[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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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)
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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