Features March 1983
The “complete” Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop was one of those rare poets whose work draws a fair percentage of readers into a cultish devotion. These were readers for whom the appearance of each new poem—and in the last decade of her life, until her death in 1979. her poems arrived at the rate of about one a year—was a looked for, happy event. A sharp-eyed observer, with a voice distinctive to the point of quirkiness, she amassed a range of work unmistakably her own; and perhaps some of that work’s appeal derives from the way its quirkiness can instill in the reader a sense of being among the few who really understand what the woman was up to. This feeling of exclusive, privileged knowledge may easily lead to an ugly clubbism at odds with literature’s egalitarian spirit, but ideally it can offer the reader a treasured gratification: the sense of having established, in that purified preserve where only words exist, a special and an irreplaceable friend.
So singular a poet might be expected to have occupied an unusual niche in contemporary American poetry, and indeed she did, in two ways. In an embittered and often blinkered literary world, she managed to lure admirers from every school. Formalists, Beats, Iowans, New Yorkers, recounters of drug voyages and chroniclers of sexual triumphs, the happily impenetrable and the embarrassingly transparent—all contributed their share of fans. At times the breadth of her appeal may seem almost suspect, and to explain her lack of detractors one might cynically note her having spent so much time far from the various American literary battlegrounds (her travels included nearly two decades in Brazil), or her having essentially restricted her occasional critical prose to commendation, but one must finally come away with an exhilarating conviction that here is that uncommon thing: a display of sound collective critical judgment.
Her niche was unusual, too, in that it seemed to straddle two schools, the formal and the colloquial. A similar blending could be found in some of her contemporaries, notably Roethke and Lowell, who started as quite strict formalists and eased in mid-career into looser forms and rhythms. But in Bishop’s work the two voices coexisted reposefully from the beginning to the end of her career. She was an absolute master of poetic technique; her collected poetry, newly and exhaustively issued this month as The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, is such a rich depository of poetic tricks that the somewhat fanciful latinate term for a handbook on prosody, gradus (literally step—the first step up Parnassus), might legitimately be applied. Certainly a young poet in search of models could find no finer, more concentrated exhibition of contemporary poetic effects. Like Frost, she managed her formal devices while maintaining a relaxed and often conversational tone. So subtle are many of these that the reader who is indifferent to poetic technique, or even hostile to it, can enjoy her work without having his concentration jarred by artifice. This seamless combination of the casual and the formal is what enviably allows her to be both a “popular poet” (her books sell as well as any poet’s can be expected to) and a “poet’s poet.”
Fittingly in a writer of such exquisite prosodic effects, her emotions are delicately calibrated throughout. She moves by hint and implication. This emotional restraint, which is the aspect of her work most commented upon, was aptly characterized by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz (whose work she translated) as “the power of reticence.” She was a plucky soul who guarded her own privacy and spoke with obliquity when confronting suffering, disappointment, loss. In an era in which “confessional verse” carried poetic divulgence to worrisome new depths, in which the printed page served as an alternate (or an additional) analyst’s couch, her poetry stood as a beloved exemplar of the controlled and self-contained.
An early poem like “The Bight” illustrates this interlacing of emotional and prosodic understatement. One is tipped off early, with the queer phrase “On my birthday” lying just below the title, that the scene to be described may have an inner counterpart, but the analogy remains unspecified for most of the poem. Near the close, she compares some storm-damaged boats to “torn-open, unanswered letters,” and at this point the bight, with its clicking dredge at the end of the dock and its “impalpable drafts,” might be seen as a desk-top or poet’s studio, the place where creative work gets done. Here is the finish:
The bight is littered with old correspondences. Click. Click. Goes the dredge, and brings up a dripping jawful of marl. All the untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful.
