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Table of contents :
elizabeth bishop’s poetics of description
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Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description zachariah pickard
McGill-Queen’s University Press Montreal & Kingston • London • Ithaca
© McGill-Queen’s University Press 2009 isbn 978-0-7735-3505-3 Legal deposit second quarter 2009 Bibliothèque nationale du Québec Printed in Canada on acid-free paper that is 100% ancient forest free (100% post-consumer recycled), processed chlorine free This book has been published with the help of a grant from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, through the Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme, using funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. We also acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (bpidp) for our publishing activities.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication Pickard, Zachariah, 1976– Elizabeth Bishop’s poetics of description/Zachariah Pickard. Includes bibliographical references. isbn 978-0-7735-3505-3 1. Bishop, Elizabeth, 1911–1979 – Criticism and interpretation. I. Title. ps3503.i785z75 2009
This book was typeset by Interscript in 10.5/14 Sabon.
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Acknowledgments Abbreviations xi Introduction 3 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Imagery 14 Surrealism 38 Epiphany 58 Water 73 War 98 Narrative 125 Travel 148 Description 172 Conclusion 189 Works Cited 201 Index 209
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This book was made possible through the financial support of the University of Toronto and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It was made what it is by the many people who read and discussed part or all of it with me. I am particularly grateful to John Reibetanz, Malcolm Woodland, and Jessica Wilson, who read and commented on each chapter as it came to light, but I would also like to thank Sarah Brouillette, Andrew Kaufman, Jeffery Donaldson, my readers at McGill-Queen’s University Press, Matthew Sewell, Nicholas Bradley, Kendall Shields, Gillian Gass, Alexander Willis, and, especially, Toni and Michael Pickard, for their help, interest, and support. A version of chapter 2 has appeared in Studies in the Humanities, and I thank Malcolm Hayward and Tom Slater both for publishing it and for allowing me to use the material here. A version of chapter 3 has appeared in TwentiethCentury Literature for which I am similarly grateful to Lee Zimmerman and James Martin. An essay that shares some material with chapter 5 has appeared in American Literature, and I am grateful in the same ways to Priscilla Wald and Houston Baker Jr. I would also like to thank Sonya MacDonald, Chatham Ewing, and John Hodge at Washington University in
St Louis for their help and for permission to quote from Bishop’s unpublished letters. Excerpts from The Collected Prose by Elizabeth Bishop, copyright (c) 1984 by Alice Helen Methfessel; The Complete Poems: 1927–1979 by Elizabeth Bishop, copyright (c) 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel; One Art: Letters by Elizabeth Bishop, selected and edited by Robert Giroux, copyright (c) 1994 by Alice Methfessel, introduction and compilation copyright (c) 1994 by Robert Giroux, reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, llc. Excerpts from “Dimensions for a Novel” and “Time’s Andromedas” included in the Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies; “Gerard Manley Hopkins” included in the Vassar Review; “Seven-Days Monolouge” [sic] included in Con Spirito; and unpublished letters written by Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Stevenson, copyright (c) 2009 Alice Helen Methfessel, reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC on behalf of the Elizabeth Bishop Estate.
The following abbreviations are used for Bishop’s work: cp cpr dl
Complete Poems: 1927–1979. New York: Noonday, 1983. Collected Prose. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, 1984. The Darwin Letter, written to Anne Stevenson, 8–20 January 1964. Elizabeth Bishop Papers. Washington University, St Louis. One Art: Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Noonday, 1994.
Unless otherwise noted, all italics and emphases appearing in quotations are from the originals. All ellipses in works by Bishop are mine, unless otherwise noted. [ ] indicates that part of a word has been cut.
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elizabeth bishop’s poetics of description
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Finding a title for this book has been a struggle. Any honest title would have to include the word “description,” and nothing is more likely to glaze the eyes of a potential reader than this seemingly innocuous term with which Bishop has so often been associated. However, it is description that I want to discuss, first briefly in this introduction and then at considerable length over the course of what follows. As it is generally used in regard to contemporary poetry, the word “descriptive” is drab at best and more often derogatory. Applied casually to Bishop, it expresses something that anyone will grant but that few are interested in thinking about too closely: that her poetry is often concerned with the objective aspects of the physical world and that it conveys them to the reader with unusual force and clarity. Applied with more malign intent, “descriptive” implies a limiting obsession with brute reality, a lack of imagination that prevents Bishop from seeing beyond the here and now. This second, derogatory sense of the word usually lurks in the background, and even those who label Bishop descriptive with the best intentions are eager to move on. The risk always remains that, under the microscope, description will prove indelibly tied to the dull and mundane. As such, “description” has become a ubiquitous but invisible word in Bishop scholarship – oft used but rarely discussed. The central
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
purpose of this book is to rectify that situation by asking what, exactly, description means to Bishop. However, my goal is not to talk about her more obviously descriptive poems so much as to bring out description’s role as a basic fact of her intellectual method. My topic, then, is not so much description as an isolated action but description as a way of looking at the world. What this deeper notion of description means is, first and foremost, a commitment to physical reality, to facts. But this commitment does not imply a rejection of the many other things – ideas, feelings, characters – that a poet might seek to address. Rather, for Bishop, the world of physical facts is the only possible means of reaching those other, loftier realms. When William Carlos Williams orders himself to “Say it, no ideas but in things” (Paterson 6), he is forcing himself, as the imperative mood of the phrase suggests, to give something up, to choose the harder, more rewarding route. For Bishop, there rarely seems to be any choice: there simply are no ideas but in things. The only way she can achieve her larger goals is through attention to the seemingly mundane aspects of reality. In her own words, whatever it is that “one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important” is only available to us through the examination of the objects we can see full-face; it is only through an unusually close scrutiny of “facts and minute details” that we can “catch a peripheral vision” of what lies beyond them (dl). To oversimplify by assuming an everyday empiricism, there are various experiences – aesthetic, moral, intellectual – to which we aspire but to which we have no direct access. What is available to us is physical reality, and it is only by focusing diligently on it that we are able to arrive at anything else. Indeed, “scrutiny” will be as crucial a term in this study as “description.” If description is the mode of Bishop’s writing, then scrutiny is the intellectual activity that underpins it. That phrase about whatever it is one “can never really see full-face” is from a 1964 letter in which Bishop proposes
Charles Darwin as an aesthetic role model and which, consequently, has become known as the Darwin Letter. I have taken from this letter the underlying argument of my study, and so I would like to quote its central passage here, at my beginning: Dreams, works of art (some), glimpses of the alwaysmore-successful surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy (is it?), catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important. I can’t believe we are wholly irrational – and I do admire Darwin! But reading Darwin, one admires the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic – and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels the strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. (dl) In many ways, this entire book amounts to an exploration of this one paragraph, and many of the particular topics and ideas that concern me – surrealism, epiphany, morality, scrutiny – are to be found in these few lines. But the simplest, most fundamental idea they contain has to do with the relationship between the study of the physical world and access to some more ethereal realm. The single overarching proposal to which all of my arguments contribute is simply this: to begin with a perfectly useless concentration and end by sliding off into the unknown is the fundamental pattern that underlies Bishop’s art of description. In many ways, the chapters of this book seek out this one basic pattern in a variety of contexts, pointing to the ways in which it inflects her treatment of a variety of topics: imagery, psychology,
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
epiphany, knowledge, morality, narrative, travel, and, finally, description itself. Such is the largest and purest strain of my argument. However, there is more to Bishop’s poetry than things and ideas: there is also the poet herself, with all her various personae. The particular way in which she injects herself between things and ideas – her particular form of poetic subjectivity – plays into the question of whether or not she can properly be considered a postmodern poet. The first generation of Bishop scholarship, extending from Anne Stevenson’s 1966 study through David Kalstone’s seminal Becoming a Poet (1989) and including works by Robert Dale Parker and Thomas Travisano (both 1988), reads Bishop’s poetry in the context of her predecessors and contemporaries, as the subtitle of Kalstone’s book, Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, suggests. In the early 1990s, however, Bishop scholarship took a new turn, and Bishop was put forward as an early figure in the development of postmodern poetry. Beginning with works by Bonnie Costello (1991), Victoria Harrison (1993), and Susan McCabe (1994), and extending through books by Marilyn Lombardi (1995), Sally Shigley (1997), and Kim Fortuny (2003), the tendency in Bishop studies has been to argue not only for the relevance of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation but also, and more importantly for my purposes, to suggest that Bishop’s poetics is inherently postmodern in its decentred subjectivity. At this point, the study of Bishop’s poetry has settled into the assumption that Bishop is postmodern in most things – but this is an assumption with which I am not entirely comfortable. Bonnie Costello’s formulation of what makes Bishop postmodern reveals the bias that underlies this line of thought: while her definition of postmodernism is relatively standard – she emphasizes its preference for indeterminacy and its doubts about the primacy and coherence of the human subject – her definition of what postmodernism is not reveals a
profound distaste. For Costello, postmodernism is a reaction against high modernist “idealism” with its “static, hierarchical view,” its “conservative attitude,” and its embrace of “norms,” “static orders,” and “illusions” (5). Those being the options, there is little choice but to label Bishop a postmodernist, and those are, for Costello as for many others, the options. An argument framed along these lines transforms “postmodern” into a term of praise, and that makes it difficult for a critic who admires Bishop’s poetry to withhold it. As such, even though Costello begins by suggesting that Bishop is locked in a tug-of-war between “the desire for mastery” over the observed world (modernism) and an awareness of “the dangers and illusions to which such desire is prone” (postmodernism) (2), her readings of individual poems consistently show Bishop’s desire for mastery being swept away to reveal a “directed resistance to idealism and its quest for mastery over nature’s plurality and flux” (3). For Costello, Bishop’s urge towards mastery and control is a weakness she repeatedly overcomes. While I have hesitations about Costello’s conclusions and their influence on Bishop studies, her initial observation about the conflicting urges at play in Bishop’s poetry is perceptive. And so I have tried, in many ways, to follow it through by emphasizing both Bishop’s profound respect for the world around her and her interest in using it to gain access to some more transcendent, idealist realm. As Costello points out, poetry “is one of the few places where limited mastery is possible” (2), and that limited mastery is a crucial part of the argument I make here. Implicitly, such an argument presents Bishop as neither postmodern nor modernist but, rather, as an individual whose conflicting interests suspend her somewhere between or beside the two. But that is about as much as I will say explicitly about the matter. The debate over Bishop’s place in literary history is an important one, but it is one that can quickly crowd out other topics.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
And so, while I have addressed it briefly here, and while it comes up again at the end of chapter 1, I will seek to minimize discussion of Bishop’s postmodernism (or lack thereof). My aim, instead, is to define and discuss Bishop’s poetic practice in the terms and categories that arise from within it. When these terms intersect with the postmodern, I do, of course, make note of that fact, but my goal is to arrive at a sui generis portrait of this most sui generis of poets. As a result, the majority of this study is devoted to two things: Bishop’s unusual focus on the physical world (scrutiny) and her unusual ability to convey it to her reader (description). The first of these is essentially thematic or intellectual in nature; the second is more formal. The theme of scrutiny is the subject of most of what follows, and it is really Bishop’s underlying engagement with the world around her that occupies me in the central chapters of this book. The more formal question of how exactly she presents the world within her poetry is the focus of my first and last chapters, and description in the literal, rhetorical sense thus provides an introduction and a conclusion to a longer, more wide-ranging discussion of the intellectual habits and inclinations that underlie it. In still more concrete terms, the structure of the book is as follows: in my first chapter, I begin by setting out a relatively straightforward idea about different kinds of imagery and their relationship to description, which, in turn, leads me to a set of preliminary conclusions about how Bishop interacts with the world through her poetry. The strictly formal nature of the discussion, however, risks pushing my characterization of Bishop too far in one direction, towards an account of her mastery over the objects she describes that is every bit as lopsided as is Costello’s vision of flux. The rest of the book slowly evens things out by moving beyond the rhetoric of the poems into the ways they engage with a variety of larger questions. The remaining chapters can be divided into three sections,
each of which has a particular thematic focus and each of which takes as its starting point a lesser-known prose work that, like the idea of description, is more often mentioned in Bishop scholarship than it is examined. Though the bulk of this study is given over to close readings of Bishop’s poetry, it is these prose works that give it shape and direction. In the first section, which includes chapters 2, 3, and 4, I use Bishop’s Darwin Letter to move beyond the realm of form and into a discussion of Bishop’s relationship to the actual physical world. Chapter 2 reads Bishop’s Darwin Letter in the context of surrealism and tries to pinpoint her exact understanding of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds, the world of the senses and the world of the imagination. Chapter 3 extends this discussion into her particular notion of epiphany, once again turning to the Darwin Letter, but this time within the context of Darwin’s own form of natural history and certain familiar modernist ideas about science. Chapter 4 settles down to read through two poems very carefully in order to extract their implicit argument about empirical and abstract knowledge. Taken as a group, these three chapters, and especially the chapter on surrealism, go a long way towards problematizing the portrait of Bishop that I lay out in chapter 1. The argument I make about the mind in these chapters is about the mind outside of the poem, the mind that encounters the real world and then writes about it. Obviously, this mind is not the same as the persona that appears within and behind the poems, and these chapters help to show that, however empowering the implications of Bishop’s description are for the relationship between the speaker of a poem and the objects it describes, Bishop’s ideas about the proper relationship between a real mind and the real world are considerably more modest. Chapter 5 comprises a section unto itself, in which I use Randall Jarrell’s 1947 review of Bishop’s first collection of poetry to examine her relationship to a different sort of world
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
altogether – the historical world of human beings and their often unsavoury doings. Jarrell’s review allows us to understand how, exactly, Bishop is able to address the larger, tainted political and historical world without ever seeming to lift her eye from the more innocent world of things. Again, the gains made in this chapter necessitate a revision of the powerful, controlling role in which I originally cast Bishop: if Bishop’s intense, controlling focus within her poetry turns out to be a product of forces beyond her control, then any argument about the empowering nature of that focus needs to be carefully reconsidered. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 form my final section, in which I introduce the question of time by examining one of Bishop’s undergraduate essays, “Time’s Andromedas.” Chapter 6 seeks to elicit and clarify the essay’s account of time’s relationship to narrative before it examines a handful of poems that engage that particular issue. In chapter 7, I narrow this topic down by focusing on the ways that Bishop’s travel poetry, and particularly the first three poems of Questions of Travel, rephrase her ideas about time and narrative in terms of the opposition between travel and tourism. Not surprisingly, many of the themes and arguments regarding scrutiny and control that come up throughout this book resurface in both of these chapters, and indeed Bishop’s attitude to both narrative and travel are extensions of the basic intellectual method – the method of scrutiny – that I trace throughout. Finally, in chapter 8, I extend my discussion of Bishop’s engagement with different notions of time in a more rhetorical direction, taking up, once again, a more formal notion of description and trying to establish a set of terms and ideas that takes into account all that this study establishes. This last chapter answers the more forceful argument of the first, thereby bringing the book full circle and presenting a balanced portrait of Bishop’s descriptive art. My conclusion restates this more balanced portrait and deals briefly with two topics on which I am elsewhere silent: ekphrasis and critical methodology.
At the largest level, all of this is meant to lead my reader not only to a new-found appreciation for the role of description in Bishop’s poetry but also to a new understanding of the fundamental habits of thought that structure it. Bishop’s thinking is best understood through that most maligned of intellectual devices, the binary, and throughout this book I isolate in Bishop’s poetry and thinking familiar sets of binaries and demonstrate her particular form of intellectual slipperiness in dealing with them. The discussion of ideas and things with which I began this introduction is a good example of what I mean. The Bishopesque manoeuvre is neither to deny the validity of the binary (ideas and things are indeed distinct) nor to validate one of its terms (she is not privileging things over ideas). Rather it is to insist that both terms are very real, very important, and very different but connected in a strange and unexpected way (we must turn our backs on ideas before we can reach them through things). As is not surprising for a poet interested in scrutiny and description, this strange and unexpected connection inevitably involves some form of attention. The Darwin Letter argues that we must focus on details in order to see, peripherally, some larger meaning, and this basic pattern is repeated in a variety of contexts throughout this book: the conscious and unconscious mind, empirical and abstract knowledge, politics and aesthetics, travel and tourism. Bishop’s larger goals are always latent, always hiding just behind the physical world, and her poetry is an extended meditation on how and where and why to look – a meditation that takes up many of the familiar binaries that populate our minds. To bring out that basic intellectual pattern is my largest goal. In a more concrete sense, however, this book offers the first serious attempt to think through Bishop’s dedication to description – a task that is long overdue. It also presents detailed examinations of several under-examined texts – the Darwin Letter, Jarrell’s review, and “Time’s Andromedas.”
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
More fundamentally, however, my focus differs from much that has been written about Bishop in that I am particularly interested in her earlier poetry. Bishop criticism, as a whole, has tended to favour the later, more autobiographical work, but I lean towards the more obscure, less personal – and more descriptive – poems of Bishop’s first two collections. Further, while this book offers a number of things that are new to Bishop studies, it also offers something, albeit implicitly, to the study of twentieth-century poetry more generally. Description is, as I suggested at the beginning of this introduction, a tough sell, and, not surprisingly, very little has been written on the role of description in the development of twentieth-century poetry. Even less has been written about the formal facts of modern descriptive poetry and the question of how, exactly, poets go about writing it. This book is about Elizabeth Bishop, and I have answered none of these questions any further than is necessary to say what needs to be said about her poetry; however, there is a great deal here that could, with some modification, be applied elsewhere. Certainly, my first and last chapters, which deal with the more formal aspects of Bishop’s poetry, contain terms and ideas that could anchor a more wide-ranging poetics of description. And those chapters – 2, 3, and 5, most particularly – that read Bishop’s art of description against the work of other twentieth-century artists could give rise to a more comprehensive historical account of the work descriptive poetry has done throughout the century. But this book is neither a history nor a poetics of description. It is, rather, an investigation of the role that description plays in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and so I have tied myself to her oeuvre in much the way that, in her version of him, Darwin ties himself to the “facts and minute details” of the physical world (DL). There is a great deal of work to be done on the question of poetic description, but it falls under the heading of ideas, and my interest here is primarily in
things, by which I mean the poems themselves. I hope, like Bishop, to reach through those things to ideas, but it is with the things that I begin, and this affects the sorts of ideas that I can reach. Inevitably, I will build up a set of theoretical constructs as I go, but they will be as “home-made” as Crusoe’s flute (cp 164), constructed from the raw materials indigenous to Bishop’s oeuvre. And so, in my first chapter, I begin with the rawest materials of all and ask that simplest of questions: how does Bishop achieve the clarity of description for which she has become so famous?
Throughout this book, I use the word “description” in a number of different senses – some familiar, others less so. I want to begin, however, with the simplest and most concrete sense of the word, the sense derived from the rhetorical figure of descriptio: the attempt to bring things before the mind’s eye, to make the leap from textual to visual. My goal in this chapter is not to present an account of how poetry does so – a question well beyond the scope of a single bookchapter – but to study the effect that doing so has on a particular poem, “The Man-Moth.” And so, rather than deliver a historical account of poetic description or a theoretical examination of the relationship between word and picture, I am going to begin with a relatively fine distinction between imagery that helps bring an object before the reader’s eye and imagery that serves other purposes. (I am using the words “image” and “imagery” here in the everyday sense of “figurative language” and as shorthand for the common substitutive tropes in their various forms: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, simile, personification, allegory, symbolism.) Reading “The Man-Moth” with this distinction in mind reveals a number of interesting things about the poem, but it also helps to show how Bishop’s famed exactitude and accuracy create an unusual imbalance of power between herself,
her readers, and the objects depicted in her poetry. So while my starting point is modest, even minute, my conclusions are both local and far-reaching: this chapter ends with an attempt to schematize Bishop’s poetics, to lay out a map of the relationship her poetry implies between the world, the poet, and her audience. Exactitude and accuracy have long been attributed to Bishop’s poetry and a quick look through the early reviews of her first collection, North & South, shows how uniformly her first critics pick up on her “naturalist’s accuracy of observation” (Schwartz and Estess 182), her “keen eye for small physical detail” (184), “the splendor and minuteness of her descriptions” (186), and her “unusually acute respect for fact” (190). But the first attempt to examine the source of Bishop’s accuracy is Nancy McNally’s 1966 essay, “Elizabeth Bishop: The Discipline of Description.” McNally suggests that “the most important factor in the precision of Miss Bishop’s descriptive phrases is undoubtedly the remarkable visual clarity of their images,” which “attempt to represent as closely as possible the actual appearance, sound, or texture of what is being described rather than to interpret its significance” (190–1). McNally’s example is “The bull-frogs are sounding, / slack strings plucked by heavy thumbs” (191; the quotation is from “A Cold Spring,” cp 56), which she suggests is “less useful as an indication of what to think of the bull-frogs than as a device to recall vividly and exactly what they sound like” (191). The distinction between imagery that tells the reader what to think and imagery that helps the reader to see or hear is an interesting one, and McNally has hit on something characteristic of Bishop’s oeuvre. However, McNally’s argument needs some qualification. The frog image may be “less useful as an indication of what to think of the bull-frogs,” but surely a reader could draw certain conclusions about these frogs based on the adjectives “slack” and “heavy” or the simple fact that they are likened to guitars. Implicitly, McNally is assuming that no one
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
is interested enough in frogs qua frogs to think in this way. But the frogs are part of a larger description of a landscape that balances imagery of stasis and torpor – “trees hesitat[ing]” and “leaves wait[ing]” – with images of action and lightness – “deer” that practise “leaping” and “fireflies” that “rise” “exactly like the bubbles in champagne” (cp 55–6). In this context, then, the slack heaviness of the frogsong is not purely descriptive, or, to put it another way, insofar as it is descriptive, it plays into a larger thematic description of spring rather than a smaller empirical description of frogs. And so it seems unwise to read that particular image only in terms of “the actual appearance, sound, or texture of what is being described” and altogether ignore “its significance.” This qualification can be extended almost indefinitely, since what I have just argued about those frogs can and generally will be argued about any other image. Indeed, a large part of the critical discourse surrounding Bishop’s work consists of attempts to rescue particular images from McNallyian “accuracy.” Much as one might be impressed by Bishop’s ability to bring a sight before her readers’ eyes, it is hard to resist the urge to push for a more meaningful interpretation of any given image. McNally herself argues that the image of skin hanging “in strips / like ancient wallpaper” in “The Fish” (cp 42), though “helpful in conveying an accurate notion of the fish’s color to anyone with memories of Victorian parlors … is even more useful in evoking the associations of deterioration which usually surround such memories” (192). The truth is that although McNally’s argument feels right in an intuitive sense, few critics would be willing to admit that the poet they study is entirely uninterested in the significance of objects. But while McNally may need some revision, her argument is worth taking up. Certainly some images, whether or not they may imply other things, are more vividly visual than others (or auditory or tactile or olfactory or gustatory – I am using sight
as shorthand for all the senses), and certainly some images are barely visual at all: an attempt to picture “what we imagine knowledge to be” is largely beside the point (cp 66). Clearly, different images function differently in terms of visualizability, and to think about Bishop’s poetry in these terms can help give some content to the critical commonplace that Bishop is, as Bonnie Costello puts it, “a visual poet” (5). In order to make full use of McNally’s argument, however, two things are needed. First, it is important to eliminate the either/or aspect of McNally’s thinking and to settle on a more fluid way of talking about the visualizability of imagery; second, a term less cumbersome than “visualizability” needs to be found. To eliminate the binary aspect of McNally’s notion we need only think of images as functioning on more than one level or existing along a spectrum rather than in one of two mutually exclusive categories. That way we can address the fact that any given image will have some descriptive effect and some impact in terms of significance, while simultaneously separating these functions out in order to speak intelligently about each. To find useful terms, we can look to T.S. Eliot’s 1929 essay on Dante. Eliot writes that Dante’s attempt “to make us see what he saw” results in a “peculiarity about his comparisons which is worth noticing” (spr 210). As an example, Eliot selects a passage from Canto XV of the Inferno, in which Dante, “speaking of the crowd in Hell who peered at him and his guide under a dim light” (spr 210), describes how they “sharpened their vision (knitted their brows) at us, / like an old tailor peering at the eye of his needle” (15.20–1; Eliot’s translation, 210). For Eliot, the “purpose of this type of simile is solely to make us see more definitely the scene which Dante has put before us” (210). For contrast, he quotes Antony and Cleopatra – “she looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace” (5.2.345–7) – and, after dissecting the image in detail, concludes that where “the simile of Dante is merely to make
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
you see more clearly how the people looked,” “the figure of Shakespeare is expansive rather than intensive; its purpose is to add to what you see” (210). Leaving aside Eliot’s McNallyian suggestion that Dante’s simile is meant “solely” or “merely” to make the reader see more clearly, I want to fasten onto Eliot’s terminological distinction between expansive and intensive imagery. Eliot’s terms then serve to back up McNally’s discussion of Bishop’s characteristic use of figuration: with her characteristically sharpened vision, Bishop tends more towards intensive than expansive imagery. The intensive/expansive distinction presents a means of talking about Bishop’s imagery in a general way, and, were someone to tally things up, it seems likely that her intensive images would outnumber her expansive images considerably. But that is not to say that expansive imagery plays no role in Bishop’s poetry at all since some of her most memorable lines fall squarely on the side of expansion. There are comparisons that help us see but also add something else, like armoured Christians that are “hard as nails, / tiny as nails, and glinting” (cp 92) or an armadillo that resembles a “weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky” (cp 104); there are also images that leave the senses behind for a more intangible feeling, such as when the “waiting room” begins “sliding / beneath a big black wave” (cp 161); and there are also those that subordinate sensation to something altogether more abstract, such as the quotation mentioned above from “At the Fishhouses.” So while images that are predominantly intensive may enjoy a numerical advantage, it would be risky to argue that they do more work than predominantly expansive ones or that what matters about Bishop’s poetry is always to be found in its intensive imagery. That being said, there is still something noteworthy about Bishop’s use of intensive imagery: she seems to use it more than or differently from most poets. Part of what sets her use of intensive imagery apart is that she applies it not only in such
likely places as her early, highly descriptive landscape poems (“Florida,” “A Cold Spring,” “Cape Breton”) but also in more unlikely and unusual places like “The Man-Moth,” a poem in which intensive imagery plays a strangely fundamental role. It is one thing for a poet to use guitar imagery to make frogsong real to her readers – everyone has heard a frog, and everyone has heard a guitar. When it comes to describing an invented creature like the Man-Moth, however, to producing what John Hollander might call “notional” description (4), the intensive image’s work becomes both harder and more essential. “The Man-Moth” (cp 14–15) must accomplish a difficult task, and it must do so quickly: it must establish and illustrate an invented landscape in which its invented creature can do whatever it is he does. Bishop handles this challenge by adopting a tone of brisk self-assurance: Here, above, cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight. Bishop offers no details that might help a reader to decide where, and “above” what, “Here” is, waiting until the second stanza before allowing it to slip out that “Here” is on “the surface” “above” whatever is “under the edge of one of the sidewalks.” By spending that first stanza describing “Here” rather than explaining or locating it, Bishop treats it no differently than she treats Cape Breton or Florida. But “Here” is different from Cape Breton or Florida. Her reader can infer a certain amount from the titles of those two poems; a great deal of this poem must be built from scratch. And so she uses intensive imagery as a form of visual shorthand to erect what Robert Lowell calls the poem’s “whole new world” (Plimpton 347): The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat. It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon. What she is describing – the way a person’s shadow falls when the source of light is directly overhead – is hardly remarkable, but she goes about the description in a remarkably careful way. In consecutive lines, she first establishes the shadow’s size, then its location, and then how it makes the person look, and each of these facts is founded on a precise visual image. The shadow is as big as a hat, and, if the moon is directly overhead and the person is relatively slender (or the hat relatively big), such would literally be the case. The shadow lies at the person’s feet like a doll’s circle, and again this is visually perfect: Bishop is referring to tiny dollhouse dolls, mounted on round, flat bases in order to stand up straight. The last image of the inverted pin once again presents the fundamental visual shape with clarity, but it also brings the moon back into play since as long as the moon is casting the shadow, the relation of person, shadow, and moon will be lined up in the magnetic way that Bishop describes. The doll, pin, and man-standing-on-hat images reinforce each other visually in terms of their overall shape – a round base, supporting a longer, upright structure – and the doll and pin images further share the visual effect of objects held stiffly upright. And so, not only does Bishop give her reader a key to the appearance of the objects before his or her view, she also establishes the particular spatial relations between them and their more general visual feeling. She even specifies a point of view. The emphasis on the smallness of the shadow, the comparison to a doll, and the final pin image help to establish the scale on which the poem is to be visualized: we are not to see this person up close, but from some distance and a slightly elevated viewpoint, like that of a child looking down into a dollhouse. In a very few lines, Bishop has set up this imaginary scenario with great precision and
vividness; everything is arranged and framed such that a reader could easily sketch it. What I have just described is merely the way in which intensive imagery does its work, the way that, true to its name, it intensifies a description, bringing it before the reader’s eyes. But, as I suggested earlier, describing an imaginary landscape is different from describing a realistic one since it is more difficult to make the reader see a scenario that is neither familiar nor, in this case, really plausible. The moon is rarely bright enough to cast so distinct a shadow, especially in an urban setting where ambient light is common, nor is it ever directly overhead unless one lives near the equator. These, however, are relatively soft objections, and it is no great testament to Bishop’s powers that she can push them out of a reader’s mind. Later she uses intensive imagery to familiarize much more outlandish sights. When the Man-Moth crawls up the buildings with his “shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him,” the strength of the simile helps to make believably present (and moth-like) the sight of someone crawling up a vertical wall – something of a challenge in the pre-Spider-Man era. But she goes even further than this, not only making an implausible world real but also making a misunderstanding of that implausible world just as much so. When she takes us inside the Man-Moth’s mind and shows him imagining himself able “to push his small head through that round clean opening / and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light,” the notion that the moon is not a bright object but an opening into a brightly lit space suddenly becomes vividly real, as does the strange appeal of being squeezed like paint into an endless brightness. Bishop has created a misunderstanding of an unreal world, a Man-Moth’s-eye view of a universe that is already foreign to our own, but her persistent use of intensive imagery makes it all intensely real. Whether or not these uses of figurative language have expansive aspects to them – and certainly the inverted pin
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
magnetically attracted to the moon has immense thematic relevance to the rest of the poem – they do a considerable amount of intensive work, making an otherwise bizarre poem possible. As Flannery O’Connor suggests, “the person writing fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to concrete detail” because “the greater the story’s strain on the credulity, the more convincing the properties in it must be” (97). In this context, intensive imagery functions differently than it does in a realistically descriptive poem. Where intensive imagery adds highlights to a poem like “Cape Breton,” it forms the base of a poem like “The ManMoth,” establishing and enabling a space within which complicated concepts can be developed. To put it this way is also to highlight a crucial difference between these two sorts of poems. “Cape Breton” is a description of a real, or at least realistic, landscape, and topographical poetry is a legitimate and familiar genre requiring no justification beyond the attempt to portray the picturesque. It can, of course, be read as a paysage moralisé, but it need not be. “The Man-Moth,” on the other hand, is a description of an invented thing, which raises the question of why Bishop has deployed her intensive imagery in order to bring it before the reader’s eyes. If that imagery enables a space in which concepts can be developed, the reader might reasonably expect those concepts to be made manifest, or, to put it another way, the reader might expect to be able to read the poem allegorically. In his essay on Dante, Eliot suggests a relationship between intensive imagery and allegory. After associating Dante and Shakespeare with their respective figurative preferences, he argues that “as the whole poem of Dante is, if you like, one vast metaphor, there is hardly any place for metaphor in the detail of it” (210). Earlier, he comments, similarly, that Dante “employs very simple language, and very few metaphors, for allegory and metaphor do not get on
well together” (210). Implicitly, Eliot is equating metaphor with expansive imagery and simile (his word is “comparison”) with intensive imagery, and while this equation makes a certain intuitive sense, especially in relation to Bishop, who shows a preference for both simile and intensive imagery, there is no real reason why metaphor or simile should align strictly with one form of imagery or another. Leaving this implication aside, however, his basic point is a good one. Allegory is inherently expansive in that it implies a direct relationship between an object in the poem and a thing outside of the poem, most often an abstraction, and this underlying relationship is not based on visual similarity since one of the terms – the abstraction – has no particular visual existence. This inherent expansiveness makes the use of expansive imagery within an allegory superfluous or even confusing. On the other hand, insofar as allegory seeks to make abstractions concrete, intensive imagery can be particularly useful, making the concrete representations of abstract principles even more concretely visible. Eliot’s point is hardly more than an aside, and I do not wish to overstress it. To construe it as a rule would be foolish, and I am not even certain that it works as a characterization of how allegories are generally written. But the relationship, however tenuous, between allegory and intensive imagery is provocative in terms of Bishop’s early poetry, which is characterized by what would appear to be a considerable use of both. More to the point, this particular connection provides a way to begin to talk about the strange sort of semi-allegory that seems so prevalent in North & South. A number of poems in Bishop’s first collection, such as “The Man-Moth,” “The Weed,” and “The Unbeliever,” look like allegory but do not do the work that allegory generally does; they present fully realized alternate worlds that seem to have been constructed to allow a particular, significant narrative to play itself out, but they never quite indicate their purpose in doing so.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics suggests that, insofar “as a composition is allegorical, it tends to signal the ambivalence or allusiveness of its lang[uage] and to prescribe the direction in which a reader should interpret it” (Preminger 32). In other words, an allegory must both signal its desire to be interpreted on two levels (its “allusiveness”) and indicate on what level, exactly, it should be interpreted (its “direction”). In practice, however, allegories vary widely in the extent to which they do so. The Pilgrim’s Progress is crystal clear on both counts; The Faerie Queene is slightly more open-ended in terms of direction; Animal Farm’s allusiveness only comes into focus after the reader picks up on its direction; and a text like Kafka’s Metamorphosis signals its allusiveness but refuses to settle on a particular direction. On this sliding scale, those of Bishop’s poems that I am calling semi-allegorical are closest to Kafka: they signal their allusiveness without prescribing their direction very clearly. The mere existence of the Man-Moth defamiliarizes everything around him, pushing the reader towards a second level of signification. The reader expects a Man-Moth to mean something in a way that a fish, say, need not. “The Fish” can simply be a fish; “The Man-Moth” cannot simply be a man-moth. But the Man-Moth does not mean so easily, and readers and critics have been struggling for decades to pin an identity on him. Most commonly, critics have suggested that the Man-Moth “might stand for the poet” (Millier 99), “the alienated artist” (Travisano, eb 30), or “the artist as addict” (Lombardi 115); alternately he has been likened to “the muse, the creative power that flits away” (McCabe, eb 78); noting the urban setting of the poem, some have suggested that he embodies “the terrible fear living in the city involves for the extrasensitive” (Millier 99) or that he is “perhaps a symbol of the repressed psyche of urban man” (Costello 51); more vaguely, some have argued that he is “an embodiment
of difference” (Harrison 59), “the unknown or the unconscious” (Doreski 129), that his activities “symbolize human anxiety and compulsion” (Travisano, eb 30), and that “the poem becomes an allegorical commentary on human ambition and the restraint of ambition by fear, especially fear of failure” (Parker 40). I, too, add my own interpretation, albeit a rather abbreviated one, in the next chapter. That critics have so resolutely agreed in the desire to read the poem allegorically, but differed so much in their particular allegorical readings of it, suggests that the poem signals its allusiveness very well indeed, while simultaneously refusing to signal its direction in the one-to-one way that allegory is generally thought to do. Seeing a poem that seems to do half the work of allegory, critics have tried to supply the other half, but it might be possible to read the poem non-allegorically, as a purely intensive exercise meant to make the reader see something without telling him or her what to think about it. It may, however, be too much to ask a reader to read the poem on the same level as Bishop’s other primarily intensive poems and to enjoy its strange urban landscape in the same spirit as the more familiar rural landscape of “Cape Breton.” A more workable model is to be found, however, in “The Fish.” Robert Lowell declared himself “very envious” of that poem, claiming that all of his “fish become symbols, alas!” (quoted in Goldensohn 166). And if it is true that the success of “The Fish” depends on Bishop’s ability to keep the fish a fish rather than a symbol, it may prove useful to extend the interpretive strategies that critics have brought to bear on this more realistic poem to a reading of “The Man-Moth.” Generally, “The Fish” is read in psychological terms as an exercise in perception and description, and, in this way, the locus of meaning is shifted from fish to fisher. A similar manoeuvre, a shift in focus from the ManMoth to the poem’s speaker, results in a reading of “The Man-Moth” that differs from the more familiar allegorical
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
interpretations, making it, like “The Fish,” a demonstration of the process and power of description. The question to ask, in such a reading, is not so much what the Man-Moth means as how the speaker is presenting him and what the implications of that presentation are. This new focus, in turn, requires a new explanation of the work that the poem’s intensive imagery is doing. As a tool of description, rather than allegory, the intensive imagery enables Bishop to establish the poem’s visual reality not in order to reach some abstraction outside of the poem but to explore more difficult aspects of the poem itself. Once she has established the poem’s initial scenario with the series of figurative descriptions of “Man,” she can go on to a much more ephemeral discussion of the moonlight’s effect on his subtler faculties: He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties, feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold, of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers. This passage describes a sensation that is explicitly indescribable – “neither warm nor cold” and “impossible to record” – but its intangibility is balanced by the extreme visibility of what comes before it. Similarly, when, at the poem’s conclusion, the reader is shown how to obtain a tear from the strange black-eyed monster, Bishop’s imagery asserts that all is normal and clear: hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil, an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Such an image refuses to treat the Man-Moth as an oddity, as something for which there is no language, as incommensurable with our experience and observations. On one level the
metaphor suggests an inexpressible void, “an entire night itself,” bottomless and deeply foreign, but, on another level, it renders that void accessible, almost mundane: each of us tightens the haired horizon of night when we close our lashed eyelids to go to sleep. The trick to reading this poem nonallegorically is to resist the temptation to correlate its strange world to the real world, immersing oneself instead in the experience of the poem in much the same way one immerses oneself in the experience of “The Fish.” Bishop is very carefully using intensive imagery to render tangible a complicated reality full of ineffable sensations and strange experiences. Not surprisingly, this sort of non-allegorical reading correlates well with the presence of intensive imagery since intensive imagery is as much a part of description as it is of allegory. There is a strange sort of circularity at work here. One source of our desire to read “The Man-Moth” allegorically is its descriptive efficacy since, as readers, we do not know what else to do with a detailed description of an imaginary object. But the same thing that pushes us towards allegorical interpretation enables us to escape it since the same technique that makes an allegorical world concrete can give a non-allegorical poem a self-sufficiency that renders allegorical interpretation superfluous. The best way to see this effect is to look at a poem that is similar to “The Man-Moth” in some ways but that does not use intensive imagery to produce an effective and fully realized visual scheme, a poem that does not give the reader any option other than to read it in terms of allegorical meaning. “The Gentleman of Shalott” presents an unusual figure, who, like the Man-Moth, looks on first glance as if he is intended to mean something in an allegorical manner. Unlike “The Man-Moth,” however, “The Gentleman of Shalott” avoids imagery and figurative language altogether as well as any sort of realized landscape or narrative embodiment. (Ask yourself where or in what position the Gentleman is, or what he looks like, beyond the mere fact of symmetry.) As a result,
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
the poem remains an intellectual puzzle instead of a visible scene in the mind – what Randall Jarrell calls a “witty mirrorimage poem” and an example of “the most outlandish ingenuity” (“Poet” 498). A reading, then, that turns its back on allegory in favour of description is left with very little. Ironically, however, this absence of intensive imagery also makes for awkward allegory. Because the Gentleman never descends from abstraction to concreteness, he cannot, as Angus Fletcher suggests all allegory must do, “get along without interpretation” (7). The poem, due, among other things, to its lack of intensive imagery, fails both as description and allegory, remaining a puzzle that neither of the interpretive strategies I have been looking at in this chapter can solve. At the opposite extreme, even a poem like “The Unbeliever” (cp 22), which bears many marks of allegory – its title, its reference to Bunyan, its unusual situation, and its emblematic talking gull and cloud – can be read non-allegorically thanks to its descriptive strength. The poem begins with powerfully intensive imagery: He sleeps on the top of a mast with his eyes fast closed. The sails fall away below him like the sheets of his bed, leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head. Though the poem is no clearer than “The Gentleman of Shalott” in terms of meaning, it is considerably clearer visually, and, as a result, a non-allegorical reading can be surprisingly effective, with the final nightmare lines striking full on the reader’s emotions: “I must not fall. The spangled sea below wants me to fall. It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”
Whatever the Unbeliever does not believe in – and, again, this is a topic of some debate – the reader is firmly in possession of the reality of his fear and the precariousness of his position. The vivid, visual reality of the poem, the same thing that could render it effective as allegory, makes it possible to read the poem in a non-allegorical way as a portrait of a real, terrified individual who does not so much mean, as it were, but be. And so Bishop’s use of intensive imagery does more than simply vivify her poems. It functions as a fundamental part of her poetics, a building block for poems that are not at first glance descriptive. However else we may choose to read “The Man-Moth,” it can be read as an act of description, an example of the ways in which description, through intensive imagery among other things, permeates Bishop’s poetry and characterizes her poetics. But while reading the “The ManMoth” descriptively removes the need for allegorical meaning, it also removes some of the openness that an allegorical reading of the poem can preserve. Insofar as the poem presents an allegory it presents a very broad one, one that comes closer to Goethe’s notion of symbolism, with its ideas “endlessly effective” though always “out of reach” (17: 904). Read allegorically, the Man-Moth can be both effective and out of reach; he can mean many things. Read descriptively, he means much less and is confined to a narrower field, reduced to an object of description. And so description, in this sense, has an interesting and unexpected tethering effect. A standard account of what a descriptive poem like “The Fish” does is based on the notion of defamiliarization. Looking at the fish through the lens of literary description, and especially through the lens of intensive imagery, causes the speaker and the reader to see him clearly for the first time rather than dismiss him familiarly as being just a fish. But “The Man-Moth” functions in the opposite direction, and the use of intensive imagery has a familiarizing effect, taking away the expanse of the unknown that the Man-Moth summons up
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
and rendering him approachably real. These two different effects are like the division of labour behind the Lyrical Ballads: while Coleridge tried to present “persons and characters supernatural” in such a way as to give them “a semblance of truth,” Wordsworth tried to “give the charm of novelty to things of every day” (168–9). Like Coleridge and Wordsworth starting at opposite ends and working towards the middle, “The Fish” and “The Man-Moth” approach a descriptive median from opposite directions. Seen in this light, intensive imagery has a centripetal force, pulling the objects with which it is concerned towards a perfect balance of unfamiliar familiarity and creating a moment of perfect mental clarity. Up until now, I have been dealing with this process in a sort of vacuum, reading intensive imagery as a poetic tool that affects genre and, therefore, critical interpretive strategies. I have been treating it as an aspect of a poem that exists in self-sufficiency, in a world made up only of poems and critics. But Bishop’s use of intensive imagery has implications outside of this hermetic poetical world, implications that reach out in at least two directions: towards the objects a poem describes and towards the reader reading that description. In what remains of this chapter, I take up each of these things in turn and, in so doing, examine Bishop’s particular form of poetic subjectivity and the role that control plays in its formation. We are familiar enough with talk of Bishop’s control over herself and her language, but I would like now to extend that discussion into her control over the world around her, including her reader. If intensive imagery brings objects to a perfection of unfamiliar familiarity, fixing them firmly in the reader’s mind, then this fixing effect has some interesting implications in terms of the poet’s relationship to the objects of description. Both “The Man-Moth” and “The Fish,” for example, relate to the physical world through notions of capture. Just as “The Fish” (cp 42–4) begins with the words “I caught a tremendous fish”
(my emphasis), the speaker of “The Man-Moth” tells the reader what to do if he or she should “catch him.” Insofar as these poems imply a particular relationship between the observing subject and the object of observation, the self-other relationship at the heart of description, they point to a certain triumph, a demonstration of the observer’s power. Bishop has caught the Man-Moth and extracted his tear, and she is teaching the reader how to do the same. The fish, with his “five old pieces of fish-line,” like “medals with their ribbons,” is, as the military imagery suggests, a veteran of many such battles. To have been the one to catch him is a thing worthy of celebration, and so it is shortly after the speaker’s description of these medals that “victory fill[s] up / the little rented boat.” If, in “The Man-Moth,” she describes the indescribable, here she catches the uncatchable. And, although she foregoes keeping and eating him on the literal level, this does not prevent her from serving up his “white flesh / packed in like feathers” to her readers on the level of imagery. To put things in terms of triumph and victory seems to posit a rather adversarial relationship between observer and observed, a relationship that many critics have found discomfiting. A common reading of “The Fish,” for instance, involves a form of identification: the speaker’s imaginative involvement with the fish brings her closer to him, and she comes to understand and respect him, so that, contrary to the poem’s explicit language of capture and victory, there exists an implicit reading wherein, as Bonnie Costello puts it, “there is no struggle, and the victory is not exclusive” (64). Such a reading puts a great deal of weight on the fact that the speaker releases the fish in the end, but one might also read the poem in less conciliatory terms and suggest that the speaker has, by the end of the poem, used the fish up in a way that makes eating him superfluous. Similarly, a reading of the Man-Moth that emphasizes sympathy or connection between speaker and object must elide the uncaring act of
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
holding “a flashlight to his eye” and forcing him to hand over “his only possession.” The truth lies somewhere in the middle: on the one hand, both “The Man-Moth” and “The Fish” use intensive imagery to capture and transmit their respective creatures; on the other hand, both poems are characterized by a certain interest in them. To say so seems straightforward, but there is a certain amount at stake here. A considerable amount of the critical discourse that surrounds Bishop’s work is based on complex and often one-sided accounts of the relationship between speaker and object inherent in her descriptive poetry. To a certain extent, this is a product of chronology: booklength studies of Bishop began to appear with some frequency in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at a time when what now look like overly essentialist theories of gender and sexuality were commonly used as a basis for theories of poetic subjectivity. Susan McCabe, for example, using Nancy Chodorow’s argument about “the ‘more permeable ego boundaries’ of feminine identity” as a “fundamental paradigm informing the assertions in [her] book,” argues that “Bishop’s apparent objectivity and naturalism really represent an absorption of the self in the environment and a dismissal of any sense of a unified self” (eb 3). In a similar way, Victoria Harrison bases her book-length account of Bishop’s work on the idea of “the mutuality and multiplicity of subject-subject [rather than subject-object] relationships” (7), and while her concept of subject-subject relationships is ostensibly based on Jamesian Pragmatism, it often seems rather to stem from a set of ideas about lesbian subjectivity. For example, citing Luce Irigaray (46), she reads “The Map” as a work of covert lesbian erotica, characterizing its account of “intimacy without a phallus” as “an intimacy of shared and exchanged subject positions” (45). Regardless of its applicability to the poem in question, an argument that reduces the grounds of differentiation
between individuals to the presence or absence of a phallus does justice to neither the complex grounds of human subjectivity nor the complexity of lesbian relationships and so forms an unstable base for an account of Bishop’s particular way of relating to the physical world. At the time of their publication, both of these studies were part of a trend that has had a liberating effect on literary criticism; however, it is necessary at this point to negotiate a more nuanced account of Bishop’s relationship to the external world, an account that is based on Bishop’s poetry rather than her gender or sexual preference. To argue that Bishop’s habit of fully realizing the objects she describes implies a reduction of her self to their level (Harrison) or an absorption of her self into them (McCabe) simply does not agree with the evidence to be found in “The Man-Moth” or “The Fish.” The fish is a truly excellent fish, and Bishop’s speaker is clearly impressed with him, but he is nonetheless a fish and a separate entity, and to say so implies neither reprehensible objectification nor reactionary ego-reinforcement. To do justice to the way that Bishop uses intensive imagery to create and convey the objects and creatures and people that populate her poems, it is necessary to strike some middle ground between the triumphalism implicit in “The Fish” and the dissolution explicit in Harrison and McCabe. Clearly, description is something that Bishop and her speakers do well and do intentionally and do to some other entity. An evident pride and pleasure in the power of intensive description fills Bishop’s poetry – not only in poems like “The Fish” and “The Man-Moth,” that are organized as demonstrations of her descriptive power, but also in poems that engage in playful displays of it: “The Sandpiper” runs along a “beach” that “hisses like fat” (cp 131); “Crusoe in England” closes with the description of the old beat-up umbrella that “folded up, / looks like a plucked and skinny fowl” (cp 166); “The End of March” features the speaker’s
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
crypto-dream-house, that crooked box set up on pilings, shingled green, a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener (boiled with bicarbonate of soda?)
