelings. (p. 346)
By questioning the priority of nature, Bishop can inhabit a reflected and therefore thoroughly human world. For representations counter nature: they "re-verse" the world, turn it around, and right its wrong. (p. 349)
Mutlu Konuk Blasing, "'Mont D'Espoir' or 'Mount Despair': The Re-Verses of Elizabeth Bishop," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 341-53.