Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters

Alfred Corn

edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz

Library of America, $40.00 (hardcover)

Elizabeth Bishop: Critic

In one volume, here we have them, all the essential writings of Elizabeth Bishop, superseding the earlier Collected Poems and Collected Prose. Also included are fifty-three letters, not as many as in the earlier One Art volume of letters, but with several added that were not found there (notably, the letters Bishop wrote to Anne Stevenson when the younger poet was working on her critical study of Bishop). In the current selection, letters are printed without excisions and with the complimentary closings omitted from the earlier book. Beyond the poems and prose, we’re also provided with all the extant translations Bishop ever made, including an unpublished version of the opening of Aristophanes’s The Birds and translations of several stories by Clarice Lispector that first appeared in The Kenyon Review.

This edition omits the abandoned poem fragments that Alice Quinn collected in Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox; but it collects all the poems that Bishop completed from about age fourteen forward, two of them previously unpublished. The integrity of single volumes as they appeared during the poet’s lifetime has been preserved, so that, for example, the short story “In the Village” has been restored to its original setting in Questions of Travel, and the poem “Arrival at Santos” is reinserted as the next-to-last poem of A Cold Spring—and then, slightly revised, again placed at launch position in Questions of Travel. Besides an index, editor Lloyd Schwartz has for the first time provided brief notes for the poems, and surprisingly useful they are. (I can add a couple of things left out: Schwartz correctly translates the poem title “Chemin de Fer” as “railroad” but doesn’t mention that it is also a card game once common in gambling casinos. And the phrase “fantastic triumph” in “From the Country to the City” is drawn from the Aphra Behn lyric “Love Armed,” which first appeared in the play Abdelazer. I know this because I once wrote to Bishop and asked.) As is customary with American Library volumes, this one includes a chronology, but Schwartz’s is filled with unusually precise detail of the kind seldom found outside full-dress biographies and maybe not even there. For example, it records Bishop telling her Harvard students that her favorite line of iambic pentameter was “I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down.”

The most important addition to what we’ve had before is the section of prose non-fiction. This portion includes an unpublished travel piece about making a trip with Aldous Huxley to Brasilia when the new capital was still under construction; all of the critical articles that previously appeared in the volume Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art (edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess), plus several not collected there; and three critical essays published in a Vassar magazine when Bishop was still an undergraduate. The first of these, titled “Time’s Andromedas” discusses the approaches to rendering the passage of fictional time in novelists as different as Dorothy Richardson, Proust, and Gertrude Stein. The second, titled “Gerard Manley Hopkins: Notes on Timing in His Poetry,” examines Hopkins’s use of sprung rhythm, and the techniques poets use to speed or retard the onward flow of a poem. The third, titled “Dimensions for a Novel,” tries to establish an analogue in fictional narration for Eliot’s theories about the change a major new work initiates in the order of canonical classics. Another undergraduate article concerns Céline’s Journey to the End of Night; and this may be the moment to remark that any effort to characterize and understand Bishop’s poetry needs always to keep in mind that she was from the first deeply interested in prose fiction—which helps explain why so many of her poems incorporate brief narratives.

Many critics have written about Bishop’s poetry, and some have discussed her fiction; but no one has made even the beginnings of a study of Elizabeth Bishop the critic. How can we not be scared off from treating her as a critic after reading a hostile comment she made about criticism in a response (“It All Depends”) to a questionnaire completed by the contributor-poets appearing in a volume titled Mid-Century American Poets? She says, “The analysis of poetry is growing more and more pretentious and deadly. After a session with a few of the highbrow magazines one doesn’t want to look at a poem for weeks, much less start writing one.” [p. 687] A bit further on she modifies her position: “This does not mean that I am opposed to all close analysis and criticism. But I am opposed to making poetry monstrous or boring and proceeding to talk the very life out of it.” [p. 687] Despite the porcupine enmity manifested, the fact is that after publishing her undergraduate critical essays, all three detailed and analytical, she went on to publish many book reviews in serious magazines like Poetry, New Republic, and United States Quarterly Book Review. For that matter, “It All Depends” included these pointed observations:

