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C.J. Allen

What we Imagine Knowledge to Be: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

It took a little while before I was able to let Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry into my life. I’d been picking at it in a desultory
I-know-this-is-supposed-to-be-great-but-I-don’t-really-get-it sort of way for years. And then, somehow, it just seemed to creep up on me. One day I was reading ‘At the Fishhouses’ & I swear I actually went a little dizzy - with excitement, or recognition, or that sense of connection & revelation that is the defining energy of the very best poetry. Who knows how these things come about? Maybe they’ve as much to do with the reader’s own psychological state - his achievement of a particular poetic temperature, if you like - as they have to do with the work itself.
It’s a matter of record that Elizabeth Bishop would often spend years on a single poem, working up & refining each piece until it achieved her signature style: a miraculous conjunction of passionate accuracy, spontaneity & mystery.

Perhaps it was the spontaneous, the almost-but-not-exactly conversational tone that threw me, that distracted me from

the spectacular detailing & pin-sharp observation. She once said that writing poetry ‘is a way of life, not a matter of testifying but experiencing. It is not the way in which one goes about interpreting the world, but the very process of sensing it.’ And among the many qualities that contribute to her stature as a writer is her peculiarly sensual descriptive precision – which is remarkable enough in itself, but in Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry this is yoked to a profound musical sensibility. The combination is … well, judge for yourself:

The five fish houses have steeply peaked roofs

And narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up

To store rooms in the gables

For the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.

All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,

Swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,

Is opaque, but the silver of the benches,

The lobster pots, and masts, scattered

Among the wild jagged rocks,

Is of an apparent translucence

Like the small old buildings with an emerald moss

Growing on their shoreward walls.

‘From At the Fishhouses

Notice how the vowel sounds of ‘steeply peaked’ are picked up in ‘cleated’ in the next line, tucked away between those piping short ‘a’s of narrow, gangplanks and slant. If you take a moment to read these lines aloud you’ll quickly begin to get a sense of the exquisite technical achievement. You’ll hear the swishing & sibilant sea-ness of ‘All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea, / Swelling slowly as if considering spilling …’ And yet the whole thing comes off as such a modest, unshowy, monologue.

Her poems have that special ability to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. This is in part due to her wonderfully friendly, almost confidential tone & it is this gentleness of address, I think, that perhaps accounts for the length of time it took for her to be recognised as a genuinely important poet. To a certain extent she’s still known as the poet’s poet, the writers’ writer (or, as John Ashbery has it, rather affectionately, in his review of her Collected Prose, ‘a writer’s writer’s writer…’).

It’s true that she can be difficult to pin down, and I think she must’ve known this. Her poem ‘Conversation’ slyly explains:

The tumult in the heart

keeps asking questions.

And then it stops and undertakes to answer

in the same tone of voice.

No-one could tell the difference.

Her writing is remarkably specific, filled with exact & exacting detail. Yet when we read the poems carefully & repeatedly, a sort of luminous mystery begins to seep through. It’s precisely this quality of strangeness, of otherworldliness that keeps us returning to her work, & keeps the poetry perennially fresh & compelling.

Despite what the poet James Merrill has described as her ‘instinctive, modest, life-long impersonation of an ordinary woman’, Elizabeth Bishop’s life, seamed as it was with significant episodes of personal tragedy, isolation & rootlessness, tells a somewhat different story. She was born in 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died when she was an infant & her mother was committed to an asylum when Elizabeth was only four years old. As a young child she lived with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia before returning to live in Worcester with her late father’s family. After studying at Vassar College (where she was introduced to her lifelong friend & poetic mentor, Marianne Moore), she moved first to New York & then to Key West in Florida, publishing her first volume of poems, ‘North & South’, in 1946. Whilst on a trip to South America, she was suddenly taken ill & when the freighter on which she’d been travelling left her behind, she found herself temporarily stranded in Brazil. As it happens, this unexpected biographical twist turned out rather well for her, and she ended up staying there for the next eighteen years, largely due to the fact that it was in Brazil that she met Lota de Macedo Soares, the woman with

whom by her own accounts, she enjoyed a long & happy relationship. Much is often made of Elizabeth Bishop’s sexuality; none of it, it should be pointed out, by Elizabeth Bishop. She consistently maintained that it had no bearing at all on her work as a writer. She would, for example, refuse permission to have her work featured in anthologies of women poets. For her there was no merit in being judged apart; ‘art is art,’ she wrote in 1977, ‘and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values in them that are not art.’ While she may well remain the poet’s poet, she was clearly never the lesbian’s lesbian. After Lota’s suicide in 1967 Elizabeth Bishop returned to live and work in America, teaching at Washington & Harvard. However, her health steadily declined as her periodic bouts of alcoholism began to take their toll. She died in 1979.

Whilst even a cursory reading of her poems couldn’t help but disclose that her experience deeply touches & shapes her poetry, there is rarely any overt or explicit sense of the confessional about her work. Her poems are the poems of an inspired & critically detached observer. In the poem called simply ‘Poem’ she describes a tiny oil-sketch:

About the size of an old-style dollar bill,

American or Canadian,

mostly the same whites, gray-greens and steel grays

- this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)

has never earned any money in its life.

Useless and free it has spent seventy years

as a minor family relic.

Is she writing about a painting? Or her poetry? Or herself? The answer is, of course, that she is writing about all three. But it’s about something else as well. It’s about a sort of patient & careful attention that has much to do with human love. ‘Poem’ concludes:

Life and the memory of it cramped,

dim, on a piece of Bristol board,

dim, but how we live, how touching in detail

- the little that we get for free,

the little of our earthly trust. Not much.

About the size of our abidance

along with theirs: the munching cows,

the iris crisp and shivering, the water

still standing from the spring freshets,

the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.

Through its exceptional craft, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry fuses the mundane with the elevated and jaw-droppingly brilliant descriptive passages with a kind of transcendental philosophy. If that makes it sound rather worthy & serious, believe me – it isn’t. It is intelligent, touching, charming, & intensely human, & it never flinches from looking squarely & unsentimentally at life.

There are only a few recordings of Elizabeth Bishop reading her poetry, but the selection from Random House Audio Books is - for the enthusiast at least - nothing short of the proverbial revelation. Her slightly cracked, alcoholic Bostonian accent, her easy, offhand manner when reading the poems are infused with the power and authority of the genuine and authentic. To hear Elizabeth Bishop reading from her work is to be left in no doubt that hers are some of the greatest and most enduring poems of the twentieth century.

At the close of ‘At the Fishhouses’, she turns her attention to the chill waters of the Atlantic Ocean:

If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,

then briny, then surely burn your tongue.

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:

dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,

drawn from the cold hard mouth

of the world, derived from the rocky breasts

forever, flowing and drawn, and since

our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown.

The ocean is the ocean & the wonder & ungraspable-ness of the world. Knowledge of the world is bitter & dangerous but also ‘clear, moving, utterly free’. Somehow ‘flowing’ & ‘flown’ call down their unspoken rhymes knowing & known.


Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Complete Poems’ is published by Chatto & Windus

Selected recordings of Elizabeth Bishop reading from her poems are available in the ‘Voice of the Poet’ series, published by Random House US Audio.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in ‘Poetry Nottingham’ under the title ‘On First looking into Elizabeth Bishop’.

Copyright © C. J. Allen 2007