These “correspondences” are of course a pun—both those “unanswered letters” and the larger correspondences between natural and psychological objects. The “dripping jawful of marl” provides a correspondence of this latter sort; one might view the jumbled, rich vegetal and mineral matter, scooped from the depths, as the soil -for verse. Subtle as such emotional effects are, though, the prosodic effects here are still subtler. Miss Bishop has buried that rhyme of “jawful” and “awful” until it’s only liminally visible and audible. Any poet who has worked with and loves rhyme—as she did throughout her life—knows that an internal rhyme is apt to seem a “wasted” rhyme; that a good rhyme, like a good new pair of shoes, is meant partly for display. Yet the careful reader of her verse will be struck by how often she conceals her musical effects (though when appropriate she could be quite brazen, even clangorous, in her rhymes, as in “Roosters”). Actually, the close of “The Bight” turns on a trio of rhyme and off-rhyme: “jawful”/“awful”/ “cheerful.” That final “cheerful” dips the conclusion away from neat exact rhyme, while its “ch” sound echoes the earlier chewy feel of “jarful.”
Or examine the ending (she was especially adept at endings) of an even earlier poem, “Large Bad Picture,” one of many she set in quatrains:
In the pink light the small red sun goes rolling, rolling, round and round and round at the same height in perpetual sunset, comprehensive, consoling, while the ships consider it. Apparently they have reached their destination. It would be hard to say what brought them there, commerce or contemplation.
Characteristic Bishop touches abound here: simplicity in the unadorned colloquial repetition of “round and round and round”; hesitancy in both “Apparently” and “It would be hard to say” variety in the staggered line-lengths and the blend of monosyllables and polysyllables; as well as a passion (to be discussed later) for the color pink. Perhaps the most finely drawn detail is the way the first syllables of the penultimate stanza’s concluding pair of words, “comprehensile, consoling,” mirror the first syllables of the poem’s concluding pair, “commerce or contemptation.” A similar effect is found at the close of “Filling Station”:
Somebody arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: ESSO-SO-SO-SO to high-strung automobiles. Somebody loves us all.
Here the cans of oil are arranged like cue cards to prompt that concluding sentence, the “SO—SO—SO” grading toward that “Somebody loves us all.” (Neatly, the message in the oil cans is reinforced by both the “so” and “softly” in the fourth line from the end.)
With another poet, one would be tempted to ascribe such coincidences to chance—and surely one must be wary when trafficking in such delicacies, for nothing is more risible than a critic’s uprooting from a text ingenuities an author never consciously or unconsciously directed. But in Miss Bishop’s work there seems little likelihood that such elegant flourishes, often coming at the close, are unintentional. She was extraordinarily meticulous. Her work provides the critic with a wonderfully heartening impression that what’s there is what’s meant to be there —that every word and rhyme and effect has been mulled over and is deliberate.
Of course such deliberateness has its dangers (the step from the calculated to the enervated is a short one), and these she avoids in many ways, but perhaps most distinctively with what might be termed a correcting vision. She is constantly, within the poem, altering details—sharpening observations. The reader is right there at the moment of perception, the intensifying instant when the clearly seen grows yet clearer. Spontaneity and freshness naturally result. Often these corrections are accomplished with a flat negative, a no announcing that the eye has been tricked or indolent and the fastidious poet must try once more. For example: “Are they birds?/They flash again. No. They are vibrations” (“From the Country to the City”); “It is of wood/ built somewhat like a box. No. Built/like several boxes” (“The Monument”); “She sits and watches TV./No, she watches zigzags” (“House Guest”); “inverted and distorted. No. I mean/distorted and revealed” (“Love Lies Sleeping”).
Sometimes these corrections are tendered indirectly (often parenthetically), with an offhand or outflung query or qualification: “Shadows, or are they shallows” (“The Map”); “I wandered—rather, I floundered” (“From Trollope’s Journal”); “my body— foot, that is” (“Giant Snail”); “faint, faint, faint/ (or are you hearing things), the sandpipers’/heart-broken cries” (“Twelfth Morning”); “And it’s still loved,/or its memory is (it must have changed a lot)” (“Poem”).
This process of correction on the page proves an aesthetically risky business. It’s as though the poet has chosen to display both the initial and the finished draft of a line. To be artistically worthwhile, the correction must be interesting in each of its halves, as in these lines from “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto”
Here comes some laundry tied up in a sheet, all on its own, three feet above the ground. Oh, no—a small black boy is underneath.