Each of these offhand intensive images has an expansive element of edibility, as though Bishop’s capturing eye were preparing each item for the reader’s consumption, which, in a way, it is. Bishop’s relationship to the physical world is consistently and inescapably potent; her eye collects and controls. But, conversely, in those poems that engage particularly seriously with particular objects, there is a certain effect of elevation and respect. Without compromising her own identity, and precisely by exerting herself over him in the way that she does, Bishop does that fish a favour by regarding him, if not as an equal or a subject, as an object worth looking at very carefully. In this sense, Bishop does not fit comfortably into the postmodern paradigm of the decentred self, but neither does she fit the Romantic paradigm of privileged poetic subjectivity. Indeed, Bishop has come under fire from neo-Romantic critics like Robert Bly, who memorably, if rather harshly, accuses her of producing poems in which the reader feels the “facts of the outer world push out the imagination and occupy the poem themselves” such that it “becomes heavy and stolid, like a toad that has eaten ball bearings” (26). Bly’s language is openly Romantic: the operative opposition is between “facts” and “imagination,” with the latter being privileged; a poem should embody an “intuition” through “experiences private to the poet” (9); and it should communicate moments of “spiritual intensity” (8) through outbursts of “passionate spontaneity” (10). In Coleridgean terms, the poem should express the imagination’s “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am” (167) rather than rest on the fancy’s manipulation of “fixities and
definites,” of mere objects, which “(as objects) are essentially fixed and dead” (167). Such is clearly not Bishop’s way. Oddly, however, Bly is not talking about one of her more concrete poems but, rather, “At the Fishhouses,” which, as Bishop poems go, and especially as early Bishop poems go (Bly is writing in 1963), is unusually concerned with intuitions of spiritual intensity, embodying them in a private experience and ending with a bout of passionate spontaneity. But Bly’s choice of poem is telling: even at her most intimately abstract, Bishop still seems cold and objective to him. To a certain extent, Bly is right. Insofar as it does not speak openly and passionately of a poetic self that intuits, Bishop’s early poetry is relatively cold and objective. And, in this sense, Bishop’s poetic subjectivity reads better in terms of rhetoric than in terms of self-expression. The central goal of her poetry is not so much to relate an emotional experience (though it may) as to trigger one in the reader. To put it in these terms adds a layer of meaning to the discussion of her use of intensive imagery in that her intensive poetics is organized around controlling the reader’s imagination directly rather than inspiring it to vibrate sympathetically in the Romantic style. Intensive imagery is an essentially rhetorical process, and, not surprisingly, Aristotle endorses the process of “bringing-before-the-eyes” in his Rhetoric (245). But, along with much else that the NeoClassical period valued, Romanticism rejected such a rhetorical approach, choosing to describe the effect of an object (often a landscape) on the poet’s sensibility rather than the object itself, effectively cutting the reader off from direct contact with the physicality of the object described. Bishop reverses this process. When Bly complains of “the outer world driving in, invading the poem,” what he objects to is the way that relatively unmediated physical presence of the world is displacing the emotional response from the poet to the reader. To rework Bly’s imagery a bit, it is not the poem that is toad-like but Bishop who stands in relation to her reader as
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Milton’s Satan does to Eve when the angels find him “Squat like a toad,” Assaying by his devilish art to reach The organs of her fancy, and with them forge Illusions as he list, phantasms and dreams. (4.800–3) (Note, however anachronistically, that Satan operates not on Eve’s imagination but her fancy.) Like Satan, Bishop uses rhetoric to control her reader, marching us along in lock-step to her particular visual account. And once again control is the central issue: just as intensive imagery allows Bishop to fix and control the objects of description, so does it allow her to control the reaction of her reader. To shift metaphors, she reaches out, octopus-like, in many directions, holding the poetic object and the reader of poetry firmly in place, getting everything just where she wants it. And this, in the end, is where Elizabeth Bishop is to be found in her poetry – not in the poem, although she may well appear there, but behind it, controlling it and us. Of course, one can go too far with this argument. Bishop’s poetry is not always so monumentally controlled and controlling, and there are more complicated arguments to be made about some of the later, more biographically open poetry. But even those poems that enact a loss of control, “One Art” being the most obvious, can be read in these terms. Bishop merely shifts her lens onto herself, or, rather, a version of herself, making it the object of the poetry. Such a bifurcation can lead to conflict, which can, in turn, seep into the poem in the form of a strained command from one Bishop to the other to “(Write it!)” (cp 178), or, more generally, in the imperative mode of the poem as a whole. The poem, in this sense, maintains the same control but allows the strain of doing so to show through. This reading, however, is admittedly tenuous. Not only does it extend my argument to its limit but it also exceeds my
initial goals: there is no intensive imagery in “One Art,” nor is it exactly descriptive. My purpose in this chapter is merely to open the discussion of description, to begin the long process of looking at what, exactly, it means to be a descriptive poet and to write descriptive poetry. In the rhetorical sense in which I have taken the word here, description has surprisingly powerful implications for Bishop’s poetry: it places her firmly in control of everything – of the objects of her poetry, of her own language, of her reader. It makes her almost entirely antithetical to the postmodernity that Harrison and McCabe imply, so much so that it pushes her further and further back, beyond Romanticism even, and into the world of neo-Classical rhetoric. But such an account, like the one it seeks to supplant, can only begin to do justice to the complexities of Bishop’s poetry. If other critics have pushed Bishop too far into postmodernism, I have here swung the pendulum too far in the other direction and will spend the rest of this book inching it slowly back towards the centre until my position and the more familiar one have “resolved” and “dissolved” in what Bishop calls a “dazzling dialectic” (cp 185). And the first step along this path is to expand the notion of “object” to include not only the objects that exist within a poem but also the objective world that surrounds the poet in her everyday life.
In the mid-1960s, while writing what would be the first fulllength study of Bishop’s poetry, Anne Stevenson sent Bishop a rough outline of the book’s chapters. In it, Stevenson likens Bishop to “the surrealists and the symbolists too,” proposing that, like “Klee and Ernst,” she uses a great deal of “hallucinatory and dream material” in the belief that “there is no split personality, but rather a sensitivity that extends equally into the sub-conscious and the conscious world” (Stevenson, “Letter”). Bishop begins by agreeing, “Yes, I agree with you. I think that’s what I was trying to say in the speech above,” and then moves on to the famous Darwinian paragraph, which I quoted in my introduction (dl). In this sometimes cryptic answer, Bishop agrees with Stevenson about the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious but, without ever really saying so, denies sharing this belief with the surrealists. The agreement is obvious – “Yes, I agree” – but the denial is more complicated and much more interesting. In order to understand Bishop’s rejection of the surrealist label, two things are necessary: a general sense of the relationship between surrealism and Bishop’s poetics, and a careful reading of this one famous paragraph in the context of the letter from which it is taken – with, that is, “the speech above.”
My larger goal, which extends into the next chapter as well, is to explore Bishop’s notion of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind, the senses and the imagination. But first it is crucial to elucidate Bishop’s opposition to surrealism – an opposition that is too rarely appreciated. Indeed, despite her founding role in the world of Bishop criticism, Stevenson is not the first writer to compare Bishop to the surrealists and be rebuffed for it. In 1946, Bishop wrote her publisher, concerned that a comment of Marianne Moore’s comparing her to Max Ernst might make it onto the back of her first book. She admits to having “once admired one of Ernst’s albums,” “many years ago,” but she insists that “Miss Moore is mistaken about his ever having been an influence” and points out that she has “disliked all of his painting intensely” and is “not a surrealist” (oa 135). Twenty years later, in her correspondence with Stevenson, she laments ever having “mentioned [Ernst] at all” since he is “usually a dreadful painter” (dl). Bishop’s disdain for Ernst, however, masks a prior interest in his work: she is on record admitting that “The Monument” (Stevenson, eb 68) and “The Weed” (oa 478) are based on his frottages, and she has also confessed to turning out frottages “by the dozen” herself (quoted in Mullen 67). (A frottage is an image produced by rubbing pencil lead over paper placed on a rough surface like wood or plaster.) Similarly, her assertion that she is “not a surrealist” seems to clash with the presence, in some of her early poetry, of what Richard Mullen calls “the magic, uncanniness and displacement associated with the works of the surrealists” (63). To some extent, these contradictions may reflect a simple narrative of maturation: as a young artist, Bishop toys with surrealism only to reject it, and, in her maturity, she feels embarrassed about her youthful enthusiasm. But even this simple narrative raises the question of what in particular Bishop finds objectionable in surrealism and why, exactly, she leaves it behind.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
In the most general sense, this chapter answers that question by showing the extent to which surrealism clashes with Bishop’s poetics of description. More concretely, by examining the grounds, complexity, and force of Bishop’s rebuttal of surrealism, it corrects a persistent critical tendency to view Bishop as, in Thomas Travisano’s term, a “postsurrealist” (eb 45) – a tendency made possible by two persistent critical practices: the habit of speaking loosely about surrealism and the habit of reading the one famous paragraph of the Darwin Letter outside the context in which it appears. So common is this latter tendency that there is not, to the best of my knowledge, a single critical examination of Bishop that seeks to explore what she is “trying to say in the speech above” and how it might affect a reading of the rest of the letter. Correcting these two common oversights brings out not only the full force of Bishop’s rejection of surrealism but also her own notion of the appropriate attitude towards the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious. The Darwin Letter is really an attempt to reclaim aesthetic territory – the uncanny, the unexpected – that the surrealists have effectively co-opted and that we, as critics, have all too readily allowed them to dominate.
In 1982, Richard Mullen published “Elizabeth Bishop’s Surrealist Inheritance,” the first attempt since Stevenson’s 1966 study to investigate Bishop’s relationship to surrealism. In it, he takes great pains to point out that surrealism, in any but the most general sense, implies more than mere strangeness and that, while Bishop’s poetry may have certain affinities with surrealism, she actually differs “fundamentally” from them (64) on the question of “rational control” in the production of art (67). In order to bring about a “crisis of consciousness” (67), the surrealists emphasize techniques like collage, frottage, and automatic writing – techniques that promote “uncontrolled
association” (66). Bishop, on the other hand, refuses to “subvert logical control” over the artistic process (64). It is in this way entirely possible for Bishop, like Ernst, to use “hallucinatory and dream material” (Stevenson, “Letter”) and still resent being compared to the surrealists since, to the surrealist, it is not enough to use oneiric material in order to write strange poetry – one must allow the oneiric to write itself. Surrealism, properly speaking, is not a matter of style or subject matter or tone so much as a set of methods designed to minimize conscious control of style and subject matter and tone. Or so the surrealists claimed. The relationship between the surrealist and the subconscious – or, more precisely, the balance of power between the surrealist and the subconscious – is much more complicated, and there is a large distance between what the surrealists propose and what they actually do. But before exploring those complications, I need to establish some fundamental definitions, to reinforce Mullen’s argument, and to clear up a certain amount of confusion about what exactly surrealism is. In his first manifesto, André Breton provides a dictionarystyle definition of surrealism: surrealism, masculine noun. Pure psychic automatism through which one attempts to express, be it verbally, be it in writing, be it in any other manner, the true operation of thought. Dictation taken from thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic or moral preoccupations. (Manifestes 36) At its core, surrealism is the attempt to remove reason, morality, and aesthetics from the creative process, to end all “control exercised by reason” and all “aesthetic or moral preoccupations.” For one brief moment in 1924, this definition was relatively clear and comprehensive, but the surrealists, and especially Breton, were prone to self-contradiction, and a long process of blurring began. In common parlance,
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
one now hears the word used as little more than a synonym for “strange.” In the world of literary criticism things are no better, and those who write about Bishop are often the worst of all, reworking surrealism until it can be brought into alignment with Bishop’s aesthetics. That Bishop was once interested in surrealism is unquestionable, but to suggest that her poetics shows a lasting surrealist influence is questionable indeed. And yet many critics have done just that, making it increasingly difficult to establish a clear and usable understanding of Bishop’s relationship to the movement. The most persistent of these is Ernesto Suárez-Toste, who has published several articles aligning Bishop with what he calls, following William Rubin, the “academic-illusionist-oneiric branch of surrealism” (“Une Machine” 145). He opposes this school of surrealism to the “automatist-abstract” school represented by Breton (145) in order to show that there are surrealists who do not wish to bypass conscious control and that Bishop can be productively linked to them. But his argument relies on several unsound assertions, foremost among which is the idea that Ernst is a member of this anti-Bretonian school and that “Bishop is attracted particularly to Ernst’s deviations from mainstream surrealism” (“Straight” 187). To say that Bishop is “attracted particularly” to Ernst, whom she calls a “dreadful painter” (dl), is odd enough, but to characterize Ernst’s aesthetics as anti-Bretonian is deeply problematic. Referring specifically to Ernst’s theories about frottage, SuárezToste argues both that Ernst “does not imply that the artist’s role became insignificant, to the extent that he disappeared from the creative process, in a radically Bretonian fashion” and that he stands “against radical Bretonian theories about automatic writing or painting” (“Straight” 186–7). But Ernst is explicit about the fact that frottage reduces “the active part of what has been called up to now ‘the author’ of the work to the extreme” (Ernst 244), and, as such, he declares frottage “the true equivalent of what is already known by the
name of automatic writing,” (244). Indeed, echoing Breton’s rejection of “reason” and “all aesthetic or moral preoccupations,” he claims that frottage excludes “all conscious mental guidance (of reason, of taste, of morals)” (244). In his writings on frottage Ernst does everything he can to ally himself with Breton’s particular form of surrealism, and so it is hardly surprising that Bishop should turn on him. However, the desire to see Bishop as a surrealist pushes Suárez-Toste to misconstrue both Ernst’s aesthetics and Bishop’s relationship to them. But Suárez-Toste is not alone in insisting on the surrealists’ relevance to Bishop’s poetry. Lorrie Goldensohn, after devoting considerable space to the surrealist question, concludes that Bishop’s focus on “the elusive and strange richness in much of what we blindly label the ordinary and the plainly domestic … invites comparison with the surrealists” (120–1). Similarly, Thomas Travisano, though he writes with clarity about Bishop’s discomfort with certain surrealist ideas, concludes that, as “one of the very first writers who could be called postsurrealists,” Bishop substitutes “one kind of surrealist search” for another: “a casual, consciously controlled revision of surrealism based on freshly seeing the unlikely features of ordinary things” (eb 45). But a focus on “ordinary things” or “what we blindly label the ordinary” is as foreign to the stated goals of surrealism as is conscious control. Breton admits that an artist could “certainly confer an entirely unexpected distinction on objects of the most vulgar appearance,” but to do so is to “confine the magical power of figuration with which some have been graced to the preservation and fortification of things that would exist anyway,” which would be a “sorry use of it [the magical power of figuration]” and an “inexcusable abdication” (Le Surréalisme et la peinture 4). When Bishop writes to Stevenson about the “always-moresuccessful surrealism of everyday life” (dl), she is making a joke at surrealism’s expense, one that Travisano takes at face
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
value. Both he and Goldensohn are guilty of doing in miniature what Suárez-Toste does on a larger scale: redefining surrealism too loosely in order to keep the term in play. More frequently, many critics who only treat surrealism in passing have casually broadened the term beyond coherence. Among the many non-surrealist artists that Bishop’s critics have called surrealists, a reader will find Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Proust (Costello 26); Picasso, Chirico, and Pollock (McCabe, “Stevens” 150); and even, mysteriously, Theodor Adorno (Lombardi 172). This sort of thing is not pernicious so much as self-defeating: without a concrete sense of what surrealism is, any discussion of Bishop’s reaction to it becomes impossible. For this reason, I have focused my argument narrowly on the question of rational control in the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious – the question at hand in Breton’s initial definition and the sine qua non of surrealism. Not surprisingly, considering Bishop’s greater historical proximity to the movement, this question is also the question that emerges from a careful reading of the Darwin Letter. To take, as it were, a negative frottage of the Darwin Letter is to reveal Breton and his manifestoes. Surrealism was many things, but what Bishop most objected to was its fundamental tenet: the liberation of the unconscious from conscious control. It is easy, almost a century after the fact, to forget how much in earnest the surrealists were about this liberation. Breton’s blend of Marx and Freud casts the id as the oppressed proletariat and the ego as the oppressing bourgeoisie, and much of the resulting rhetoric deals in revolutionary imagery. David Gascoyne, for example, in his Short Survey of Surrealism (1935), the movement’s first English-language manifesto, describes “man – l’homme moyen sensuel – bound hand and foot not only by those economic chains of whose existence he is becoming ever more and more aware, but also by chains of second-hand and second-rate ideas” (ix).
The chain imagery, of course, is taken from Marx’s famous rallying cry, and La Révolution surréaliste (the title of a surrealist review) was meant to be as serious in its way as La Révolution russe: automatic writing is not a metaphor or a way of talking about the poetic process; it is a way to serve “a nobler cause” (Breton, Manifestes 39). This type of rhetoric depends heavily on an oppositional model of mind, on what Gascoyne calls “the flagrant contradictions that exist between dream and waking life, the ‘unreal’ and the ‘real,’ the unconscious and the conscious” (x). And while the purpose of the revolution is to “reduce and finally to dispose altogether” of such distinctions (x), a revolution requires something against which to revolt, and revolutionary rhetoric inevitably relies heavily on the very divisions it seeks to erase. As Roger Shattuck argues in his introduction to Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism, “the contradictions” between conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational “have been accepted and exploited” rather than eliminated, and the “excitement of the surrealist object or work is its attempt, not to obliterate or climb higher than the big contradictions, but to stand firmly upon them as the surest ground” (22). While Breton believes in “the future resolution of these two states, which seem so contradictory” (Manifestes 24, my emphasis), the surrealists rely heavily on the éclat produced by introducing the one into the other – “the magisterial irruption of the irrational in all the realms of art, of poetry, of science, in fashion, in the private lives of individuals, in the public lives of peoples” (Ernst 264). It is only by ignoring this fact, by confusing the surrealist utopia with the surrealist method, that Stevenson can describe Ernst as an artist who believes there to be “no split personality” (“Letter”). Bishop, however, recognizes the distance between theory and practice, claiming, in a notebook fragment, that “Semi-surrealist poetry terrifies me because of the sense of irresponsibility & [indecipherable] [wild?] danger it gives of
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
the mind being ‘broken down’ – I want to produce the opposite effect” (quoted in Goldensohn 123–4). To break the mind down into its components and set them against one another is terrifying, irresponsible, and dangerous: the opposite of her own aesthetic goals. But while this notebook entry is clear, the Darwin Letter is more complicated in the way that it phrases her rejection of the surrealist position. Her opening discussion of “the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life” (dl) is antithetical to surrealism’s disdain for what Gascoyne calls the “prison” of the “real world” (ix), but it also suggests that there is no need for the excesses of surrealism or for its revolutionary rhetoric. Without this justification, the surrealist attitude becomes a perversion, a stubborn and unnecessary aggression that Bishop will not tolerate. Earlier in the letter, in what appears to be “the speech above” referred to at the start of the Darwin paragraph (dl), she praises “Hemingway & Lawrence – along with others – for living in the real world and knowing how to do things” (dl). This ability to balance the everyday with the aesthetic is crucial, and she accuses those who lack such balance of “cruelty, ugliness, dullness, bad manners – and general unhappiness” (dl). Her strongest praise in this respect is reserved for Chekhov, who is “good as well as [a] good artist,” and who “sacrificed nothing to his art” (dl). This insistence on the importance of goodness over good art also comes through in a 1972 letter to Robert Lowell, in which she tries to convince him not to use excerpts from his ex-wife’s letters in The Dolphin. Citing Hopkins to the effect that “a ‘gentleman’ [is] the highest thing ever conceived – higher than a ‘Christian,’ even, certainly than a poet,” she insists that “art just isn’t worth that much” (oa 562). But the surrealists sacrificed a great deal to their art and could be surprisingly ugly and cruel in its pursuit. One of their first endeavours was Un Cadavre, a pamphlet celebrating the death of Anatole France. The notion of such a pamphlet is
unpleasant enough, but the last lines of it are awful: “A man leaves few things behind: but it is revolting even to think of this one that he ever was. There have been days when I dreamt of an eraser to rub out human filth” (quoted in Nadeau 15). Later, as the movement begins to falter, Breton writes that the “simplest act of surrealism consists in going out into the street with guns drawn and firing randomly and as often as possible into the crowd” (Manifestes 74). A revolution requires excess, and the surrealists, who explicitly rejected “all aesthetic or moral preoccupations” (Manifestes 36), wanted neither to be “good [nor] good artist[s]” (dl). But by calling into question the necessity of such means to achieve the surrealist ends, Bishop not only criticizes the worst of the surrealists’ moral cruelty but also questions the need for many of their milder aesthetic methods. But not only does Bishop take issue with surrealist means, she also qualifies and adjusts surrealist ends. By broadening the definition of what it is one seeks to “whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important” (dl), she moves the discussion beyond the surrealist emphasis on specific areas of repression. Surrealism is rigorously concrete in its goals: dreams are suppressed, so one writes down “phrases [ … that] become perceptible as sleep approaches” (Breton, Manifestes 29); the unconscious is repressed so one goes into a “hypnotic sleep” (quoted in Gascoyne 49); the irrational is oppressed so one imitates “the most paradoxical, the most eccentric verbal manifestations” (Breton and Éluard, L’Immaculée 25). There is something surprisingly logical and straightforward about surrealism: the irrational, the oneiric, the unconscious are all right there – it is only a matter of “tuning in to them [les capter]” like radio-waves (Breton, Manifestes 20). Crucial to the surrealist program is the idea that, though one usually sees such things out of the corner of one’s eye, one can turn to face them. But for Bishop, this is not the case: what she
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
seeks is something broader and more elusive, something that “can never really [be seen] full-face.” By leaving behind the specificity of surrealist thought, Bishop moves beyond the narrow surrealist agenda to what T.S. Eliot, in a similar phrase, calls the “fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus” (spr 145). By limiting and defining what it is they seek, the surrealists assert a certain power over it: once it is identified, it becomes somehow available to them. By refusing to define what it is she seeks, and refusing, therefore, to promote a specific set of methods for finding it, Bishop makes the surrealists look both simplistic and overconfident. And so, without ever saying so, and while seeming to agree with Stevenson, Bishop dismantles surrealism and rejects it as limited, misguided, unnecessary, and immoral. Stevenson, to her credit, gets the hint and her book says only that “Bishop came to Paris when Surrealism was popular among artists, and it is certain that it influenced her a great deal … Yet there was something too practical and common-sensical in her make-up … which prevented her from surrendering wholly to dreams” (eb 60). But this account does justice to neither the complexity nor the force of Bishop’s rejection of surrealism. In a few lines, Bishop manages to recast surrealism as a movement that strives to liberate something that is not even enslaved and which, in any case, is merely one aspect of a much larger, more beautiful realm. She makes the surrealists look both rigid and extreme. She makes of them, in a way, her inverse: a poet of craft and care, humility and caution, she casts them as clumsy and careless, arrogant and intemperate. The strength of this rejection speaks of a fundamental objection to surrealism, and, reading backwards with this objection in mind, her early “surrealist” poems begin to look less like imitations of surrealism or refractions of surrealist methods and more like attempts to reclaim territory the
surrealists have conquered, to redeem the oneiric and the uncanny from their taint. Such a reading suggests that poems like “The Man-Moth,” “The Monument,” and “The Gentleman of Shalott” do much more than simply record the artefacts of an unconscious that waits patiently, ripe and open for the artist. Rather, these poems suggest that the artist must take what little the unconscious happens to offer up, examine it carefully and gratefully, and make conscientious use of it. “The Man-Moth” (cp 14–15) claims to be based on a newspaper typo (a surrealist starting point if ever there was one), but the poem does more than merely revel in the accidental. Instead, as I have argued above, it constructs a concrete landscape through a series of incredibly precise visual images and tries, through a carefully constructed narrative, to understand what a Man-Moth might be. Rather than abandon him to his strangeness, Bishop takes pains to “catch him” and “hold up a flashlight to his eye” in order to extract his “one tear, his only possession.” For Bishop, it is crucial to search and interrogate the strange because, if one is “not paying attention,” it will “swallow” its secrets. If one “watch[es]” it, however, if one brings the conscious mind to bear on unconscious materials, the uncanny will reveal something of value, will “hand it over.” From a surrealist starting point – a typo – Bishop develops a lesson about the unconscious, about what “you” should do when it pays its “rare, although occasional, visits to the surface.” “The Monument” (cp 23–5), whether it is based on a particular frottage of Ernst’s (Costello 121) or merely on the idea of frottage (Page 202), puts a similar emphasis on scrutiny and examination, and the need to pull something from the unconscious’s gifts. Ernst’s intention in frottage may have been to erase his own authority, to reduce, as Bishop puts it, the “artist-prince” to “bones” and bury them “inside” the art-work, but for Bishop this denial of artistic agency cannot
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
render the monument a mere random thing, robbed of meaning or purpose: The monument’s an object, yet those decorations carelessly nailed, looking like nothing at all, give it away as having life, and wishing; wanting to be a monument, to cherish something. For Ernst, to generate an image through frottage is an end in itself, but for Bishop it is only “the beginning of a painting / a piece of sculpture, or poem.” To abandon it to its strange objectness, as her complaining interlocutor would have them do, is a dereliction. Instead, as with the Man-Moth, Bishop enjoins the other speaker to “Watch it closely,” to allow it to be a monument instead of a mere thing. Just as “The ManMoth” moves from typo to lesson, “The Monument” moves from frottage to dialogue, from a deliberately meaningless art object to a discussion of the importance of meaning in art. If “The Monument” may be inspired by Ernst’s frottage, “The Gentleman of Shallot” (cp 9–10) may be inspired by an image Breton describes as coming to him before sleep: “a man cut in two by a window” (Manifestes 31). But Bishop adopts a journalistic tone – “He wishes to be quoted as saying at present” – takes the image up and carefully works it through, examining it consciously rather than transcribing it faithfully. And, consciously examined, the Gentleman becomes an image of Breton himself: just as the Gentleman convinces himself that he is only half a man and resolutely contents himself with this “exhilarating” fact, Breton fixes his eye on only half of the mind, the unconscious, and creates a rhetoric that makes a virtue of this self-deception. Such a division, however, is not only false but dangerous since “if half his head’s reflected, / thought, he thinks, might be affected.” Bishop’s point is that half is not enough: it takes more than the unconscious to make art; there really is no split.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
own ideas about the relationship between the two, using Charles Darwin as her model. That Darwin should occur to her as an ally against surrealism is not surprising in light of a 1935 letter she wrote to Hallie Tompkins. In it, she mentions having bought “the natural history Plates, by Max Ernst” and says that her maid “read the introduction to them by Arp and finally asked me to explain,” which she did by saying that “Ernst was making fun of Darwin” (quoted in Millier 89). Arp’s introduction, with its discussion of “the cyclopean flying moustache without limbs” (Arp 55), is indeed confusing, but Bishop’s manner of explanation is revealing. Seeing the title of Ernst’s plates, Histoire naturelle, and mistaking the probable reference to Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière for one to Darwin, she likely thought of Ernst as mocking Darwin’s project through frottage. Arp’s introduction certainly leads off in such a manner, seeming to mock the conventions of scientific literature with its claim that “this introduction contains the pseudointroduction the original the variants of the original the pseudooriginal as well as the variants of the pseudooriginal” (55). (The mention of “variants” may also have pointed her towards Darwin.) She was, then, reading Ernst’s book as what Zhou Xiaojing calls an “intertextual parody” of Darwin, based in “subversive humor” (27). So when she wrote to Stevenson in the 1960s, Darwin and surrealism were, in Bishop’s mind, long-standing adversaries. In 1934, she was not so clearly on Darwin’s side; by 1964, however, she had come around. And so she invokes him in her rejection of the surrealist ideas about the conscious and the unconscious, the rational and irrational: “I can’t believe we are wholly irrational – and I do admire Darwin!” (dl). Initially, the mention is only parenthetical, an aside, a way for Bishop to bolster her case, but, as if struck by the idea, she scratches out the parentheses and
continues to examine the ways that Darwin relates to her topic. The letter is shown in figure 1. Her argument here is very carefully nuanced. She begins by drawing Darwin into the conflict between reason and surrealism, but, once she moves on to address him in his own right, she quickly adjusts her argument. Instead of painting him as a dry scientist, entirely rational, she uses him to take back a set of terms and ideas from the surrealists by coupling notions of the “unconscious” and the “automatic” with an emphasis on “heroic observations.” The concept of observation is both crucial to her argument in this letter and anathema to the surrealist aesthetic. Complaining of “the realist attitude” that has brought about an “abundance of novels,” Breton writes that “everyone goes at it with his own little ‘observations’ … And the descriptions! The sheer pointlessness of them is incomparable” (Manifestes 16–17). But Bishop’s definition of observation claims a greater depth for the term than Breton allows. In her “speech” about artists who live in and out of the world, she writes that she is often “thunderstruck by the helplessness, ignorance, ghastly taste, lack of worldly knowledge, and lack of observation, of writers who are much more talented than I am … Lack of observation seems to me one of the cardinal sins” (dl, the ellipsis is hers). She then redefines observation as “a living in reality that works both ways” (dl), and it is this sort of observation that allows one to be “good as well as [a] good artist,” to both “care for the baby” and acquire “wisdom and sympathy” (dl). Crucially, the two are not at odds since it is with one’s “eyes fixed on facts and minute details” that one gets “a peripheral vision” of the beyond. To observe the conscious world, for Bishop, is to turn one’s back on the unconscious – but only so as to allow it to approach one obliquely. It is in this sense that she can describe observation as “heroic,” as an important and difficult occupation,
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
and the importance that she thus places on the hero-observer drives a further wedge between her and the surrealists. Where Bishop insists on an activity performed by an agent, the surrealists prefer to be “deaf receptacles” and “modest recording devices” (Breton, Manifestes 39). Bishop’s heroic observation is far from modest, and her emphasis on “sympathy” and “empathy,” on the reader’s ability to “feel” the “lonely young man,” insists on a place for the thinking, feeling subject in the acquisition of “whatever it is … that seems so important” (dl). The distance here between Bishop and the surrealists is tremendous. For the surrealist, emptying oneself of consciousness summons the unknown; for Bishop, intensification of the consciousness, “a perfectly useless concentration” (dl), allows the unknown to sneak up on one. These two methods imply opposing paradoxes regarding the relationship between the conscious
and the unconscious spheres. For Bishop, being heroically active in the conscious sphere creates a state of passive receptivity in the unconscious sphere, allowing the unknown to emerge. For the surrealist, on the other hand, being heroically passive in the conscious sphere creates a state of activity in the unconscious sphere, forcing the unknown to surface. The surrealist, while denying agency, in fact asserts it, summoning the unknown at will. Bishop, while asserting agency, in fact denies it, waiting for the unknown to come to her. This opposition is connected to Bishop’s rejection of surrealist attitudes in “The Man-Moth,” “The Monument,” and “The Gentleman of Shalott”: there she argues that one must make the most of what the unconscious gives freely; here she argues that one cannot force the unconscious to give what it does not want to. Both imply a deference to and respect for the unconscious that the surrealists, for all their valorizing of it, do not possess.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
The Darwin Letter, beautiful as it is, contains a tightly focused attack on the surrealist position and a statement of poetics that constitutes an almost exact inversion of what Breton promotes in his manifestoes. Bishop’s poetics are organized around a process of careful observation and scrutiny of the real world, which leads to an epiphany given freely by the unconscious. Like most of Bishop’s ideas, this is both modest and severe, requiring both humility and hard work. It is also tremendously hopeful, seeing in the minute work of everyday life evidence of and potential for something magnificent. And this takes her very far indeed from the dour, angry world of André Breton. Her deeply unsurrealist optimism extends so far that even in the dirtiest, most mundane of places she finds a beauty lying beneath the surface. Even in a “dirty,” “oil-soaked, oil-permeated” gas-station, her scrutiny turns to an “embroidered … doily” on the porch and the “rows of cans” arranged so that they softly say: Esso—so—so—so to high strung automobiles, and her attention to these minute particulars somehow leads to the warm truth that even here, even now, “Somebody loves us all” (cp 127–8). And so the Darwin Letter shows us how surrealism constitutes, for Bishop, a joyless abuse of the potentially beautiful, but such is only half of its message. The work of this chapter has been to show that half, to show what Bishop rejects in the Darwin Letter; in the next chapter, I shift my context somewhat and draw out the Letter’s more positive side. Before doing so, however, I would like to point out briefly that Bishop’s position regarding the conscious and unconscious mind is a first example of the larger intellectual trend I mentioned in my introduction. She does not deny the familiar binary division
between the conscious and unconscious; rather, she puts forth an unusually subtle notion of their interrelationship. They are both real, and they are distinct, but the route from one to the other is more complicated than one (or the surrealists) might think. This intellectual pattern will become familiar over the course of this book, as will the counterintuitive role played in it by scrutiny. Indeed, this same pattern and this same emphasis on scrutiny recur, in the next chapter, as I move from surrealist abuses to the Darwinian epiphanies that underlie the intellectual structure of many of Bishop’s most famous poems.
