Quick Notes on Elizabeth Bishop

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979) is an American poet and a poetic descendent of Marianne Moore, a contemporary and close friend with Robert Lowell, she was also in contact with Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, had admiration for Allen Ginsberg (which is surprising), and one of her poetic off springs is Frank Bidart. Her poems tend to written in iambic meters, often rhyme, and are very detailed. She also uses pathetic fallacy, which after the Modernist poets one would not think would be done again. With this in mind, I would not classify her as a Modernist poet. For me, a Modernist poets tends to eschew direct representation of the world and they tend to be in favor of free verse. In addition, the Modernists go in one of two ways in dealing with the present (according to my developing hypothesis): the Modernist poet either goes into the past to understand the present (all of the past is in the present, which includes Eliot and Pound) or the poet looks to the future to “make it new,” and these include Mina Loy, W. C. Williams, and Wallace Stevens. Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, however, live in the present.

This present, however, is fictive present, but she uses real details to explore a something. This something is usually set up in the first line, in an epigraph, or in the title. If Monty Python wrote poetry, their poetry would be like Bishop’s, in that both pose a premise and explore in a most unique way the limits of that premise. Unlike Monty Python whose comedic skits might not be able to find an end, Bishop is able to wrap up her poems. Many, and maybe even most, of her poems operate this way. An example of this is “The Man-Moth.” The premise is the misspelling of “mammoth” from a newspaper, but she uses it as a prompt to create a man-moth, but I don’t think this is a typical Bishop poem. Other examples are “The Monument,” which begins “Now you can see the monument? It is of wood,” and then she goes exploring the monument. About half-way through, she realizes she’s drifted so far from the topic, that she has to bring herself back: “ ‘Those clouds are full of glistening splinters! / What is that?’ / It is the monument.” A better example might be “A Cold Spring,” with the epigraph “Nothing is so beautiful as spring – Hopkins,” and the poem goes on to explore spring, or even the paragraph long epigraph to “The Riverman.”

I think her poetics can best be summarized with the title and beginning of “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”:

     Thus should have been our travels:
     serious, engravable.
     The Seven Wonders of the World are tired
     and a touch familiar, but the other scenes,
     innumerable, though equally sad and still,
     are foreign.

Bishop won’t go after the big things, like “The Seven Wonders of the World,” because they are too familiar. She is going to get into the details of the often overlooked, and a complete concordance would have plenty of details.

I want to note two more traits: pathetic fallacy (as mentioned above) and her use of “or.” The Modernists turned away from pathetic fallacy as part of their turning away from Romanticism and Edwardian poetries, but also because the Modernists (maybe as a result of the Realists and Naturalists) don’t think nature and the living things in nature have feelings, especially sympathetic feelings towards humans. But I think Bishop engages with pathetic fallacy because I think she is wholly engaged with the world and that she thinks the world is engaged with humans. I think she tells us this in “Manners,” where her grandfather gives her the following advice:

     “A fine bird,” my grandfather said,

     “and he’s well brought up. See, he answers
     nicely when he’s spoken to.
     Man or beast, that’s good manners.
     Be sure that you both always do.”

Her grandfather points out to her that creatures of nature do indeed have feelings, including manners, which one would think is a human invention. Despite these sympathies, not to mention her iambic rhythms, however, one wouldn’t classify Bishop as a Romantic or Edwardian, as she creates or recreates the world using the facts of the world. Her poetry is only mimetic in the details she draws from, assumes, supposes, or speculates.

The last stylistic device I notice is her use of “or,” which occurs in many poems. In the highly rational world of modernity, there is the divisive thinking of “either/or,” a binary thinking. Something is either this or it is that, but Bishop’s “or” subverts that binary thinking. Bishop’s “or” is not use to make clear distinctions or definitions, but rather it shows uncertainty in her epistemologies and phenomenologies. She’s not quite sure what something. Returning to “Over 2,000 Illustrations . . .,” we read:

     Always the silence, the gesture of specks of birds
     suspended on invisible threads above the Site,
     or the smoke of rising solemnly, pulled by threads.
     Granted a page alone or a page made up
     of several scenes arranged in cattycornered rectangles
     or circles set on stippled gray.

The “or” indicates uncertainty, not the certainty of “it’s either this or that.” It’s like she is saying, “maybe it’s this or perhaps it’s this other thing, or maybe even some other thing. I’m not quite sure but it is perhaps somewhere among those descriptions.” Sometimes the “or” comes in the shape of “nor” or “perhaps” as in “Manuelzinho” towards the end when the poem reads:

     You paint – heaven knows why –
     the outside of your crown
     and brim of your straw hat.
     Perhaps to reflect the sun?
     Or perhaps when you were small,
     your mother said, ‘Manuelzinho,
     one thing: be sure you always
     paint your straw hat.’”

Here the “or” and “perhaps” are more like speculations, and perhaps that is what all the “or”s are doing, and perhaps that is the best way to describe Bishop’s poetry – speculations based on a premise.

One last thing, for a writer of iambs, many of her lines begin with a stressed syllable.


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