Themes and Issues in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

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The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Bishop’s work.  For this reason the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings.  These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive.  Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes.  This priceless pearl of wisdom can be applied to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop but it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!

The poems that we will analyse are: The Fish, Filling Station, The Prodigal.  (These are also on the Ordinary Level Course.) and also First Death in Nova Scotia,  In the Waiting Room, At the Fishhouses and Questions of Travel.

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Major Themes in Bishop’s Poetry

Childhood

  • Many of her poems have their roots in childhood memories, indeed are based on her own childhood (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • The perspective is mostly that of adult reminiscence (‘In the Waiting Room’), but occasionally the child’s viewpoint is used (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’).
  • The lessons of childhood are chiefly about pain and loss (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • There is a strong tension between the need to return to childhood and the need to escape from that childhood (‘In the Waiting Room’, ‘At the Fishhouses); she even returns in dreams in a poem called ‘The Moose’.
  • Perhaps this is based on the notion of childhood as the completion of the self, and the poems are a search for the self? (Don’t mind me I’m just showing off!)
  • We know she attended counselling to find the origins of her alcoholism and depression. Yet her reconstructions of childhood do not seem to function as Freudian therapy.  She doesn’t seem to alter her direction or attitudes as a result of drawing her past into the conscious, though she does seem to find a deal of comfort and a greater acceptance in the later poem, ‘The Moose’.  She is not trying to apportion blame, neither is she trying to be forgiving or sympathetic.  In general she seems neutral and detached (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’).
  • She also deals with the end of childhood and the awakening to adulthood (‘In the Waiting Room’).

Her life was her subject matter

Bishop was ‘a poet of deep subjectivity’, as Harold Bloom said.  She wrote out of her own experience, dealing with such topics as

  • Her incompleteness (‘In the Waiting Room’)
  • Alcoholism (‘The Prodigal’)
  • Achieving adulthood and the confusion of that (‘In the Waiting Room’)
  • Travel, her wanderlust (‘Questions of Travel’), her favourite places (‘At the Fishhouses’)
  • Even her hobbies, such as fishing (‘The Fish’).

The poet and travel

  • As her own wanderings show, she was a restless spirit, constantly on the move: Nova Scotia, Florida, Brazil, Europe, New York, San Francisco, Harvard.
  • Many of the places she visited (Nova Scotia, the Straits of Magellan, the Amazon Estuary, Key West, Florida) stand at the boundary between land and sea.   There is a tension between land and sea in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’), with the sea viewed as a strange, indifferent, encircling power (‘At the Fishhouses’).  Perhaps this is a metaphor for the conflict between the artist and life?  Quite a few of her poems are set at this juncture between land and sea (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘The Fish’).
  • She seemed to be fascinated by geographical extremities: straits, peninsulas, wharves; mountains, jungle, outback (‘Questions of Travel’). Perhaps she was attracted to the near-isolation of these places.  They are almost isolated in her poems.  One critic viewed these as the sensual organs of a living earth, ‘fingers of water or land that are the sensory receptors of a large mass.’  The poet is seen as making sensuous contact with the living earth.
  • Bishop has an eye for the exotic and the unusual (‘Questions of Travel’) but also for the ordinary (‘Filling Station’).
  • She dwells on the difficulty of ever really knowing another culture (‘Questions of Travel’), but this did not prevent her trying!
  • Travel and journeying can be seen as a metaphor for discovery of truth in some poems (‘Questions of Travel’).

Bishop and the natural world

  • Nature is central to her poetry, either as an active element central to the experience of the poem or by making an intrusion into the domestic scene (in a minority of poems such as ‘Filling Station’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, and ‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • The experience of really looking at and encountering the natural is central to her poetic process (‘The Fish’, ‘Questions of Travel’).
  • Our ability to understand the natural is sometimes limited, yet there are great moments of awe and insight in our encounters with the otherworldly spirit of nature (‘The Fish’).
  • Bishop is always aware of the sheer beauty of nature (‘Questions of Travel’) and this is obviously tied in with her fascination with travel and her already mentioned interest in the exotic.
  • She tends to domesticate the strangeness of nature through language and description (see ‘The Prodigal’).
  • You should also consider again some of the points already made, such as how geographical extremes fascinated her, her beloved places, and the significance of journeys for her.