Writing in his Autobiography about the joys of beetle-collecting and, particularly, the pleasure of discovering a new species, Charles Darwin claims that no “poet ever felt more delighted at seeing his first poem published than [he] did at seeing, in Stephens’ Illustrations of British Insects, the magic words, ‘captured by C. Darwin, Esq’” (21). Here, Darwin compares the simplest of his accomplishments – the capture of a new beetle – to the publication of a poem. As the Darwin Letter suggests, this comparison warrants expansion far beyond such simple matters. Though Bishop turns to Darwin originally as an ally against surrealism, she goes on to make of him an aesthetic role model, painting his “perfectly useless concentration” as what “one seems to want in art, in experiencing it” and also the “thing that is necessary for its creation” (dl). Implicitly, Bishop redirects Stevenson from one model of mind to another, suggesting that it is Darwin who shares her ideas about the lack of a “split” between the conscious and unconscious mind, not the surrealists. Up to now I have been reading this as a negative move, as a rejection of surrealism; now I will read it as a positive one, an embrace of Darwin – and, more particularly, as a treatise on the role of epiphany in both poetry and science. In order to make sense of Bishop’s Darwinism, her comments need to be examined in two related contexts: first, the
general appeal to science and the figure of the scientist in high-modernist statements of poetics and, second, the methods and intellectual models of Victorian natural history as Darwin actually practised it. Bishop’s immediate poetic precursors – Pound, Eliot, Moore, Williams – often use the scientist as a figure for the poet, but Bishop’s use of Darwin is different. Darwin is not the sort of scientist that Eliot or Pound has in mind, nor the sort of scientist that we know today, and to recover the intellectual methods underlying Darwin’s work is to discover the structure underlying many of Bishop’s most characteristic poems, particularly “In the Waiting Room” – a poem that not only embodies Bishop’s Darwinian approach but actually rewrites large portions of the Darwin Letter in poetic form. Though Thomas Travisano has called Bishop a “postsurrealist” (eb 45), her use of a figure from the previous century as her aesthetic champion suggests that she would prefer to be a sort of presurrealist. There is a tone of dismay, a distaste for modernity, in the Darwin Letter: she complains of the “ghastly taste,” “ugliness,” and “bad manners” of other writers, and claims that, of her own poems, most of the ones she “can still abide were written before [she] met Robert Lowell” in 1947 (dl). There is something nostalgic about this attitude, a hearkening back to a more genteel age, as though the surrealists were merely part of a larger problem with modern letters and modern times. Her Darwin is, in this sense, opposed not only to surrealism but also to modernity, and particularly to certain aspects of high modernism and its heirs. Her choice of Darwin instead of a more contemporary scientific figure is revealing in that it allows her to sidestep a number of conventional twentieth-century ideas about science. Insofar as modernism sought an aesthetics of clarity and precision, of stripped-down objectivity, the scientist made an attractive emblem. In an interview with Donald Hall, Marianne Moore argues that poet and scientist “work analogously”:
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
“Both are willing to waste effort. To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each. Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision” (Plimpton 86). To characterize the poet as one who is objective (“hard on himself”), who eliminates clutter (“narrow[s] the choice”), and who “strive[s] for precision” reveals the sort of modernist preoccupations that Pound betrays when he recommends “the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap” (le 6), and labels his ideogrammatic method “the method of science” (abc 26). Most famously, T.S. Eliot unites tenor and vehicle when, in order to show that only through “depersonalization” can art “be said to approach the condition of science,” he likens the mind of the poet to “a bit of finely filiated platinum” (spr 40). Eliot takes it as given that art should approach the condition of science, and his argument about the relationship between tradition and the individual talent is implicitly based on familiar ideas about how scientific work is done. In Pound’s words, “there are simple procedures, and there are known discoveries, clearly marked … [and] in each age one or two men of genius find something and express it” (le 19). One builds on the work of one’s predecessors, thus contributing, anonymously, to a larger project in much the way a scientist is supposed to do. But, as Charles Altieri points out, the modernists are not entirely comfortable with some of the implications of the scientific metaphor. No matter how “liberating science’s version of impersonal dehumanization might prove,” the modernists always revert to “some aspects of the romantic values they were ostensively denying, as in Eliot’s claim that only those who knew what it meant to suffer from personality would appreciate the impersonality he was calling for” (78). Hence, Williams, in one of his more Romantic moods, can call “Shame on our poets” for having “caught the prevalent fever” and being “impressed / by the ‘laboratory’” (cp 2.263). Hence, too, Pound’s recursion to “men of genius.” This reluctance to
commit fully to impersonality is not an obstacle for everyone, however, and across the Channel, Breton picks up some of Eliot’s terms – talent, platinum – in his own argument about the extinction of personality, telling his reader that one might as well speak “of this platinum ruler’s talent” (Manifestes 39) as the artist’s. Whether or not Breton is consciously invoking Eliot as an authority, the two of them fit into a useful narrative of literary depersonalization: modernism publicly endorses a scientific, depersonalized notion of poetry-as-project, while secretly harbouring certain misgivings; feeling none of modernism’s doubts, surrealism picks up on the scientific language and declares that its recherches will eliminate personality in favour of the unconscious; and, finally, some postmodern poets have celebrated the eradication of personality for its own sake. Christian Bök, for instance, Canada’s postmodern enfant terrible, writes enthusiastically of a book made up of random phrases generated by a computer program, declaring it “not so much a book of surreal poems” as “an obit for classic poets” that “confounds the very idea of authorship, refuting the privileged uniqueness of poetic genius” by proving that “the involvement of an author in the production of literature has henceforth become discretionary” (notice, too, his use of the term “surreal”). Where both modernists and surrealists believe in setting the self aside in favour of something greater (the unconscious, precision, tradition), it is the setting aside itself that so pleases Bök. Bishop, though she belongs chronologically between Breton and Bök, is closer to the modernists on this front and closer, particularly, to what Altieri calls “the romantic values they were ostensively denying” (77). She breaks away from this progression of impersonality, as her choice of scientist-hero makes clear. In her next letter to Stevenson, Bishop speaks of finding a reference to Darwin in William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, that greeny flower,” a reference that is “not in
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
[her] sense, at all” (23 March 1964), and it is crucial to distinguish Bishop’s Darwin from Williams’s. For Williams, as for many, Darwin “opened our eyes” (cp 2:323) by destroying ancient dogmata, and it is Darwin the great clarifier that Williams invokes. But Bishop is enthusiastic about Darwin in a more personal way, calling him “such a hardworking young man, and so good” (oa 257), “one of the people I like best in the world” (oa 543), and “my favorite hero, almost” (oa 544). The tone of these comments suggests a connection to Darwin the man rather than Darwin the emblem of progress. And so, where certain of her modernist predecessors include scientific images in their statements of poetics in order to absorb some of the aura of objectivity and precision that the scientist brings, Bishop’s use of Darwin is different, both more specific and more human. Further, by choosing a scientist who practised a form of science that has largely ceased to exist, Bishop leaves behind the modernist interest in modern, experimentalist science, invoking, instead, Victorian natural history as her model. Darwin and his colleagues have little in common with the lab-coated figures that Eliot’s imagery brings to mind, and one must leave behind certain ideas about the disinterestedness and impersonality of science and its emphasis on precision and specialization in order to understand what exactly Bishop is invoking through Darwin. Victorian natural history does not agree well with our contemporary ideas about science on any number of levels: it prefers observation in the field to experimentation in the laboratory; it does “not require any great accuracy in … measurements” (Darwin, Auto 100); it is practised largely by un- or half-trained enthusiasts like Darwin himself; and, most importantly, natural history differs from more modern notions of science in that it is organized around the principle of accumulation rather than reduction. This emphasis on accumulation is true on a number of levels, from the physical work of collecting specimens to the
all-encompassing scope of natural history’s inquiry. Even in his own time, Darwin’s type of science was falling out of fashion, and on the “most thoroughly marked and underlined page” in Bishop’s copy of his Autobiography (Rognoni 246), Darwin’s son Francis points out that his father wrote and worked in a “non-modern spirit and manner” and that he was “a Naturalist in the old sense of the word, that is, a man who works at many branches of science, not merely a specialist in one” (Auto 106). This model of science was rapidly losing ground, and, by the middle of the nineteenth century, “natural history had fragmented into separate scientific disciplines and broken into subdisciplines” (Farber 33). Darwin, rather than specializing, chose to publish on a wide array of natural subjects, including coral reefs, moulds, barnacles, worms, orchids, insectivorous plants, the expression of emotion, and, of course, the notion of species. In this way, his version of natural history descends from that of Buffon, a contemporary of Diderot and d’Alembert, whose thirty-sixvolume Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749–1804) became “the encyclopaedia of the natural world” by presenting a “complete natural history of all living beings and minerals” (Farber 20, 14). Though they differ in certain critical ways, Darwin shares Buffon’s conception of natural history as, quite literally, the history of nature, the study of all physical things over all of time. This model of science is obviously very different from the more specialized one invoked by the modernists and their heirs, and it implies a very different set of values and work habits. The precision we now associate with science is based on ideas of specialization and reduction, and, when the modernists use science as a model for poetry, they tend to invoke such ideas. For Moore, the scientist and poet “must narrow the choice” (Plimpton 86), and it is the impulse towards the sleek that drives Pound to prefer “the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap” (le 6).
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Moore and Pound are speaking here of different parts of the creative process, but the impulse is similar. Moore focuses on perception, on the work to be done before composition, and compares it to the work of the scientist eliminating possible hypotheses; Pound is focused on the act of writing itself, the building up of words on the page, and he uses the idea of scientific prose that eschews ornament and excess. Moore, in other words, is trimming ideas before sitting down to write; Pound is holding back words that are desperate to fill his page. For both, science is precise in that it reduces: less is more. Darwin works in the opposite direction, by accretion, as is perhaps inevitable when one’s topic is all of the natural world. As James Paradis argues in his essay on “Darwin and Landscape,” the phenomena that natural history seeks to explain are “hidden from the senses” because they take place over “magnitudes of space and time that human physiology [is] not equipped to apprehend” (93). As a result, it is only through the slow accumulation of individual “moments of perception” that the natural historian can gain access to the history of nature (94). No single reported fact is of use, but through what Bishop calls the “almost unconscious or automatic” process of observation (dl), the body of data becomes substantial enough for the natural historian to synthesize and extrapolate. In this sense, natural history is a science not only of physical collection – the natural-history museum of today has its origin in the curiosity cabinet of the sixteenth century – but also of intellectual collection. And the predisposition to these two sorts of collection are, according to Darwin, the very things that made him a natural historian. In his Autobiography he tells how, even as a young boy, his “taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed” and how the “passion for collecting which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist” was “strong” in him (6). Collection plays two roles here: it is both a particular activity and an underlying habit of mind; it
structures both the work the natural historian does and the way the natural historian thinks. And the natural historian thinks from collection to synthesis, as the very first page of On the Origin of Species suggests. Explaining the genesis of the book, Darwin claims that it occurred to him “that something might perhaps be made out on this question [of species] by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it” (95). Where the concrete work of natural history involves a series of “heroic observations” (dl), the eventual intellectual work is a process of immense synthesis. Darwin characterizes his own mind as “a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts” (Auto 54), and it is crucial to his method that all of the facts – “all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing” (Origin 95) – be incorporated. Where experimentalist science begins with a hypothesis and then moves on to collect relevant data, natural history begins with the data, relevant or otherwise, and only gradually comes to a hypothesis. Despite the selfdeprecating tone of Darwin’s machine image, this basic method of accumulation and synthesis preserves a certain mystery about it that more modern notions of science lack. Moore’s gradual elimination of hypotheses is a sure and steady process, with no moment of – for lack of a better word – inspiration. Eliot, by likening the creative process to a chemical reaction, implies that the creation of art is methodical, even inevitable, so long as one has the appropriate materials. But in Darwin’s method there is an unexpected moment given to the scientist that Bishop characterizes as a sudden shift, a “sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown” (dl). As plodding and mechanical as the process of collection may seem, it builds towards a moment of vision when, bringing together the collected observations, an internal, abstract world emerges. As Paradis argues, there is something counterintuitively Romantic about this process. Though natural history does
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
not privilege the individual moment of perception in quite the way that Romanticism does, it does rely on a process of imaginative synthesis. Darwin’s vision is not “the result of an immediate act of perception in physical nature” – not an imaginative reaction to the visual presence of the real world – but, rather, an “aesthetic response to a mental landscape founded upon generalization” (Paradis 87). The slow accumulation of observations is like the piecing together of a mental jigsaw puzzle, or, in an analogy of Paradis’s that is guaranteed to catch the eye of a Bishop scholar, like the process of cartography, which also translates individual moments of perception into an abstract picture of reality. Beginning with individual observations, with measurements taken, cartography moves outward to position “natural entities in relation to one another and not in relation to the observer” (101). Similarly, natural history depends on the leap from the concrete seen to the abstract imagined and is “no less the product of the imagination” than the work of the Romantic poet (94). Since the goal of natural history is to move “beyond moments of perception to the continental scope of land formations and species distribution, to the temporal dimension of the prehistoric past” (94), the natural historian needs to move between “a concrete landscape, full of distinct, palpable organic forms, and an abstract physical scheme,” to be “alternately at the center of the whole and at its distant periphery” (101). Paradis’s account of the intersection of “the aesthetic idealism of Romantic art” and the “traditions of the geological and natural sciences” (85) helps to explain the attraction Bishop felt for Darwin. The jump from a patient accumulation of detail to an imaginative realization of something larger and more abstract is both what she describes in her letter to Stevenson and how a number of her poems work. “The Fish” is the clearest example of this pattern, moving as it does from careful and patient description to epiphany without ever quite making
explicit what exactly tips the balance, but other poems – “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” “At the Fishhouses,” “Questions of Travel,” “The Armadillo” – betray the same internal structure. All of these poems, however, were written before the Darwin Letter, and while they share a structure that the letter describes, they do not come out of it. “In the Waiting Room” (cp 159–61), however, was finished no later than August of 1967, when Bishop sent a draft to Robert Lowell (Millier 444), which dates its completion, if not its composition, some time after her 1964 letter to Stevenson. Indeed, the poem takes up an episode that Bishop had already used in “The Country Mouse,” a prose piece written in 1961, but it reworks that material to include ideas from, and verbal echoes of, the Darwin Letter. In “The Country Mouse,” the waiting-room episode comes at the very end of a long series of memories from early childhood, all centred around the experience of being taken from rural Nova Scotia to Worcester, Massachusetts. The details of the episode are mostly the same as they are in the poem, but there are a few key differences: the National Geographic plays a much smaller role – she looks only at the cover – and there is no “oh! of pain” to trigger her epiphany (cp 160). Instead, the feeling comes of itself, and suddenly: “I looked at the magazine cover – I could read most of the words – shiny, glazed, yellow and white. The black letters said: february 1918. A feeling of absolute and utter desolation came over me” (cpr 32–3). This “awful sensation” is “like coasting downhill … only much worse, and it quickly smashed into a tree” (cpr 33), and the unqualified unpleasantness of it is another significant difference between the story and the poem. “The Country Mouse” recounts a series of unpleasant and unsettling events, and the waiting room incident brings the unwelcome realization that more are to come, that “you are going to be you forever” (cpr 33). “In the Waiting Room,” on the other hand, comprises a discrete
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
experience and functions as an ontological epiphany rather than an existential crisis, a visionary shift based on the one Bishop ascribes to Darwin. The speaker of the poem “carefully / studie[s]” the contents of the National Geographic (cp 159), and the things she sees in it – volcanoes, cannibals, “Babies with pointed heads” (cp 159) – take the place of the accumulated events of “The Country Mouse.” By replacing the many miseries of an individual with the collected observations of natural history – National Geographic is devoted to a popularized form of natural history – Bishop lays the foundation for a larger leap. The stakes are raised, the poem is not autobiography but epiphany, and her hero is no longer a mouse but a figure based on Darwin. Like “the lonely young” Darwin (dl), the solitary six-year-old begins by collecting “observations, almost unconscious or automatic” (dl), of “arctics and overcoats, / lamps and magazines” (cp 159). A “forgetful phrase” (dl), however, “an oh! of pain” (cp 160), sends her “sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown” (dl), “falling off / the round, turning world” (cp 160), with the waiting room “sliding / beneath a big black wave” (cp 161). As Darwin slides with “his eyes fixed on facts and minute details” (dl), she falls with her “eyes glued to the cover / of the National Geographic” (cp 160). And just as Darwin’s slip reveals “the strangeness of his undertaking” (dl), the speaker knows “that nothing stranger” than this epiphany “had ever happened” or “could ever happen” (cp 160). Beyond these resemblances, there are also similarities in intellectual structure between “In the Waiting Room” and Bishop’s understanding of Darwin. The poem dramatizes an abrupt recognition of what one is to oneself – “you are an I” – and an equally abrupt understanding of how one is thought of by others – “you are an Elizabeth” – and in doing so it conflates the first, second, and third person. But it moves even further, into the third-person plural, declaring that “you
are one of them” (cp 160), and it is here that the abstraction of the natural historian truly begins. The speaker glides from her own point of view to that of those who know her name and into a fully abstracted, classified view of herself as simply one of “them.” The effect is of a movie camera pulling back from a close-up to a long shot and then further to a view of all humanity in its teeming millions – she has fallen off the world and can see it whole. In a few moments, the speaker recognizes herself both subjectively and objectively; she is, in Paradis’s terms, both “at the center of the whole and at its distant periphery” (101). And, like Darwin, from that distance what interests her is the question of species, the “similarities” that “h[o]ld us all together / or ma[k]e us all just one” (cp 161). She makes a few half-hearted suggestions – “boots, hands, the family voice” (cp 161) – but leaves the question essentially open. It is, after all, the “unknown” into which she is sliding; Bishop’s interest is not in the Darwin who solves the question of species, but the Darwin who first imagines it, who catches “a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important” (dl). The poem is both more condensed and more expansive than the prose piece, taking only a single episode but marking an epiphany of a much larger sort. Where “The Country Mouse” describes the feeling as “coasting downhill” (cpr 33), “In the Waiting Room” works on a larger scale, turning the hill into the entire world. Like a natural historian, the speaker builds towards a theory of everything from a set of minute observations, depicting that visionary moment that comes from a “a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” on the things of the world (dl). And this, in the end, is what the Darwin Letter is about: the relationship between the process of empirical observation and the gift of vision or epiphany. Crucial to Bishop’s aesthetic is a unique combination of perseverance and mystery: perseverance of observation, which leads mysteriously
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
to epiphany – not unsurprisingly, an echo of the relationship between conscious and unconscious that also emerges from the letter. Bishop’s aesthetics of epiphany is modelled after Darwin’s science of observation, and to see this is to understand the intellectual structure of many of her poems. However, in an odd way, her aesthetics also mimics nature itself, as it is presented in Darwin’s writings. Part of what has made Darwin so significant is the way he extends the randomness of natural history into his theory of evolution, “successfully eliminat[ing] teleology from the pool of common metaphysical ideas” (Carroll 30). Overtly, Darwin derives his theory from analogy to the practice of animal husbandry: the farmer selects breeding stock; nature selects successful variants. But this analogy implies purpose in nature as in a farmer, something notably lacking from Darwin’s final elaboration of evolution. A more appropriate model for natural selection is the random collection and eventual synthesis of the natural historian, and so, in an odd way, another analogy for Bishop’s poetics is evolution itself. Darwin’s topic – the origin of species – is that moment when, as a product of countless random variations over countless generations, a new species can be said to come into being. A great deal of what Darwin is arguing against is the position of natural theology, that all species were created at one time and that species is a fact, not an idea. But Darwin’s work is about the origin of species (in the abstract singular) as well as the origin of species (in the concrete plural), and it suggests that species, the idea, is essentially an enabling fiction, that “[n]o one definition [of species] has as yet satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species” (122). Species is merely the point at which enough random empirical fact (variation) has accumulated to give birth to a new abstraction (species). Random variation is as “perfectly useless” (dl) as the concentration of
the natural historian, and yet it still leads to the abstraction of species just as the natural historian’s “moments of perception” lead to “an abstract physical scheme” (Paradis 94, 101). And this process continues up the chain of taxonomical being such that “the small differences distinguishing varieties of the same species, steadily tend to increase till they come to equal the greater differences between species of the same genus, or even of distinct genera” (Darwin, Origin 175). At the end of his chapter on natural selection, Darwin likens the natural world to a tree, the individual twigs of which represent variations, the larger twigs species, the branches genera, and so on. The “great branches” that stand for the classes and orders of the natural world “were themselves, once, when the tree was small, budding twigs” (176). In drawing this analogy, Darwin goes beyond denying the simultaneous creation of all species; he calls into question the idea of classification as a whole. Species, genus, family, order – all become little more than arbitrary stops on a continuum that begins with random variation of the smallest kind. In this way the origin of species (or genus or family or order) is an oddly satisfying metaphor for what Bishop is trying to say about the conscious and the unconscious. Variation is to species as observation is to abstraction as conscious is to unconscious. There is no split; rather, there is a continuous spectrum, and there is the moment when a build-up at one end of the spectrum brings about a shift at the other end, when accumulated observations trigger, in some mysterious way, a giddy epiphany. To read the world through Bishop’s letter, the origin of species is in that moment when nature, its eyes fixed on minute details, sinks or slides giddily off into the unknown. Somewhere between Darwin’s modest idea of the beetlecollector as poet and the more expansive analogy I have just drawn between the theory of evolution and Bishop’s ideas about the conscious and the unconscious lies the fundamental intellectual affinity to which Bishop points in her letter to
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Stevenson. Like Darwin, Bishop treasures a working interrelation of the conscious and the unconscious minds founded on a division of intellectual labour. Their work is done, according to Bishop, in sequence: the conscious mind begins with a “perfectly useless concentration” on “facts and minute details,” and the unconscious mind follows behind with that “sudden relaxation,” the feeling of “sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown” (dl). At play in this relationship is also a set of ideas about the relations and relative merits of empirical and abstract mental processes, between the type of knowledge our conscious sensory faculties accumulate and the abstractions our less tangible mental processes make of them. In the first half of Bishop’s career, the ideas that come out in the Darwin Letter are phrased more often, if less confidently, in those terms, and my next chapter goes on to read through two poems – “The Weed” and “At the Fishhouses” – with that opposition in mind.
When Bishop’s first collection of poetry was published in the summer of 1946, she was not on hand to celebrate; instead, she was touring Nova Scotia, visiting family and childhood friends. Some of what she saw on that trip found its way into her poetry: the bus ride back to Boston became “The Moose,” and a few notes, comparing the “dark, icy, clear” Atlantic to her “idea of knowledge” (quoted in Millier 181), became the closing lines of “At the Fishhouses,” which, coincidentally, was first published when Bishop was back in Nova Scotia during the summer of 1947. “At the Fishhouses” describes the ocean as being “like what we imagine knowledge to be” (cp 66), and by phrasing her idea as a simile (“like”) of an approximation (“what we imagine”), Bishop suggests an unusually elusive set of ideas about knowledge. This odd pairing of water and knowledge, however, has a precursor in “The Weed” (1937), which likens drops of water to individual thoughts. As such, “The Weed” comprises a first step towards the more fully nuanced position on knowing in “At the Fishhouses,” and we cannot fully understand the later poem without isolating the terms and arguments of the earlier. Both poems take up the relationship between empirical and abstract mental processes, but they do so very differently.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
“The Weed” relies on an oppositional allegory, a narrative in which empiricism struggles to overthrow the tyranny of abstraction; “At the Fishhouses,” adopting a number of terms and ideas from “The Weed,” takes a less partisan approach to the question in order to show the interdependence of these two modes of thought. In a sense, then, these two poems replay what I have argued in the preceding two chapters. “The Weed,” much like surrealism, recognizes an imbalance in the relationship between two mental functions and sets out to reverse or recalibrate that imbalance at any cost. “At the Fishhouses,” like Bishop’s account of Darwin, moves beyond this agonistic framework towards a working integration of these two faculties. Taken together, “The Weed” and “At the Fishhouses” reveal a complicated set of ideas about knowing, characterized by a profound sense of the difficulties and hardships it entails. In “The Weed,” neither the empirical nor the abstract is entirely easy, and the struggle between them leaves the speaker battered and confused; in “At the Fishhouses,” Bishop focuses on hardship, suffering, and dogged perseverance, describing knowledge as something that, if tasted, “would first taste bitter, / then briny, then surely burn your tongue” (cp 66). To know, for Bishop, is to suffer, but to emphasize suffering is not to turn away from its cause. Quite the opposite: by transforming that hardship into a lyrical epiphany at the conclusion of “At the Fishhouses,” Bishop gives the strongest testimony for, and example of, the process she advocates. That epiphany belongs at the end of this chapter, where I will be entering more abstract terrain. First, however, in true Bishop style, I must begin more empirically, by deciphering the ideas about knowledge presented in “The Weed” (cp 20–1). The central event of the poem – the arrival of the Weed – changes the way the speaker talks about thinking: near the beginning of the poem, she describes the “final thought” of “the cold heart,” and, near its end, she focuses instead on her “own
thoughts.” At the most basic level, this is a motion from singular to plural (“thought” to “thoughts”) and from disinterested to interested (“the cold heart”’s to “my own”), but this tells us relatively little. Clearly, “The Weed” presents two distinct forms of knowledge and a transition between them, but it remains to be seen what exactly these two forms of knowledge are and whether the transition from one to the other is, as David Kalstone argues, a “grim release” that “takes the speaker back … from a prized state of withdrawal” (16), or, as Zhou Xioajing would have it, a “growth” that has a “positive, dynamic, and productive effect” (35). While I will argue that the initial “thought” is a stagnant abstraction, destroyed and replaced by the onrush of empirical “thoughts,” and that, generally speaking, this is a change for the better, this is no simple narrative of liberation, and even within the binary conflict of “The Weed,” we can see the more equitable account that will emerge in “At the Fishhouses.” Like the octave of a Petrarchan sonnet, the first eight lines of the poem provide a succinct description of the speaker’s initial state of mental abstraction. The eighth line, which is end-stopped and one foot shorter than all previous lines, features the poem’s only true rhyme (“bower” – “hour”). As such, it provides a natural boundary, on the other side of which – beyond the volta, as it were – lies a reversal: the Weed and all the changes it brings. Before that change, however, the poem depicts a state of extreme stasis: I dreamed that dead, and meditating, I lay upon a grave, or bed, (at least, some cold and close-built bower). In the cold heart, its final thought stood frozen, drawn immense and clear, stiff and idle as I was there; and we remained unchanged together for a year, a minute, an hour.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Generally, one cannot be both dead and meditating, and while it is tempting to write this oddness off as the result of dreamlogic, the commas surrounding “and meditating” trigger a slight pause, drawing the reader’s attention back to the contradiction. Further emphasizing this paradox, the speaker describes herself as lying on a “grave, or bed,” and the uncertainty between “bed” and “grave” – locations appropriate to meditation and death, respectively – together with the internal rhyme of “dead” and “bed,” suggests a fundamental confusion between the two states. This confusion as to her state of mind extends to her physical surroundings: after failing to distinguish between “grave” and “bed,” she corrects herself parenthetically, settling tentatively (“at least”) on “some cold and close-built bower.” The comma after “at least” again slows both reader and speaker down, giving a puzzled and puzzling feel to the statement, and both the indefinite “some” and the oddly archaic “bower” leave the reader with as indistinct a picture as possible – unusual in a poet as visually acute as Bishop. Even the prepositions are confusing: she describes herself as lying “upon” these things, which is strange enough with “grave” but becomes incomprehensible with “bower.” Finally, confused as to her state of mind and her surroundings, she does not even acknowledge her own body, the parts of which she refers to with the definite article (“the cold heart”) as if they were distinct from her. The portrait painted here is of complete abstraction, of a being removed entirely from any contact with physical existence, and without even a clear sense of her own mental state. What occupies the speaker’s attention, instead, is one “final thought,” which stands “frozen, drawn immense and clear.” The description of this thought is double-edged in that its “finality” can be read either as a triumphant resolution to some quandary or as a mere stoppage of thought. The use of “drawn” furthers this complexity since, in this context, it could mean either “sketched” or “stretched.” Is this
“final thought … drawn immense and clear” an immense resolution that has been sketched out clearly in her mind? or a normal thought artificially stretched to an enormous size? The two are not mutually exclusive; rather, Bishop is suggesting that even a successful intellectual resolution can bring about a static finality, that no single thought should occupy such a place in the mind. However grand the thought may be, it has become “stiff and idle,” as has the speaker, suggesting that even an intellectual triumph can become stultifying if artificially preserved. And Bishop emphasizes the eternal nature of this artificial stasis metrically, as the speaker and the thought remain “unchanged together / for a year, a minute, an hour.” As Robert Dale Parker points out, the jumbled order of these time-units stops the reader from glossing over them, focusing the attention on “what it means for time to remain unchanged forever” (5), but this reordering also gives the line a different metrical effect than would the expected order. In their normal order, the units run in steady anapests (if “hour” is scanned bisyllabically) or in a steady rising rhythm (if it is scanned monosyllabically) : | fōr ā mí | nūte, ān hó | ūr, ā yéar. | or | fōr ā mí | nūte, ān hóur,| ā yéar. | This hardly gives the feeling of an awful timeless eternity; rather, coming after a great deal of double metre, the triple metre trips on almost cheerfully, and the lack of any hard consonant other than that one unstressed t leaves the reader slurring smoothly through the line. The expected order of time units produces rhythm that flows, that moves. Bishop’s inversion destroys this rhythm: | fōr ā yéar, | ā mínūte, | ān hóūr. |
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
(Because of the rhyme with “bower,” I am scanning “hour” bisyllabically here.) By putting the hard t of “minute” in a more prominent position, mixing anapest and amphibrach, and ending on an unstressed syllable, Bishop gives the reader a line that starts, and stops, and then ends with a whimper. Like the inversion of ideas, and like the slightly excessive use of commas earlier in the poem, this makes the reader stop and think, but it also mimics time stumbling to a halt. Things seem somehow over, and, as the first trimetric line in a poem that has otherwise been in tetrameter, the eighth line crumbles almost literally into nothingness. But the introduction of the Weed changes everything: Suddenly there was a motion, as startling, there, to every sense as an explosion. The pace picks up here in a number of ways. The trochaic first foot provides a metrical surge, and considering the abundance of commas in the first section, the lack of one after “Suddenly” signals a new tempo, as does the internal rhyme of “motion” and “explosion.” The fact that the motion is particularly startling “there” helps to emphasize the contrast between the established stasis and the newfound activity. In his review of North & South, Robert Lowell identifies this opposition between stasis and motion as the “single symbolic pattern” that characterizes “nine-tenths” of the collection (76). But in Lowell’s account, the principle of motion is “weary but persisting, almost always failing and on the point of disintegrating” (76–7). Lowell specifically mentions the Weed as an example, and yet its weariness is short-lived. Though at first it “creep[s]” and “nod[s],” leaves quickly begin to “sho[o]t out,” “twisting” and “waving,” while the “stem gr[ows] thick.” After the eternal sameness of the opening lines, the Weed’s rapid growth – “It grew an inch … next, one leaf … then / two leaves” – invokes a restless outpouring of energy.
