Elizabeth Bishop is the most important poetry god.
The most important in my personal pantheon, I mean.
And more generally, I don’t think you can love poetry and not love Elizabeth Bishop.
I’ve touched on most of my other major gods in this blog before (Mark Doty, Yusef Komunyakaa, and the most recent addition, Larry Levis), but haven’t said much yet about her. One must tread lightly when analyzing one’s gods, after all. But I’ve been writing Poetry Dork posts for exactly a year now, so it’s about time I paid Bishop some attention here.
Doty, Komunyakaa, Levis, and Bishop are poets who “are it” for me. They do what poetry is supposed to do, what I want it to do. They write poems that are and do what poems are and do when they are at their best.
The detailed parsing of which I’m ducking today, that’s a topic for another post, but Bishop has that combination of nameable factors plus some undefinable extra which makes her perfect. Which isn’t a word I ever use. But Elizabeth Bishop (by which I mean her body of published work, of course) is perfect. Even if she isn’t always. Nobody is always. But she comes so close to it that the caveat seems an overstatement.
Bishop is meticulously curious. She is unafraid. She is present, whole and real; for all her distance she is never cold or flat. She attends. She is willing to work at pinning down an image or an idea, to let you see that work. She is delightful. She can be a little cheesy, but never for too long. Her meticulousness is a means to truth that does not get in its own way. She can be wry (“One seal particularly / I have seen here evening after evening. / He was curious about me. He was interested in music; / Like me a believer in total immersion, / so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.” (“At the Fishhouses”)). She is not peppy, nor cheap. She is never vulgar (Marianne Moore and Moore’s mother’s objection to the use of the term “water closet” in “Roosters” notwithstanding). She can be, if sometimes verging on childlike, able to imagine like a child. She is surprising (love is revealed, in “Filling Station,” by an arrangement of gas cans).
I’ve had my copy of her Complete Poems for about 15 years, as the inscription reminds (“Merry Christmas 1997 from Mom & Dad”). (It’s the lovely peach-colored edition with her own painting on the cover, not the terrible dark blue design atrocity of that one reissue.) As befits the book of one of my gods, it’s so read it’s completely falling apart, but it also has my notes from all those years.
At first, I was drawn most to her descriptions — the priest-like lighthouse in “Seascape,” “when it gets dark he will remember something / strongly worded to say on the subject,” the “impractically shaped and—who knows?—self-pitying mountains” in “Arrival at Santos,” the beach in “Sandpiper” which “hisses like fat,” and in “Miracle for Breakfast” seeing how “One foot of the sun / steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.”
And I liked her quirky questions, pausing to wonder in “The Map,” “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?” And in “Twelfth Morning or What You Will” she asks, regarding the big white horse she’s just described as bigger than a house, “The force of / personality, or is perspective dozing?” And all the questions in “Filling Station,” “Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?”
It took time, and repeated readings, to see the rest of what her poems do, and to start to really love them. She can be spoken of as difficult to read, to get into, which is an inaccurate way to say her poems tend to be deftly nuanced and subtle, and a fast read misses all that. What you are left with without the subtle cross-hatching is just the surprising descriptions (“The Fish” whose “brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper”) and they are brilliant enough, but not all.
One critic, quoted in her Poetry Foundation bio, called her work “balanced like Alexander Calder mobiles, turning so subtly as to seem almost still at first, every element, every weight of meaning and song, poised flawlessly against the next.” David Kalstone in Becoming a Poet, his exploration of Bishop’s relationships with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, says “Bishop’s descriptive poems are themselves critiques of descriptive powers.” Alan Williamson argues in one of his essays in Eloquence and Mere Life somewhat against “that image of her so often put forward, in praise or blame: the heiress apparent of Marianne Moore; the crowning glory of a canon of taste that emphasized surface exactitude, the elimination of the personal, and an arch, slightly inhibiting, self-consciousness about how the imagination works,” noting that,
For a poet so obsessed with the distance between human beings—and inclined to see the connections as illusory, muddling, transitory at best—the tourist’s-eye view of life is not only comfortingly manageable but, in a fundamental way, correct. For the traveler, other people are necessarily remote, unknowable, almost interchangeable; the first flicker of attraction or interest toward an individual is already elegy.
David Walker in Poets Reading: The FIELD Symposia talks about Bishop’s “interest in the plainly and evenly stubbornly ordinary.” Sherod Santos in the same book says, “the relation of the parts to the whole is of utmost importance in a Bishop poem. With an alertness that proves divinely unflagging, the poems offer up a series of diminutive yet inclusive worlds, worlds which, by the vigilant care of their construction, appear to have left nothing out.”
Yes. And also Alberta Turner’s opening sentence in her essay regarding “First Death in Nova Scotia” (also in Poets Reading): “Why do I love this poem? Because it is funny and appalling and accurate.”
If you came across Elizabeth Bishop in school or in anthologies, you’ve probably read “The Fish,” “In the Waiting Room,” “The Armadillo,” and maybe “The Man-Moth” and “The Moose.” Though she did far fewer formal poems than some other 20th century writers, her villanelle “One Art” generally comes second in the list of best villanelles right behind “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” And “Sestina,” with the Marvel Stove and the grandmother and the almanac, well it’s hard to argue that any other sestina is a better poem.
My other favorites (Favorites being a different, though much overlapping, list than Best):
The Gentleman of Shallott
Large Bad Picture
A Miracle for Breakfast
Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance
At the Fishhouses
Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore
Questions of Travel
First Death in Nova Scotia
Visits to St. Elizabeth’s
Crusoe in England
12 O’Clock News
The End of March
Five Flights Up
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bishop’s letters (One Art, her selected letters, is a honkin’ thick book full of delightful missives) and her Collected Prose, which contains the lovely memoir essay “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” about her first job out of Vassar, at a correspondence school, and “Efforts of Affection,” which is a fabulous, moving and delightful memoir of Marianne Moore. It also contains short stories, including the vivid and gripping “In the Village,” which is right up there with the best short stories of the 20th century.
You can’t love poetry and not love Bishop. At some point over a lifetime of reading poetry, if not right now. (She isn’t like, say, Rimbaud or the Beats, who must be read at a certain stage of life to really move you — if you don’t come upon them when you’re a teenager, the strongest you are likely to ever feel about them is appreciation.) Other poets I like, after making an argument in their favor, I will let go and say “Everyone has their own taste, and that’s fine,” but with Bishop — really, you cannot love poetry and not love Bishop. If you don’t, you’re wrong, so keep reading her until you get it. There is something you’re missing.
Part of the “it” I want you to get won’t be nameable. There’s an element I think even under close scrutiny remains a little undefinable about her perfection. David Walker writes, about “Filling Station” but I think it’s a fitting summary of her work in general, “On repeated readings the mystery deepens rather than resolving itself.” The mystery of “how she does that” (whichever things that poem is doing), the mystery of unexpected beauty, and the mystery of all her etcetera etcetera. I hope to live for a very long time, if for no other reason than to have a full lifetime to read her 90-ish published poems over and over, and have those mysteries deepen more.