Physique, temperament, religion, politics, and immediate circumstances all play their parts in formulating one’s theories on verse. And then they play them again and differently when one is writing it. No matter what theories one may have, I doubt very much they are in one’s mind at the moment of writing a poem or that there is even a physical possibility that they could be. Theories can only be based on interpretations of other poets’ poems, or one’s own in retrospect, or wishful thinking.” [p. 687]

As a critic, Bishop was decidedly non-theoretical; her substitutes for theory were expressions of taste, bolstered by apt and amusing comparisons involving imagery fetched from distant contexts. Even her undergraduate essays have this feature. In “Dimensions for a Novel,” she says, “Gertrude Stein keeps up a magnificent front, as terrifying as a crusade of vacant-faced children.” [p. 678] And, in the essay on Hopkins, she speaks of his use of “outriders” or hypermetrical syllables this way: “Here the timing and tuning of sense and syllable is so accurate that it is reminiscent of the caprice of a perfectly trained acrobat: falling through the air gracefully to snatch his partner’s ankles he can yet, within the fall, afford an extra turn and flourish, in safety, without spoiling the form of his flight.” [p. 663] Often the figurative comparisons are so original and striking you hear yourself muttering, “She should have saved this for a poem, it’s that good.” Writing criticism seemed to stimulate in her an overage of compositional energy, not strictly required for the task at hand, much as millet and sunflower seedlings will sprout on the ground beneath a bird-feeder visited by aggressive starlings and jays. This is simply to say that for Bishop, critical writing and poesis were not compartmentalized pursuits.

As a book-reviewer she reminds us of Jarrell, the resemblance obvious in a quick appraisal of E.E. Cummings’s XAIPE, where she calls the author “the famous man of little letters” and says:

Often Mr. Cummings’ approach to poetry reminds one of a smart-aleck Greenwich Village child saying to his friends: ‘Look! I’ve just made up a new game. Let’s all write poems. There! I’ve won!’ And in front of the wood-and-coal man’s basement shop, on the wall of the Chinese laundry, along the curbs of the dingy but flourishing park, appear poems and ideograph-poems in hyacinth-colored chalks. The obscene and epigrammatic ones have most of this happy hoodlum [Did she mean “Happy Hooligan”?] quality; in the others he is still playing his game and winning it, but it has been refined into a game resembling a one-man Japanese poetry competition, using the same symbols over and over again, formally, but delicately, freshly and firmly, as no one else can. [p.688]

The phrase “dingy but flourishing park” is a kind of echo of Bishop’s poem “The Bight,” which sums up a harbor scene this way: “All the untidy activity continues, / Awful but cheerful.” [p.47] The phrase also recalls the poem “Filling Station,” a comic depiction of the announced subject that begins, “Oh, but it is dirty!” [p. 123] Here and elsewhere in Bishop’s writings you sense quite a deep association in her mind between dirt (of various kinds) and vitality—the odorous pigs in “Prodigal,” the “cowflops” in “A Cold Spring,” the “fine mud” on the scalp of the Amazonian shaman in “The Riverman,” the privy where the narrator of “Gwendolyn” retreats to indulge in what she calls “rustic corruption” with the little-girl protagonist of that story. And these are only a few examples. The vitality of dirt, the energy of the earth, is second nature to any child who, like Bishop, spent her early years in a rural community surrounded by farms and farm animals. It’s fair to say that Bishop’s temperament is pastoral, at least in an expanded, Empsonian sense. She writes well about cities, but not so much in the key of praise. Cities are sophisticated, depraved, commercial, dangerous; the home of virtue, of warmth and simple humanity, is the country, whether in Nova Scotia, Key West of the 1930s, or in a Brazilian province.

Reflecting on the word-origin of “critic” and the related etymon “criterion”, both from Greek krinein, “to judge” or “discern,” I want to emphasize that the faculty of judgment was highly developed in Bishop’s case; and that, just as her literary essays include imaginative figures, the poems have, for their part, a critical aspect. Sometimes the judgments are aesthetic, sometimes moral, and sometimes linguistic (read what she says about the word “vision” in “Poem,” for example); or more than one of these simultaneously. All arise out of (and are developed in behalf of) beauty, humanity, and freshness—as opposed to bombast, cruelty, and pretentiousness. A paradox I believe Bishop struggled with is the problem that there is no way entirely to avoid pretentiousness and even some cruelty when judgments are made. If I make judgmental pronouncements, am I not being pretentious? What are my qualifications to serve as a judge? Am I not aware that a negative appraisal will injure the person judged, and do I have a right to cause pain, even to a small degree? These are the questions that Bishop had to confront as she tried to provide a context for her abilities to discern, to discriminate, and to turn her thumb down.