With this energy comes a diversification of thought, implied in the Weed’s initial growth: one leaf shot out of its side a twisting, waving flag, and then two leaves moved like a semaphore. A flag is, of course, a means of communication, but a means that is extremely limited: a flag means only one thing and represents only one thought. From here, however, the Weed moves to semaphore, a means of communicating many thoughts through the use of many flags. And not only does the motion from single flag to multiple flags mimic the speaker’s eventual progression from a “final thought” to her “own thoughts,” but the leaves that shoot out of the Weed’s “side” anticipate the streams that will run “off from the sides” of the speaker. The corollary between the two implies a natural liveliness in the speaker’s evolution; like the Weed, she is growing, becoming a more complicated and mature creature. In place of the deathly singularity of the first lines, there is a state of plural, exuberant life; instead of changeless meditation, there is evolution and growth. The climax of this growth occurs when the Weed splits the speaker’s heart open and releases “a flood of water,” of which A few drops fell upon my face and in my eyes, so I could see (or, in that black place, thought I saw) that each drop contained a light, a small, illuminated scene; the Weed-deflected stream was made itself of racing images. This is the first overt mention of any act of seeing; although, obviously, the speaker has been perceiving things all along, she never quite says how, and even points out that everything
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
takes place “in the dark.” By ending the line after “I could see” and then adding a delaying parenthetical remark, Bishop gives the reader a brief moment in which the verb looks intransitive and the expression like that of one given sight by healing waters: “A few drops fell upon my face / and in my eyes, so I could see.” The interruption of the Weed brings the speaker, then, to reclaim the use of her senses, eliminating the sensory confusion that characterized the poem’s beginning. At this point, Bishop has established an almost complete reversal of the opening situation. She contrasts motion and stasis, life and death, perception and sensory deprivation, embodiment and disembodiment, change and changelessness. And all of this change highlights the many differences between the “cold heart[’s]” “final thought” and the waterdrop thoughts: they are many where it is one; they contain “light” where it exists “in the dark”; they are “half-clear” where it is entirely “clear”; they “rush” and “rac[e]” where it “stood”; they are “small” where it is “immense.” Perhaps the most important difference, however, is that these water-drops are only partially “thoughts.” Each drop contains “a light,” a “scene,” or an “image,” and the speaker identifies them only tentatively – in parentheses and with a question mark – as her “own thoughts.” This sort of thinking, mimetic rather than creative, is closer to what we might call observation than it is to meditation since the human mind is not shown generating thought but reflecting and absorbing it: (As if a river should carry all the scenes that it had once reflected shut in its waters, and not floating on momentary surfaces.) The sort of thinking and knowledge that Bishop endorses here is essentially empirical, an involvement in and a record
of the events and things of the world, a process that finds its actual embodiment in Darwin’s “heroic observations” (dl). And yet Bishop’s play on the English language’s tendency to conflate light, sight, and thought suggests something more than simple recording. The scenes are both “illuminated” and “reflected”: the speaker, who has observed these scenes passing before her eyes, has reflected on them, illuminating them. Unlike the “final thought,” created within a darkened mind, these are scenes that occur, originally, outside the mind and then, through the double process of reflection (mimesis) and reflection (consideration) become both illuminated (made clear) and illuminated (enhanced) in memory. Much like Bishop’s other models of intellection, this one begins in the empirical, and then only afterwards follows it up with a certain level of abstraction. Running alongside Bishop’s argument about the relative merits of empiricism and abstraction, however, is a persistent interest in motion and stasis, and the way in which an involvement in the world implies an involvement in time’s forward march. A notebook entry from the same period further connects these issues with water imagery: The window this evening was covered with hundreds of long, shining drops of rain, laid on the glass which was covered with steam on the inside. I tried to look out, but could not. Instead I realized I could look into the drops, like so many crystal balls. Each bore traces of a relative or friend: several weeping faces slid away from mine; water plants and fish floated within other drops; watery jewels, leaves and insects magnified, and strangest of all, horrible enough to make me step quickly away, was one large long drop containing a lonely, magnificent human eye, wrapped in its own tear. (Quoted in Kalstone 14) In many ways this foreshadows “The Weed” – or, indeed, the “The Man-Moth,” which also ends with a dramatic tear –
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
but while the similarities are relatively obvious, the differences are more interesting: where “The Weed” moves consistently from stasis to motion, this notebook fragment has a more complicated pattern. The speaker begins by describing the images contained in the raindrops as “traces of a relative or friend,” and the colon that follows this statement suggests that a list of relatives and friends will follow. What follows is, instead, the account of “weeping faces.” To look into “crystal balls,” as the drops are described, and see one’s friends and relatives “weeping” is understandably upsetting, carrying, as it does, implications of hardships to come. And so the speaker, finding people sad, retreats into easier images: first the relatively neutral “water plants and fish” and then the more overtly positive “watery jewels.” In so doing, she retreats not only from pain but also from motion, from the narrative drama of the weeping faces to the still image of “watery jewels.” Even the verbs that describe the contents of the various drops illustrate this flight from motion: the faces actively “slid[e],” the plants and fish more stilly “float,” and the jewels lack a verb altogether, being merely described appositionally as “magnified.” In order to escape the upsetting presence of human grief, the speaker withdraws into a static world. Up to this point, the notebook fragment is like “The Weed” in reverse, but, as if in response to this retreat, the “lonely, magnificent human eye, wrapped in its own tear” appears, spelling out the costs of such an avoidance. The eye is the speaker’s own, either literally, in that it is reflected in the water or the window (it is “evening” outside), or symbolically, in that it comes at the end of a retreat from the world. As such its “lonel[iness]” and its “tear” become a critique of the speaker’s own reluctance to engage: to be wrapped, “lonely,” in one’s “own tear” is to separate oneself from the world at a great cost. The shock of this realization removes the speaker from her complacency, causing her to break the
stillness of the scene and “step quickly away,” reintroducing motion to the text. I will return to this emphasis on motion and involvement with time. Indeed, Bishop’s sometimes stringent ideas about the dangers of stepping outside of time’s flow (particularly in terms of narrative) form the basis of this book’s final section. For the time being, however, I wish only to show how Bishop acknowledges the appeal of withdrawal, the attraction of a static meditation on some pleasant thought, rather than an ongoing engagement with the world. “The Weed” is less careful to show the appeal of the abstract, and so the slightly uncomfortable note on which the poem ends – with the Weed’s threateningly archaic “I grow … but to divide your heart again” – comes as a bit of a surprise. Who, after all, would go back to the poem’s initial situation? Read against the notebook fragment, however, the Weed begins to look more like a corrective figure than a liberator, and the source of that final reprimand is more clear. David Kalstone may go too far when he describes the initial state of “The Weed” as “prized” (16), but numbness does hold a certain appeal, as the notebook entry suggests. (This notion, too, will reappear, in a different context, in the next chapter.) This aspect of correction also plays well into Bishop’s admission that “The Weed” “is modelled somewhat” after George Herbert’s “Love Unknown” (Monteiro 23) since Herbert’s poem of religious purification helps to frame Bishop’s poem of mental cleansing. In Herbert’s poem (125–7), the speaker’s heart is severely ill-treated, “dipt and dy’d, / And washt, and wrung,” by God, “Who fain would have it new, tender, quick.” Near the end of the poem, the speaker tries to sleep, only to find that someone has “stuff’d [his] bed with thoughts, / I would say thorns,” which serve, as the poem’s conclusion puts it, to “quicken, what was grown too dull.” This link between bed, thoughts, plants, and quickening carries through into Bishop’s poem, providing both the basic
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
scenario and the framework for the intellectual transition she depicts. Herbert’s context, however, is religious, and the tribulations his speaker endures are steps along the road to salvation. Bishop’s poem, which lacks, as Bonnie Costello points out, “Herbert’s antagonistic God” to provide “a context of righteous purpose” (59), substitutes knowledge for salvation. Mobile knowledge takes the place of lively holiness, and the Weed itself stands in for the “servant” who puts Herbert’s speaker’s heart through its changes. But there is a limit to how far one can take this, to how far one can apotheosize the role of motion, of quickening, in Bishop’s ideas about knowledge. While the mind should reflect multiple scenes rather than a single thought, “The Weed” insists that these scenes remain discrete. The Weed releases a stream, but it is a stream made up of drops; thought flows, but it flows in individual units. I emphasize this out of a desire to refine Bonnie Costello’s influential argument that Bishop resists the “quest for mastery over nature’s plurality and flux” (3). “Plurality” and “flux” are different things, and in this context, it is necessary to distinguish between the two. Both are, for Costello, opposed to “a static, hierarchical view of the world” (5), what she calls, in her discussion of “The Weed,” the “space of mental finality, of ‘stiff and idle’ thoughts” (57). This much is fair, but to Costello, Bishop “continually yields to [the] unmastered material” of life (4), where she is, instead, mastering it in her own way. The mind as stream “shut[s] in its waters” what passes across its “momentary surfaces”; it captures and stores material in much the way that Bishop claims poetic material should be “eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform and always kept in order, in its place” (quoted in Costello 4). When Costello discusses “flux” she invokes an ever-shifting nature before which Bishop admits defeat, but nature, as presented in “The Weed,” is “made to perform” by the thinking subject. In this way “plurality” makes more sense
than “flux”: the world moves, granted, but that does not prevent us from capturing its motion in units we can grasp, separate, and control, units that we can know. So while Costello is absolutely right to emphasize motion, she is wrong to paint Bishop as its victim. Bishop has very concrete notions of just how one can make use of the moving world. And yet “The Weed” posits more control over the world than it does over the self, and so to paint Bishop as entirely masterful is not quite accurate. This poem has a confusion and a discomfort that speak of an uneasy relationship to knowledge. The catalytic Weed is simultaneously part of the speaker, growing as it does from her heart, and separate from her, addressing her, in the final line, in the second person. Indeed, the “final thought” and the Weed, though opponents, have a great deal in common. Both come from the heart, and both plant themselves possessively in it: before the Weed’s arrival the final thought “st[ands]” in the “cold heart,” and at the end of the poem the Weed “st[ands] in the severed heart.” Bishop prefers a severed heart to a cold one, but she is not willing to pretend that this severing is either pleasant or within her control: her speaker is reduced to the role of spectator as her mental faculties compete for dominance. Giving the victory to the Weed and privileging its mobile, more empirical model of mind without ever claiming control over it, Bishop constructs an unusual model of thought in which we can master the world by knowing it without being able to control how we do so. Such a model, while it works well with Bishop’s general preference for the empirical, does not express her ongoing interest in the work of knowing. The strange separation between thinker and thought, between the speaker and the Weed, presents Bishop with a new kind of stasis: firmly dominated by the Weed, the speaker can do nothing but lie still and reflect. The allegorical framework within which she works in this poem leads her to a problematic ending: just as
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Herbert’s speaker is left entirely dependent on God’s grace, so is Bishop’s made a slave to the Weed. But to be subject to a Weed is far from being subject to God, and where God’s grace is a comfortable resting place for Herbert, Bishop cannot know by faith alone. And so, in order to reclaim the act of knowing, to master her own mental processes, Bishop reworks parts of “The Weed” in “At the Fishhouses,” again taking up the question of what kind or kinds of knowledge are most valuable, most useful, most characteristic of the human mind, and again using water as a central image.
Not only does “At the Fishhouses” (cp 64–6) explicitly liken water to “what we imagine knowledge to be,” but it also reprises a number of terms from “The Weed,” taking up at its conclusion much that appeared in the opening of the earlier poem. Here are the first lines of its final stanza, which describes the sea: Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal. The cold and, later, the “ic[iness]” echo the “cold” bower and the “frozen” thought of “The Weed”’s “cold heart”; the depth and clarity reprise “The Weed”’s “final thought,” “drawn immense and clear,” (the terms “drawn” and “clear” also occur, close together, in the last few lines of “At the Fishhouses”); and the “element bearable to no mortal” suggests the odd semideath of “The Weed.” Beyond these basic similarities, the overall contrast of light and dark is even more extensive and carefully controlled here than in the earlier poem. The first stanza begins on “a cold evening,” with “the gloaming” making things “almost invisible” and “dark,” then progresses through descriptions of the “opaque” silver sea to the “translucen[t]” silver of the objects on land, and from there to the “iridescent”
fish scales and flies – repeating the word twice – and the “bright sprinkle of grass.” Isolating these adjectives shows how the speaker’s eye moves up a scale of luminescence in the poem’s first stanza: “dark,” “opaque,” “translucent,” “iridescent,” “bright.” However, she makes an abrupt shift on reaching the ramp that leads into the water. Here the “silver / tree trunks” give way to the “gray stones,” and grey replaces silver as the dominant colour in the poem, grey being a duller version of silver. The stanza that ends the poem is so insistent in its darkness (the word “dark” occurs four times) that even fire is said to burn “with a dark gray flame.” Where “The Weed” moves from darkness to illumination, “At the Fishhouses” moves from dark to light and then back again. Indeed, there is a crucial difference in the way that these two poems manipulate light and dark. Whereas in “The Weed” the cold, dark, immense deathliness describes a state of being and knowing to which water and motion are explicitly opposed, here all of those things are characteristics of water. But this is not simply a reversal of water’s valence since water retains the power of movement; if anything it is more fluid in “At the Fishhouses” than in “The Weed,” being both “flowing, and flown,” both moving and getting away. So while there are extensive similarities between the initial meditative state of the earlier poem and the water of the later poem, they do not share the stasis that characterizes the opening section of “The Weed.” This reorganization of terms makes it difficult to determine exactly what sorts of knowledge “At the Fishhouses” describes or prefers, and critical opinion is dramatically divided on the topic. Some critics construe the poem as valuing abstract knowledge over empirical, reading the sea as “a medium of pure knowing wholly distinct from the compromised, constructed world above” (Gilbert 144) or “a representation of absolute knowledge, of knowledge out of time” opposed to “the half-truths and ‘apparent’ perceptions of ordinary existence”
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
(Spires 21). In Seamus Heaney’s elegant phrasing “it is a different, estranging and fearful element that ultimately fascinates [the speaker]: the world of meditated meaning, of a knowledgeneed which sets human beings apart from seals and herrings” (305). These critics see Bishop preferring here just the sort of knowledge that she rejects in “The Weed,” and even though none of them mentions the earlier poem, the references to timelessness and “meditated meaning” suggest similarities. Such a position seems to contradict Bishop’s usual emphasis on observation, and Heaney, for his part, does paint the poem as something of an anomaly for her, describing it as the “spectacle of a well-disciplined poetic imagination being tempted to dare a big leap, hesitating, and then with powerful sureness, actually taking the leap” (304). Heaney, however, is unique in addressing the conflict between this interpretation of the poem and the ways in which Bishop is generally read. Poets, of course, write many poems, and, as Bishop herself insisted, “the poet’s concern is not consistency” (Schwartz and Estess 281); however, in this case, the discrepancy points to a real problem. The poem does shift gears in that last stanza: after two false starts, each beginning “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,” the last stanza changes register, using an immense amount of repetition (“over and over,” “the same sea, the same,” “above the stones, / icily free above the stones,” “your wrist would ache immediately, / your bones would begin to ache,” “your hand would burn,” “burns with a dark gray flame,” “surely burn your tongue”), building up conditional clauses (“If you should dip,” “If you tasted it”), and ending with a level of figuration that seems to remove the poem from any sort of mundane clarity (“as if the water were a transmutation of fire,” “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be”). In a sense, then, the poem does get bigger and more lyrical in the last stanza, but to infer from this change in register that the poem now concerns “absolute” or “pure” knowledge, “meditated meaning,” and the
“knowledge-need that sets human beings apart from seals and herrings” is not quite accurate. In fact, the sea-knowledge is described with empirical, sensory terminology, particularly that of taste and touch, the most basic of the senses: it tastes “bitter, / then briny,” and makes “your wrist” and “bones” “ache” and “your hand” and “tongue” “burn” (this last nicely combines both taste and touch). The adjectives used to describe it are concrete and mostly monosyllabic: cold, dark, deep, clear. Far from other-worldly, this knowledge comes from “the cold hard mouth / of the world.” So while the last stanza is less concrete than the first, it is a mistake to read it as entirely Platonic. However, there is something ambitious about the portrait of knowledge in the second half of this poem. This knowledge is ours “forever,” and the permanence of that “forever” leads into the finality of “flowing, and flown.” So while this is not absolute, abstract knowledge, it is not simply temporary, empirical knowledge. And yet there are those who would read it that way: where many critics read the first half of the poem as empirical and the second half as abstract, Bonnie Costello reverses this process and reads the first half as “mythic” (113) and the second half as “anti-Romantic, antimetaphysical” (116). But Costello bases her argument about the first half of the poem on a number of highly questionable readings. She describes the old man as “prophetic, even God-like” (111) and “symbolic of Fate” (112), and, while one might have accepted him as a symbol of fate (and, perhaps, thereby God-like) if Costello had tied his netting to the Greek Fates – though even this requires a bit of blurring since the Fates do not weave nets but spin, measure, and cut thread – she bases her assertion instead on his accepting a “Lucky Strike,” reading a great deal into the word “Lucky” and glossing over the fact that he gets the cigarette from the poem’s speaker (111, 112). Similarly, she asserts that the ancient capstan “suggests a crucifix,” an assertion that most
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
readers, not really knowing what a capstan looks like, might unwisely accept (111). (A capstan is a primitive sort of winch, essentially a rotating drum with long poles attached such that several people can turn it – something like an old fashioned mill.) She even characterizes Bishop’s description of the sea as “opaque” as an inversion of “mimetic norms in preparation for the visionary thrust of the poem” (111), but the sea is opaque, especially in the evening. Costello’s reading is flawed in the particulars, but she is right to point out that the first stanza goes beyond what Heaney calls the “fastidious notations” of a “securely positioned observer” (302, 304). The sometimes confusing syntax, which seems to describe the old man as “almost invisible”; odd phrasings like “apparent translucence”; the repetition of “iridescent” and the anaphora that goes with it; even the suggestive silveriness of the scene – all of these things prevent the tone of the first stanza from settling into the pure empiricism of a “securely positioned” speaker. So while there is nothing overtly mythical about the content of the first stanza, there is something tonally complex about it. So on one side, there is a set of critics who paint the last stanza as metaphysical and see it as a repudiation of the more empirical first stanza; on the other side, Costello takes the first stanza as metaphysical and sees the second as an empirical repudiation of it. Neither of these interpretations does full justice to the complexity of the poem at least partially because they both depend on opposing its two halves: land against sea, one type of knowledge against another. And while the poem does divide tidily in two, with the first stanza concerning the land and the last stanza concerning the sea, the division is not so absolute: the sea appears in the landstanza (“the heavy surface of the sea, / swelling slowly”), just as the land appears in the sea-stanza (“behind us, / the dignified tall firs begin”). More importantly, there is also the central, transitional stanza, which has been unduly neglected in
critical assessments of the poem. In order to achieve a more balanced reading, we need to pay more attention to that middle stanza and to read the poem in terms of the interaction and interpenetration of land and sea. Further, we need to bring the specific scenario of that interaction back into play: the poem is about the land and the sea, but it is also about how those on land – fishermen – take to and from the sea. Just as these two models of mind are more interactive than has generally been seen, the overall direction of the poem is far from simple. On one level, the poem moves smoothly from land to sea, and this has tempted critics to see what Bishop calls “total immersion” as the underlying intellectual motion of the poem. Even though Heaney and Costello generally disagree, they both describe the end of the poem with the same image: Heaney has Bishop “taking the leap” (304), and Costello points to “a visionary leap” (109). They have very different ideas about what Bishop is leaping into, but the one-way motion of the poem is assumed. The poem’s underlying scenario, however, is fishing, a process by which things are taken out of the sea, and, while the central stanza comes between land and sea, in that order, and seems, therefore, to point seaward, the ramp is described as the place “where they haul up the boats.” The central stanza is thoroughly bi-directional: Down at the water’s edge, at the place where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp descending into the water, thin silver tree trunks are laid horizontally across the gray stones, down and down at intervals of four or five feet. (my emphasis) This is a world in which one moves back and forth between land and sea, between one form of knowledge and another, a world in which there is an industry based on doing just that.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
The idea of the fishing industry is crucial to an understanding of the poem and the claims it makes about our relationship to knowledge. Costello reads the poem in the same way she reads “The Weed,” as a turn “away from transcendent idealism toward the acceptance of change as absolute” (109) and a depiction of “the futility of human attempts to master flux” (111). Her argument is based on the notion that the water-knowledge in the last stanza is a version of that unmasterable flux. But the terrifying “element bearable to no mortal” is, in this context, an element that mortals have stripped of its treasures: the old man has captured and “scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish.” Even the physical setting reinforces this: the “long ramp / descending into the water” with “tree trunks” laid across it is foreshadowed in the first stanza by the “cleated gangplanks” that “slant up / to storerooms” in the eponymous fishhouses, the cleats, like the tree trunks, providing support for the treacherous climb. From the sea, by industry, up ramp and gangplank, fish are moved to the storerooms; from the “element bearable to no mortal,” which is “like what we imagine knowledge to be,” something is consciously retrieved and stored. The poem is not only about the speaker’s approach to the sea and its particular form of knowledge; it is also about how we take up and use that knowledge for our own purposes. In “The Weed” the active principle, though part of the speaker, is not under her control, and the pain it causes, though necessary, is not chosen. Here the activity is the result of conscious effort, but it still brings with it a great deal of pain and exhaustion. In the first stanza, which is more concretely about fishing, the physical tools of the trade are depicted as old and worn: the old man’s shuttle is “worn and polished,” and his “black old knife” is “almost worn away”; the buildings are “old” and “moss[y],” and the capstan is “ancient” and “cracked” with “bleached handles” and “melancholy stains”
where it has “rusted”; even the population is in “decline.” In the final stanza, in which the speaker’s description of the sea takes over, the emphasis shifts from the exhaustion of industry to the pain of exposure. The repetitions – “your wrist would ache,” “your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn,” “burns with a dark gray flame,” “surely burn your tongue” (my emphasis) – make certain that the reader appreciates the hardships endured by those who work the sea in its more figurative sense. To draw knowledge “from the cold hard mouth / of the world” is a wearying thing, but necessary, as the mention of “rocky breasts” implies, painting knowledge, like fish, as a form of sustenance. But this is not quite precise enough: if the water is like knowledge, then the fish must be something else, something that exists in knowledge and is removed from it by industry. Given that the ramp by which one crosses from land to sea is laid “horizontally” with tree trunks at intervals of “four or five feet,” it is likely that Bishop means to suggest a parallel between fishing and poetry. The image of the old man removing the “principal beauty” from the fish suggests that they represent either poems themselves or the observations that make them up. (Bishop has another poem in which the speaker goes fishing and catches a poem). And so “At the Fishhouses” applies the ideas about our relationship to knowledge begun in “The Weed” to the art of poetry or, to be less rigid, to any number of related activities that involve collecting observations. In both poems, we master knowledge, portion it off, and take from it what we need. But where “The Weed” makes the process both involuntary and random, it is here a conscious technology, with specific methods and aims. And so, leaving behind the idea that the two halves of the poem are opposites that cannot interact, and keeping the fishing scenario and its implications firmly in mind, we can reexamine the types of knowledge that Bishop is talking about. The knowledge described in the second half of the poem does
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
come from the “cold hard mouth / of the world” and is empirical in that sense, but it is more involved than the sort of knowledge depicted in “The Weed.” It is not a matter of “thoughts” that reflect and illuminate what passes before one’s eyes; rather, it is “knowledge” that must be actively “drawn” and “derived” from the raw data of life. In this way it makes sense that some of the terms that characterize the initial state in “The Weed” recur in “At the Fishhouses” since Bishop is bringing the abstraction she rejected in “The Weed” back into play. But this slight abstraction does not lead to absolute knowledge or “truth” since, as Bishop points out, “our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.” We know, that is, only what is now happening (“flowing”) and has already passed away (“flown”). We know in time, not “out of” it (Spires 21); our knowledge is not absolute or pure; and we do not, as Heaney suggests, become aware of “the cold sea-light of [our] own wyrd” (305). To say that this knowledge has to be derived from the world requires that it is, in some sense, there in the world whether it is derived or not, which has a number of implications for the poem. It explains the slightly mythical touch of the first stanza: knowledge lies latent in the empirical world of the senses, and it shows through the most mundane of observations. Similarly, it is only through the empirical world that one has access to the more abstracted knowledge in the final stanza. In this sense, the loving detail with which Bishop describes the tools of the fishing industry has a double meaning: description, sensory observation, and empirical thought are the tools of her own industry, the means by which she is able to get what she gets from knowledge. Far from two opposing models of thought, the two halves of the poem represent two modes that are intricately linked, the first leading into the second and the second lying latent in the first. The presence of knowledge in the world, whether we collect it or not, also redefines the role of the thinking subject in
its production. In “The Weed,” abstract thought was located in the speaker’s oddly distantiated “cold heart”; here it is even further from her, located within a large and alien entity “bearable to no mortal.” This additional step denies the thinking subject even an implicit role in the creation of knowledge, and the verbs that describe its production – “drawn” and “derived” – are noticeably passive and without agent. The thinker merely enters into knowledge in order to retrieve a manageable portion, a fish, which she then stores in her fishhouse, which, in this reading, becomes her mind in a general sense – a house as symbol of mind or soul is not unusual – or her poetry in a more specific sense. We may collect knowledge, but we do not produce it, and, in this sense, the poem rewrites Bishop’s rejection of the surrealist relationship to the unconscious: just as one must wait to “catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important” (dl), so must the fisher-poet go out into knowledge and collect whatever she can rather than produce it herself. This inactivity in the production of knowledge is reinforced earlier in the poem. As the speaker prepares, figuratively, to enter the sea, she has two moments of hesitation and withdrawal – the digressions on the seal and the firs. In each instance, the tone drops from high portent to casual humour as the speaker makes a pun: the seal is “a believer in total immersion,” so she sings him “Baptist hymns”; the trees on shore are “tall firs,” so she makes them “Christmas trees … waiting for Christmas.” Clever as they are, these two digressions stand tonally between the speaker and the sea, and they represent a form of behaviour that is, in this context, an obstacle to real knowing. Both are instances of the speaker imposing abstraction on the world in a display of her own mental acuity; rather than drawing knowledge from the world, she is imposing meaning on it. The seal, of course, is not a Baptist; the trees are not Christmas trees (at least not yet). The fact that both digressions draw upon
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
religious terminology may present a gentle reprimand to certain religious habits of mind and, perhaps, a gentle goodbye to Herbert and the allegorical mode she took from him, but the critique would be as valid were her terms philosophical or artistic – this is a critique of ego, not of religion. So while Bishop is making room for abstraction within her definition of knowledge, she is not making room for any sort of selfaggrandizement. One acquires Bishop’s sort of knowledge through industry and suffering, not by being clever. Again, as at the end of “The Weed,” Bishop is left in an odd position, wanting something more than the merely empirical but unable, in all honesty, to take credit for its production. She has come some distance towards intellectual empowerment since “The Weed,” but she is careful not to take this too far: she will admit that knowing involves work on the part of the knower but not that the knower is its source. Trapped somewhere between or beyond both the abstract and the empirical, she adopts the patience and industry of the fisherman as her method. In “The Weed,” Bishop begins to spell out her ideas about knowledge, about what it is and what it should be, about how we acquire and use it. The strange (dare I say surreal?), dreamlike, allegorical mode of the poem gives her a structure within which to work, and, combining the explicit logic of allegory and the vaguer logic of the dream, she conceives a space in which to draw strong distinctions and to set up oppositions. But “The Weed” leaves the empirical and the abstract locked in a perpetual battle without showing any clear means of resolution, and Bishop is left with well defined terms but no program, no way forward. The more realistic narrative mode of “At the Fishhouses,” however, provides just such a program. Taking up the terms defined in the earlier poem, Bishop leaves behind its strict oppositional logic to create a more tangled argument, complete with a tentative model of knowledge and a method for interacting with it. “At the Fishhouses” shows knowledge to be an extract of existence, a thing made from
fact, from the world, which, while more serious, more portentous than fact, is not entirely different from it in kind – a sort of concentrate. Who or what does the work of concentrating is not clear, but it is clearly not us. This knowledge is dangerous, frightening, and alien but finally manageable at a certain cost: one can go out into it and return with materials as necessary to the mind as food is to the body. But far from some heroic quest, some epic adventure, this entering into knowledge is really a form of careful scrutiny, a looking slowly and honestly about, painstakingly examining one’s surroundings, searching everywhere and always for the iridescence with which everything is, for the right eye, invested.
Acknowledging Bishop’s complicated deference to the world around her is the first step towards qualifying my initial, toomasterful model of her poetics. From the strange way in which she both honours and devours the Fish, through the complex interplay of empirical and abstract knowledge in “At the Fishhouses,” Bishop is engaged repeatedly in the particular intellectual manoeuvre laid out in the Darwin Letter. The preceding three chapters show how this manoeuvre plays out in Bishop’s model of mind, looking particularly at the relationship between conscious and unconscious, observation and epiphany, empirical and abstract. In each context, Bishop maintains that, while there are clear differences, there is “no split”; her point is that opposites interact, that it is only by going through the more concrete, descriptive side of the equation – the conscious mind, observation, empirical knowledge – that one gets to the other: the “peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important” (dl). This pattern is what makes Bishop a descriptive poet in a far richer sense than is usually intended by that term – it is what makes her a poet invested in scrutiny as an intellectual endeavour as well as description as a literary practice. However, the time has come to move beyond the questions of intellection that occupy the
preceding few chapters and to extend in different directions the basic pattern I have established. The preceding chapters focus on the relationship between the mind and the world in quite a large sense: the mind is sometimes that of a poet, though not necessarily in the act of writing poetry, but it is more often merely “the mind” in general; the world with which it interacts is, similarly, “the world” in the simplest sense of the physical universe. In this chapter, the world in question is a narrower, more difficult thing: the often horrifying reality of human society and its doings. And rather than interact with the mind in an abstract sense, this world interacts with poetry in a concrete manner. The conflict at hand here is the familiar opposition between politics and aesthetics. However, as in the previous chapters, any familiar notion of these two forces as antagonists does not survive careful scrutiny; instead, much as the empirical is Bishop’s avenue to the abstract, aesthetics are her avenue to the socio-political world. The context in which I read Bishop in this chapter, however, is not as politically concrete as has become common; rather, I read her in terms of a more overarching notion of morality, of the desire to do or be good in a general sense that leaves behind particular historical events and political ideologies. Much recent criticism reads Bishop in terms more politically specific than her poetics and, indeed, her politics allow. Not surprisingly, such discussion can leave her looking rather feeble and half-committed. My goal here is to shift the discussion into a realm in which Bishop fits much more comfortably and in which her poetry can be read as a far more significant accomplishment. Though some of Bishop’s poems, such as “Roosters,” “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” or “The Burglar of Babylon,” invite political interpretation, the general lack of overt political content in Bishop’s poetry would seem to bode ill for any attempt to paint her as someone seriously engaged with the political world. And yet many critics have argued, following Adrienne
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Rich, that Bishop tries “critically and consciously” to “explore marginality, power and powerlessness” in her poetry (135). But even after some twenty years of criticism along these lines, Kim Fortuny, whose recent study of Bishop’s poetry pursues a “reciprocal reading of artistic form and social function,” admits that no “single twentieth-century poet makes this project so difficult to sustain” (3). Fortuny allows herself the luxury of choosing her texts from throughout Bishop’s career, but narrowing the focus to Bishop’s early years makes a political reading of her poetry even harder. By her own admission, though she “considered herself a socialist” in the 1930s and 1940s, Bishop “disliked ‘social conscious’ writing” and was less “interested in social problems and politics” then than she was towards the end of her career (Monteiro 22). And yet even those early years have been politicized by recent criticism. James Longenbach reads Bishop’s juvenilia for evidence that “from the beginning of her career, Bishop was ‘more interested in social problems’ than, in retrospect, she would allow” (37); Betsy Erkkila argues that, even though “Bishop never wrote the topical poetry we associate with the social-consciousness writing of the ’30s, her work registers the ‘revolutionary’ effects of the time as a crisis of the subject, of knowledge, of signification, and of the possibility of meaning itself” (286); and James Gould Axelrod, following in the path of Camille Roman’s Elizabeth Bishop’s World War II – Cold War View, maintains that even “at the height of her apolitical phase” Bishop “did indeed explore political issues in her poetry” (848). Each of these studies is forced to argue against the grain, to move beyond what Bishop herself “would allow,” to admit that Bishop “never wrote” “topical poetry,” or to look for politics at the “height of her apolitical phase.” None of these things is problematic in and of itself, but taken as a whole this field of inquiry seems to involve a great many obstacles. Such obstacles, however, may simply be a product of
using contemporary notions of political engagement to discuss the poetry of another era. Politics, as we now use the term, is not the context in which Bishop’s contemporaries read her poetry; rather, for those faced with the reality of a second World War, questions of right and left lost ground to larger questions of right and wrong, and it is in this more general realm that I address Bishop’s work. This moral reading of Bishop’s poetry is based on Randall Jarrell’s review of her first book, and my intention, in what follows, is to use Jarrell as a means of retrieving a more chronologically appropriate set of ideas about how poetry could or should interact with the world around it. Such a manoeuvre is, admittedly, a peculiar sort of historicism. It is not New Historicism, in that it does not seek to expose the rhetorical strategies of historical documents by reading them as literary texts. Nor is it what we might call Old Historicism, in that it does not seek to expose references to specific historical events in literary texts by reading them as historical documents (quite the opposite, as will become clear). Rather, the historicism of this chapter is a simple one. Recognizing that our current critical strategies seem inadequate to this particular aspect of Bishop’s early work, I look to the critical strategies of one of her most acute contemporaries for more appropriate terms and parameters. Though North & South received positive notices from Louise Bogan, Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Arthur Mizener, and M.L. Rosenthal, among others, no comment on her poetry has had the staying power of Jarrell’s enthusiastic endorsement in Partisan Review (reprinted in Poetry and the Age), which Bishop later claimed to “hold on to in dark stretches” (oa 284). The article is interesting in and of itself, and I will discuss it here at some length, but it has also come to occupy a strange position in the world of Bishop scholarship, largely through the persistence of one particular phrase – a phrase that also persists in Jarrell’s work, turning up again in a later
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
essay on Kipling (Kipling 338). Jarrell writes of Bishop that “all her poems have written underneath, I have seen it” (499). Although it is quoted in the first few paragraphs of any number of books and articles about Bishop, this statement is somewhat cryptic if taken on its own – as it invariably is – and critics have long reinterpreted it in ways that are rhetorically useful to them. For some, it characterizes Bishop’s “pursuit of the exact and the descriptive” (Goldensohn 118), pointing to the “extraordinary description” that “allow[s Bishop’s] readers to see what she sees” (Estess 705), or “her ability to reconstruct a sense of place” (Meyer 246); for others, it moves beyond description and into the realm of psychology, commenting on Bishop’s habit of “turning description to the task of mapping an inner life” (Costello 3); more recently, and less generously, it has been seen to reflect an insufficiently postmodern epistemology, implying “an ability to record objectively immediate experience, as if words could transparently describe the world” (McCabe, eb xii). In almost every instance, however, Jarrell is posited as a first step beyond which the critic must move, an early explorer whose work, while valuable, is naïve or out of date. While some critics have shown a more sensitive understanding of Jarrell’s argument (Harrison 12), even spending some time looking at the portion of the review that is explicitly about Bishop (Longenbach 58–9), not one has made a concerted effort to look at the review as a whole in order to develop a full account of what exactly Jarrell is saying in it and in that famous phrase. An attempt to do so shows him arguing for much more than simple empiricism. In this perceptive review, Jarrell demonstrates a complex understanding of both Bishop’s poetry and the predicament of postwar poetry more generally, and, in so doing, he reconciles the moral demands of the postwar world and the aesthetic demands of art. What he appreciates in Bishop’s poetry is both her mastery of tone and detail and the modest moral stance implicit in that mastery.
Jarrell points to the careful balance that Bishop maintains between form and fear, the way that her close attention to aesthetic matters implies a silent acknowledgment of the complicated issues that her poetry seems at times to ignore. For Jarrell, Bishop’s is a poetry that admits its own limitations and, in so doing, accomplishes something unique.
“The Poet and His Public” ran in the Fall 1946 issue of Partisan Review, and, in it, Jarrell examines North & South as part of an “accidental three-months’ collection” (500), which also includes books by Josephine Miles, Adam Drinan, Robert Graves, Denis Devlin, and William Carlos Williams. Jarrell is most enthusiastic about Williams, Graves, and Bishop and commends all three for writing poems that “are a lonely triumph of integrity, knowledge, and affection” (500). Bishop, in particular, receives pride of place at the very end of the review, and Jarrell describes her poetry as “so good that it takes a geological event like Paterson to overshadow” it (498). (He is referring to Book I; “The Poet and His Public” was written before the rest of Paterson so disappointed him.) The grounds on which Jarrell judges these poets successful are essentially those of public appeal. As his title suggests, Jarrell bemoans the fact that “here and now most people can’t and don’t read poetry” and that all “the public do[es] for poets” is “mutter accusingly that it ‘can’t understand them’” (500). Even though “poetry, like virtue, is its own reward” (500), this reward is not enough, and the situation is presented as one in need of remedy. Hovering behind Jarrell’s review is an acute sense of both the evils of the world and the new rules by which poetry must engage it. He is writing, after all, in the fall of 1946, and the shadows of the Second World War and the Holocaust loom large. Not surprisingly, then, the relationship between the public and the poet is conceived of in terms of the relationship between the poet and
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
what he calls “the world” – a nebulous term encompassing the difficulties of the modern predicament in a general way. To negotiate the proper relationship between “the world and poetry” (488), to understand “people and the world” (489), to reflect “just how complicated the world is” (493), to “find a language so close to the world that the world can be represented and understood in it” (494), to find, that is, the right poetic tone and approach to the complicated and tragic situation of the postwar generation is the key to the rapprochement between the poet and the public: to make people read poetry, poets must arrive at a sympathetic way of writing about the things that affect those people. And so, throughout the review, Jarrell privileges poetry that seeks to satisfy this public need and change this sorry state of affairs. Williams is praised for allowing “the underlying green of the facts” to cancel out “the red in which we had found our partial, temporary, aesthetic victory” (497). He holds up Drinan as someone who “loves and understands people and the world, instead of language and rhetoric and allusions” (489) while attacking Devlin for “making so many overt or covert allusions” to “his own historical or geographical or cultural information” and for being both “rhetorical” and “extraordinarily conscious of surfaces” (492). There is, as there often is with Jarrell, an almost snobbish disdain for those who do not read poetry – “the stupidest shepherd or potboy of any other age liked and understood poetry better than the average college graduate today” (500) – but there is an equal disdain for poets who do not read anything else, who refuse to write for an audience of more than one. Jarrell is resolutely opposed to poetry that relies on the perversely personal, the overly aesthetic or rhetorical, the sort of poetry that, unwilling to engage with the public or the “world,” retreats into a self-affirming realm of formalistic involution. How, then, does Bishop satisfy him? She herself was concerned about the “fact that none of these poems [in North &
South] deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published,” thinking that it might “leave [her] open to reproach” (oa 125). She even suggested to her publisher that “a note to the effect that most of the poems had been written, or begun at least, before 1941, could be inserted at the beginning” of the volume to explain it (oa 125). Even aside from the question of content, Bishop’s first collection could easily be accused of the involution that Jarrell derides. While there are some instantly appealing poems (“The Map,” “The Fish”), there are several that could be accused of trading in “rhetoric and allusions” (“Roosters,” “The Gentleman of Shalott”) and “partial, temporary, aesthetic victor[ies]” (“Florida,” “Little Exercise”) or of being too dense and tangled to appeal to any but the most dedicated reader (“Paris, 7 a.m.,” “The Imaginary Iceberg”). The Bishop of North & South seems, that is, both unlikely to reach out to Jarrell’s “average college graduate today” and open to reproach on charges of selfish aestheticism. But Bishop receives no censure on this front; instead, Jarrell focuses his ire on Josephine Miles. The very first words of the review declare that, in Miles’s poetry, “some overspecialized sensitivity and ability come to a cautionary end – mostly because Miss Miles asks surprisingly little of herself, and seems to feel that the world and poetry ask even less” (488). Jarrell rather caustically points out the appropriateness of her title – Local Measures – for a book of poems that are not “the worked-out, required, sometimes lengthy expression of a subject that is trying to realize itself through Miss Miles, but only one more product of the Miles method for turning out Miles poems” (488). In its most complete and cutting expression, Jarrell’s criticism takes on an unpleasantly gendered tone: Miles’s poems are like “the diary some impressionable but unimpassioned monomaniac had year by year been engraving on the side of a knitting needle” (488–9), a series of “individualized, cultivated limited affairs” (489).
