“Visits to St. Elizabeths” is the result of Bishop’s visits, while in Washington, D.C., as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, to see the great modernist poet Ezra Pound, who had been incarcerated in this mental hospital as an alternative to conviction for treason; he had made purportedly pro-Fascist radio broadcasts on Italian radio during World War II. Bishop’s reaction, characteristically enough, has nothing to do with politics and focuses only on the man in the hospital, who is never named. Yet the poem seems to lose a great deal if the reader is unaware of the poetic stature of Ezra Pound (for some literary historians, the single most original figure of Anglo-American modernism, and at any rate a figure without whom the shape of twentieth century literature would have been vastly different). It helps to have a sense both of Pound’s literary grandeur and stature and of the circumstances to which he had been reduced. The narrator’s meditation involves a realization of both these extremes, of both the splendors and miseries of the poem’s central figure.

The poem is stylistically somewhat peculiar in that it takes a particular metrical prototype as the model which it adopts and then varies, namely the childhood add-on song, “The House That Jack Built.” The echo is made clear by Bishop’s repetition of its basic structure of one line, separated by a blank line from the next group of two, separated in turn from the next...

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