The domestic and the strange

  • The importance of the domestic is also a central ground in her poetry. Domesticity is one of the unifying principles of life.  It gives meaning to our existence (‘Filling Station’).
  • The comfort of people, of domestic affections, is important (‘Filling Station’).
  • Yet the heart of the domestic scene can sometimes be enigmatic. This strangeness, even at the centre of the domestic, is a powerful element in human life (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).  One can be ambushed by the strange at any time, even in the security of the domestic scene (‘In the Waiting Room’)

Bishop’s philosophy as revealed in the poems

  • Bishop’s is a secular (non-religious) world view: there is no sense of ultimate purpose, and in this she relates to modernist American poets like Frost and Stevens.
  • Hers is very much a here-and-now, existential philosophy: the experience is everything. There is some sense of tradition or linear movement in her life view, but tradition is just an accumulation of experience.  The transience of knowledge (‘At the Fishhouses’) and the limits to our knowing (‘Questions of Travel’) contribute to this outlook.
  • Her ecological outlook is at the basis of her philosophy, as we have seen: humans communing with nature, discovering, encountering, not domineering (‘The Fish’).
  • She demonstrates the importance of the domestic (‘Filling Station’).
  • Her view of the human being is as fractured and incomplete (‘Chemin de Fer’). This duality has been described by Anne Newman (in Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom) as follows: ‘She sees the ideal and the real, permanence and decay, affirmation and denial in both man and nature’; a sort of ’fractured but balanced’ view of humanity’.  Examine ‘Filling Station’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’ for signs of this.
  • A person may not always be entirely free to choose her location (‘Questions of Travel’), yet she can make a choice about how her life is spent. Life is not totally determined (‘The Prodigal’).
  • The bleaker side of life is often stressed, the pain, loss and trauma (‘The Prodigal’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’), yet she is not without humour (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Filling Station’).
  • She believes we need to experience our dreams (‘Questions of Travel’).
  • Is her overall view of humankind that of the eternal traveller, journeying? And is the journey all?
  • She expresses the unknowable strangeness of death (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’).
  • Yet there is a sort of heroism evident in her poems. Many of the poems feature a crisis or conflict of some sort, with which the narrator deals courageously, often learning in the process (‘The Fish’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).

Bishop and Women’s Writing

  • Are you conscious of the femininity of the speaker in Bishop’s poems? Some critics have argued that the importance of the domestic principle in her philosophy (‘Filling Station’) and the attitudes of care and sympathy in the poems (for the fish, the prodigal, the animals and birds) and even the occupational metaphors, for example of housekeeping (‘Filling Station’) and dressmaking and map colouring in other poems, all indicate a strong feminine point of view in her poetry.
  • Other critics have argued that her rhetoric is completely asexual, that the poet’s persona is neutral, the Bishop ‘I’ is the eye of the traveller or the child recapturing an innocence that avoids sex roles altogether, an asexual self that frees her from any sex-determined role.  Examine ‘Questions of Travel’ and ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ in this regard.
  • We have already encountered something of her treatment of her own sexuality and her attitude as a child to female sexuality (‘In the Waiting Room’ and other poems).

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Style and Technique

Variety of verse forms

  • Though she was not often attracted to formal patterns, there are a variety of verse forms found in Bishop’s poetry: sonnet, sestina, villanelle, etc. (‘The Prodigal’, ‘Sestina’).
  • She used a variety of metres but often-favoured trimeter lines (resulting in those long thin poems!).
  • She was happiest using free verse (‘Questions of Travel’. ‘At the Fishhouses’).

Her descriptions

  • The surface of a Bishop poem is often deceptively simple.
  • A favourite technique is ‘making the familiar strange’ (‘Questions of Travel’).
  • Her detailed descriptions function as repossession or domestication of the object by the artist. This is how she gradually apprehends her subject, through the accumulation of detail (‘The Fish’).
  • Bishop often insisted on the truth of her descriptions, but the reality is more complex than that. Her descriptions are both recreation and creation, creating veracity but also using poetic licence (‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • Her similes and metaphors are often surprising, like conceits. They can be both exciting and exact.

Control and feeling

  • Many of her poems deal with emotive subjects (‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • There is an element of spontaneity and naturalness in the tone. Consider the opening of ‘In the Waiting Room’ and ‘Filling Station’.  ‘The sense of the mind actively encountering reality, giving off the impression of involved immediate discovery, is one of Bishop’s links to the Romantics,’ as the critic Penelope Laurans put it.
  • The matter-of-fact tone avoids sentimentality. The use of understatement controls feeling (‘In the Waiting Room’).

The absence of moralising

  • Her dislike of didacticism is well documented. She disliked ‘modern religiosity and moral superiority’, and so she avoids overt moralising in her poems.  The scenes offer up their wisdom gradually, ass the descriptions help us to understand the object or place (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’).