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
As difficult as North & South may be, it is certainly not all of a piece in this sense, and Jarrell actually makes of Bishop a sort of anti-Miles. The two women form a structural framework for the review, which begins with Miles and ends with Bishop, and he begins his section on Bishop with praise of her tone and technique that contrasts directly with his attacks on Miles: where Miles is “relishingly idiosyncratic,” “carefully awkward and mannered,” and full of “little voluntary tricks of technique” (488–9), Bishop is “pleasant and sympathetic,” “grave, calm, and tender,” and “calmly beautiful, deeply sympathetic” (498). The social language he uses here – “sympathetic” and “pleasant” as opposed to “awkward” and “mannered” – suggests that the real difference between the two is something like the difference between “having manners” and “being mannered.” Good manners involve a respect for the reader that translates into a careful attempt to get everything just so, an attention to the minutiae of grace and courtesy; being mannered involves no such respect and manifests itself in a wilful determination to stick to one’s own unreasonably minute system of behaviour. Both inhere in the details, but one is a form of accommodation and the other a form of rigidity. Miles’s attention to detail makes her a “monomaniac … engraving on the side of a knitting-needle,” a spinsterish recluse, rejecting “the world and poetry”; Bishop’s attention to “every detail of metre or organization or workmanship,” on the other hand, implies the “restraint, calm, and proportion” (499) of civilized living. Jarrell’s discussion, or, to be fair, my characterization of Jarrell’s discussion, is reliant on what Victoria Harrison calls “the clichés about what is good in women’s poetry” (12), but it still has something to say about the notion of aestheticism. Jarrell is not opposed to aestheticism per se, nor is he willing to relinquish the notion of difficulty or complexity. As he puts it elsewhere, if “we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help” (P&A 4). Rather, Jarrell is
concerned that complexity and rhetoric be deployed in order to express something worthwhile and not simply for their own sake. His point is that a reader may have to work hard to read Bishop’s poems but only because, unlike Miles, Bishop has worked hard to write them. But Jarrell is not only opposed to poetry that turns in on itself, he also objects to poetry that turns too persistently to the horrors of the public sphere. While such poetry seeks to expose and denounce, it implicitly raises the poet above any responsibility for the evils of the world, becoming, as Jarrell puts it, a form of “gruesome occupational therapy for a poet who stays legally innocuous by means of it” (498–9). Further, the focus on evil blinds the poet to anything more pleasant so that he or she would rather “walk down children like Mr. Hyde than weep over them like Swinburne” (498). James Longenbach argues convincingly that Jarrell has in mind “the idealization of violence he found in Warren, Tate, [and] Lowell” (58) and that, “for Jarrell, this fascination with evil allowed Warren to avoid responsibility for the world’s condition” (52). Just as he criticizes the aesthetic poet for moving inwards, Jarrell criticizes the moralizing poet for moving upwards, for taking up a position above both the world and the public. And Jarrell holds Bishop up as an antidote to the violent school of Hyde as well as to Miles’s school of perverse aestheticism. What Jarrell finds so attractive in Bishop is her understanding of the fact that “the wickedness and confusion of the age can explain and extenuate other people’s wickedness and confusion, but not, for you, your own” (500). For Jarrell, Bishop finds a way to write poetry that speaks to the world without writing about the world, and she does it through the “restraint, calm, and proportion” “implicit in every detail of metre or organization or workmanship” (498). The same good manners that separate her from Miles distinguish her from her more despairing contemporaries: “instead of crying, with justice, ‘This is a world in which you can’t get along,’
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Miss Bishop’s poems show that it is barely but perfectly possible – has been, that is, for her” (498). For Jarrell, Bishop not only leads by example but, crucially, by aesthetic example. Jarrell here defines a poetics in which poetry at its most poetic is not a flight from the world but a means of bettering it. After refusing to relinquish the aesthetic to Miles, he also takes morality back from the moralizers, insisting instead on the morality of aesthetic action. This particular manoeuvre is what separates Jarrell from most contemporary critics. For Jarrell, to do something well in this world is a moral action in its own right. To neither flee from nor lash out against the world, to maintain “restraint, calm, and proportion” in “every detail of metre or organization or workmanship,” is to do good. Along with Bishop, he insists that “[t]here is no split” and that one can be both “good as well as [a] good artist” (dl). Or, as Bishop writes whimsically of Marianne Moore, he promotes “manners as morals” (cpr 156). It is in this context that we find that famous line: “Her work is unusually personal and honest in its wit, perception, and sensitivity – and in its restrictions too; all her poems have written underneath, I have seen it” (499). Jarrell’s mention of “perception, and sensitivity” pays tribute to Bishop’s powers of description, but the syntax of the sentence puts the emphasis elsewhere. By setting off the notion of “restrictions” with a dash, Jarrell puts special emphasis on it, and this in turn reduces the last clause of the sentence – the famous one – to an elaboration of that very notion. Read in context, that famous line is not about epistemology or psychology, or any of the things that critics have suggested; rather, it is about the role of limitations in the act of description, about how leaving things out of a poem can be morally necessary. In order to clarify Jarrell’s point fully here, we need still address the question of what, exactly, “it” is – the thing a poem describes or the world outside it. If we take “it” to mean the subject of each particular poem, then, knowing
that the world is beyond her power, Bishop speaks only of things she can capture and control through seeing and describing them. Most critics have read the phrase in these terms – description – but without any sense of how, within this paradigm, description says as much, albeit silently, about context as it does about the thing described. The reader sees Bishop’s “restraint, calm, and proportion,” and realizes that it is a means of not “crying out” about something else. If, however, “it” is read as the world and its horrors, then the phrase written “underneath” becomes a mute acknowledgment of it, an indication that she may be writing about this but she has also seen that. Too honest to retreat fully into the aesthetic realm, Bishop creates an aesthetic object that indirectly testifies to her knowledge of what she is not writing about in a sort of a footnote (to take Jarrell’s “underneath” literally). These two options add up, essentially, to the same thing. Jarrell’s famous sentence testifies both to the moral qualities of Bishop’s careful craft – to the potential private morality of a careful aesthetic – and to the power she gains from knowingly and openly turning from the horrible world in her poetry. It testifies to both the goodness of writing well in the face of the world’s horrors and also the importance of not writing directly about them. It shows how she is neither pretending, like Miles, that the world does not exist, nor wallowing, like Warren and company, in its horrors. It is this particular poetical personality that makes her “morally so satisfactory” and so “attractively and unassumingly good” (499), and, for Jarrell, it is this particular goodness in the poet that will bridge the gap between the poet and the public, the gap that is the overarching concern of his review. Jarrell insists that the public be offered poets that are both good and appealing – hence his emphasis on “sympathy” (493, twice on 498), “attractiveness” (489, 499), and “affection” (489, 500, where it is the very last word of the review). And it is Bishop, more than anyone, that he holds up
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
as an example of both goodness and appeal since she, more than anyone, understands that “morality, for the individual, is usually a small, personal, statistical, but heartbreaking or heartwarming affair of omissions and commissions the greatest of which will seem infinitesimal, ludicrously beneath notice” (500). Hence, “The Fish.” Coming to some understanding of the fish and then letting it go is, for Jarrell, a stronger, more moral action than writing a hard-hitting poem about the atrocities of the world; it is what Marianne Moore calls, in another context, a “private defiance of the significantly detestable” (391). Jarrell ends his section on Bishop with a powerful reading of the poem, arguing that Bishop is so “morally satisfactory” because she understands that it is “sometimes easy and natural, to ‘do well’” and that when “you see the snapped lines trailing, ‘a five-haired beard of wisdom,’ from the great fish’s aching jaw, it is then that victory fills ‘the little rented boat,’ that the oil on the bilgewater by the rusty engine is ‘rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!’ – that you let the fish go” (499–500). In this tribute, Jarrell presents that small moral action as greater and more poetic than a larger attack on the world’s injustice. In doing so, however, he applies only half of his own formula; he focuses on the “it” that is within the poem, the fish itself that Bishop’s speaker really sees for the first time. There is more to this poem, however, and to bring out its engagement with the other “it,” the world outside, is to erect a more complete model of Bishop’s particular poetics that can then be applied more generally. In the Darwin Letter, Bishop mentions that her friend Pauline Hemingway gave North & South to her ex-husband, Ernest, who liked it and said of “The Fish,” “I wish I knew as much about it as she does” (dl). Bishop claimed that this compliment meant more to her “than any praise in the quarterlies” since “underneath” she and Hemingway were “really
a lot alike” (dl). She goes on to qualify this, however, by saying that she likes “only his short stories and the first two novels – something went tragically wrong with him after that – but he had the right idea about lots of things” (dl). The early Hemingway is not unlike the Bishop of Jarrell’s review, focusing on the smaller things in an attempt to maintain composure in the face of larger, more horrible realities. The clearest example of this affinity is “Big Two-Hearted River,” which Hemingway describes as a story “about coming back from the war” without any “mention of the war in it” (Moveable 76), and which reads as a textbook example of how a “perfectly useless concentration” (dl) can make it “barely but perfectly possible” (Jarrell, “Poet” 499) to get along in the world. As the narrator of Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School puts it, “Big Two-Hearted River” is instantly appealing in terms of “physical detail” since Hemingway relates Nick Adams’s actions in “precise, almost fussy descriptions that most writers would’ve left out” (96). But while such “rough solemnities” are attractive in themselves, a closer reading shows that “Nick observes them so carefully – religiously is not too strong a word – because they keep him from falling apart” (96). It is a simple extension to read “The Fish” in a similar manner, casting the speaker’s “almost fussy descriptions” of the fish as a reflection of Nick’s exacting care for the processes of camping and fishing. Further, both Bishop and Hemingway emphasize Jarrell’s “restrictions” by choosing to end their narratives on a high note: Bishop’s speaker releases her fish as soon as “victory fill[s] up / the little rented boat” (cp 43); Nick decides to stop with the two trout he catches in the river and to forgo the “tragic adventure” of fishing in the swamp (Hemingway, In Our 155). Both story and poem point to the possibility of doing something right, of achieving, through care and detail, some small victory in a world that can seem so overwhelming, but they also point to the importance of not overstepping one’s bounds, of sticking to
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
what one can do in this world. (Bishop, too, saw the resemblance, though in a less generous light: she describes the poem to Marianne Moore as “very bad and, if not like Robert Frost, perhaps like Ernest Hemingway” [oa 87].) The difference between Bishop and Hemingway in this regard is that the reader knows that Nick’s concentration comes in reaction to his experiences in the First World War – the war is never mentioned, but it does not need to be. With Bishop, it is never so clear what exactly it is that necessitates such care. The reader knows only that Bishop’s speaker seems oddly paralysed by the fact of having caught a fish – an eventuality she must have expected when she went out fishing – and strangely spooked by the “the frightening gills, / fresh and crisp with blood, / that can cut so badly” (cp 42). There are a number of possible explanations: the poem was written during the Second World War, which adds a certain threat to Bishop’s characterization of the fish’s lip as “weaponlike” and the hooks and lines in his jaw as “medals with their ribbons” (43). Ignoring this angle, the speaker’s attempt to look “into [the fish’s] eyes” (42) may signal a more personal, psychological context, “summoning up,” as David Kalstone argues, “a creature from the speaker’s own inner depths” (87). Alternately, as Bonnie Costello suggests, the “pervasive but ambiguous sexual quality” of the fish, who “hangs like a giant phallus,” may clash with the speaker’s conventionally feminine “domestic world of wallpaper and roses,” signalling a set of anxieties related to gender (64). The poem may be set among anxieties related to war, to an inner darkness, or to the gender roles society assigns, but it may also be set among all of these and more. As Lionel Kelly points out, though not in reference to this poem, there may be several sources of anxiety, but, “whether its sources are personal, social, political or global,” there is always the “element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art” that Bishop describes in her memoir of Marianne Moore (Kelly 1, the quotation is from cpr 144). In
the end, it may not be necessary to decide what, in particular, Bishop is not talking about in this instance, which “it” she has seen. What matters is that the speaker is scared and uneasy and that she works carefully past her anxiety towards a small moral epiphany. Kelly argues that, for Bishop, “the function of the work of art is to mediate that sense of panic through the formal devices which structure the work” (1), but his argument is too modest: he restricts himself to form in its most rigid sense and anxiety in its most explicit sense, focusing on poems that are clearly about loss written in particularly strict forms – “Sestina” and “One Art.” In these two poems, as Molly Peacock puts it, form “becomes the arms of comfort in which to express the enormity of emotion” making “impossible emotions possible” (71). But Jarrell is looking at, and allows us to look at, the opposite situation, at poems wherein emotion, or panic, is kept out. The more frank examination of loss and emotion in “Sestina” or “One Art” belongs to a different mode and a different era – the more intimate work found in Bishop’s third and fourth volumes. Jarrell’s review, however, allows one to bring the question of form and anxiety to bear on poems that are not so explicitly about the “art of losing” and not written in such strict forms (cp 178). “The Fish” satisfies Jarrell’s criteria perfectly: it testifies to having seen the fish itself, to having seen something horrible besides, and to the relationship between those two sights; it maintains a rigorous detail of description and tone and form while displaying a certain quiet desperation; and it builds through these things towards a small but significant moral act. Yet it is hardly surprising that “The Fish” satisfies Jarrell’s criteria since Jarrell’s criteria are derived from “The Fish.” However, the ideas that come out of the review can also provide an excellent context in which to look at a few smaller, quieter poems from North & South: “Cirque d’Hiver,” “The Unbeliever,” and “Quai d’Orléans.” Like “The Fish” these poems
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
derive their power from keeping anxiety “underneath,” but unlike “The Fish” none of them ends with an externalized moral action, which renders their final negotiation of the aesthetic and moral worlds more difficult to assess. But the force of Jarrell’s ideas lies precisely in the way that they allow the reader to think in moral terms about poems that do not engage explicitly with moral actions. Each of these poems balances Jarrell’s care for every “detail of metre or organization or workmanship” against an oblique “element of mortal panic and fear.” The first two, “Cirque d’Hiver” and “The Unbeliever,” do so in a relatively explicit manner, presenting allegories of the conflict between fear and form, between the world and the aesthetic. Together, they form a cautionary pair: “Cirque d’Hiver” warns against allowing the world to take over one’s poetry, “The Unbeliever,” against allowing one’s fear of the world to dominate. “Quai d’Orléans,” on the other hand, is an example of the successful balance in which Jarrell is interested. It allows its own particular panic to colour it but never to intrude. It keeps “it” underneath but allows the strain of doing so to show, becoming, as Jarrell puts it, “a small, personal … heartbreaking or heartwarming affair” (500). “Cirque d’Hiver” (cp 31) reads as an allegory of the division between art and the world: the “mechanical toy” that the poem describes is made up of two contrasting parts, horse and dancer, each of which represents one half of this familiar binary. The dancer, who “stands upon her toes,” represents the rigidly aesthetic. That she is en pointe not only identifies her as a ballerina, summoning up the aura of purity and rigid aestheticism associated with the classical ballet, but also places her, physically, in a position that seeks to transcend natural human form in the quest for visual perfection. Her “tinsel bodice” furthers this trend since a bodice, like a pointe shoe, helps to sculpt the body into a more aesthetically pleasing shape. This fact is echoed in the repetition of
the word “artificial” in the two “spray[s] of artificial roses,” one of which she “poses” above her head. With “her pink toes dangl[ing]” the dancer “turns and turns” in midair, spinning on her own axis and literalizing the notion of detached aesthetic involution. The horse, on the other hand, has “real white hair” and is described in less superficial terms. He has a “formal, melancholy soul,” he “feels” the dancer’s toes above him, and he is “more intelligent by far,” capable of acting and speaking at the poem’s end in tandem with the poem’s speaker. The poem also focuses on his eyes in its first and last stanzas, where they are, respectively, “glossy black” and “like a star”; this attention to the clichéd window to the soul speaks to a level of personification that the dancer lacks. Unlike the aestheticized dancer, the horse is presented as a thinking, rational creature, capable of engaging with the world beyond himself, as he does by approaching the speaker and bringing about the final tableau in which the dancer, appropriately, “has turned her back” while the horse “looks at” the speaker. The poem’s rhyme scheme dictates that the second and fifth lines of each stanza end with the same word, but in the fourth stanza, as the speaker comes face to face with the horse, her intrusive “me” disrupts this pattern. Taken together with the toy’s gradual running down, the various stages of which render the metre jerky, this line forms a climax: He canters three steps, then he makes a bow, canters again, bows on one knee, canters, then clicks and stops, and looks at me. Up to this point, the speaker has merely watched the toy function, watched as the aesthetic and the real interacted, but now she finds herself dragged into the poem itself. The horse mimics the motions of a suitor asking for a dance: he approaches, bows, comes closer still and stands, looking expectantly. The
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
rhyme scheme is interrupted as the aesthetic world “turn[s its] back” on her, and this withdrawal leaves the speaker and the horse “[f]acing each other rather desperately,” unsure of what, exactly, to do. The poem ends there, with the disconcerting intensity of the horse’s gaze – “his eye is like a star” – and the oddly ambiguous “Well, we have come this far.” The hypnotic effect of the horse’s eye seems to destroy the speaker’s sense of herself as a discrete being. She and the horse “fac[e]” each other and “stare” in tandem; they even speak with one voice. Taken over by the horse, by the concerns of the world, the speaker loses something of what makes her an individual, of the “me” that disrupts the rhyme scheme of the poem. Read in this light, “Cirque d’Hiver” portrays the real world as mesmeric and terrifying, waiting to take over the poet’s voice. But the real world seems able to exert this power only when the toy has run itself down and the dancer has turned away. Were the horse to continue to canter and bow, the dancer to spin, this danger would not have arisen, the toy would remain merely “fit for a king of several centuries back,” a quaint outdated “mechanical toy,” “flit[ting]” “across the floor.” What Jarrell sees in Bishop is a consistent awareness of the danger that “Cirque d’Hiver” examines, a conscientious effort to keep the “big tin key” of “metre or organization or workmanship” wound up at all times. By allowing her concentration to slip momentarily, by allowing the horse to catch her eye and propose whatever it is that he proposes, she acknowledges that from which she is escaping. In order to bring out this effect, it helps to look at a poem that works in the opposite way: W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (245–7). The two poems were published within a few months of each other, but Auden’s poem, written explicitly in reaction to the outbreak of war, derides the anonymous “Faces along the bar,” who insist that “The lights must never go out, / The music must always play.” This insistence is parallel to
Bishop’s own emphasis on maintaining an aesthetic coherence, but to keep such things up in the face of adversity is not, for Auden, a moral action so much as a surrender to the very “conventions” that “conspire” to propagate “the lie of Authority.” The poet’s voice, on the other hand, is meant to “undo the folded lie,” and while Auden is at best tentative about his own ability to do so, he never doubts that it is the thing to do. Though elsewhere he claims that “poetry makes nothing happen” (242), and though he would later repudiate “September 1” for its “incurable dishonesty” (quoted in Fuller 292), here we see part of Auden’s Romantic inheritance, his sense that poetry should do, or at least try to do, something in the world rather than in spite of it. As such, the motion of these two poems is essentially opposite: where Bishop starts calmly and ends face to face with the world, Auden admits to uncertainty and fear in the first lines of the poem, only to sweep them away with the power of his rhetoric. He may be “composed like them / Of Eros and of dust,” but the rhetoric of the poem – even the rhetoric of that simile – implies a clear division between “them” (“the deaf,” “the dumb”) and himself. Jarrell points to this very aspect of Auden, his penchant for the “We-They opposition” (Third 117), which renders his morality “abstract, sentimental, and safe” (Third 154). Part of what Jarrell likes in Bishop is the lack of any such opposition or safety: “Cirque d’Hiver” is about her own need to keep those lights on and to keep that music playing, and it is by allowing them to run down that she gives the reader a glimpse of the desperation behind them, of the “element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art.” Jarrell’s argument, that the elegance of her music is itself an admirable moral action, only really makes sense in light of the knowledge that it is only music and that it could stop abruptly at any time. Auden is simply too elegant; his music comes to him too easily, and the reader, caught up in the grand sweep of his rhetoric, is lifted
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
into a world whose own music never does stop, where the fear and loathing depicted in the poem can never penetrate. But if “Cirque d’Hiver” acknowledges the need for an aesthetic refuge from the world, “The Unbeliever” (cp 22) – another poem of five short, formally intricate stanzas – points to the danger of taking this too far. Whereas in “Cirque d’Hiver” the crisis comes from confronting the world, from allowing the toy to wind down while the horse is facing the speaker, the Unbeliever’s problem is that he so resolutely avoids the world, both physically and sensually, retreating like the dancer into a world of aesthetic removal. “The Unbeliever,” like “Cirque d’Hiver,” focuses on eyes in the first and last stanzas, but the Unbeliever’s eyes, unlike the horse’s, are “fast closed” in the first stanza, and “closed tight” in the last, such that what little the Unbeliever does he does “Asleep” or “blindly,” isolated from the world. His position “on the top of a mast” not only further isolates him from the society of anyone but gulls and clouds but also presents a visual echo of the dancer similarly astride a tall vertical structure. And, like her, his elevation is characterized as a flight into the aesthetic. Bishop’s emphasis on gilding suggests both beauty and artifice, and her suggestion that, to reach his mast-top, he might have “climbed inside / a gilded bird” echoes Yeats’s Byzantine birds of “golden handiwork” who “scorn aloud” the real world of “mire or blood” (248). The Unbeliever thus seems to realize Yeats’s own dream of climbing inside such a bird, “Once out of nature,” in order to spend eternity singing to “lords and ladies of Byzantium” (194). The parallels between “Cirque d’Hiver” and “The Unbeliever” extend to formal matters as well. In “Cirque d’Hiver,” Bishop breaks the pattern of identical rhyme in order to signal the end of the aesthetic’s influence, the point at which the dancer has turned away and the speaker is confronted with the horse; here, she introduces identical rhyme at the moment where the Unbeliever’s aesthetic position is
given voice. In all but the last stanza, only the fourth and fifth lines rhyme; in the last stanza, however, in the monologue that represents the Unbeliever’s dream, the third line also rhymes identically with the fourth: “I must not fall. The spangled sea below wants me to fall. It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.” The repetition of the word, the extra line in the stanza (there are six), and the short, blunt clauses enact the paranoia that fuels the Unbeliever, the blind terror of reality that sends him up the mast of aestheticism in the first place. Whereas “Cirque d’Hiver” focuses on the dangers of the world, “The Unbeliever” is about the dangers of aestheticism, which the poem’s epigraph suggests is a form of hysterical escapism, of wilful isolation and oblivion. The quotation is taken immediately from Bunyan but ultimately from Proverbs 23:34, where it constitutes a caution against the perils of drunkenness: “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red … Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast. They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again” (Proverbs 23:31, 34–5). Bunyan cites this proverb twice in The Pilgrim’s Progress, both times in a metaphorical sense, implying oblivion but not literal drunkenness, and both times in phrasings slightly different from the one Bishop uses: “You are like them that sleep on the top of a Mast” (32), “and he slept as one upon the Mast of a Ship” (250). Bishop’s version, however, is from The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, in which it appears, unmetaphorically, as part of a lengthy analysis of the sin of drunkenness. It characterizes what Bunyan describes as the worst of drunkenness’s several evils – that it “so stupefies and besotts the soul, that a
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
man that is far gone in Drunkenness, is hardly ever recovered to God. Tell me, when did you see an old drunkard converted? No, no, such an one will sleep till he dies, though he sleeps on the top of a Mast” (46). The parallel between aestheticism and alcoholic oblivion is far from flattering to the aesthete, implying as it does that the Unbeliever’s withdrawal consists in a permanent shutting down of the self. But keeping the Biblical passage in mind, the parallel is not entirely unsympathetic. Unlike Bunyan’s use of it, the original proverb includes an account of the benefits of oblivion, a sense of why a drinker drinks: “They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not.” Solomon does not advocate alcohol, but he allows that the drunkard, on waking, might well “seek it yet again” as a means of mitigating the difficulties of the world. Reading Bunyan from a drunkard’s point of view – a point of view with which Bishop might well sympathize – the same cycle can be seen: the drunkard, roused by someone seeking to save his soul, is likely to turn from any terrifying threats of damnation to more drink. And moving from Bunyan back to Bishop, in the powerfully constructed last lines of “The Unbeliever,” Bishop takes the reader inside the Unbeliever’s mind, laying bare the very real fear that drives his own endless cycle. The Unbeliever is partially right: the sea is “hard as diamonds,” especially if one falls from a great height, and it is entirely able to destroy him. But removing himself to the top of the mast only exacerbates these problems by rendering a fall both more likely and more serious, which, in turn, drives him further up the mast. Just as the drunkard is beaten and reaches for more drink to ease the pain, the aesthetic Unbeliever sees glimpses of the “spangled sea” in “his dream” and curls into an ever tighter gilded ball. Both “The Unbeliever” and “Cirque d’Hiver” end in a sort of paralysis, the former of fear, the latter of submission. Either the sea scares one into hiding or the horse overwhelms
one’s self control. Seen through the lens of Jarrell’s review, they reveal the twin problems to which Jarrell posits Bishop as the solution. Both, however, present a notion of oblivion that Jarrell does not address – “Cirque d’Hiver” through a hostile takeover by the world and “The Unbeliever” through an endless cycle of retreat into the intoxication of the aesthetic. Bishop thinks in terms of self-preservation rather than the role of poetry in the public sphere, and she also takes the time to picture herself at either extreme of the aesthetic/ moral spectrum before settling on the middle ground. This middle ground, Jarrell’s perfect balance, is achieved in such poems as “The Fish,” where the horrors of the world are kept just outside the poem’s boundaries, and also in “Quai D’Orléans” (cp 28), where a profound melancholy pervades a poem that never explains its sad tone. For those with access to biographical detail, there is no mystery: in France, in 1937, Bishop, Louise Crane, and Margaret Miller were involved in a car accident, which left Miller without the use of her right arm. The poem was written in an “apartment on the Ile St. Louis near the Quai D’Orléans” (Millier 125), where the three lived for a time when Miller was first released from the hospital. For this particular poem, then, there is a clear and identifiable “it” that Bishop has seen, but she keeps it just outside the poem – above, rather than underneath it, if the dedication counts – and enacts sadness in the poem exclusively in small, elusive ways that do not require any knowledge of the accident on the part of the reader. By splitting her long, flexible lines into unequal parts, usually four feet and two feet, Bishop not only mimics the large and small leaves of the poem’s scene but also softens the poem’s formal frame, burying its otherwise regular rhyme scheme and keeping the rhythm from gaining too much momentum. This quiet motion is echoed throughout the poem by the use of soft, gentle terms: “easily,” “gray,” “duller,” “floating,” “softly,” “drifting,” “modestly,” “dissolving,” “still.”
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
And all of this softness is applied in its gentling way to a scene of some grandeur and violence, in which the individual ripples of a “mighty wake,” pictured as a “giant oak-leaf,” “extinguish themselves” as “falling stars come to their ends.” With its hidden puns on “wake” and “leaving,” and its open discussion of extinction, dissolution, and ends, the poem reveals an ongoing concern with mutability and death, but each large or violent term is paired with a smaller, gentler one: the “mighty wake” is “easily” towed; the “giant oak-leaf” is made of “gray lights / on duller gray”; the “giant leaves” are made up of “ripples”; the “falling-stars” end “softly”; and the “throngs” of real leaves “disappear modestly.” The poem enacts a struggle between a morbid vision and a more soothing one; its speaker is fighting with herself over the interpretation of the scene before her, seeing death everywhere but trying, desperately, to keep herself calm in its face. “Quai d’Orléans” is a poem in which the speaker describes a scene, but it is the scene, really, that captures the speaker. In the final lines, the agency of memory rests not in her but in it: “If what we see could forget us half as easily,” I want to tell you, “as it does itself – but for life we’ll not be rid of the leaves’ fossils.” These lines are not exactly clear, but Bishop’s point is that the scene, the poem, preserves the speaker’s state of mind. In its physical aspect the scene is impermanent. The ripples extinguish themselves and the leaves float away. “What we see” forgets itself since the world’s relationship with itself is neutral and transitory. However, inasmuch as the world interacts with the speaker, insofar as it is “what we see,” it preserves the confused emotions with which it is seen: it becomes a record of which she will never be rid. The quai itself, its waters,
the wake behind a boat, the poem about them all become fossilized, permanent, and permanently tainted. The aesthetic process by which the speaker calms herself ends up preserving slight traces of the very depression she seeks to evade. By using poetry to keep the world at bay, she allows the world to infect the poetry; by pushing it away, she makes it permanent. The point of those final lines is to emphasize how very much the speaker’s sadness has pervaded the scene, how very much “it,” though “written underneath,” colours everything. Earlier, I described Jarrell’s famous line as relegating the world to a space outside the poem, but perhaps it makes more sense, in this context at least, to read the word “underneath” in another sense. Rather than read it twodimensionally as indicating a space below, we might read it in three dimensions, in a painterly sense, to indicate an undercoat beneath even the painting’s background. In both “Cirque d’Hiver” and “The Unbeliever” the world is pushed down, literally, to the last stanza of each poem. Here, instead, it is pushed behind the poem, only to show through every phrase in highlights and muted tones. And it is in highlights and muted tones that the world generally appears in Bishop’s early poetry, and the power of Jarrell’s review is that it gives us a way of thinking about that fact, of acknowledging the ways in which she is “morally so satisfactory” without ever speaking of moral issues. Jarrell’s account of Bishop is powerful in that it allows us to rediscover the conditions under which Bishop laboured, the directions in which she felt pulled, and the conflicting claims laid on her; it shows us, that is, how it felt to publish a volume of poetry in 1946. But, most importantly, Jarrell shows us how description can bear a moral dimension and how Bishop’s intense scrutiny of the physical world is not necessarily a blind escape from the more pressing facts of historical reality but, rather, a particular, and particularly successful, way of addressing them. Bishop’s method is not a popular one, and it
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
sets her apart from the bulk of her contemporaries, but Jarrell’s review lets us reach her where she is. Just as Bishop points back to the “lonely young” Darwin, “his eyes fixed on facts and minute details” (dl), so does Jarrell point to the “lonely triumph of integrity” (500) that Bishop’s poems, with their testament to having “seen it,” comprise.
As I hope to have made clear, this book is not only about description in the usual sense (or senses) but also about the role of scrutiny in a much larger intellectual pattern that dominates Bishop’s work. Chapters 2 through 4 lay this pattern out as it pertains to knowledge and the mind, showing how Bishop always emphasizes the study of smaller, more concrete things at least partially because she believes that study to be the only avenue to the larger, more abstract ones. The preceding chapter shifts gears somewhat, tracing this same pattern as it applies to the opposition between aesthetic and moral action. Again, Bishop’s method is to focus resolutely on the aesthetic as the only legitimate way to reach the moral. In keeping with the larger pattern, she does not consider morality and aesthetics to be indistinguishable, nor does she seek to elevate aesthetics at the expense of morality; rather, she considers any direct entry into the moral sphere to be either facile or impossible. Like the model of mind put forth in “At the Fishhouses,” the morality revealed by Jarrell’s review is one that relies on hard work and hardship, on a scrupulosity and balance nearly impossible to maintain, on the intellectual and poetic virtues that result from a lifelong devotion to the idea of scrutiny and description. To say this is to draw attention to a similarity not only in Bishop’s art and thought but also in what I have written
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
about her so far. There is also, however, an important difference – or, rather, an important progression – inherent here. In my first chapter, I put forward a Bishop firmly in control of both the objects within her poems and the readers of those poems. I acknowledge a certain respect for the Fish and the Man-Moth, but it is a respect among equals (if that). My chapters on Bishop’s model of mind require a more moderate position: however firmly Bishop controls the objects within her poems, the world outside her poems is something over which she has considerably less control. As “At the Fishhouses” makes clear, she can extract something from the world around her, but not easily. This last chapter complicates things even further by bringing forth the role of the social world, suggesting that her habit of focusing so carefully within the poems is not only a product of aesthetic preference but also a reaction to pressures outside the aesthetic sphere. To put this another way, if “At the Fishhouses” highlights the difficulty of Bishop’s poetics of description, then Jarrell’s review shows how it is a product of necessity as much as choice. And so while there is a basic intellectual pattern that runs throughout Bishop’s thinking, the sources of that pattern are various and complicated. It is worth pausing to sum things up in this manner not only because we have come to the midpoint of this study but also because I am about to shift directions somewhat. In one sense, I will return to my first chapter by beginning with a concrete question of writing not unlike my distinction between types of imagery: the relationship between narrative and time. In another sense, I will repeat the motion of chapters 2 through 4: just as those chapters begin with the careful reading of a neglected piece of prose and move from there to a much more expansive vision of Bishop’s poetics, so do the next three chapters begin with a careful reading of one of Bishop’s undergraduate essays and move from there to an examination of how narrative and
scrutiny interact in her poetics more generally. As always, that characteristically Bishopesque approach to binaries, that familiar intellectual pattern, will crop up again and again, albeit in different and more complicated ways. So much is familiar. New, however, is an emerging emphasis on maturation. Up to this point, I have been painting an eternal, Platonic Bishop whose poetics remain unchanged throughout her career. The portrait of Bishop that emerges in these next chapters is one of gradual accommodation to reality, of a youthful rigour relaxing into mature nonchalance. As is, perhaps, appropriate for a set of chapters explicitly concerned with the idea of time, one of the wrinkles that these next chapters add to my argument is a consciousness of biographical time, of Bishop’s development as a thinker. In 1930, Bishop entered Vassar College with, as Brett C. Millier puts it, “a simmering literary ambition” but “no clear path to its fulfillment” (41). “Time’s Andromedas,” an essay she wrote in her senior year, and which was published in the Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies, illustrates that ambition rather nicely. Sadly, it also shows the lack of a clear path that Millier identifies. The essay presents a complicated set of ideas about temporality and narrative and a portrait of the sort of fiction that Bishop would like to write or see written, but it gives only a confused sense of how such fiction could possibly come to be. It is a difficult essay on a difficult topic, and it is also rather difficult to discuss. On the one hand, it is an undergraduate essay, and it is sometimes unfocused, ungenerous, and blind to internal contradictions; on the other hand, it is the product of an impressive mind, and it shows all the brilliant use of imagery, the confident yet conversational tone, and the combination of intellectual insight and lyrical power that characterizes Bishop’s adult work. What Bishop proposes is neither plain nor really possible, but her attempt is so characteristically her own that it is hard to dismiss it as juvenilia. More to the point, though she
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
would never succeed in writing (or defining, really) the sort of fiction that would satisfy her rigorous ideas about time, the concepts implicit in the paper prove useful in describing certain characteristics of her mature poetics. “Time’s Andromedas” is actually one of two linked essays Bishop wrote during her senior year (1933–34) for Rose Peebles’s class in “Contemporary Prose Fiction,” the other being “Dimensions for a Novel.” Bishop was Peebles’s “star pupil” (Millier 43), which explains the appearance of both essays in the Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies. “Time’s Andromedas” is the more conventionally analytical of the two, setting up a topic of investigation and then looking carefully at two exemplary texts. It begins with the observation that time feels different within a novel than it does in life, suggests that this disparity is problematic, and then looks at two particular methods of overcoming it, embodied by Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. “Dimensions for a Novel” is more abstract and, as the title indicates, consists of a set of ideas about and characteristics of a not-yet-written novel. The later essay quotes from the first at one point, and the two share a number of concerns, but I will not address “Dimensions for a Novel” except in passing. “Time’s Andromedas” is difficult enough, but “Dimensions for a Novel” is thoroughly frustrating in the impracticality of its ambition. Since “Time’s Andromedas” examines the role of time in fiction, I will draw on Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative in order to argue that what Bishop really wants is the elimination of narrative from the novel. Such a goal is ambitious to the point of impossibility, but Bishop’s essay begins much more modestly, with the premise that time is involved in a novel in three ways: “First, it must be employed actually, hour by hour, in the writing process. Second, it must pass a suppositious length of days, hours, or years within the novel. And third, it must be used up, actually again, while the book is being read” (103).