A bundle of laundry moving on its own propulsion is far more than interesting—it’s miraculous—but the correction, the miracle explained, has its own appeals, for the reader immediately likes and empathizes with this toiling Brazilian boy, trudging in the heat toward a drink of water. At times, as in “Santarém,” one of her last poems, this process can seem needlessly finicky (illustrating how for the poet, as for the stand-up comedian, a passionate concern for detail can be deadening), but generally she wields this device with telling success.
Miss Bishop’s success stems in part from an ability to mock her own fussiness, as in lines like these: “The great light cage has broken up in the air,/freeing, I think, about a million birds....” That “I think” may seem a typical Bishop reservation, a caveat to the reader that the poet’s powers are limited, yet when immediately trailed by that enormous, hyperbolic “million” it becomes a little joke. A similar thing is probably occurring in this description of fireflies from “A Cold Spring”: “lit on the ascending flight, / drifting simultaneously to the same height,/—exactly like the bubbles in champagne.” This “exactly,” lodged in a poem replete with hesitations (words like “seem” and “apparently”), appears to be a stroke of levity masquerading as boldness.
In its fitting rightness, this precision of Bishop’s can actually obscure the strangeness of her language and imagery. One reads right past the strangeness, only on a later return appreciating how queer it is to encounter, say, a lighthouse “in black and white clerical dress,/who lives on his nerves,” or an “insect-gladiator” under the wallpaper, or “shopworn dunes” or the “mildew’s / ignorant map” or a “folded sunset, still quite warm.” Where else might one discover a taxi meter that “glares like a moral owl”? (It is unfortunate that for later generations of readers, for whom taxi meters presumably will not be those old-fashioned, imposing, bulky presences that click like a censorious tongue, but compact, rectilinear objects with faces like computer screens, this image may lose some of its potency.) Or where else might one meet—in a delicately rhymed poem that lapses from exact rhyme only in its last line—“the armored cars of dreams,” those metal tanks that follow trails of crumbs as in the Hansel and Gretel story?
This precise and decorous and exquisite poet was also a habitual rule-breaker. The pathetic fallacy thrives in her verse (“self-pitying mountains,” a “desperate” sea), as do all those adverbs a student in any elementary writing class is advised to treat sparingly (“slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, / icily free above the stones” or “grandly, silently flowing, flowing east. Suddenly there’d been houses”). Like Marianne Moore, an early and a lasting influence, she seemed to distrust the perfectly scrubbed and symmetrical; her patterns were made to be rumpled. Time and again rhyme schemes break down, often in the last stanza—or in the penultimate stanza, with the last stanza restoring order. Her rhythms trip, somewhat like Hardy’s, and her often iambic lines are further roughened by piled-up monosyllables and generous scatterings of punctuation. With a poet like Auden, whom she admired, one can often read a pentameter line and come up a little astonished that ten full syllables have been so frictionlessly traversed; in Bishop’s poems, one never experiences this particular surprise.
Modest and bold, delicate and rough-hewn, formal and colloquial—this nonpareil paradox of a poet somehow contrived to bring a number of poetic forms to near-perfection. Surely no American has composed more memorable sestinas than her “A Miracle for Breakfast” and “Sestina,” or a finer ballad than her “The Burglar of Babylon.” Her two rwenty-eight-line double sonnets, “The Prodigal” and “From Trollope’s Journal,” succeed in sowing new and salubrious fruit from the fields of that much-tilled form, and as for her villanelle, “One Art,” a critic would have to invoke Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” or Roethke’s “The Waking” to place it among peers.
If one may be excused for speaking personally of so magnificently impersonal a poet, I’ve never been quite content with some of Miss Bishop’s last poems—or perhaps with the response they received. I’m thinking particularly of a poem like “In the Waiting Room,” or even more of “Five Flights Up,” with its admission of suffering at the close:
—Yesterday brought to today so lightly! (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)
Both appeared in Geography III, the last collection published in her lifetime. In the critical reception to that book there was, it seemed to me, a bit of afFectionate but un-appealingly titillative pleasure in seeing her composure relent, in watching her join the ranks of the self-confessedly wounded. Of course, these “confessions” of hers were scarcely raw, untutored cries from the heart (they were in fact reserved and masterful declarations), but I preferred that she keep her distance nonetheless. The sympathetic reader knew all along that she was someone who had endured crushing hardship, who had, in Robert Lowell’s words, “risen from the ocean’s bottom.” Only such a person could have generated the brutalized atmosphere of the first stanza of “The Prodigal,” my favorite of her poems—that farmhand’s world of rot, dung, hangovers, the gruesome, robust cheerfulness of animals that eat their young, intimations of madness, and a hovering, numinous beauty that induces as much painful longing as solace.