She must have realized, too, that she couldn’t help judging: it was a foundational activity for her. Her identity as an individual and as a poet developed hand in hand, overcoming many obstacles: the death of her father when she was an infant, her mother’s permanent lapse into mental illness when she was five, her own unreliable health (she suffered from asthma), the loss of the familiar, pastoral cradle of Nova Scotia when her grandparents took her away to Boston, her sexual orientation, and a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. Knowing how tenuous her grasp on things was, she was always searching for reliable landmarks and reassuring perspectives to bolster a troubled psyche. The helping hand extended by Marianne Moore during the early phase of her development was a mixed blessing. She shared with the older poet a strong sense of dedication to the art, an ambition to find verbal equivalents for visual phenomena, a lively interest in the natural world, ethical conviction, and a disdain for everything cheap and obvious. Otherwise, they were very different, and apprentice status after a couple of years became irksome for Bishop. If we read the poem “An Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” carefully, we detect anger in it—and judgment. There is satire of a quaint sort in the imagery developed around a sort of Mary Poppins poetess sailing across the East River

with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bons mots

with heaven knows how many angels all riding

on the broad black brim of your hat . . . [p. 63]

After citing “a slight censorious frown” and mentioning a Manhattan “all awash with morals this fine morning,” she says

We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,

or play at a game of constantly being wrong

with a priceless set of vocabularies,

or we can bravely deplore, but please

please come flying. [p. 64]

Of course the poem incorporates many terms of praise and affection, but there’s no getting around the artfully phrased criticisms. Bishop arrives at a more subtly expressed boundary between her work and Moore’s in the poem “The Fish,” which duplicates the title of one of Moore’s best-known poems. Interested readers may want to look for a detailed presentation of this argument in an essay I published in the online journal Drunken Boat (Number 8, Fall 2006). I mention it here as one more confirmation that Bishop’s critical faculty often enters into a symbiotic relationship with the more instinctive and sensuous sources of her poetry. And a third crucial instance is the poem “The Armadillo,” dedicated to Robert Lowell, and composed with him and his poetry as a subtextual source for many of the poem’s observations and comments. (Again, this poem is one of those discussed in the Drunken Boat article.)

I believe the close reader of Bishop will concur that, after an early period during which Bishop engaged in a lyric debate with Moore, she abandoned it for a poetic dialogue with Lowell, one sustained over several decades and concluding with “North Haven,” her elegy for Lowell. The poem is one of the least flattering examples of the genre ever written, especially considering the intense affection she over and over expressed for a poet who offered admiration, loyalty, and material support almost from the moment he first met her. Acknowledging that the poem has its cruelly judgmental moments (these understood as originating partly in an effort to avoid sentimentality in favor of honesty), we can discern the affection in “North Haven” as well. And we should account for the critique—with Lowell as with Moore—as the product of a self-doubting and embattled temperament, never fully convinced that her work had succeeded as much as she hoped for it. Through her critical activity, whether in poetry or prose, Bishop is actually trying to carve out and fortify a creative space for herself, where she can breathe freely and do her work without interference from the sardonic spooks reading over her shoulder. That is Bishop’s side of it. For her readers, though, the criticism has another value, defining and articulating plausible literary values in natural-speech sentences that often have the figurative power of poetry, plus a comic edge. Her criticism was a kind of talisman, then, sending out observation, ethical intuition, and wit as baffles against prevailing undertows of fear and doubt. A comment she makes in a review of Dickinson’s letters might aptly apply to her own work. Praising the poet’s “sketchiness,” she says:

It is the sketchiness of the water-spider, tenaciously holding to its upstream position by means of the faintest ripples, while making one aware of the current of death and darkness below. [p. 690]

“Death and darkness below,” the noiseless, patient artist’s only defense consisting of its hold on “faintest ripples.” It’s good enough for a poem. It is a poem; but nested, partly concealed, in a critical essay.

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