Leaving aside the first of these, which does not recur in the essay, Bishop seems to be moving towards the familiar narratological distinction between “narrated time” and “time of narrating.” (The terms are originally Genette’s, but I am using Ricoeur’s definitions.) Narrated time, which is measured in “years, days, and hours” (2:79), is the amount of time the events of a novel are supposed to have occupied within that novel’s world – Bishop’s “suppositious” time. Time of narrating, which is measured in “pages and lines” (2:78), is the amount of space devoted to describing or relating those events, which, in turn, is translated by the individual reader into real time, while, as Bishop puts it, “the book is being read.” So far, then, Bishop is a narratologist avant la lettre. But, moving on from these basic definitions, Bishop explains that there is “perhaps a fourth” dimension of time in the novel in that “each book has a tempo of its own” (103). She makes a brief attempt to figure out how “literal reading time” (time of narrating) and “suppositious time-passage” (narrated time) might be related to the “general time-atmosphere of the book” but gives up her “fourth conclusion” as only “half-expressed” and declares the “sum of all these ideas” “a complete mystery” (103–4). According to Ricoeur, however, it is precisely the ratio of narrated time to time of narrating that gives a novel its particular feeling of time. By manipulating this ratio, the novelist can draw out and emphasize certain events while passing quickly over others. Similarly, by rearranging the order of events or by controlling the frequency of their appearance through repetition, the novelist can manipulate time for a variety of purposes. This is, again, to be found in Genette: he posits the manipulation of duration, order, and frequency as a tool for the novelist’s use. But Ricoeur goes slightly further, suggesting that the overall pattern of manipulation gives each novel’s imagined world what Bishop calls a time-sense and what he calls “a fictive experience of time” (2:77). Rather than a tool used to create
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
isolated effects or to emphasize particular parts of a novel, Ricoeur, like Bishop, sees a total temporal experience particular to each novel. Since the novelist creates his or her time-sense through manipulation, the key to time-sense is control, and, when discussing Realist fiction’s use of time, Bishop uses a set of images that reflects this. The Realist author is a “band-master” (110), someone who always seems to be saying “Now we must be careful” (108), a train “conductor” (107), or one of “those fussy people who must get to the train hours ahead of time” (112). In the Realist novel, “conversation, description, thought, all are led by [the author] to the same tune and are in his mind from the very beginning” (110). The simple fact of control separates the novel’s time-sense from that of reality, making it, in Ricoeur’s terms, a “fictive experience of time” (my emphasis). But where Ricoeur merely posits this as a neutral fact of fictionality, Bishop finds it objectionable. To her mind, since book time is different from real time, it is condemned to be an oddity, felt while reading but foreign and strange as soon as the book is set down. She introduces this notion with an elaborate description of a group of migrating birds: Within the invisible boundaries of the flying birds everything became theirs … [and w]hen I had looked away I was conscious for a minute of their time, pulsing against and contradicting my own; then it lost its reality and became a fixed feeling, a little section of the past which had changed and become timeless for me because of its escape from my own time pattern. Now I believe that is a fair representation of what happens when one reads any novel of the nineteenth or early twentieth century sort … I accept, while reading, the time-system of the book; and then when the book is read, this system, slipped into a state of actual timelessness, becomes a condition, something realized whenever the book is thought of. (104–5)
The Realist novel, like the birds, creates a sort of alternate universe, which, being so organized and controlled, looks strange and foreign when compared to the real, disorganized, uncontrolled world in which the reader lives. Ironically, it is by “carefully ‘positing’ their time-district,” and by “getting us back mentally into a time-pattern of their own making,” that Realist authors condemn their own work to ephemerality (108). A well-written Realist novel can “include us for the reading,” but it “will later become to us only a minute’s atmosphere” (108). Realist fiction functions by creating a fully articulated world, complete with its own sense of time, but this world is necessarily a world distinct from the world. Implicit in Bishop’s rejection of fiction’s very fictionality is a set of ideas about what fiction should and should not do that is characteristically Bishopesque but also characteristically modernist. By pointing out the discrepancy between the timesense of the Realist novel and the time-sense of reality, Bishop, consciously or not, follows in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps. Woolf argues in “Modern Fiction” that, even as the “tyrant” of Realism “is obeyed” and “the novel is done to a turn,” one feels “a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in the customary way,” as to whether or not life is really “like this” and whether novels must also, therefore, “be like this” (149). Woolf concludes that “life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this’” (149) and that Realism is not an accurate portrait of reality so much as a set of fictional conventions that have little if anything to do with how reality is actually perceived. Woolf is not concerned with time in particular, but her argument that modernist fiction, as strange as it might seem to a reader trained by Realist conventions, is actually an attempt to bring fiction closer to reality finds an echo in Bishop’s argument that “a great deal of our modern ‘experimental’ writing” attempts “to either prolong this first contradictory timepattern into the after recollection of the novel, or to make it no
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
longer contradictory but acquiescent with our own timepattern as we read” (105). As the essay unfolds, it becomes clear that, in order to “prolong this first contradictory timepattern into the after recollection of the novel,” it is necessary to make it a less contradictory time-pattern: the more book time feels like real time, the easier it is to reconcile the two. For Bishop, the two authors who best illustrate “these two methods of adding time to the novel, of preserving it in counterpoint or in unison with our own” (106), are Dorothy Richardson, who strives for a time-sense as similar to real time as possible, and Gertrude Stein, who tries to make her novel’s time-sense identical to the reader’s while in the process of reading. Stein fares rather ill, and though she is treated second in the essay, I will deal with her first and quickly. To Bishop’s mind, writing is “a linear art,” “a form of motion,” that “gets by us even as we read, and must be dealt with in retrospect. So that the time in all compositions must necessarily be past” (115). Stein, however, wants to “get present time into her writing, somehow to make us feel that the thing is happening, as we read it, simultaneously” (115). Unfortunately, Bishop finds that though “Miss Stein believes in this theory, her characters certainly do not prove it” (116), and that she succeeds only in a few “curious tricks which perhaps further the sense of present time” that is, nonetheless, “defeated in the book as a whole” (117). And that is that. Bishop does not spend as much energy on Stein as on Richardson, and the main thrust of her section on Stein is simply that, whatever Stein is trying to do, it is not working. She finds Richardson’s Pilgrimage more promising. Where Stein tries to equate the time-sense of her novel to the actual time-sense of the reader while reading, Richardson attempts, instead, to create a fictional time-sense that is as close to real time as possible. Stein tries and fails to infiltrate the actual present; Richardson is content to echo it with a time-sense “consistently parallel with our own yet in a more vivace
tempo” (113). The ways in which Richardson accomplishes this effect occupy a good portion of Bishop’s essay, but for the most part, they are the standard tools of the stream-ofconsciousness narrative, and Bishop explicitly calls the novel’s “time-sense, that of the stream of consciousness” (107). The novel does not begin with exposition, so that the past appears to the reader as a “series of vague days outside the left-hand cover” (106); there are no authorial glimpses of the future, or “getting into carriages and fussing about … while the author, conductor-wise, shouts the next destination in our ears” (107); no authorial indication of time or place, or what Bishop calls the “Contractors and Builders Method” of “clearing ground, measuring and digging for the basement” (108); and, perhaps most crucially, no privileging at the time of what are only later revealed to be important events: “the acquiring of a new blouse gives [the novel’s protagonist] much more thought and trouble than the meeting of the man who is later to become her lover” (113). All in all, Pilgrimage is presented in such a manner that it most clearly reflects “a life happening to someone and being written down” (113). Although this sounds relatively familiar, there are a few important differences between Bishop’s characterization of Pilgrimage and more familiar high-modernist stream-ofconsciousness writing. Mrs Dalloway, for example, though it takes place over the course of one day and presents most of the ordinary things that occur during that day, still recounts a normal novel’s share of story, and, in doing so, it returns to certain Realist conventions. Insofar as the novel narrates the events of that particular day, it does reflect “a life happening to someone and being written down”; however, insofar as the novel, through flashback and reflection, narrates the lives of Mrs Dalloway, Septimus Smith, and others, it falls back into a Realist time-sense, using exposition, indicating time and place, and privileging certain key events by returning to them repeatedly. In this way, in terms of time, Woolf hides
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Realism beneath reality, presenting a realistic narrative that contains a Realist novel in the form of flashbacks. Woolf’s use of flashbacks is antithetical to Bishop’s design in that it reduces the present to a medium through which to gain access to the past. In this regard, Proust is the ultimate villain: “so much thought backwards from a sitting posture, no matter what wonders it brought to light, must be a sin against the particular beauties of the passing minute” (110). Richardson’s particular virtue, on the other hand, is that her protagonist’s “thoughts are struck off, spark-like, from the present” (111). Bishop is dodging a bit here since Richardson does indeed use flashbacks, which Bishop attempts to justify by redefining them as “loops”: “not digression but actual story, brought in off the beat, so to speak, in a form of syncopation” (112). This is hardly convincing, but Bishop is exaggerating Richardson’s method in order to make her point. Even though Richardson does not line up time of narrating and narrated time perfectly, she is moving in the direction that Bishop indicates, attempting to insinuate her protagonist “simply and slightly into our own time, without disturbing it” so that we “become aware of a rhythm perpetually going on, like our own, [and] in many ways as monotonous as our own” (109). Compared to Mrs Dalloway, which jumps around to condense several lives into a single day, Richardson’s book may seem dull, but that is “the secret of the whole thing” (113). Taking what she says of Richardson to its logical end, Bishop is working towards a sort of continuous journal intime. Not surprisingly, then, “Seven-Days Monolouge” [sic], a short story she published within months of “Time’s Andromedas,” is written in diary form and shows little interest in reconciling itself to the demands of the short-story genre. But the essays go further even than this short story: a diarist sits down at the end of a day to select and arrange its events, but in Bishop’s characterization, Richardson does not even enjoy this
limited version of authorial privilege, being sworn to a careful notation of thoughts and sensations as they are triggered by events, without any omniscient or retrospective selection or manipulation of order, duration, or frequency. In “Pilgrimages, we don’t know what’s coming next” and “what is more, Miss Richardson has no clear idea, either” (110). The implications of this statement are extensive since, as Ricoeur points out, it is the knowledge of what is coming next that makes an author an author: a story is “governed as a whole by its way of ending” and so inverts the “so-called ‘natural’ order of time” that flows simply “from the past toward the future” (1:67–8). The power of retrospection allows the author to identify causes before their effects arise, to draw “a configuration out of a simple succession” (1:65), which is the sine qua non of narrative: “[t]o make up a plot is already to make the intelligible spring from the accidental, the universal from the singular, the necessary or the probable from the episodic” (1:41). If “Miss Richardson has no clear idea” of how her novel ends (110), then she is not really, or not simply, writing a narrative, and her novel shares more with real time than narrative time. By aligning the time of narrating strictly to the narrated time, by refusing to modify duration, order, or frequency, Richardson eliminates that part of the author’s function that consists in narrating. She is still creating the world in which her protagonist moves, and in this sense she is still writing fiction, but she is doing so in such a way as to eliminate the appearance of narrative. This effect is inevitably an illusion – presumably Richardson has a somewhat clearer idea of what comes next than does her reader – but she has done as much as possible to pretend otherwise. In this way, Richardson has an impressive claim to our attention. Not only was the term “stream of consciousness” first used in a literary context to describe her novel (Allan 4), but, as Bishop’s undergraduate essay makes clear, she gives the term an unusually pure and literal embodiment.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Bishop’s ideas about eliminating authorial control over time from a novel’s composition are fairly radical, but, undaunted, she goes on in the last lines of the essay to “wonder if any one has ever thought of writing a novel” that, instead of lining up narrated time and time of narrating on a strictly objective level, would attempt to portray the “experience-time … in which realities reach us, quite different from the hour after hour, day after day kind” (119). She illustrates her point with the image of “boys div[ing] after pennies” that sink “at unequal rates,” so that “the diving boys sometimes pick them up halfway down, or even get there before the coins do” (120). Such, she suggests, is our experience of time, and there is no reason that the days presented in a fictional world should “retreat systematically – Friday, Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday” and not “any other way” (120). “Why not,” she asks, “Wednesday, Friday, Tuesday, if they seem that way to me?” (120). At one point in the essay she characterizes the events in Richardson’s novels as snow-flakes that descend “slowly” and “purposefully” (113), but here she prefers pennies drifting at their own pace. Real time, which marches by evenly and in its proper order, is rejected in favour of something truer to Bishop’s sense of how time feels to the subjective consciousness. Bishop’s proposal is to construct a novel that is strictly bound to this sort of subjective ordering of experience, much as her version of Richardson’s novel is strictly bound to an objective ordering of experience. Her novelist would, presumably, have to invent an objective fictional world, complete with the order, duration, and frequency of its events, and then record a subjective experience of that world, with its own order, duration, and frequency of events – no easy task. Though this idea may sound like a reintroduction of authorial control, like flashbacks in disguise, it is actually a more complicated notion than that: these pennies are not remembered experiences but, rather, the experiences themselves being registered, albeit out of order, for the first time.
By employing such a method, Bishop’s imaginary novel would remain far truer than Mrs Dalloway to Woolf’s goal of recording “the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall” and tracing “the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness” (150). And so, by moving beyond even Richardson, Bishop’s imaginary novelist extends Woolf’s ideas to their logical, if unwieldy, conclusion. Instead of Richardson’s thoughts, “struck off, spark-like, from the present,” she substitutes pennies that fall upon the mind in their own order – like Woolf’s “atoms.” Hard as it is to imagine such a novel, the added wrinkles introduced in “Dimensions for a Novel” (which I will not get into here) push her agenda firmly into the realm of the unreadable. And an unreadable novel puts Bishop in a bind: if her goal is a radical verisimilitude, then a novel that alienates the reader through its incomprehensibility is a failure, which is why Bishop, as close as she comes, never goes over into the nouveau roman. As Stephen Heath writes, the nouveau roman is based on the notion that reality “needs to be understood not as an absolute and immutable given but as a production within which representation will depend on (and, dialectically, contribute to) what the French Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser has described as ‘practical ideology’” (20). The novel, for Robbe-Grillet and others, does not approach to an objective reality; instead, it is a tool with which “Reality” is enforced and, therefore, “an area of man’s captivity” (22). As such, the nouveau roman can reject readability since “‘the readable’” is merely “the area in which [humanity] is held captive” (22). But such rhetoric, like the rhetoric of the surrealists, is not Bishop’s, and the fact that her devotion to the accurate depiction of reality leads her to a similar method is a problem for her. In “Dimensions for a Novel,” she worries that the very notion of prescribing a fictional method is as “ridiculous as it
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
would be to make measurements for a suit of clothes and then grow the body to fit them” (95). But it is not the fact of prescription that is ridiculous – she would hardly be the first to issue a manifesto – it is the extreme ambition of the prescription she gives. The suit of clothes for which she wants to grow a body is shaped in such a manner that no body, or, at least, no body she is ideologically ready to produce, will fit it. Not surprisingly, no such novel was forthcoming, and even Bishop’s short stories, with the exception of “In the Village,” are relatively conservative in their relationship to time. But even “In the Village” fails to live up to Bishop’s program: it is unusual in its shifts of tense and person but normal enough in its willingness to manipulate time – of the mother, for instance, it is proleptically noted that “[l]ater it was she who gave the scream” (cpr 251). But even though these essays on time in the novel do not describe Bishop’s fiction, they may still provide some interesting ideas that can be carried through to a discussion of her poetry. To flesh out the ways in which Bishop’s undergraduate essay predicts her later writing is the work of the next two chapters, in which I parlay this initial set of notions into discussions of, respectively, travel writing and the mental processes of description. Before I do, however, I want to look more immediately at the question of narrative in Bishop’s poetry in order to demonstrate how her initially hostile attitude towards it fades over the course of time. This examination is necessary for the immediate goals of this set of chapters, but it also contributes something important to the overall trajectory of this study: evolution. Bishop’s ideas about narrative are another version of her persistent approach to intellectual binaries. Just as she is committed to objective, empirical thinking as the only route to more abstract notions, so is she committed, in “Time’s Andromedas,” to realistic time as the only route to fictional truth. But Bishop’s attitude towards time is one that gradually relaxes, and that gradual relaxation is an important new
development for me. The Bishop I have presented so far is rigidly committed to her empirical world, but the Bishop that ends this study is a more flexible thinker. And so these next few pages set an important precedent for my final chapters. In the most obvious sense, somewhere around Questions of Travel, Bishop begins to write narrative poems, and narrative plays an increasingly important role for her, leading up to the major accomplishments of “In the Waiting Room” and “The Moose.” But in a more subtle manner, she moves gradually from an implicit distrust of the very idea of narrativity to a much more comfortable relationship to the powers of retrospective narration. The trajectory that emerges is a familiar one of confused youthful ambition fading into mature nonchalance. After proposing the radical position of “Time’s Andromedas,” she experiments briefly with an equivalent poetics but eventually begins to doubt the distinctions that once seemed so clear and so morally imperative. This doubt brings on questioning and uncertainty, then a careful, mid-career re-examination of the whole issue, and eventually a whole new attitude. In what remains of this chapter, I want to look briefly at the beginning and the end of this process – the experimentation, the doubt, and then the comfortable resolution. The middle, the careful reexamination, occupies the next chapter entirely. Written sometime in late 1935 or early 1936, “Paris, 7 a.m.” (cp 26–7) is the closest Bishop ever really comes to realizing the ideas about narrative in “Time’s Andromedas.” Time, in the poem’s opening lines, is an ignorant and random thing without even momentary coherence: I make a trip to each clock in the apartment: some hands point histrionically one way and some point others, from the ignorant faces. More to the point, however, time moves here in the slow, Richardsonian manner that Bishop advocates:
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Time is an Etoile; the hours diverge so much that days are journeys round the suburbs. A composite clock, with a hand pointing to each hour, reveals a star-like pattern that reminds Bishop of Paris’s urban planning and the étoiles in which its streets converge. But these hours do not converge; they diverge. And so a journey around the outer perimeter of the clock, the journey that time makes each day, becomes an immensely extended pilgrimage around the circumference of Paris. Time, in this poem, is distended, but not merely, as Bonnie Costello suggests, to “symbolize the ennui” of “pointlessly repetitive” days (179); rather, the slow passage of time allows the speaker a valuable acuteness of observation: The short, half-tone scale of winter weathers is a spread pigeon’s wing. Winter lives under a pigeon’s wing, a dead wing with damp feathers. An array of minute variations, the shades of grey that make up the “half-tone scale of winter weathers,” is to be found even within the “dead wing with damp feathers.” Even the seemingly dull and mundane reveals observations “struck off, spark-like, from the present.” Narrative would hurry us past things that deserve description, a Bishopesque observation if ever there was one. Conversely, as the poem moves towards “introspection,” “recollection,” and, tellingly, “retrospection,” Bishop develops the image of an eternal snow-fort “built in flashier winters,” “withstanding spring” and growing to “four, five, stories high.” Stepping outside of time’s forward march, the poem looks to the possibility of erecting some edifice, some structure that preserves human artifice, some accomplishment whose “walls” and “shape” “could not dissolve and die.” Bishop is
not only bringing up the notion of some human endeavour that operates against real time but also positing it as an antidote to change. This acknowledgment of mutability and the defensive implications of the fort introduce a whole new level of discourse into Bishop’s thinking, a recognition that the forward march of time, to which she has been so devoted, brings with it change and death. But Bishop has little faith in the defensive capabilities of her fort, as the next stanza informs us: Where is the ammunition, the piled-up balls with the star-splintered hearts of ice? This sky is no carrier-warrior-pigeon escaping endless intersecting circles. Bishop undercuts this option by pointing to its lack of defence – “ammunition” – against time and suggesting that the winter sky is no “warrior” with the power to resist the “endless intersecting circles” of the first stanza’s clock hands. (Note the pun on “intersection.”) Rather, the sky, and, by implication, the model of time on which the poem will settle, is “a dead one,” whose “dead wing with damp feathers” belongs to Bishop’s endlessly circling Richardsonian clock. But the tone of this poem is oddly mournful, and the persistent pairing of Richardsonian time with negative images and adjectives – “histrionic,” “ignorant,” “dead,” “damp,” “endless” – suggests certain misgivings. The final lines even hint at its possible defeat, implying that it may have been “captured” or be “about to tumble in snow.” The reintroduction of the military language, together with the snow imagery, suggests that Richardson’s time may not be triumphant after all and that Bishop’s grand snowball fight might not have been the simple rout that slow time expected. Regardless, the poem certainly introduces the negative aspects of time that marches forward, the suggestion of death and mutability to which so much poetry holds itself up as an antidote. “Paris, 7 a.m.” engages with the
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
issues introduced in “Time’s Andromedas,” but it comes to a much more equivocal decision, if it comes to a decision at all. “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” (cp 57–9) takes this equivocation to its logical extreme, moving into a realm of unsettled desperation and yearning. The basic structure of the poem points to the conflict between real life and narrated life: the illustrated book (whether it is a Bible or an illustrated book of wonders is a matter of some critical disagreement), with its pictures of “serious, engravable” scenes featuring capitalized attractions – “the Tomb, the Pit, the Sepulcher” – shames the speaker’s own recollected travels with its claims to significance. “Thus,” she complains, “should have been our travels.” Lacking the power of retrospection to draw “a configuration out of a simple succession” (Ricoeur 1:65), her travels seem almost random, and she complains that they are “only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’” (They are – the second stanza is full of sentences beginning with “And”: “And at St. Peters,” “And at Volubilis,” “And in the brothels of Marrakech.”) Discouraged, the speaker turns once more to “the book,” “the heavy book,” asking why “couldn’t we have seen / this old Nativity” and slipping into a beautifully evocative ekphrastic description. The power of narrative representation triumphs over the actual immersion in real life and real time. Or so it seems. But the book is not unproblematic. As Thomas Travisano points out, there is a strong sense of the “limitations of the pictorial technique and artistic achievement of these engravings” (eb 116): The branches of the date-palms look like files. The cobbled courtyard, where the Well is dry, is like a diagram, the brickwork conduits are vast and obvious. But beyond such faults in the artist’s skill, there is a problem with the very fact of artistic representation. The speaker’s
criticisms are organized around the extent to which the rendering is “obvious” or “like a diagram,” the extent to which it is clearly planned. In the end, the illustrations “all resolve themselves” as the “eye drops, weighted, through the lines / the burin made.” Examined closely, the images stand revealed as images, products of a needle scratching tiny lines into wax. From a distance, the images look solid enough, but, as the eye moves in, the lines that comprise them “move apart,” and the pictures are revealed in their “watery prismatic white-and-blue”: just as a prism divides solid light into separately coloured beams, so does careful scrutiny resolve the seemingly solid images into lines of watery blue ink and the white spaces that separate them. The closer one looks at the book, the less significance it seems to have; from complete images representing important things, it dissolves into individually meaningless lines. In a strange reversal of this process, the catalogue of travels that follows is presented as if it were a list of individually meaningless scenes, “only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and,’” and yet it contains a version of the same Christian story that the speaker finds in the book: “St. John” appears, as does the Annunciation in the form of an “Englishwoman … informing us / that the Duchess was going to have a baby”; we see “St. Peter” and Mary Magdalene in the form of “little pockmarked prostitutes”; the resurrection is suggested in the near conjunction of a “dead man” and some “Easter lilies”; and the nativity itself shows up in the form of a “marble trough” (a manger is a feed trough, from the French mangeoire) in which a “poor prophet paynim” “once lay.” A more careful reading of the stanza as a whole reveals that the meaning of “our travels,” like the meaning of the “lines / the burin made,” is greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, a more careful reading of the poem as a whole shows Bishop pointing out how everything is “only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’” if one looks closely enough: the
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
“lines / the burin made,” “our travels,” even the predominantly paratactic Bible, from which we get the story of the nativity so movingly described in the last lines. Anything can be endowed with meaning if read from a sufficient distance, just as anything can be reduced to a meaningless jumble if perspective is lacking. In the end, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” becomes a testament to the universal power of retrospection that elides the very distinction between real life and narrated life, the distinction on which everything in “Time’s Andromedas” is based. Ricoeur points out that there is, for us, no true access to real time since “time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative” (1:3), and, in “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” Bishop seems to have come around to this opinion. She even uses her power of description, in those last lines, to make the reader see “this old Nativity” despite not having “seen” it herself. The next step along this path, a careful re-examination of some of the fundamental concerns at play here, is the subject of the next chapter, but for now I want to leap over that particular stage and into the final phase of Bishop’s changing attitude towards narrative. Far from the angry young woman denouncing Realism as a betrayal of reality, the Bishop of “Santarém” (cp 185–7) engages explicitly and cheerfully in retrospective narration – and retrospective narration of a particularly casual sort. The first lines are: Of course I may be remembering it all wrong after, after how many years? The poem is openly the product of a reimagining, and the speaker makes little if any attempt to separate original knowledge from knowledge acquired since or during the visit. Although the traveller in “Santarém” is apparently visiting the
town for the first time, the speaker is remarkably well informed about the town’s history, both distant – the influx of Southerners after the civil war – and recent – lightning striking the Cathedral a “week or so before” her visit. She is also comfortable enough with the language to construct a bilingual echo on the fact that the Portuguese word for painted tiles, azulejos, contains the word for blue, azul: buildings one story high, stucco, blue or yellow, and one house faced with azulejos, buttercup yellow. However new Santarém might have been to her all those years ago, it is familiar to her now, and the poem makes no attempt to recapture that initial naïveté. No longer anxious to keep reality and narrative separate, Bishop allows past and present to “resolve[ ]” and “dissolve[ ].” As a result, the details of Santarém take on a sort of luminosity that may or may not have been there in reality. The “blue and yellow” of those buildings, for example, become almost magically ubiquitous. The “yellow” spreads to the “buttercup yellow” tiles, to the “dark-gold river sand,” and from there to “golden sand” and “golden sand” (the phrase ends two consecutive lines); the “blue” expands from the “stucco” to the “azulejos,” to the “teams of zebus […] gentle, proud, / and blue,” to the “blue eyes” of the Southerners’ descendents, and, finally, to the “blue pharmacy” where the speaker first sees the wasps’ nest. However magically beautiful a place Santarém might have been, “Santarém” is much more so. In “Time’s Andromedas,” Bishop complained of Proust that “so much thought backwards from a sitting posture, no matter what wonders it brought to light, must be a sin against the particular beauties of the passing minute” (110), and so she preferred Richardson, whose “thoughts are struck off, spark-like, from the present” (111). But in “Santarém,” it is permanence that interests her – hence the importance
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
given to the “empty wasps’ nest” that ends the poem. Not unlike the snow fort in “Paris, 7 a.m.,” it is “small, exquisite, clean matte white, / and hard as stucco.” It also echoes those “stucco” “buildings one story high,” whose colours have been taking over the poem, and contrasts with the “belvedere / about to fall into the river” and the “Cathedral” whose “tower” shows “a widening zigzag crack all the way down” where it had been “struck by lightning.” The wasps’ nest is a building that lasts where others do not. Like her private, half-imaginary version of Santarém, it stays with her, and, in the process, like Santarém, it assumes a private significance – to “Mr. Swan” after all, it is just “that ugly thing.” The key-note of Santarém, for the speaker, is the desire “to go no farther,” “to stay.” And the wasps’ nest becomes a home in Santarém that she can, paradoxically, take with her. This is undoubtedly “a sin against the particular beauties of the passing minute,” but Bishop’s goals and priorities have changed over the course of her career. The battles she sought to join as a young woman no longer seem so crucial in her late sixties. As an undergraduate, she argued for a new form of fiction, bound tightly to a realistic feeling of temporal presentness, but by the end of her career such presentness no longer seems desirable or even possible. In my next chapter, I suggest that Questions of Travel can be divided between the travel poems of the “Brazil” section and the more autobiographical poems of “Elsewhere” and that this division can also be read as a turning point in Bishop’s career. From “Elsewhere” onwards, Bishop grows increasingly comfortable with the malleability of the past and insists less and less on the strictures of the present. She begins, with the “Elsewhere” poems, to show a greater openness to and interest in the possibilities of retrospective narration, to the poet’s power to shape reality to her own ends. By the time of “Santarém,” such reshaping has become so much the norm that she begins the poem with a shrug of the shoulders, admitting
quite cheerfully that she may be “remembering it all wrong.” In her youth, Bishop thought such an attitude weak and backward, but, reading through these various poems written at various points in her career, we can see her losing that initial rigidity. From the young revolutionary who could dismiss Proust in such an offhand manner, Bishop matures into the poet whose elegant insouciance fills the poems of Geography III, the poet who cheerfully presents art “copying from life” and life itself, life and the memory of it so compressed they’ve turned into each other. Which is which? (cp 177)
Located somewhere between the youthful ambition of “Time’s Andromedas” and the mature relaxation of “Santarém,” the three poems that begin Questions of Travel present a turning point and a resolution of sorts. Explicitly, these poems are about travel, not time or narrative, but, as my choice of poems in the previous chapter suggests, travel, time, and narrative are not entirely unrelated: “Over 2,000 Illustrations” and “Santarém” are openly about travel, and “Paris, 7 a.m.,” is set – and was written – in a foreign city. Granted, Bishop wrote many poems that engage either directly or indirectly with travel, and any random sample of three poems could well come out like this one, but there is more than coincidence at play here. In the preceding chapter, I argued that the young Bishop sees in Richardson an author with “no clear idea” of how her novel ends (110), who tries to leave behind the very thing that separates narrative and reality. Narrative is narrative because it “draws a configuration” out of the “simple succession” that is reality (Ricoeur 1:65); such a configuration needs, as Aristotle suggests, “a beginning, a middle, and an end” so as to present “a single action, whole and complete in itself” (57–8). Travel writing, however, occupies an interesting middle ground between narrative and reality, and,
as such, it provides a particularly attractive model for Bishop in her quest for a form of writing suspended between these opposing poles. Tzvetan Todorov defines the “first important feature of” travel writing as a tension between “travel” and “narrative” (293). The genre is made up of both “objective description” and “personal narration,” and so it occupies a middle ground between “science” and “autobiography,” resulting from “the fusion of the two” (293). Todorov’s definition helps to explain why a writer interested in creating a form of literature that clings closely to the temporal and intellectual experience of reality – a literature of description – would be attracted to travel and travel writing. It also provides a useful framework within which to think about Bishop’s third collection. Questions of Travel is divided neatly between travel writing (“Brazil”) and autobiography (“Elsewhere,” which included “In the Village” in its original printing). As David Kalstone points out, while there might be “connections” between “the orphaned child in Nova Scotia and the adult observer in Brazil,” the “Brazilian poems themselves resist narrative explanations and links between present and past” (214). Rather, these travel poems “record an awakening to a world almost as if Bishop had no previous history; they are ‘life studies’ in a new transparent key, the bright C major of discovery in the present tense” (214). Kalstone’s biographical method and his desire to see Questions of Travel as influenced by Robert Lowell’s Life Studies lead him to read the Brazilian poems as a new form of autobiography (“‘life studies’ in a new transparent key”) rather than an existing genre that shares a border with autobiography. If, however, we can rid the term “life studies” of its confessional baggage, returning to its original painterly meaning, we get a perceptive description of the method Bishop applies in “Brazil”: a form of perception suspended evenly between autobiography and science, partaking fully of neither, a study of life as it is discovered moment to moment in the present tense.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
But to describe travel writing in terms of “the bright C major of discovery” is to romanticize it, to assume that travel involves, and that travel writing transmits, an immediate apprehension of reality. However, as Paul Fussell points out, there are different types of travellers: “the explorer” who “seeks the undiscovered”; the “traveler” proper, who seeks “that which has been discovered by the mind working in history”; and the “tourist,” who is interested only in “that which has been discovered by entrepreneurship and prepared for him by the arts of mass publicity” (Abroad 39). Fussell’s distinction between exploring the unknown and touring the expected implies different degrees of immersion in reality and different relations to the narrative urge: while the explorer might be “awakening to a world … in the present tense,” the tourist prefigures experience, emplotting it in advance. Tourism, then, falls into place alongside Realist fiction as an activity that is necessarily bound to foreknowledge, that attempts to bring time under control, to plan the future with an eye to eventual retrospection. Exploration, in turn, becomes the equivalent of Bishop’s impossible novel: a pure immersion in the present tense. In Bishop’s art, as in life, the purity of exploration is not a practical option. Just as her impossible novel never comes to be, the age of exploration, if it ever really existed, is long past, and the scope of inquiry is reduced to the conflict between tourist and traveller. In Todorov’s terms, science is eliminated, and the relevant border is the one between travel writing and autobiography. Bishop’s exploration of this border, of this conflict, is most evident in the first three poems of Questions of Travel, which are, as Kalstone suggests, “poems of method” (214). Insofar as they take up and examine a series of questions and ideas about travel and, by extension, travel writing, the central issue around which they turn is the conflict between the intellectual habits of the tourist and the traveller. But this conflict, in turn, reflects the larger concerns about the relationship between time and writing that informs
her work in any number of ways. And beyond even those concerns lies the familiar intellectual model of intense scrutiny leading to a given epiphany that colours all of Bishop’s work. In this chapter, then, I speak in terms of tourist and traveller, but, in so doing, I speak also to my larger ongoing examination of time and narrative, empirical and abstract, scrutiny and epiphany. To speak in terms of tourist and traveller, however, is to use Fussell’s terms, and Fussell’s terms imply Fussell’s values. Yet Fussell is fully invested in what Casey Blanton calls “the idea of travel as a symbolic act, heavy with promises of new life, progress, and the thrill of escape” (18), and it is this idea that makes possible both his elevation of the genuine traveller over the artificial tourist and his elegiac notion that “travel is hardly possible anymore” (Abroad 37). More recently, however, as the very idea of the “genuine” has begun to look questionable, scholars such as Jonathon Culler have argued that such an exalted notion of travel is merely a fiction dear to the tourist’s heart: the “desire to distinguish between tourists and real travelers is a part of tourism … other travelers are always tourists” (156–7). For Culler, since the traveller looks forward to experiencing the unexpected, the very notion of the unexpected is undone, and travel is every bit as subject to the prefiguring logic of signification as anything else: a voyage of discovery is a narrative the traveller hopes to live out. For Fussell, there are no more travellers because the tourist industry has driven them to extinction; for Culler there never were travellers because all travellers are really tourists. “Arrival at Santos,” “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” and “Questions of Travel” negotiate between these two opposing models. Bishop refuses to dismiss either the tourist as a degraded traveller or the traveller as a touristic fiction. There is, in Bishop’s world, such a thing as the genuinely unexpected, but she realizes that there is a paradox inherent in setting out to
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
find it. Writing decades before either Culler or Fussell, Bishop is able to treat both traveller and tourist with dubious equanimity in such a way that the first three poems of Questions of Travel foreshadow both Fussell’s Romanticism and Culler’s debunking of it. These poems present a set of reflections on the interrelationship of tourist and traveller, working slowly towards a satisfying truce between opposing impulses and coming to a resting point that enables Bishop to write the more relaxed narrative poetry of her later years. The vacillations in tone and attitude that characterize these three poems occupy the rest of this chapter, but a preliminary sketch looks something like this: In “Arrival at Santos,” Bishop begins by opposing tourist and traveller within the speaker herself. Finding Brazil disappointing at first and then briefly and unexpectedly fascinating, the speaker embodies each of these conflicting attitudes in turn. The tourist, however, reasserts herself at the poem’s end and carries through to “Brazil, January 1, 1502.” “Brazil” uses colonialism as a metaphor for the mental habits of the tourist, and the poem represents tourism’s nadir. “Questions of Travel” enacts a tentative resolution to the speaker’s dilemma by moving from confusion, through self-doubt, to a tentative but lyrical justification of both travel and tourism. By setting it out in this manner, I do not mean to imply that all three poems are to be read as the words of one speaker at several distinct chronological points. Although such a reading is certainly inviting and plausible enough, I am more comfortable reading them as illustrations set forth in support of an argument. Rather than read the poems as the words of “Elizabeth Bishop” in Brazil, I prefer to read them as poems written by Elizabeth Bishop about her travels in Brazil. The first of these poems, “Arrival at Santos” (cp 89–90), is deceptively dense, shifting rapidly and radically among a variety of tones and attitudes as it examines the speaker’s reaction to the disappointing experience offered by her first glimpse of
Brazil. In order to make sense of the poem, it is crucial to map out both the straightforward pronominal shifts – from “you” to “I” to “we” – and the more convoluted and subtle shifts in tone and treatment. The poem is made up of three main sections, each of which uses a different set of pronouns in order to depict a different moment of reaction and a different aspect of the speaker’s feelings about what she is or is not experiencing. The first section examines the initial disappointment of the expectant tourist arriving in a less than astonishing land and dissects this attitude with gentle, self-critical humour. The second section focuses on a moment of genuine surprise as the speaker realizes that Brazil is an autonomous nation as well as a travel destination. The third and most complicated section sees the speaker and her “fellow passenger,” Miss Breen, reasserting their original touristic expectations despite the disappointing and somewhat threatening reality of Santos. The first of the poem’s three sections – from the beginning to “Finish your breakfast” – addresses the very first moment of arrival and the initial inspection of the approaching coastline. The sight is clearly disappointing, but the speaker’s tone is gently teasing as it attempts to put the disappointment into perspective. The first line – “Here is a coast; here is a harbor” – sets a tone of eager, almost child-like excitement. The nursery-rhyme rhythm echoes that of the children’s game of “here is a church; here is a steeple,” and the short, simple declarations of fact suggest a state of mind that is not entirely composed and mature. The speaker, starved after her “meager diet of horizon,” is desperate for something – anything – to look at, which makes the “sad and harsh” view of the “impractically shaped” and “self-pitying” mountains all the more disappointing. But by casting this disappointment as a product of childish over-excitement, Bishop maintains a relatively light tone. The parenthetical “–who knows?–” that precedes her personification of the mountains as “self-pitying” suggests that the
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
speaker sees the humour in the situation and uses the personification as a way of making light of it. She is disappointed, but it is a disappointment born of her own unreasonable expectation, for which she gently upbraids herself: Oh, tourist, is this how this country is going to answer you and your immodest demands for a different world, and a better life, and complete comprehension of both at last, and immediately, after eighteen days of suspension? The use of the second person shows a degree of self-reflection and self-criticism that will be lacking later in the poem. She recognizes in herself the “immodest demands” of what she calls the “tourist” and gently pushes them away through selfapostrophe. She separates out the childish tourist in herself, who would try to read a new land through a familiar rhyme, and implies, through the gentle mocking tone of this opening passage, a knowing, almost parental indulgence of this persona. She ends this parent/child dynamic, as she ends this section, with the curt command, “finish your breakfast.” The tone of reprimand suggests that such antics are tolerable, but only briefly, and that the time for them is now through, that the tourist persona is now to be set aside. This line also picks up on the “meager diet” imagery of the first stanza, recasting it as a visual fast that the speaker is breaking. In this way the entire episode of initial excitement, disappointment, and selfcriticism is relegated to an early morning episode to be swept aside, the cranky fussing of a hungry child. As the second section of the poem begins, the speaker, suitably chastened, sets her touristic expectations aside and begins to use the first person singular. The explicit trigger for the change seems to be the approaching tender, the description of which – “a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange
and brilliant rag” – is considerably more lyrical in tone than what has come before, more in keeping with what one might expect of a poem about arriving in the strange land of Brazil. The repetition and the graceful rhythm put an unusual emphasis on this one line, and the choice of adjectives – “strange,” “ancient,” and “brilliant,” as opposed to “sad,” “feeble,” or “uncertain” – verges on the discourse of the sublime. But, oddly, this heightened tone is triggered by prosaic content: as it turns out, “this country” intends to “answer” her differently than she had expected – with the functional tender rather than with magnificent landscapes. The sight of the flag triggers in her a set of new thoughts about this more mundane side of Brazil, and she admits to never having “thought of there being a flag.” After this surprising realization, she goes on to “presume” that there are also “coins” and “paper money,” punning, perhaps, on the word “tender.” As she begins to consider the simple things – a flag, currency – that make Brazil a country in its own right, she moves tonally into a straightforward mode of unselfconscious asides. The sentences become shorter and simpler, approximating a series of internal realizations, and the poem assumes an air of transparency, of direct, real-time insight into the speaker’s consciousness. So, to this point, the poem charts the speaker’s initial reactions to Brazil, and as it does so, it sets up a development, a transition from the speaker’s tourist side to her traveller side, which also entails a motion from an initial disappointment with the landscape through a growing interest in Brazil’s daily life, from childishness to maturity, from self-critique to unself-consciousness, from the second person to the first. Through all of this, and especially through her use of pronouns, she presents a relatively clear, Fussellian preference, a sense that the traveller is her real self and that tourism is merely a weakness that she succumbs to on occasion, or, taking the child imagery into account, a sense that tourism is a
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
stage in the development of the traveller. The first two sections of the poem have a real sense of progress, of internal growth and growing engagement, and the reader might expect that, with the touristic false start now over, the speaker might settle into a more familiarly Bishopesque examination of whatever Brazil has to offer. Instead, the speaker shifts pronouns again and begins to slip back into old habits. From this point on, the poem operates in the first person plural, the “we” composed of “myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen,” and with Miss Breen’s introduction, the touristic attitude is reintroduced into the poem. Miss Breen is presented entirely as a product of her home environment. The reader is told what she did for a living, and where she lives “when she is at home,” but never why she is abroad or where she might be going – unlike, for example, Mr Swan, Bishop’s “fellow-passenger” in “Santarém,” who “want[s] to see the Amazon before he die[s]” (cp 187). Miss Breen, of “Glens Fall // s, New York,” is a small piece of America that the speaker carries with her, like her “bourbon and cigarettes.” But more than that, she introduces a sense of control and safety that accords more with tourism than with travel. The speaker’s emphasis on Miss Breen’s comforting Americanness, her size (“six feet tall”), and her profession (“police lieutenant”) suggests a certain fear, a retreat in the face of a new and intimidating reality. As such, Miss Breen is described in terms that oppose her directly to their new surroundings. Her expression is “kind,” unlike that of the “self-pitying … sad and harsh” mountains. Like the palms of the first stanza, she is tall (“six feet”), but in the forceful manner of a “retired police lieutenant” rather than their gawky “uncertain” way. And while her eyes are blue like the warehouses, they are a “bright” rather than a “feeble … blue.” Miss Breen embodies the attitudes and ideas that the speaker brings with her, and so the speaker’s attempt to present her as better and stronger than
Brazil marks a desperate return to the touristic attitude of the poem’s first section. And so it is not surprising that Miss Breen finds herself under attack from the boy with the boat hook. Just as the speaker was shocked to find a flag and currency, Miss Breen is assaulted by the very mundane economic business of loading coffee beans onto freighters. As the assault begins, the speaker slips into an unusually prim tone, using “boy” as a form of address and an old-fashioned verb form with “do” – “Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!” This propriety extends into the next stanza, where the speaker distracts the reader from Miss Breen as her skirt is lifted up by the boat hook. The hook catches her skirt – “There!” – and the speaker quickly launches into a description of her. By the time the description is finished, the skirt has been freed – “There” – and they “are settled.” The resolution takes place off-stage, and the effect is almost one of sleight-of-hand, especially with the neat trick that Bishop pulls by delaying the “s” at the end of “Glens Fall // s.” The attack forces the speaker to choose sides, as it were, and by protecting Miss Breen from prying eyes in this way, the speaker chooses tourism. Though there is, if only briefly, a moment of comfortable reflection, the novelty of Brazil proves too terrifying, and the boat hook incident solidifies the battle lines, bringing out a newly indignant tone in the speaker, together with an obvious satisfaction in being “settled” that does not agree with the openness that travel requires. Miss Breen, by her very presence, has the effect of drawing the speaker out of herself, of taking her away from the open reflections that characterized the more travel-like second section of the poem. It may be too much to say that the addition of Miss Breen turns the solitary traveller into a tour group, but her presence transforms the “I” into “we,” and this “we,” in turn, becomes an “us” under attack by “them.”