The brown enormous odor he lived by was too close, with its breathing and thick hair, for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung. Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts, the pigs’ eyes followed him, a cheerful stare— even to the sow that always ate her young— till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head. But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts (he hid the pints behind a two-by-four), the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red; the burning puddles seemed to reassure. And then he thought he almost might endure his exile yet another year or more.
She certainly kept an admirable distance as a teacher at Harvard in the early 1970s. When I first met Elizabeth Bishop, briefly, in 1071,1 expressed my surprise at finding her teaching a writing seminar, or teaching at all, since I thought she was dead—a misconception that amused her enough that she repeated it to others over the years. (My mistake still seems to me a natural one; surely the careless step was for a woman still in her fifties to publish a book entitled The Complete Poems, which she did in 1969. Over the next decade, she completed more than a dozen new poems, each one happily rendering that title more and more inaccurate.) In 1973 and 1974, when I attended two of her seminars, she used to sit with great equanimity through student poems about un-understanding parents, teenage sexual frustration, and abusive roommates, as well as an awesome number about the peculiar spiritual burden of being young and bright and affluent. (Perhaps as an antidote for this group of young poets afflicted with non-problem problems, she assigned—the only reading assignment she made—Hope Against Hope, that harrowing account of Osip Mandelstam’s persecution and eventual murder by the Soviets.) She fended off our more alarming submissions with a string of primly schoolmarmish exclamations— “Goodness” and “My” and “Oh dear” and “Heavens”—and with a readiness (often frustrating to the student author) to turn to those small matters of composition (spelling, punctuation) that we in our creative urgency were grandly indifferent to. She retreated also behind a formality with names, not merely addressing her students as “Mister” or “Miss” but often extending this practice to dead authors. F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose description, in The Great Gatsby, of the wasteland surveyed by Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s billboard we studied for a number of weeks, partly because Miss Bishop was fond of it and partly because she wasn’t terribly inventive in formulating assignments) was inevitably “Mister Fitzgerald.” This “Mister” was not granted to writers like Tennyson or Blake or Pope, however, and I finally concluded that she instinctively felt that anyone who’d been alive in her own lifetime, and whom she might conceivably have met, retained forever the right to this courtesy.
So convincingly rendered was this role of schoolmarm—at least to a young man of twenty—that I cringed for her in class one day when she began reading random selections from Philip Larkin’s new High Windows and settled upon “This Be The Verse.” I thought she’d made a mortifying mistake, and expected her face to crimson with those first few lines:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.
Of course her face did no such thing. One gradually sensed a steeliness in that mildest of teachers and occasionally (as when, in response to her request that we each bring in the worst poem we’d ever read, one young woman submitted Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”) enormous exasperation and weariness. She didn’t seem to care much for teaching poetry.
Listening to recordings she made of her poems in the Forties and Fifties, I encountered a clear, musical voice I’d never heard before—scarcely recognizable as my teacher’s. By the time I met her, she was a frail woman with a big cough. A heavy smoker of mashed-looking French cigarettes, and apparently careless of her health in other ways as well, she was often taken ill. In the last decade of her life, most of it spent in Boston, she wrote little although she produced a few of her best poems. How small her output actually was is made painfully clear in the compact format of Collected Poems: 1927-1979, in which Geography III (1976) fits without strain into twenty-five pages.
She published four poems after Geography III, of which two, “Sonnet” and “Pink Dog,” belong with her best work. On first meeting “Pink Dog” in The New Yorker, I remember thinking, with some astonishment, that Miss Bishop had abandoned a lifelong practice and had begun capitalizing the first word of each line. In fact she hadn’t, but mine seems an instructive mistake. The first eight lines are capitalized, for each begins a new sentence. We have here a paradigmatic display of Bishop the pattern-maker and -breaker. These opening stanzas, with their short sentences and end-stopped lines, their singsong iambic pentameter rhythms and exact rhymes, establish a regularity that will later be upended:
The sun is blazing and the sky is blue, Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue. Naked, you trot across the avenue. Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare! Naked and pink, without a single hair .. . Startled, the passersby draw back and stare. Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies. You are not mad; you have a case of scabies but look intelligent. Where are your babies?
