It’s hard to imagine learning to write without having read Elizabeth Bishop’s poems. At nineteen years old, I was a bandana-wearing hippie and a burgeoning feminist when my professor at Oberlin College pulled Bishop’s Complete Poems off her shelf and loaned it to me. (For this exchange, I’ll always be grateful.) And after reading and re-reading, I became obsessed with Bishop’s obsessions: geography and travel, questions of perception, detailed observations of the physical world. Like the work of most writers that one reads early on, Elizabeth Bishop’s poems have stayed with me, and I find traces of her in most of what I’ve written since.
Tomorrow marks what would have been Elizabeth Bishop’s 102nd birthday. Born on February 8, 1911, in Worchester, Massachusetts, Bishop’s early biography reads very much like a Romantic-era saga: her father dead and her mother committed to an asylum, Bishop was an orphan, sent to Nova Scotia to live with her grandparents and then brought back to Massachusetts to live with other relatives. She struggled with chronic asthma, isolation, and loneliness. She began publishing poems in high school and later went to Vassar College, where she met Marianne Moore, and then a number of other prominent poets, including Robert Lowell, who became a lifelong friend. Her first book of poems, North & South, was published in 1946. In the following years, she lived and wrote in France, Key West, and, most famously, Brazil, where she stayed the longest, about fifteen years. In her lifetime, she published a number of additional poetry collections, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was decorated with many other honors. She spent most of her life living on an inheritance, though she took lectureships at a few American universities towards the end of her life, when her family money began to dwindle. Though Elizabeth Bishop is often considered a key player in the American poetry canon, very few of my non-writer friends have read her or even recognize her name.
So much has been written about Bishop, and I’m not a critic by training. When I try to pinpoint what draws me to her poems, the best answer I can give has something to do with her ideas of distance and proximity. Like many creative writing teachers, I’ll often use Bishop’s “The Fish” to teach my students how to use images in their poems. The description of the fish that is always rattling inside my head is here, in lines 10-16:
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
This, I often tell my students, is imagery at its sharpest. The comparison of the fish’s skin to old rose-printed wallpaper gives us, on the one hand, a clear picture of the fish’s pattern and texture. But it also hints at something else: the fish as a sort of physical encapsulation for the less-tangible ideas of history and time. The perspective Bishop wields here is remarkable: the speaker of the poem has zoomed in so closely on her subject that she can notice the individual scales, as well as the pattern they contain. Bishop’s poems are full of this kind of “up close” view; the descriptions are as if she has held a magnifying glass to every inch of the physical world.
And yet there is Bishop’s other mode of perception, one that seems guided by her obsession with distance. Peripatetic throughout her life, and preoccupied by geography and travel, Bishop’s “location” poems sometimes position the speaker at some (impossible?) distance from the location that’s being observed. We can see this perspective in her well-known poem, “The Map”:
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
—the printer here experiencing the same excitement
when the emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between the thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
In this poem (as well as some others), Bishop is able to describe an entire country or continent at once. The result is a half-real, half-imagined synthesis of the actual place and the representation of that place. In the literal sense, the speaker of “The Map” is looking at the images the cartographer has drawn. On the other hand, she is also touching the “real” water and land that are imaginatively contained inside the map. It’s as if she is in an airplane, seeing the outline of the place from some incredible distance— and yet, somehow, her arm is nearly long enough to touch the physical world she describes.
I’ve been able to see this very tension played out in the works of other poets, and especially those who write about exile. When I discovered Agha Shahid Ali, and especially his poem “I See Chile in My Rearview Mirror,” for example, I remembered the perspective I’d seen in the “The Map.” For me, it was Bishop who first showed me the complicated scope that is possible in poetry: a hard, objective, microscopic up-closeness that somehow co-exists with seeing “the big picture” at a distance. It’s this pull between near and far that keeps me coming back to her poems, and keeps me hard at work inside my own.