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Indeed, throughout the last three stanzas, there is no separation between the speaker and her travelling companion; there is no “me,” no “Miss Breen,” but only “we” and “us.” As the tourists close ranks against Brazil, the tone shifts towards a world-weary litany of stereotypically touristic complaints: “the heat,” the “inferior[ity]” of local products (in this case, the glue), the fact that the local officials may not “speak English,” and the risk of their taking away “our bourbon and cigarettes.” From the heights of this new attitude, Santos is both dismissed and forgiven for its poor showing since ports “are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap, // but they seldom seem to care what impression they make.” In an unusually indistinct simile, Bishop suggests that places like this, only attempt, since it does not matter, the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps – wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat. The unimpressiveness of Santos dissolves into a simile whose precise referent becomes obscure: what is it that wastes away like soap and slips like stamps? is it Santos itself? ports more generally? the impression that Santos leaves? the colours it attempts? As the speaker’s eye loses interest in Santos, her precision slips. Though she began by counting the “twenty-six freighters” being loaded with “green coffee beans,” she descends, here, to a generalized, if evocative, wave of dismissal as she and her companion “leave Santos at once,” “driving to the interior,” which will, presumably “care what impression” it makes. From that brief moment of true, almost Darwinian, observation, the speaker has descended to a careless abstraction that reveals nothing about what she describes. In one way, the poem has come full circle, and the tourist with her “immodest demands” comes out once again. Santos stands in for all of Brazil’s disappointing reality, which becomes
an unpleasant chore one must suffer through in order to experience whatever attractions it might contain. But even as the nursery-rhyme tones of the first line reappear in the ternary feet and internal rhyme of “the letters we wrote on the boat,” the attitude they imply has changed. The innocence of the opening line is lost somewhere in the poem’s development, and the hard, defensive arrogance of the speaker’s attitude comes from a very real sense of fear and isolation. Her letters, after all, with their slippery stamps, may not be delivered, and the interior, for all its potential touristic interest, is further still from home. The tone may try to approximate the nursery rhythms of the first line, but too much has occurred to make that truly possible. Over the course of the poem, the implications of tourism change from ignorance to arrogance, from a cheerful hopefulness to an embattled defensiveness. The poem no longer presents a gentle self-mockery of the touristic outlook but, rather, a (perhaps understandably) frightened embrace of it. “Brazil, January 1, 1502” (cp 91–2) picks up on this change. I spend some time discussing this poem in my next chapter and so will not dwell on it here at any length, except to look at how it interacts with “Arrival at Santos.” That Bishop intended the two poems to be read together is clear from the dating of “Arrival.” As it first appeared in The New Yorker and A Cold Spring, it was not dated at all. However, when Bishop chose to reprint it at the beginning of Questions of Travel, and in the Complete Poems, she dated it “January, 1952,” even though she arrived at Santos in November of 1951 (Millier 240). The attractively round 450-year gap between the two arrivals and the echoing repetitions of the word January – “January, 1952,” “January 1,” “Januaries” – suggest a possible connection between the “we” who are “driving to the interior” at the end of “Arrival at Santos” and the “us” whose eyes “Nature greets” in “Brazil, January 1.” As such, it is tempting to read “Brazil, January 1,” with its initial focus on dense foliage, as a description of “the interior” of Brazil.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
But “Brazil, January 1” is also a coastal poem: its eponymous date is that on which the Portuguese first made land at Guanabara Bay. And so it does not make sense to read “Brazil, January 1” as coming after “Arrival” in such a literal sense. Rather, both poems present “our” arrival; they merely present different versions of it. “Brazil, January 1” is about the interior but not the interior of Brazil; it is about what Bonnie Costello calls, in her reading of “Arrival,” “the elusive interior of [the speaker and Miss Breen’s] minds” (142). Where “Arrival at Santos” is an honest account of disappointment, “Brazil, January 1” is an imagined account of satisfaction. As I argue in my next chapter, it is less a poem about Brazil than a poem about “Brazil,” cut from the whole cloth of the speaker’s imagination. As such, it can be read as a portrait of the psychological process with which “Arrival at Santos” ends. “Arrival” works its way towards ignoring the fact of Santos itself, dismissing it as a “port,” a “necessit[y],” and locating the real “Brazil” elsewhere; “Brazil, January 1” is a poem that never even considers the real Brazil, choosing instead to see only what it wants to see. Read together in this way, the two poems present a rather forceful indictment of the mental habits that tourism endorses, going so far as to liken them to imperial conquest. This may sound somewhat excessive, but the link between travel and empire is one that appears often enough in the scholarship that surrounds travel writing, and critics have spent a great deal of time examining the “relationships of culture and power found in the settings, encounters, and representations of travel texts” and suggesting that travel writing offers “particular insights into the operation of colonial discourses” (Hulme and Youngs 8). Bishop, however, is not enacting or dissecting colonial discourse but, rather, suggesting that some of the tourist’s intellectual habits are similar to those of empire, using empire as a metaphor for tourism. This distinction is in many ways crucial, and it would be a stretch to suggest that Bishop considers the traveller or
the travel writer to be inherently complicit in oppression. Empire is an illustration, a way of showing the tourist exaggerated ad absurdum. These two poems work together to expose a set of intellectual patterns in which Bishop’s speaker is implicated, but Bishop does not allow herself the luxury of condescension: the tone of “Arrival at Santos” is indulgent, and the speaker is presented as an intelligent and interesting individual, despite certain unattractive characteristics. I point this out because there is a critical tendency to read Bishop as entirely critical of, and therefore free from the taint of, colonialism. Cynthia Messenger, for instance, suggests that, after creating “what is almost a kinship with the conquerors” at the beginning of “Brazil, January 1,” Bishop severs “any ties with them through the surrealism of the closing images” and “expresses her disgust with the raging conquerors and by implication with the imperial mentality” (107). To say that Bishop “expresses her disgust” is not strictly true, and in fact the speaker stays close to the Christians’ point of view throughout the poem, as the characterization of “those maddening little women” suggests. Similar problems mar both Bonnie Costello and Thomas Travisano’s otherwise perceptive readings of “Arrival at Santos”: Costello argues that the ending “rises above its parodic speaker” (eb 141), and Travisano suggests that the poem’s “most incisive irony is directed … at the traveler” (137). Although the desire to read these poems as open indictments of tourism and colonialism is understandable, it is unnecessary, and, more importantly, it misses the point. There is no need to argue that Bishop is, in reality, critical of the colonial Portuguese since the poem functions precisely through its failure to condemn them: by refusing to allow her speaker to criticize Miss Breen or the Portuguese, and by giving that speaker a reasonably sympathetic voice, Bishop shows a level of nuance that moves beyond Fussell’s schema. The point of these poems is not to condemn the
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
tourist (or colonist) but to work towards a full and accurate understanding of how tourist and traveller relate. In “Questions of Travel” (cp 93–4), Bishop brings tourist and traveller together again, reminding us that they are merely different aspects of the same consciousness and arguing for the first time that each has its proper place. The poem begins with a frank acknowledgment of the strangeness of Brazil’s otherworldly landscape. The line between earth and sky is blurred as the “clouds on the mountaintops” “spill over the sides in soft slow-motion” and turn into “waterfalls.” The line between sky and sea is equally blurred: the mountaintops poking out above the clouds look like “the hulls of capsized ships, / slime hung and barnacled.” This image of the capsized ships is, barring the title, the first explicit indication of travel, and it is a strange one in that it implies stranding – the end of travel. The speaker seems stuck in an alien landscape with “too many waterfalls,” where “the crowded streams / hurry too rapidly.” Nothing is as it should be, the tourist seems to have received more of the unexpected than she bargained for, and the first question of travel to occur is the simplest of all: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Such a question can have only one answer, but Bishop takes an entire poem, and a long one by her standards, to provide it, which suggests that “Questions of Travel” presents a final reckoning for her, a final resolution of the conflict between the tourist and the traveller. The impetus for travel in this poem seems resolutely touristic: the desire to see “the sun the other way around” or the “tiniest green hummingbird in the world” or “some inexplicable old stonework.” Planning in advance, the traveller travels to see spectacular sights, “instantly seen, and always, always delightful.” As in “Arrival at Santos,” doing so is a form of “childishness,” and, as in both “Arrival at Santos” and “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” it is portrayed as more a product of the imagination than reality: the speaker characterizes these things
as both “a play” and “our dreams.” In the final image of the second stanza, the characterization of tourism reaches its peak: asking if there is “room / for one more folded sunset, still quite warm,” the speaker summons up the image of fresh laundry stored in a closet and exposes this sort of travel as an attempt to store up sights like linen, a reduction of the diversity and strangeness of the world to a domestic familiarity. This second stanza reprises a number of terms and ideas from the first two poems of the series, and, to this point, “Questions of Travel” functions as a conclusion to the argument about travel and tourism advanced in them, exposing the touristic impulse as the opposite of Bishop’s usual poetics of scrutiny and description, with its embrace of whatever the world may present. The third stanza, however, moves beyond this indictment, arguing that even a trip begun with dubious motives can have worthwhile results. A number of the things listed in the second stanza are reworked in the third: the “strangers in a play” become trees “gesturing / like noble pantomimists”; the “tiniest green hummingbird” becomes “the fat brown bird / who sings above the broken gasoline pump”; and the “inexplicable old stonework” becomes the bird’s cage, a “bamboo church of Jesuit baroque.” All of these things, together with the “wooden clogs / carelessly clacking,” are located along the “road” or at the “filling-station.” And, in locating them there, Bishop answers her earlier speaker’s dismissal of such “necessities” as “ports” and “stop[ping] for gas.” Similarly, she also learns to find value in things whether they “care what impression they make,” like the “careful and finicky … wooden cage,” or not, like the “disparate wooden clogs,” un-“tested” for “identical pitch.” The “connection” between the “crudest wooden footwear” and “the whittled fantasies of wooden cages,” the very question of what any given culture might choose to care about or not, presents itself to be “pondered, / blurr’dly and inconclusively” (rather than “complete[ly] comprehen[ded] … immediately”). The speaker has stopped rushing from attraction
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
to attraction, ignoring or dismissing what comes between, and settled into a more familiarly Bishopesque pattern of reacting carefully to the world as it reveals itself. Or, to follow the thinking of this poem more closely, she has learned to appreciate the world as it reveals itself, while rushing from attraction to attraction. For Bishop is not dismissing tourism entirely. In answer to the self-critical questions of the second stanza – “Should we have stayed at home?” “Is it right to be watching strangers … ?” “What childishness is it … ?” – she answers that it “would have been a pity” not to have seen what she sees in the third stanza. The implication is, in Fussell’s terms, that the touristic impulse is redeemed by the way that it enables travel; if clogs and fat birds were all that Brazil had to offer, no one would ever go there. In “Arrival at Santos” she lays out the tourist/traveller distinction as, at least partially, a development or growth from childishness to maturity. Here, she picks that development up again, framing tourism as an early stage of travel, the initial mindset that gives way to the more open and mature ways of the traveller. This development marks a large step not only within the world of these three poems but also within the larger schema of Bishop’s thinking. It posits a new openness to goals, a new willingness to admit that a true disinterested Darwinian observation cannot exist, that no concentration is perfectly useless. Having arrived at the conclusion that the touristic urge impels the traveller for better or for worse, Bishop takes a step backward and depicts the traveller examining the source of that particular urge. She presents a miniature debate, embodied in two complicated rhetorical questions that present alternative arguments about the source of travel. Her first tentative explanation is couched in ironical paradox: “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places, not just stay at home?
This question provides a particularly negative explanation of travel: the traveller, insufficiently imaginative to travel mentally, is forced to seek out the real places behind his or her mental images. Unfortunately, however, it is “imagined places” that the traveller seeks rather than real ones, the mental images and not their source, hence the potential for the disappointment expressed in “Arrival at Santos” or for the blindness to reality depicted in “Brazil, January 1, 1502.” This particular explanation of the urge to travel is hardly flattering, but it is relatively clear in its implications, and it plays well into the Fussellian terms that Bishop has been playing with throughout these poems. The next question is more complicated: Or could Pascal have been not entirely right about just sitting quietly in one’s room? It is hard to know what exactly in Pascal is being questioned here, and this presents a major crux in the poem. Presumably, what Bishop has in mind is Pascal’s assertion that “men’s many worries and the perils and sadnesses to which they expose themselves” are the “result of one single thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room” (39). Pascal is looking at things in a more universal way, thinking not of a trip to Brazil but of everything from “the court” and “warfare” to “conversation” and the “distractions of gaming” (39). He seems critical of the general restlessness of humanity, of our inability to be satisfied with what we have and where we are. To that extent, he sounds a great deal like the implied speaker of the first question, but Bishop’s traveller is asking whether Pascal could be “not entirely right,” and the effect is a qualification of her own initial position. Pascal is used as a reductio ad absurdum of her own argument, the completely static endpoint of the sort of questioning in which she is engaged. The two sentences then exist as a proposition
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
and a qualification: we travel only for a fault in ourselves, but it would be excessive never to leave home for this reason. Such a reading agrees with the general thrust of the poem, beginning with an attitude that is critical of the source of travel but then reasserting the validity of the act itself. But it may be more complicated than that. Pascal goes on to qualify his initial assertion, claiming that the “the fact that play and women’s conversation, war, the great endeavours are so sought after” is a product of “the natural misfortune of our weak and mortal condition, a condition so miserable that nothing can console us if we think about it too much” (39–40). Such things do not “actually produce any happiness,” but “the bustle distracts us and keeps us from thinking” (40). Pascal’s larger point provides a new reading of the speaker’s “lack of imagination.” We cannot just sit in our rooms because we lack the imagination to distract ourselves from our own mortality. All human activity, then, however futile it might seem, is part of the effort we make to distract ourselves. Pascal’s example is the hunt. It is, of course, “hardly reasonable to spend all day chasing after a hare that one wouldn’t want to buy” (40), but that is hardly the point. Similarly, it might seem childish that, “while there’s a breath of life / in our bodies, we are determined to rush / to see the sun the other way around,” but that may also hardly be the point. In this sense, there is no real distinction between tourist and traveller; it hardly matters whether the sights and sounds are expected (“imagined places”) or not so long as they keep us moving. Read in this way, with a fuller understanding of what the reference to Pascal implies, the speaker’s self-questioning takes on a much darker, more serious tone, all the more so since she is questioning Pascal’s conclusion. Pascal is not critical of the hunter, who is only a victim of “our nature,” but of “those who philosophize upon this and who think the world hardly reasonable” (40). The fear of mortality is
hardly unreasonable, in which case it is unkind to label the traveller an escapist. But by questioning Pascal on this front, Bishop turns that argument around, asking not that we excuse all amusements equally but, rather, that we condemn them. With this more complete reading of Pascal, the syntax of those two questions changes, and the “Or” that joins them takes on a less oppositional sense: rather than a proposition and a limiting qualification, the two questions become alternate ways of dismissing travel. They then mean something more like this: we travel because we cannot handle our own mortality; Pascal finds such behaviour understandable and excusable, but he may have been wrong to do so. This stanza is hardly clear to begin with, and I fear that, by presenting these two distinct readings, I have only made it less so. If Bishop intends the reader to stop at the simpler reading, then the stanza is kept in balance: one question critical of travel opposed to one critical of not travelling. Alternately, assuming that she means to reject Pascal’s larger argument against just sitting quietly in one’s room, Bishop presents a second argument against travel, although the specific grounds on which she questions Pascal are left unexplained. There are strong arguments for both readings. The simpler one provides a more natural reading of the syntax, and its balance and self-questioning are in a general way more characteristic of Bishop. The more complicated reading, however, gives Bishop credit for a fuller engagement with Pascal (or shows her giving her reader credit for a fuller engagement with Pascal), and it also accords with a tendency she has of ending poems with intensely convoluted and deliberately irresolvable statements. It is also hard to imagine that someone with Bishop’s interest in the “element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art” (cpr 144) would fail to notice and engage with Pascal’s argument about “the natural misfortune of our weak and mortal condition.” And so I am hesitant to prefer one reading to the other.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
A certain amount of confusion may be intended, however. This is not, after all, Bishop speaking, nor her speaker, but “the traveller” writing a series of questions in “a notebook.” By presenting them in both italics and quotation marks, Bishop pushes these two stanzas far from any authoritative voice and casts them as inherently provisional. Any suggestion of a consistent argument or line of reasoning dissolves in the last stanza of the poem: Continent, city, country, society: the choice is never wide and never free. And here, or there … No. Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?” (Her ellipsis) Is it the choice of destination or of origin that is not free? and, either way, what does that imply? What was going to follow that “here, or there”? Why was it so decisively cut off? There is no clear answer to these questions, and this elliptical passage is followed not by a strong concluding remark but by a restatement of the basic question that first arises near the beginning of the second stanza – “Should we have stayed at home” – with the added uncertainty as to the location of “home.” If we try to read the poem as a whole, as the coherent development and statement of a single position, we are bound to be disappointed or, worse, to try to force a resolution on those confused last lines. Instead, it is crucial to remember the distinctions of voice and, further, to be sure to reinscribe that final question, all of those final questions, into the long rhetorical chain that begins in the first line of the third stanza – “But surely it would have been a pity / not to have …” Subordinated to this proposal, the confused jottings of the traveller become a part of the total experience of travel, along with “hear[ing] / the sad, two-noted, wood tune / of disparate wooden clogs” and “stud[ying] history in / the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages” – another of the many things that “surely it would have been a pity” not to have done.
In the end, we do get a not-unexpected answer to the question of whether or not we should have stayed at home, “wherever that may be.” What is striking, however, about this poem, and about these three poems read as a group, is how very seriously Bishop is willing to examine a question that she can really only answer in one way. She subjects travel to an unusually close scrutiny, loading the dice against it so as to test it as thoroughly as possible. She brings up the distinction between tourist and traveller in “Arrival at Santos,” but, unlike Fussell, she does not use tourism as a scapegoat or a subcategory to which she can exile all the less attractive elements of travel. Instead, she presents the traveller as, first and foremost, a tourist, a creature who shares certain intellectual patterns with the Portuguese conquerors in “Brazil, January 1, 1502.” She gives us a brief glimpse of a more interesting mentality in “Arrival at Santos,” but the bulk of these two poems is devoted to the dissection and display of the traveller’s less attractive side. It is only in “Questions of Travel” that travel begins to be redeemed, and it is only redeemed in an accidental, confused way. One only experiences the real benefits of travel (the “fat brown bird”) en route to the next tourist attraction (the “tiniest green hummingbird in the world”); travel exists only as a by-product of tourism. That the benefits of travel are incidental things spotted en route from “one more folded sunset” to the next fits well with many of Bishop’s general intellectual habits and arguments – that epiphany comes when one least expects it, that morality can consist in avoidance, that abstract knowledge can only come from empirical scrutiny. Happily, Bishop’s unusually strident initial position on time and narrative has given way to a more characteristic understanding of the interrelation of opposites. But things are interestingly reversed here. Throughout this book, I have been pointing to Bishop’s notion that one achieves large things by trying to do small ones, achieves epiphany, for instance, by focusing on minute facts, but here she is arguing that one might need larger
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
things to help motivate one to do the smaller ones, that human beings may not be set up to scrutinize detail for its own sake, and that we need to be forgiving of arrogance and presumption since they are our only paths to the careful examination that is so important. In true Bishop style, this added wrinkle only serves to push the larger things further from us: if we are interested in “history,” say, we must first look for it in the wrong-but-obvious place (the “inexplicable old stonework”) in order to stumble across it in the right-but-hidden place (“the weak calligraphy of songbird’s cages”). The net effect of this argument is to portray the traveller, and the poet or thinker who follows the traveller’s path, as a hapless, bumbling sort of creature, as someone who does not know the end of his or her own story. And here Bishop’s fascination with travel can be seen as an extension of the ideas about narrative expressed in “Time’s Andromedas.” The difference is that she has agreed to a provisional sort of narrative and admitted the basic human need for a sense of direction, for some slight grain of purpose to set things in motion, admitted, with Ricoeur, that “time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative” (1:3). In “Time’s Andromedas,” she describes the Realist author as a “mechanical band-master” who leads everything to “the same tune” since everything is “in his mind from the very beginning” (110), and, in reaction to this, she advocates a sort of master-less novel, something Beckett-like, perhaps. Here, however, she is willing to allow for some music, as long as it is quiet enough to let us hear other things and as long as it can change to accommodate what we hear. At first glance, narrative in all its many implications of retrospection, direction, tourism, and expectation seems to be the enemy of description in all of its many implications of scrutiny, observation, disinterestedness, and receptivity. However, in much the way that my first few chapters reveal Bishop’s relationship to the world as a complex and many-staged process –
fleeing from the historical world towards the physical world and slipping, from there, into the world of ideas – this chapter reveals how Bishop’s travel poetry enacts a similarly convoluted process: a desire for the large and memorable enables the observation of the small and simple, which, in turn, reveals something newer, larger, and more memorable still; a hint of narrative sets in motion the events that lead to true observation, which brings forth an order and revelation that no narrative could find. The basic intellectual method of careful, almost random observation still holds, but just as Jarrell’s review shows how such scrutiny can have motives more complex than the pleasures it brings, Bishop’s travel poems show how it can have motives more presumptuous. In both scenarios, the endpoint is unexpected, even unconnected to those initial motives, but in both scenarios, the motives are there, hovering in the background.
Poetry, like fiction, has a time-sense, and it is worth extending the ideas laid out in “Time’s Andromedas” to the formal – rather than thematic – elements of Bishop’s poetics. Generally, critics writing about Bishop have used the question of time to buttress arguments about the “mind thinking”: the notion that Bishop’s goal is to capture the feeling of a mind in the process of working out a thought rather than a mind relating a fully formed idea. The distinction is one Bishop found in an essay on Baroque prose by Morris Croll and used in both a paper of her own about Gerard Manley Hopkins and, more selfreferentially, a 1933 letter to Donald Stanford. In that letter, she describes the “sort of poetic convention” she is interested in (oa 12) by quoting Croll’s assertion that the prose writers of the Baroque period tried to “portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking” since they “knew that an idea separated from the act of experiencing it is not the idea that was experienced” (Croll 430, oa 12, the quote also appears in “Gerard” 7). Whether or not the notion of a mind in action “remained a touchstone” that “turned up often in [Bishop’s] writing” (Millier 54), it has certainly been so for her critics, and this statement is, as Barbara Page puts it, “often cited as a key to Bishop’s method” (205). The method to which it is often cited as the key varies from critic to critic, however, and this mind
thinking is, variously, an indication of “postmodern narrative” (Travisano, “Elizabeth” 101–2), a “Stevensian spirit” of “visionary ‘mystical exaltation’” (McCabe, eb 93–4), or “an American pragmatism” (Harrison 4). Reduced to its most basic premise, however, the mind thinking is not far from Eliot’s definition of the lyric as “the poet talking to himself” (Three 4), and Bishop is really saying something relatively familiar about lyric poetry’s attempt to capture the process of emotion rather than state its outcome. In light of the fact that the Hopkins essay was written shortly after “Time’s Andromedas,” not to mention the fact that the title “Time’s Andromedas” is taken from a Hopkins sonnet, it is tempting to see the idea of the mind thinking as a redirection of Bishop’s early ideas about time into a more practical direction: the time-bound novel is clearly not to be, and so she finds a rough approximation of it in the lyric poem, the relative brevity of which allows for a minute recording of intellectual action, which the novel, with its bulk and extension over time, cannot support. However, this interpretation relies on too simple a transition from real time to intellectual time and does justice to neither the complexity of Bishop’s thought nor the contrasting urges of her poetry. In fact, these two undergraduate essays point in two fundamentally different directions, and if we are to draw conclusions about Bishop’s poetry from them, they must be more complicated conclusions than have hitherto been posited. In other words, it is crucial to separate the arguments of these two essays before positing a theory of poetry that takes both into account. “Time’s Andromedas” leads to a poetry that clings to real time and that I will call “descriptive”; the Hopkins model put forth in Bishop’s essays and letters, on the other hand, clings to an intellectual time and leads to a poetics that I will call “associative.” This distinction is not unlike the one between intensive and expansive imagery with which this book begins – one set of practices clings more resolutely
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
to reality, and the other represents an imaginative departure from it. But separating these two notions is really just the first step towards understanding how Bishop brings them together. As always, the key to Bishop’s method is the complex interrelation of seeming opposites. What makes Bishop’s poetry her own is the way she brings together – by keeping apart – these two very different approaches to time, the way she privileges description in order to enable association.
The standard reading of Bishop’s undergraduate essays suggests that they point in the same direction, and that, taken together, they delineate what James Longenbach calls a “kind of associational structure” that runs throughout Bishop’s poetry (27). To say that the Hopkins essay advocates an associational structure is fair enough, but the relationship to time that Bishop advocates in “Time’s Andromedas” is far from associative. A writer who lines up the time of narrating strictly to the narrated time binds his or her intellectual motions to the concrete world of sequential events. The result is essentially reactive, revealing not a mind thinking so much as a mind existing in reality. Croll’s mind thinking might begin with the objective world, but this is only a launching point: “The first member” of the Baroque period “exhausts the mere fact of the idea” and the “other members” express “a new apprehension of the truth expressed in the first” (Croll 433, quoted in oa 12). This mind thinking, unlike the mind inherent in Bishop’s ideal novel, is not reacting to the progression of time but, rather, acting upon a single moment or idea. Bishop’s mind moves along in “time that can be felt and realized” (“Time’s” 119); Croll’s mind abandons real time in favour of a “a series of imaginative moments occurring in a logical pause or suspension” (Croll 433, oa 12). Everything towards which Bishop is moving in “Time’s Andromedas” comes from the realization that real time does
not stop in the way that fictional time does. Realism is based on retrospective narration from a single, still moment in time, from the novel’s end. As Genette puts it, what may be the “most powerful” fiction “of literary narrating” is that it “involves an instantaneous action, without a temporal dimension” (Genette 178). Croll’s mind thinking, like the Realist narrator, speaks from a similarly still moment and so is very far from the author of Bishop’s projected novel. While it is not quite right to apply such terms to what Croll is talking about, his Baroque writers are all time of narrating with little or no narrated time. To put it in simpler terms, Croll’s Baroque writers capture the passing of an intellectual time that is different from real time, and much of what I argue in this chapter comes from that simple observation. The mind thinking and Bishop’s imaginary novelist are two very different things – two very different things in which Bishop shows an interest but two very different things nonetheless. What Croll describes can be called associational since the sequence of ideas is determined by the associative function of the human mind; what Bishop describes in “Time’s Andromedas” is not associational since the sequence of ideas is determined by external facts in the world, even if they are filtered through a subjective reordering. In order to do justice to those two early essays and trace the development of their argument about time in Bishop’s poetry, it is essential to separate their ideas clearly rather than include everything under the heading of association. Part of what makes it tempting to see everything in terms of association is a simple fact of genre. Whatever the eventual complexities of her own practice, Bishop wrote during an era that privileged the lyric, and the bulk of her early poetry – up to the middle of Questions of Travel – is, in the grossest sense, lyrical (i.e., neither dramatic nor epic). Lyric poetry in its purest form takes place in a sort of eternal present, a single moment that, while it can reach out to both past and future, need not
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
address the passing of time and real events. It can address real events – Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” for example, is brought to an end by the departure of the bird – but poems that refer too often to external events tend to drift into the realm of the dramatic monologue. The lyric, in this way, accords with Croll’s description of Baroque prose in that it comprises “a series of imaginative moments occurring in a logical pause or suspension.” Insofar as this is the case, it can be said to tend towards association, and insofar as Bishop operates within the lyric mode, it is tempting to see her poetics as essentially associational in this sense. We even have her explicit approval to do so in that she describes the practice of association as “the sort of poetic convention I should like to make for myself” (oa 12). But “Time’s Andromedas” describes something fundamentally different from the associational lyric, and, in order to bring it into a discussion of her poetry, it is necessary to ask whether, while intending to “stake claims” and “la[y] out certain measurements” on a “novel-site” (“Dimensions” 103), it describes another sort of poetic convention – whether a set of ideas that proves unwieldy and unworkable in prose fiction can find a more natural home in poetry. Ideally, there should be evident in Bishop’s poetry a more reactive, time-tied principle, working either against or in alternation with association – a mode that is as dependent on the passage of objective time and the world of objective reality as the novel she hoped to write. Description is inherently tied to the world of objective reality, but the question is whether it also depends on the passage of objective time. Does description mimic the actual, temporal process of observation? This is a tricky question and a crucial one for Bishop in that it reaches to the heart of “what it means to be a visual poet” (Costello 5). In order to work through some of the issues at hand, I want to turn briefly to the ideas about time and description in Lessing’s Laocoön, which is fundamentally concerned with the relationship between time and poetry. Lessing’s overall argument is that, since poetry is made
up of “articulated sounds in time” and painting is made up of “figures and colors in space,” their subjects should be selected appropriately – “bodies” being “the true subjects of painting” and “actions” being “the true subjects of poetry” (78). Descriptive poetry thus intrudes on painting’s proper sphere and is doomed to failure. As Lessing argues, “the poet is able to show the elements of beauty in succession only” and “the concentrating glance which we try to cast back on the parts after they have been enumerated fails” since it “lies beyond the power of human imagination to picture to oneself what the composite effect of this mouth, this nose, and these eyes will be” (104). Reading descriptive poetry is, in a memorable simile, like watching someone roll stones “up a mountain for the building of a splendid edifice on the summit” only to lose control of them and watch them roll “down the other side of their own weight” (105). Lessing’s argument is based on the assumption that objects existing in space do not also exist in time, or that their existence in time is secondary. In other words, he assumes that, when we look at a thing, we are engaged in the concurrent apprehension of all of its individual components. But we actually apprehend visual phenomena in separate glances, reconstructing the totality in our minds. He is correct that, while we do this visually on a regular basis, it is more difficult to do so with words, but that may not be the point of the descriptive poem. Concerned as he is with classical notions of unity, Lessing is interested only in the sum total of a visual experience. But a descriptive poem is not necessarily an attempt to capture a unified visual impression; instead, a descriptive poem may be an attempt to capture the experience of scrutiny, of the extension of visual attention over time. A descriptive poem does not try to communicate to the reader what a thing looks like, although it may well do so, so much as what it feels like to look at it. Time does not defeat description because description does not aspire to timelessness.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
The blason, for example, records the sequential sense impressions received by the thinking subject as the eye of the speaker moves slowly over the female form from head to toe, pausing to describe each body part. As Lessing suggests, the sequential description of individual body parts is not an effective way of producing an accurate visual picture of a particular woman; however, the point of the blason is not to record the physical reality of the woman in question but, rather, to convey the mounting erotic charge of looking at her. The actual appearance of the woman is almost irrelevant to the poem, and, not surprisingly, the blason tends to rely on the universalizing roses-and-lilies imagery of courtly love. But the blason is too organized for Bishop’s tastes; it implies both a conscious control of the process of observation and an adherence to the actual organization of objects in the world. What is more common in Bishop’s poetry is a form of description that conforms more closely to her notion of “experience-time.” Here, the various parts of the object perceived arrive in an order that seems almost random, like pennies sinking through water, mimicking more closely the actual way in which one perceives an object. A quick scan produces a general impression of a given object quickly, but the process of careful scrutiny revisits each aspect individually, though rarely in a conscious or controlled manner. The individual sense impressions, like the events of Bishop’s projected novel, arrive one after another in an order based on an unconscious scrambling of their objective organization. Description, in this sense, takes time, but not an organized sort of time. It takes something more like Bishop’s experience-time. A purely descriptive poem, however, one that merely recorded raw sensory data, without comment, in the semirandom order in which it arrived, would be of little interest. Indeed, this is what people mean when they dismiss something as “mere description.” Description, in the sense in which I am using the word here, is more of an abstract principle, the
inverse of association. Most poems exist somewhere along the spectrum between the two, although lyric poetry tends towards the associative end of things, and a purely associative poem would not raise eyebrows in the way that a purely descriptive one would. There is also the possibility of narrative time, which gives us a three-dimensional world of poetic temporality, in which each poem is pulled in several directions at once. “The Fish” (cp 42–4) illustrates this tripartite scheme extremely well. The poem flirts with narrative, in that it has a beginning and an end, but it does not quite engage with the world of cause and effect. At times, Bishop even explicitly rejects causation: I looked into his eyes … They shifted a little, but not to return my stare. More generally, the many observations of which the poem is made up do not cause and are not caused by one another; one could reorder them without disturbing the logic of the poem. And though the ending is clearly caused by what happens in the middle, the precise workings of this causation are a subject of constant critical discussion. The poem also involves some amount of association as each individual aspect of the fish is subjected to the speaker’s imagination. But no single departure from real time takes more than a few lines, and, on the whole, the poem keeps up with real time, which plays a fundamental framing role since the poem can only occupy as much time as a “tremendous fish” can survive in the air: While his gills were breathing in the terrible oxygen … I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
Bishop tempers association with description such that the poem never lags too far behind real time, and the poem’s structure is essentially descriptive: a piscine blason in which the speaker’s eye drifts slowly and half randomly over the fish, sequentially scrutinizing individual details as it goes: I admired his sullen face, the mechanism of his jaw, and then I saw that from his lower lip … hung five old pieces of fish-line.
The poem is a little bit narrative in its framing, a little bit associational in its metaphoric flights, and generally descriptive in its motion. Any single poem is likely to contain some mixture of these three modes, and there may be some use in calculating each poem’s particular blend. In this sense, I hope to have provided a set of terms that can be used to talk about the sort of rhetorical relationship that any given poem, or any given moment in any given poem, has to time. However, my real goal is to reach a more general conclusion about Bishop’s poetry, and leaving narrative aside for the moment, the contrast between association and description provides a useful way of talking about Bishop’s relationship to detail. “The Bight” and “Brazil, January 1, 1502” are both topographical descriptive poems, but they vary dramatically in this respect. In the simplest sense, “The Bight” is decidedly descriptive, moving, item by item, over a very particular landscape. The level of detail and the steadfast attention paid to it suggest that this is not a generalized landscape, or a landscape imagined in order to fit some particular poetic purpose, but a real landscape. The progression of the poem is directed not by internal imaginative association but by external physical arrangement. In “Brazil,
January 1, 1502” (cp 91–2), on the other hand, particular images and details of landscape are presented in order to explain and demonstrate an intellectual point: that “Nature greets our eyes / exactly as she must have greeted” those of the sixteenthcentury Portuguese explorers. The landscape that the poem describes is an idea, a capitalized personification of “Nature,” disconnected from real time and, insofar as the poem claims to describe a landscape of five hundred years past, imagined. As such, the landscape of “Brazil” is, by Bishop’s standards, far from exact. Rather than enumerate the specific Brazilian flora and fauna as she does in “Song for the Rainy Season,” where “blood-black / bromelias, lichens, / owls and the lint / of the waterfalls” occupy the first stanza (cp 101), she contents herself by asserting merely that the landscape is “filling in with foliage.” The generality of the term “foliage” is hardly made clearer by her introduction of size – “big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves” – which, rather than describe any particular size or sizes, merely introduces the idea of size. Things gradually become more concrete as she introduces first the muted, relatively indistinct colours of the foliage (“blue, blue-green, and olive”) and then some more particular details (the “occasional lighter veins and edges” of the leaves and “a satin underleaf turned over”). The mode is still indefinite, however, and Bishop is describing “leaves” in general, some of which have “a satin underleaf”; she is not talking about the satin underleaf of a particular plant. Gathering strength, she does finally name a particular plant, the “monster ferns,” and then, on this slightly firmer base, tentatively introduces her first simile: “flowers, too, like giant water lilies / up in the air,” which, in turn, leads to a more distinct and ambitious selection of colours: “purple, yellow, two yellows, pink, / rust red and greenish white.” The flora has been filled in like a painting: first the darker, more solid and less differentiated foliage in the background, then a highlight or two, a lighter vein, a satin underleaf, followed by a recognizable plant, and then the more distinct, vivid, and
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
colourful flowers in the foreground. The painterly aspect is hardly surprising, since the poem is explicitly framed around the notion of a tapestry, both in its epigram – “ … embroidered nature … tapestried landscape” – and in the last lines of this first stanza, which describe the flowers as “fresh as if just finished / and taken off the frame” (ellipses hers). If the first stanza paints the setting, the second stanza introduces allegorical embellishments: “big symbolic birds” and “dragons” representing “Sin.” Posed for the artist, the birds perch in “profile,” and the lizards stay so still “in the foreground” that they “scarcely breathe.” Finally, in the third stanza, human figures are introduced in the form of “the Christians” and “those maddening little women,” and we move from setting to subject. The poem has thus built itself up consciously, from background to foreground, landscape to figure, while simultaneously moving up the great chain of being from plant to animal to human life. This is not an eye moving over a present landscape, picking out details, but a mind filling in a schema of “landscape.” In this sense the poem is associational. It does not exist in real time but, rather, in a static intellectual time. Although the poem’s title contains a date, the opening lines with their contrasting tense – “Nature greets our eyes / exactly as she must have greeted theirs” (my emphasis) – make clear that the poem will not be constrained by history. The speaker of the poem, though historically situated in a general way (or, if the poem is read in tandem with “Arrival at Santos,” a specific way), is not subject to real time or to the influence or demands of external events or reality. Rather, the external world presents materials, which she then shapes, arranges, and orders to her purpose from within a still lyric moment. That Bishop should present Brazil in these terms, as a product of the artistic imagination rather than an objective reality to be described, accords with the purpose of the poem: to show how the “eye, and ear,” in Wordsworth’s phrase, “half
create” what they perceive (2:262), how the Christians could cross an ocean and still find “it all / not unfamiliar” and “corresponding” “to an old dream.” “The Bight” (cp 60) works entirely differently, right from its dating subtitle: “[On my birthday],” to its conclusion that the “untidy activity” of the external world “continues” despite the speaker’s observation. Both poems are about anniversaries, but they present very different senses of how one finds the world when one turns back to it after the passing of time. Unlike “Brazil,” “The Bight” is located very specifically in a particular moment – “low tide” on the speaker’s “birthday” – and describes a very particular landscape. The definite article abounds (“the water,” “the boats,” “the birds,” “The Bight”), and many of the things described, like the “little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock” and the “frowsy sponge boats,” are highly individual. Rather than unidentified foliage, there are specific types of birds (“Pelicans,” “man-of-war birds”), and things are precisely observed, down to the materials from which they are made (“jackstraw,” “chicken wire”) and their eventual destinations (the “Chinese-restaurant” trade). Where “Brazil” describes Brazil in a general, timeless sense, unchanged for five centuries, “The Bight” describes this particular bight in these particular moments. As the very first line makes clear, the poem describes the bight only when it is “like this.” Both poems are notable for an abundance of detail, but the details function differently. In “Brazil,” detail fills and makes real an imagined landscape; it helps describe a creation of poetic association. In “The Bight,” detail provides starting points for associative leaps; it gives the poet a description upon which to associate. The poem is, after all, made up of little similes, but the poet’s association does not change or constitute the bight. “[I]f one were Baudelaire / one could probably hear [the water] turning to marimba music,” in which case the “little ocher dredge” will obligingly play the “dry perfectly off-beat
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
claves.” But one need not be Baudelaire, and, at the end of the poem, the dredge, though it plays its claves – “Click. Click.” – still “brings up a dripping jawful of marl.” The process of the world, its “untidy activity,” is unaffected by the observer. It just goes on, “awful but cheerful.” The reference to Baudelaire is not incidental, and “The Bight” is a sort of reply to his “Correspondances” (1:11). Baudelaire’s poem is concerned with the ways in which the world is connected to the observer and the ways in which sensory impressions are connected to one another. The observing subject, for Baudelaire, “passes through forests of symbols who watch him with friendly looks.” Nature and observer interrelate in much the same way that “smells, colors and sounds reply to one another like long echoes, merging from afar in a deep, shadowy unity.” All of these elements, the poet, nature, sight, sound, and smell, come together and “sing the transports of the soul and the senses,” but Bishop will allow no such union. Rather, whatever correspondances she establishes through the many similes that make up the poem amount to “torn-open, unanswered letters. / The bight is littered with old correspondences.” Where Baudelaire is caught up in a rapture of friendly gazes and mingling echoes, Bishop is left firing into a void, sending out signals that remain “unanswered.” Though she tugs at the strictures of description with every image, the speaker never achieves the “transport” of association. If one were to chart the poem, representing descriptive time horizontally and associational time vertically, “The Bight” would look something like the bouncing line of a heart-monitor. Not so “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” which also echoes Baudelaire at times. “Brazil” seeks to show a world subjected to the imagination, a world, as she puts it, “corresponding” to “an old dream.” Her take on this sort of world is at best ambivalent: it is not “the transports of the soul and the senses” that are sung but “L’Homme armé”; it is not the
sights and sounds that “reply to one another like long echoes from afar” but “those maddening little women” who keep “calling, / calling to each other.” The hints of Baudelaire in this poem may be accidental, but the associational mindset that frames the poem, that characterizes the way “our eyes” see, Baudelairean or not, stands accused of violence. The Portuguese carry their intellectual time with them to the New World and ignore the real time in which they are immersed, remaking their surroundings to correspond to their static intellectual present, shaping a particular January day to fit their – and our – notion of “Januaries.” These two poems thus constitute a statement of poetics, a demonstration of the implications of these two distinct poetic modes. Association, in this case, does not come off well. However, I do not wish to suggest that there is anything simple or clear-cut in Bishop’s preference for the descriptive since she engages in association often enough elsewhere. Rather, Bishop is engaged in two different projects at different times and, most often, in an attempt to unify the two. On the one hand, there is the attempt to write poetry that takes place, like Croll’s version of Baroque prose, in mental time rather than real or physical time; on the other hand, there is the attempt to write a poetry that is strictly tied to real time, that conveys the timesense of careful observation. But perhaps the most characteristically Bishopesque poems are those that enact the tension between these two tendencies. The heart-monitor model I applied to “The Bight” describes a surprising number of her poems, from “The Map” (1936) all the way to “Santarém” (1978), but, more to the point, it describes a large number of those poems that no other poet could have written: “The Map” and “Santarém,” again, but also poems like “The ManMoth,” “A Cold Spring,” “Cape Breton,” “Questions of Travel,” “Song for the Rainy Season,” “Filling Station,” “The End of March,” “Poem,” and “Large Bad Picture,” among others. In a Darwinian way, each of these poems is faithfully
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
bound to what it describes and the time-sense of description, but each uses this base to make forays into association. For Bishop the strictures of description function as a sort of corrective to the excesses of association, much like the rules of poetic form, to which Bishop also frequently submits, correct the excesses of linguistic sprawl. One might say that writing a poem that is held firmly to an objective intellectual structure is like writing a villanelle or a sonnet, and writing a poem bound to a particular time-sense is like writing in metre. Employing form does not prevent one from deviating from it; in fact, poetic form serves to highlight and give meaning to deviation. Similarly, Bishop’s use of description does not rule out association so much as give it added meaning; description’s constant forward progress keeps Bishop from excessive associative flights and, in so doing, gives added meaning to those flights she does make. Most importantly, however, Bishop’s particular method of mixing description and association allows her to maintain an unusually complex set of truths. Truth is a notion to which Bishop returns surprisingly often in discussions of her own poetry: “I always tell the truth in my poems. With The Fish, that’s exactly how it happened. It was in Key West, and I did catch it just as the poem says” (Monteiro 42); “the incident with the moose, it really happened” (Monteiro 85); “[i]t was all true … it was all exactly the way I described it” (Monteiro 117). But to tell the truth in poetry is not the same as simply to tell the truth. “Brazil, January 1, 1502” looks at one thing and sees another. As such, it tells the truth about what it sees but not about what is there; it tells a subjective truth and an objective lie. “The Bight” tells two truths simultaneously – the objective truth of the bight and the subjective truth of the similes with which it is described – without confusing the two or allowing one to crowd out the other. From its inception, the poem is constructed along the lines of balanced honesty, employing both subjective and objective truth, association and description.