The pattern-breaker emerges further down the page:
In your condition you would not be able even to float, much less to dog-paddle. Now look, the practical, the sensible solution is to wear a fantasia. Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a- n eyesore. But no one will ever see a dog in mascara this time of year.
This poem also represents the apotheosis of Miss Bishop’s fascination with the color pink, a shade of both beauty and dread in her work. One thinks of the melting “pink wax roses planted in tin cans” that mark a deaf woman’s servant’s grave in “Cootchie,” the “pink swim-bladder/like a big peony” of “The Fish,” the trees “like noble pantomimists, robed in pink” in “Questions of Travel,” the ominous “one pink flash” of “Electrical Storm,” the owls “stained bright pink underneath” by raging fire in “The Armadillo,” and “the windshield flashing pink, /pink glancing off of metal” in “The Moose.” In “Pink Dog” the color vibrates with garish ferocity, evoking both the joyous festivity of Mardi Gras and the horror of this diseased dog, a soul mate to all those ill and impoverished of Bio’s slums (“idiots, paralytics, parasites”) who have nothing to celebrate at Carnival Time.
The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 also makes available for the first time a number of poems written in youth and a few others Miss Bishop over the years decided not to publish. Unfortunately, most are not important additions to her work, although “Exchanging Hats” (which she probably chose not to publish because of its teasing subject matter—ambiguity in sexual roles) boasts a daffy playfulness not found elsewhere. I would not have expected to find anywhere in her work a line like “what might a miter matter?”
These previously unpublished poems do help us to clarify influences (especially her early debt to Hopkins) and to trace the lineaments of her poetic development—which, as one might expect, shifted by subtle degrees. One cannot cleanly break her work into stylistic eras, as one can with, say, Lowell or Auden. Still it is undeniable that as time went on her work became ever clearer and more accessible. An acceptable paraphrase for nearly every line in Geography III could easily be constructed, though lines like these could not be rendered more simply but only more prosaically:
Goodbye to the elms, to the farm, to the dog. The bus starts. The light grows richer; the fog, shifting, salty, thin, comes closing in.
She also became increasingly fond of what might be called “using the whole instrument,” in this case her typewriter; there’s scarcely anything on the keyboard—asterisks, virgules, numbers, exclamation points, dashes, ampersands—which she didn’t employ by the time she was through.
A “complete poems” should be held to more stringent tests than would be fair for an intermediate volume, and I wish I could say I’m absolutely satisfied with this book’s format. The poems tend to look just a trifle cramped and the new type creates titles that look a bit beetlingly large given the unassuming master we are dealing with here. (It should in fairness be said that the book’s typography and format were created by Cynthia Krupat, whose designs, according to a publisher’s note, “always delighted Elizabeth”—no small task with a writer as finicky and knowledgeable about type and layout as she was.) Such cavils are obviously tiny, however, and should not be allowed to obscure the loving, exemplary job that Farrar, Straus & Giroux has done and continues to do with Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. What we have with The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 is not only an indispensable volume, but in most ways a comely one.
Randall Jarrell, that extraordinary critic who so often managed to combine boldness with prescience, in 1954 remarked of A Cold Spring, her second collection, that it was “one of the best books of poetry an American has written.” Use of the term “best” should probably be avoided in judging things as varied as various poets’ collections, and yet it does seem evident to me that of the verse written by that hugely accomplished generation of American poets born in the 1910s—a group that included Lowell, Berryman, and Jarrell himself—hers is the most surprising, the most nearly perfect, at once the most eccentric and most true; that she asks the fewest indulgences of her readers and is consistently the least annoying (no small virtue, that); and finally that she remains the poet whose work on a second reading—or a fifth, or a tenth—is most likely to reveal some hitherto undiscovered loveliness. But perhaps I’ve not avoided that word “best” after all.
- Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 276 pages, $17.50 Go back to the text.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 7, on page 36
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