In a fundamental way, Bishop is firmly committed to telling both of these truths, and she insists that it is only by telling both that we can ever really tell either. To leave behind the specific sense of description I have been pursuing in this chapter and return to a larger, more general notion of what Bishop aims for in her poetry, description is more than just the accurate presentation of physical reality. Rather, Bishop’s art of description combines physical fact with intellectual reaction, showing not just things as they are but also the feelings, ideas, and implications to which they lead. Each of my chapters pursues this argument in some form or another, arguing that Bishop’s poetics unites the conscious and the unconscious, scrutiny and epiphany, the empirical and the abstract, the aesthetic and the moral, reality and narrative, traveller and tourist, description (in the modal sense) and association. Bishop’s focus on the concrete details of the physical world, in all of its various forms, is always the first step – if only the first step – in the immense aesthetic and intellectual endeavour that is her oeuvre. In his lectures on pragmatism, William James describes the relationship between empirical facts and abstract ideas through a striking conceit that, interestingly, echoes and reverses the imagery of Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.” I would like to quote it here, at the climax of this study: Now let the water represent the world of sensible facts, and let the air above it represent the world of abstract ideas. Both worlds are real, of course, and interact; but they interact only at their boundary, and the locus of everything that lives, and happens to us, so far as full experience goes, is the water. We are like fishes swimming in the sea of sense, bounded above by the superior element, but unable to breathe it pure or penetrate it. We get our oxygen from it, however, we touch it incessantly, now in this part, now in that, and every time we touch it, we turn back
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
into the water with our course re-determined and reenergized. The abstract ideas of which the air consists are indispensable for life, but irrespirable by themselves, and only active in their redirecting function. (58) Were I to appropriate this image fully to Bishop’s poetics, I would want to change a few things. The emphasis on borders clashes with Bishop’s more fluid notion of interconnectedness, and I would prefer that we were frogs – at home in both elements, though residing in the water. Regardless, James’s image embodies the descriptive method of Bishop’s poems quite nicely: they circulate through a “sea of sense” but touch the abstract “incessantly,” turning back to the sensory each time, “re-determined” and “re-energized.” There is one thing, however, that James does not account for, and that is the powerful pleasure of Bishop’s climactic forays into the air. As a poet, Bishop is free to fantasize in a way that a philosopher like James is not, and so poems like “The Fish” can begin with James’s occasional visits to the surface, slowly building up energy through sip after little sip of air until some mysterious limit is exceeded and we find ourselves flung out of the water in which we had so peacefully been swimming. There is nothing particularly pragmatic about that, but it is what gives Bishop’s poetry its capacity to astound.
For all the deeper honesty of her poetry, Bishop was often rather disingenuous in her letters, and so it is with a grain of salt that we must take the famous line about a “perfectly useless concentration” (dl). There is a strange doubleness to it, a way in which it is both accurate and misleading. On the one hand Bishop is dedicated to a concentration so intense that it precludes conscious intention, and each individual act of observation is indeed perfectly useless in and of itself. But behind the (false) modesty of this statement is a more serious engagement: the concentration in which Bishop is interested is anything but useless. Indeed, it is supremely useful, “necessary” even for the creation of “art” (dl). And the creation of art is, after all, Bishop’s life-work. To bring out that strange doubleness is the point of this book. My goal has been to trace Bishop’s misleadingly modest emphasis on descriptive scrutiny as the road to intellectual revelation, to show both how the world of things is the point of access to the world of ideas and how the world of ideas is always waiting behind the world of things. I have traced this particular pattern through a variety of iterations: from the conscious and unconscious mind through associative and descriptive poetic modes. I have also traced it through a variety of intensities: from the rigorous, description-only applications
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
of her youth (“Time’s Andromedas”) to the gentler (“Questions of Travel”), more fluid (“Santarém”) positions of her maturity. I have even examined the various sources of this pattern: from an intellectual admiration for Darwin to an understandably fearful reaction to the difficulties of the postwar world. This basic pattern comes in many shapes and sizes, but it is, at its heart, a very simple thing, and one that we are used to ascribing to Bishop in a general, unthinking way. The method of this study is to take that unthinking ascription up and examine it in some detail, to move beyond merely saying that Bishop is deeply involved in description and scrutiny and to ask instead how that fact would teach us to read her poetry. In one sense, I hope to have answered that question quite thoroughly in these pages. However, in these final moments, I want to take it up again in a more literal way than I have so far. Up to this point, I have put forth a variety of readings and interpretations of individual texts, but I have been relatively quiet on the question of methodology. Standard practice would have had me declare my theoretical outlook in the opening pages of this study, but I have my reasons for remaining silent up to this point. I am interested in poetics, in how a poet goes about constructing a poem (or a body of poetry), and that makes me, methodologically speaking, a close reader. But to announce close reading as one’s method leaves one vulnerable to all the many criticisms that the twentieth century’s great proponents of close reading, the New Critics, so richly deserved. Hence my coyness: I need the body of my argument – the sum total of this book’s accomplishments – to redeem my method or, at least, to purchase my reader’s indulgence. I do share the New Critics’ interest in the text itself, and close reading is for me a way to bring to the fore the most poetic elements of poetry: form, structure, detail. However, where the New Critics allowed their love of the text to translate into a prohibition against context, I am far less doctrinaire. Instead, what I have tried to do throughout this study
is examine Bishop’s work from the inside out, beginning with only a very general approach (description) and bringing in a variety of more particular contexts as they are summoned by the texts in question. As my reader has no doubt noticed, description is not for me a topic so much as a framework, an umbrella under which a particularly wide variety of contexts – from Victorian natural history to narratology – might fit. Each of these various contexts could easily provide the guiding conceit of an entire critical study, and that is how much recent work on Bishop has functioned. The author chooses a context against which to read Bishop’s work, be it thematic (Fortuny’s book on travel), intellectual (Harrison’s on pragmatism), historical (Roman’s on the Cold War), or theoretical (Zhou’s Bakhtinian study), and then moves through her poetry with that context in mind. My goal has been to strike a balance between the rigorous textuality of the New Critics and the rigorous contextuality of this more contemporary mode of criticism, and I hope to have been looser and more flexible than either of these more committed methods allow. And so I offer flexibility as the rationale of my method, and this book as its justification. Whatever my reader takes from it will argue more strongly for me than anything I could say here. However, I would like to add one crucial notion, which is that my method imitates Bishop’s. As I argue throughout this study, her point of entry is almost always the minute particulars, the details rather than the concepts. She reads the world as I read her poetry: from the inside out, beginning with the text (things) and only after minute scrutiny allowing contexts (ideas) to come into play. What poet could more invite close reading of the sort in which I engage here? Indeed, Bishop’s poetry is engaged in an incessant close reading of the world around her. But let me make that argument more concretely by examining a topic that I have been avoiding throughout this book: ekphrasis. In a book dedicated to the idea of description, ekphrasis is both an obvious and a
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
difficult topic. In classical rhetoric, “ekphrasis” simply means description, but in current use the word has come to denote a poem that engages with a work of art – most familiarly a poem about a painting. Ekphrasis, in this more modern sense (and that is how I will use it from this point onward), has been unusually safe from accusations of being “merely descriptive,” and it has proved an unusually popular topic with scholars of twentieth-century poetry. Indeed, while there are but few scholarly books about poetic description that reach into the twentieth century (Spiegelman, Weatherhead), there are any number about ekphrastic poetry that do so (e.g., Aisenberg, Heffernan, Hollander). The aesthetic viability of ekphrasis results from a few different factors, easily illustrated by one of the century’s most famous ekphrastic poems, W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (237). In the simplest sense, an ekphrastic poem allows the poet to describe without having to bother with the minutiae of description: since the reader is usually expected to have seen the artwork in question, the poet is relieved of the technical burden of actually bringing it before the reader’s eyes. And so Auden can list the elements in “Brueghel’s Icarus” – “ploughman,” “sun,” “white legs,” “green / water,” “expensively delicate ship” – without giving any sense of how the painting actually looks. The adjectives, where they exist, are either generic (“white,” “green”) or too specific to be visually helpful (“expensively delicate”); the nouns are consistently plain (“sun,” “legs,” “boy,” “ship”); and there is none of the intensive imagery that might help bring the poem to life, visually speaking. Neither is there any painterly language in the poem, any notion of foreground or background or composition, nothing to indicate spatial relations or make clear that this is a painting rather than a narrative. Because the painting is famous, Auden can bypass the work of describing it and go straight to his point. But even what description he does include is made safe against the
possibility of insignificance by the pre-established importance of a Brueghel housed in a world-class museum. Works of art have considerably more cultural heft than a landscape or a fish, and so an ekphrastic poem carries an air of aesthetic depth that renders it immune to accusations of dwelling on the mundane. Though Auden’s tone is surprisingly light – “dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree” – the importance of his topic is never in doubt. Indeed, such is the point of the poem: that there is no such thing as insignificance in these paintings, that even in the most seemingly trivial details the admirable “Old Masters” are “never wrong.” Auden is careful to front-load the poem with the paintings’ pedigree: the title reminds us that they have received the stamp of official recognition, and the second line that they represent the cumulative wisdom of the past (the term “Old Masters” is more approbative than precise, including all the best painters from a nearly five-hundred-year period). So while ekphrasis is, technically, a form of description, it is safe from ever being thought of as “mere description.” And just as ekphrasis comes preinsured against insignificance, it also comes prepackaged with an interpretive strategy. The praise (overt or otherwise) of the artist described can be read as a statement of poetics (or at least aesthetics), a description not only of a work of art but also of the poet’s ideas about art. In this case, Auden puts forth a poetics of understatement, an aesthetics dedicated to resisting the urge to magnify suffering to tragic proportions. He makes this idea quite clear in the content of the poem – “even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course / Anyhow in a corner” – and he also embodies it in his own casual tone: that “Anyhow” deflates things more than the “corner” ever could. The reader is always clear on what to do with this description – retrieve from it a set of attitudes towards art and suffering – and this basic method applies to any ekphrastic poem. Further, this particular aspect of the ekphrastic
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
poems makes it particularly germane to the twentieth century’s preoccupation with meta-aesthetics, making it no surprise that the form should prove popular throughout the century. Given all of these advantages, it is far from surprising that the ekphrastic poem should prove popular in an age that is often rather dubious about description: it is relieved of certain functional necessities, inherently interesting, culturally speaking, and accompanied by a ready-made meta-poetic interpretation – it is description without risks. But while ekphrasis may be contemporary poetry’s most significant mode of description, it is for that very reason an inappropriate topic for this book, which is, after all, about the importance of seemingly insignificant things in Bishop’s poetry. For a poet dedicated to careful, disinterested scrutiny of whatever life gives, it is cheating to scrutinize a Breughel since it is, as it were, prescrutinized. By piggybacking on the work of another artist, the ekphrastic poet jumps directly to the larger questions (suffering) without having to deal with the smaller things that mean so much to Bishop (what kind of ship is it?). However popular ekphrasis might be with her contemporaries, it is the antithesis of Bishop’s own poetics of description. I have perhaps been cheating somewhat by using Auden’s poem as my example, and certainly there are ekphrastic poems that do not press their advantages so relentlessly. But Bishop, characteristically, goes all the way to the other extreme: her two fully ekphrastic poems – “Large Bad Picture” and “Poem [About the size of an old-style dollar bill]” – eschew all of the conventional advantages of ekphrasis. They are most emphatically not about Breughels but about paintings by the speaker’s “Uncle George” (actually her “greatuncle”; cp 177), and she must actually describe them in considerable detail, losing the simplest technical advantage of ekphrasis. Similarly, Uncle George’s lack of skill (the first painting is a “Large Bad Picture”) or success (the second has “never earned any money in its life”; 176) leaves Bishop to
establish the significance of the poems entirely on her own, without ekphasis’s usual guarantee of import. Nor is it safe to assume that we can read these poems in any simple way as statements of aesthetics. Unlike Auden’s Old Masters, Uncle George is not “always right”; indeed, Bishop’s speaker is reluctant to credit him with any “vision” at all (177). However, if we cannot read the poem as a statement of aesthetics, we can instead read it as a statement of critical methodology: it will not teach us how to paint or write, but it will teach us how to look at a painting or read a poem. Neither of these poems is ekphrastic in the sense outlined above. Within the world of Bishop’s poetry, paintings are no different than natural objects, and, not surprisingly, the same process of scrutiny before revelation is required. To rephrase that in methodological terms, Bishop is close reading these paintings in her usual manner. Indeed, “Poem” (cp 176–7) applies this process to Uncle George’s painting to great effect. The opening stanza deals immediately with the questions of value and importance under discussion here, but in a characteristically bemused manner. The financial theme is introduced – the painting is “the size of an old-style dollar bill, / American or Canadian” – but the currency is outdated (“oldstyle”), of indeterminate origin (“American or Canadian”), and, therefore, of unknown worth. Indeed, the financial language of the first line seems introduced only to be brushed aside since the painting “has never earned any money in its life.” Instead, it is “Useless and free,” a “minor family relic / handed along collaterally.” The word “relic” is used here more in the modern sense of something outdated and valueless than in its original religious sense, and the painting is handed “along collaterally” rather than handed down as part of an inheritance. Not only does the painting lack value, financial or otherwise, but it is actually something one tries to be rid of, something “taken from a trunk and handed over” because its current owner will “probably never / have
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
room to hang” it. The speaker begins by stripping the painting of any importance or value; she reduces it to the mere fact of itself, making of it a “Useless” object on which to focus her “perfectly useless concentration.” With all potential ekphrastic import removed, Bishop’s speaker starts in on her close reading, building up her sense of the painting from scratch. The second stanza is a descriptive list, not just of the objects in the painting, but of the painting as an object. She sees the painting in terms of brush strokes as well as things: a “gray-blue wisp” may or may not be a “church steeple”; the cows are “two brushtrokes each, but confidently cows”; what seems at first “a slanting stick” reveals itself on closer inspection to be first “a wild iris” and then paint “fresh-squiggled from the tube”; the clouds are “the artist’s specialty”; and a “specklike bird” “flying to the left” may actually be a “flyspeck” looking like a bird. By focusing in on Uncle George’s technique, Bishop’s speaker keeps the fact of the painting before her eyes at the same time as she inventories its contents. Her close reading maintains a focus on the poetics of the text (the technique of the painting), while gradually building up a sense of its meaning (the objects it depicts), without, yet, any reference to context (the significance of those objects). It is only in the third stanza that her eye – to adapt a phrase from “Over 2,000 Illustrations” – drops through the lines the paintbrush has made and into the scene itself: “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” At this point context enters the poem in the form of geography (the place) and biography (the farmer, Miss Gillespie), but the speaker is only half-interested in these things. Even as she recognizes the particular landscape, she continues to foreground the fact of the painting. The barn is still “one dab” of “titanium white” paint; “the steeple” is still “filaments of brushhairs.” She does not yet lose sight of the textuality of the text because it is not the place itself that is important so much as
the fact that Uncle George painted it. There is nothing remarkable in this landscape, “this literal small backwater.” What is remarkable is that two people should each have “looked at it long enough to memorize it,” and it is that realization that finally leads to a relaxation of the speaker’s careful scrutiny. Though she “never knew him,” the speaker and Uncle George “both knew this place,” and their: visions coincided – “visions” is too serious a word – our looks, two looks: art “copying from life” and life itself, life and the memory of it so compressed they’ve turned into each other. A careful reader might object to this sudden resolution since a great deal of the poem so far has concerned how very uncertainly Uncle George’s art copies from life. However, the resolution is not between art and life (as those quotation marks help make clear) but between “life and the memory of it.” In one sense Uncle George slips out of the poem as the paintedness of the painting is lost. The final lines return to the “cows” and “iris” of the first stanza but without the qualifying clauses that assert their artificiality. The speaker seems now to be looking at her memory instead of (or as much as) the painting, and Uncle George as artist has vanished. In another sense, however, the speaker keeps Uncle George in the poem but on new terms: as a fellow looker rather than a visionary, as a fellow reader of the world rather than a creator of art. Indeed, the increasing emphasis on the first person plural in that last stanza – first representing the speaker and George but then gradually broadening to a universal “we” in the final lines – suggests that, far from a unique vision, and more, even, than a particular shared memory, what is being revealed here is an experience common to all, a fundamental fact about “our abidance”
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description
that comes clear only in Bishop’s typically circuitous manner. The poem eventually connects place and memory and community, suggesting that our sense of connection to others is tied up in our shared memories of particular locations or things. Bishop’s speaker moves here, as she so often does, from concrete physical detail, to a localized recognition, and then outward into a fugitive epiphany. As a whole, the poem paints an elegant portrait of how Bishop would have us read her. We must begin by throwing out our conventional notions of value and importance, cleaning our minds of any single, predetermined critical context. Then, with a remarkably minute attention to detail, we must take up the task of examining the poem before us, with a particular attention to its poetics, to the way it presents what it does. For it is only by keeping method and technique in mind that we come to feel the importance that Bishop places on the objects she describes. And it is the awareness of that effort and care that produces a curious appreciative parity with the poet – not awestruck by her accomplishment or the depth of her vision but comfortable in her presence, impressed by her dedication, and looking along with her at some fact of life that we had not thought of until we read about it in the poem, not valued until we saw someone else valuing it. The process may seem “cramped” and “dim,” the gains “little,” but it is the only way to appreciate the particular flavour of Bishop’s poems, so “live, [so] touching in detail.” Not surprisingly, Bishop’s advice on reading is not so very different from her advice on living, thinking, or writing. And, once again, I have put forth a version of that very same intellectual model I have been chasing throughout this study. Hardly surprising, perhaps, but I hope some justification for my approach to her work. A familiar trope of Bishop criticism is that she, like her Sandpiper, is “a student of Blake” (cp 131), able to “see a World in a Grain of Sand” (Blake 209). However, where Blake’s faith in the imagination allows
him to see a world in a grain of sand, Bishop’s “finical” Sandpiper must “focus” to the point of “obsess[ion]” on “millions of grains,” “black, white, tan, and gray, / mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst” (cp 131). Like Darwin, she must have “all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing” (Origin 95). She can achieve Blake’s fourfold universal vision but only, like Darwin, by looking at the universe piece by piece, grain of sand by grain of sand, only by deploying her own particular poetics of description. It seems only fair that we, as readers and critics, should bring to her poems that same level of tireless scrutiny.
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Aisenberg, Katy. Ravishing Images: Ekphrasis in the Poetry and Prose of William Wordsworth, W.H. Auden, and Philip Larkin. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Ed. Giorgio Petrocchi. Firenze: Edizione Nazionale, 1994. Allen, Walter. Introduction. In Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson, 3–8. New York: Knopf, 1967. Altieri, Charles. “The Concept of Force as Modernist Response to the Authority of Science.” Modernism/Modernity 5, 2 (1998): 77–93. Aristotle. On Rhetoric. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. – Poetics. Trans. James Hutton. New York: Norton, 1982. Arp, Jean. Jours effeuillés. Paris: Gallimard, 1966. My translation. Auden, W.H. The English Auden. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1977. Axelrod, Steven Gould. “Elizabeth Bishop and Containment Policy.” American Literature 75, 4 (2003): 843–67. Baudelaire, Charles-Pierre. Oeuvres complètes. 2 Vols. Ed. Claude Pichois. Paris: Gallimard, 1975. My translation. Bishop, Elizabeth. Collected Prose. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, 1984. – Complete Poems: 1927–1979. New York: Noonday, 1983.
– “Dimensions for a Novel.” Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies 8 (1934): 95–103. – “Gerard Manley Hopkins: Notes on Timing in His Poetry.” Vassar Review 23 (1934): 5–7. – Letter to Anne Stevenson. 20 March 1963. Elizabeth Bishop Papers. Washington University, St Louis. – Letter to Anne Stevenson. 8–20 January 1964. Elizabeth Bishop Papers. Washington University, St Louis. – Letter to Anne Stevenson. 23 March 1964. Elizabeth Bishop Papers. Washington University, St Louis. – One Art: Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Noonday, 1994. – “Seven-Days Monolouge [sic].” Con Spirito 1, 2 (1933): 3–4. – “Time’s Andromedas.” Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies 7 (1933): 102–20. Blake, William. Blake’s Poetry and Design. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: Norton, 1979. Blanton, Casey. Travel Writing: The Self and the World. New York: Twayne, 1997. Bly, Robert. American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: Harper, 1990. Bök, Christian. “How Poems Work.” Globe and Mail (Toronto), 27 April 2002, D30. Breton, André. Manifestes du surréalisme. Paris: Gallimard, 1985. My translation. – Le Surréalisme et la peinture. Paris: Gallimard, 1965. My translation. Breton, André and Paul Éluard. L’Immaculée conception. Paris: Seghers, 1961. My translation. Bunyan, John. The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. Ed. James F. Forrest and Roger Sharrock. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988. – The Pilgrim’s Progress. Ed. N.H. Keeble. Oxford: Oxford, University Press, 1984. Carroll, Joseph. “Introduction.” Darwin, Origin, 9–72. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Ed. George Watson. London: Dent, 1956.
Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991. Croll, Morris W. “The Baroque Style in Prose.” In Studies in English Philology: A Miscellany in Honor of Frederick Klaeber, ed. Kemp Malone and Martin B. Ruud, 427–56. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1929. Culler, Jonathan. Framing the Sign. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988. Darwin, Charles. Autobiography and Selected Letters. Ed. Francis Darwin. New York: Dover, 1958. – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Peterborough, on: Broadview, 2003. Doreski, C.K. Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Eliot, T.S. Selected Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode. London: Faber, 1975. – The Three Voices of Poetry. London: Cambridge University Press, 1953. Erkkila, Betsy. “Elizabeth Bishop, Modernism, and the Left.” American Literary History 8, 2 (1996): 284–310. Ernst, Max. Écritures. Paris: Gallimard, 1970. My translation. Estess, Sybil P. “Elizabeth Bishop: The Delicate Art of Map Making.” Southern Review 13 (1977): 705–27. Farber, Paul Lawrence. Finding Order in Nature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964. Fortuny, Kim. Elizabeth Bishop: The Art of Travel. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003. Fuller, John. W.H. Auden: A Commentary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. Fussell, Paul. Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. – ed. Norton Book of Travel. New York: Norton, 1987. Gascoyne, David. A Short Survey of Surrealism. Great Britain, n.p.: Cobden-Sanderson, 1935.
Genette, Gérard. “Voice.” In Narratology: An Introduction, ed. Susana Onega and José Angel García Landa, 172–89. London: Longman, 1996. Gilbert, Roger. “Framing Water: Historical Knowledge in Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich.” Twentieth-Century Literature 43, 2 (1997): 144–61. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Sämtliche Werke. 17 vols. Ed. Karl Richter. Munich: Hanser, 1991. My translation. Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Harrison, Victoria. Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Intimacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Heaney, Seamus. “The Government of the Tongue.” Partisan Review 55, 2 (1988): 292–308. Heath, Stephen. The Nouveau Roman: A Study in the Practice of Writing. London: Elek, 1972. Heffernan, James A. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: Scribner, 1996. – A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner. 1964. Herbert, George. The Complete English Works. Ed. Ann Pasternak Slater. New York: Knopf, 1995. Hollander, John. The Gazer’s Spirit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Holy Bible, The. Philadelphia: National Bible Press, n.d. Hulme, Peter, and Tim Youngs. “Introduction.” In Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, 1–13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. James, William. Pragmatism and Other Writings. Ed. Giles Gunn. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000. Jarrell, Randall. “The Poet and His Public.” Partisan Review 13, 4 (1946): 488–500. – Kipling, Auden & Co: Essays and Reviews 1935–1964. New York: Farrar, 1980. – Poetry and the Age. New York: Vintage, 1953.
– The Third Book of Criticism. New York: Farrar, 1965. Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Ed. Robert Hemenway. New York: Noonday, 1989. Kelly, Lionel, ed. Poetry and the Sense of Panic. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laocoön. Trans. Edward Allen McCormick. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962. Lombardi, Marilyn May. The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995. Longenbach, James. Modern Poetry after Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Lowell, Robert. Collected Prose. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, 1987. McCabe, Susan. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. – “Stevens, Bishop, and Ashbery: A Surrealist Lineage.” Wallace Stevens Journal 22, 2 (1998): 149–68. McNally, Nancy L. “Elizabeth Bishop: The Discipline of Description.” Twentieth-Century Literature 11 (1966): 189–201. Messenger, Cynthia. “‘But How Do You Write a Chagall?’: Ekphrasis and the Brazilian Poetry of P.K. Page and Elizabeth Bishop.” Canadian Literature 142/3 (1994): 102–17. Meyer, Sara. “‘Another Attempt at Mastering Infinity’: Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Map-making.” In Divisions of the Heart, ed. Sandra Barry, Gwendolyn Davies, and Peter Sanger, 237–47. Wolfville: Gaspereau Press, 2001. Millier, Brett Candlish. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: Norton, 1993. Monteiro, George, ed. Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Moore, Marianne. Selected Letters. Ed. Bonnie Costello. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Mullen, Richard. “Elizabeth Bishop’s Surrealist Inheritance.” American Literature 54, 1 (1982): 63–80. Nadeau, Maurice. Histoire du surréalisme: Documents surréalistes. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1948. My translation. O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery & Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Noonday, 1962. Page, Barbara. “Off-Beat Claves, Oblique Realities: The Key West Notebooks of Elizabeth Bishop.” In Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender, ed. Marilyn May Lombardi, 196–211. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Paradis, James. “Darwin and Landscape.” In Victorian Science and Victorian Values: Literary Perspectives, ed. James Paradis and Thomas Postlewait, 85–110. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1981. Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Garden City, ny: Doubleday, 1961. My translation. Peacock, Molly. “From Gilded Cage to Rib Cage.” In After New Formalism, ed. Annie Finch, 70–8. Ashland: Story Line Press, 1999. Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Second Series. New York: Viking, 1963. Pound, Ezra. abc of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1934. – Literary Essays. Ed. T.S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1935. Preminger, Alex, and T.V.F Brogan. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Rich, Adrienne. Blood Bread, and Poetry. New York: Norton, 1986. Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 1985, 1988. Rognoni, Francesco. “Reading Darwin: On Elizabeth Bishop’s Marked Copies of The Voyage of the Beagle and The Autobiography of Charles Darwin.” In Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell & Co, ed. Suzanne Ferguson, 239–48. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.
Roman, Camille. Elizabeth Bishop’s World War II – Cold War View. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Rubin, William S. Dada and Surrealist Art. New York: Abrams, n.d. Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. Ed. John Wilders. London: Routledge, 1995. Shattuck, Roger. “Introduction.” In The History of Surrealism, by Maurice Nadeau, trans. Richard Howard, 11–34. New York: MacMillan, 1966. Shigley, Sally Bishop. “Dazzling Dialectics”: Elizabeth Bishop’s Resonating Feminist Reality. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. Spiegelman, Willard. How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Spires, Elizabeth. “Questions of Knowledge.” Field 31 (1984): 20–3. Stevenson, Anne. Elizabeth Bishop. New York: Twayne, 1966. – Letter to Elizabeth Bishop. 28 October 1963. Elizabeth Bishop Papers. Washington University, St Louis. Suárez-Toste, Ernesto. “‘Straight from Chirico’: Pictorial Surrealism and the Early Elizabeth Bishop.” Studies in the Humanities 23, 2 (1996): 185–201. – “Une Machine À Coudre Manuelle: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Everyday Surrealism.’” Mosaic 33, 2 (2000): 143–60. Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Journey and Its Narratives.” Trans. Alyson Waters. In Transports: Travel, Pleasure, and Imaginative Geography, 1600–1830, ed. Chloe Chard and Helen Langdon, 287–96. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Travisano, Thomas. “Elizabeth Bishop and the Origins of Narrative Postmodernism.” In Kelly, 87–104. – Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. Weatherhead, A. Kingsley. The Edge of the Image: Marianne Moore and Williams Carlos Williams. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967.
Williams, William Carlos. Collected Poems. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. 2 vols. New York: New Directions, 1988. – Paterson. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1992. Wolff, Tobias. Old School. New York: Knopf, 2003. Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, ed. Andrew McNeillie, 146–54. San Diego: Harcourt, 1984. Wordsworth, William. Poetical Works. Ed. E. de Selincourt. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1952. Yeats, W.B. The Poems. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Macmillan, 1989. Zhou Xiaojing. Elizabeth Bishop: Rebel in Shades and Shadows. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
abstract vs. empirical knowledge, 73–97 accumulation, 62–5 aesthetics vs. politics, 98–124 allegory, 22–9 Altieri, Charles: on modernism and science, 60–1 Arp, Hans, 52 “Arrival at Santos”: and travel, 152–9 association vs. description, 173–88 “At the Fishhouses”: and knowledge, 86–97; relation to “The Weed,” 73–4 Auden, W.H.: “Musée des Beaux Arts,” 192–4; “September 1, 1939,” 116–18 Baudelaire, Charles: “Correspondances,” 184–5 “The Bight”: association and description in, 183–5
binaries, Bishop’s treatment of, 11 Blake, William, 198–9 blason, the, 178 Bly, Robert: on “At the Fishhouses,” 34–5 Bök, Christian, 61 “Brazil, January 1, 1502”: and travel, 159–62; association and description in, 180–5 Breton, André : on science, 61; on surrealism, 41–57 Bunyan, John, 119–20 cartography, 66 “Cirque d’Hiver”: politics and aesthetics in,114–18 close reading, 190–1 “A Cold Spring”: and imagery, 15–16 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor: on the imagination 34–5; Lyrical Ballads, 30
control, 30–1, 36, 85 Costello, Bonnie: on “At the Fishhouses,” 89–92; on mastery and flux, 84–5; on modernism and postmodernism, 6–7 “The Country Mouse” and “In the Waiting Room,” 67–8 Croll, Morris: on Baroque prose, 173, 174–6 Culler, Jonathon: on travel and tourism, 151–2 Darwin, Charles, 58–9, 199; vs. surrealism, 52–3 Darwin Letter, The, 4–5, 46–8, 52–5, 68–9; and surrealism 39–57 description: as an idea 3–4; vs. association 173–88 “Dimensions for a Novel,” 128, 137–8 ekphrasis, 191–8 Eliot, T.S.: on allegory, 22–3; on Dante, 17–18; on science, 60 empirical vs. abstract knowledge, 73–97 “The End of March,” 33–4 Ernst, Max, 42–3; Histoire naturelle, 52 evolution, Darwin’s theory of, 70–1
expansive vs. intensive imagery, 15–19 “Filling Station,” 56 “The Fish”: allegory vs. description in, 25–6; association, description and narrative in, 179–80; imagery in, 29–32; and Jarrell’s review, 110–13 Fussell, Paul: on travel and tourism, 150–2 Gascoyne, David: Short Survey of Surrealism, 44–5 gender and sexuality: as interpretive bases, 32–3 “The Gentleman of Shalott”: and allegory 27–8; and surrealism, 50 Goldensohn, Lorrie: on Bishop and surrealism, 43 Harrison, Victoria, 32–3 Heaney, Seamus: on “At the Fishhouses,” 88–91 Hemingway, Ernest: and “The Fish,” 110–12 Herbert, George: “Love Unknown” and “The Weed,” 83–6 intensive vs. expansive imagery, 15–19 “In the Village,” 138
Index “In the Waiting Room” and The Darwin Letter, 67–9 James, William, 187–8 Jarrell, Randall: review of North & South, 101–14 Kalstone, David: on Questions of Travel, 149 Kelly, Lionel: on fear and form,112–13 Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Lacoön, 176–8 Longenbach, James: on Jarrell, 107 Lowell, Robert: review of North & South, 78 Lyrical Ballads, 30 “The Man-Moth”: allegorical interpretations of, 24–5; and imagery, 19–33; and surrealism, 49 McCabe, Susan, 32–3 McNally, Nancy: on Bishop’s clarity, 15–18 Miles, Josephine: Jarrell on, 105–7 Milton, John, 36 modernism: and fiction, 131; and science, 59–62 “The Monument”: and surrealism, 49–50
Moore, Marianne: and science, 59–61, 63–4 morality vs. politics, 101 Mullen, Richard: on Bishop and surrealism, 39–41 New Criticism, 190–1 nouveau roman, the, 137 “One Art,” 36–7 “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”: and narrative, 142–4 Paradis, James: on Darwin, 64–6 “Paris, 7 A.M.”: and narrative,139–42 Pascal, Blaise,165–7 “Poem”: and ekphrasis, 195–8 Politics: vs. aesthetics, 98– 124; Bishop’s, 99–100; vs. morality, 101 postmodernism, 6–8 Pound, Ezra: and science, 60, 63–4 power, 30–1 Proverbs, 119–20 “Quai D’Orléans”: politics and aesthetics in, 121–3 “Questions of Travel”: and travel, 162–70
rhetoric, 35–6 Richardson, Dorothy: Pilgrimage, 132–7 Ricoeur, Paul: Time and Narrative, 128–30, 135, 144 romanticism, 34–5; and natural history, 65–6
Travisano, Thomas: on Bishop and surrealism, 43 “The Unbeliever”: and allegory, 28–9; politics vs. aesthetics in,118–20 Victorian natural history, 62–6
“Santarém”: and narrative, 144–7 Science: modernist ideas about, 59–62 Shattuck, Roger: on surrealism, 45 Stein, Gertrude, 132 Stevenson, Anne: correspondence with Bishop, 39 Suárez-Toste, Ernesto: on Bishop and surrealism, 42–3 surrealism, 39–57 synthesis, 64–6 “Time’s Andromedas,” 127–37 Todorov, Tzvetan: on travel writing, 149
“The Weed”: and knowledge, 74–86; relation to “At the Fishhouses,” 73–4 Williams, William Carlos: on science, 60–2 Wolff, Tobias: on Hemingway, 111 Woolf, Virginia: “Modern Fiction,” 131–2, 137; Mrs Dalloway, 133–4 Wordsworth, William, 30 World War II, 103–5 Yeats, W.B.: “The Unbeliever” and, 118