Bishop as a dramatic poet

Consider:

  • Scenes of conflict or anger
  • Moments of dramatic encounter
  • Dramatic monologue structure in many of the poems.

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MAKING THE STRANGE FAMILIAR: FORGING A PERSONAL UNDERSTANDING OF BISHOP’S POETRY

Think about the following points, and make notes for yourself.

  • Which of her poems made the deepest impression on you?
  • Which passages would you wish to read and reread?
  • What are her principal issues or concerns?
  • Did you find that reading Bishop gave you any insights into human beings or the world? What did you discover?
  • Think about the landscapes and places that attracted her. What do they suggest about the poet and poetry?
  • What do you notice about the people featured in her poetry?
  • Do you find her poetry different in any way from other poetry you have read?
  • Why should we read Bishop?
  • What questions would you like to ask her about her poetry?

BISHOP’S LINKS TO THE ROMANTICS

The Romantic Movement held sway at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  It was at its height between 1800 – 1830 and the main architects of this movement were Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge.

There follows a list of some of the main distinguishing features of Romanticism.  Consider Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in the light of some or all of these statements.

  • Romanticism stressed the importance of the solitary individual voice, often in rebellion against tradition and social conventions.
  • In place of orthodox religious values the individual looks for value and guidance in intense private experience.
  • Nature often provides this intense experience, hence the notion of nature as the great teacher and moral guide as in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (or even ‘The Daffodils’!).
  • Romanticism can show a divided view of the individual. The individual is often pulled in opposite directions – for example solitariness versus sociability, lonely pursuit of an ideal versus community fellowship.
  • It is anti-rational. Feelings, instinctive responses, unconscious wisdom and passionate living are valued more than rational; thought.
  • Dreams and drug-enhanced experiences are especially valued. Children, primitive people, outcasts, even the odd eccentric figure are regarded as having special insight and wisdom.
  • ‘Bishop explored typical Romantic themes, such as problems of isolation, loss, and the desire for union beyond the self.’ Explore the poetry in the light of this statement.
  • It has been said that Bishop’s practice of poetry follows Wordsworth’s advice that poetry should embody controlled passion. For Wordsworth, (and for Bishop also), poetry was ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ and many of his great poems embody the notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ Would you agree with this assessment of her poetry?
  • Finally, as a little test of your new-found expertise, examine ‘At the Fishhouses’ as an example of a great Romantic poem.

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ELIZABETH BISHOP – AN OVERVIEW

The poems by Elizabeth Bishop on our course reveal many of the most striking characteristics of her work: her eye for detail, her interest in travel and different places, her apparently conversational tone, her command of internal rhyme, her use of repetition, her interest in strict poetic forms (the sonnet and the sestina), childhood memories, identity, loss.

The world, which Bishop describes in her poetry, is vivid and particular.  She is so intent on accurate description that often the detail is qualified and clarified within the poem.  In Michael Schmidt’s words, ‘the voice affirms, hesitates, corrects itself; the image comes clear to us as it came clear to her, a process of adjusting perception until the thing is seen.  Or the feeling is released.’  For example, in ‘The Fish’ she tells us:

                       While his gills were breathing in

the terrible oxygen

– the frightening gills,

fresh and crisp with blood,

that can cut so badly –

Another example would be where she describes the eyes of the fish.  She says that they ‘shifted a little’ and then she clarifies this further with the more precise observation that, ‘it was more like the tipping / of an object towards the light’.

Bishop is a sympathetic observer and it has been said of her that she asks us ‘to focus not on her but with her’.  She looks at the fish, imagines its insides – ‘the coarse white flesh / packed in like feathers, / the big bones and the little bones … ; she sings hymns to the seal in ‘At the Fishhouses’; she finds love is present in the unlikely setting of a dirty filling station.  When Bishop uses ‘I’ in her poetry it is never alienating or distancing.  Somehow she makes the reader feel at ease.  The poems as we read them are working something out.

Her poetry is not always strictly autobiographical but Bishop, an outsider for much of her life, writes indirectly in ‘The Prodigal’ of the outsider and later, in the explicitly autobiographical ‘In the Waiting Room’, she names herself (‘you are an Elizabeth’) and charts the sense of her child’s mind realising her uniqueness and identity.  ‘Sestina’ is also autobiographical, in that it tells of a home without a mother and father.  She only wrote of her childhood experiences late in life: ‘Sestina’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’ all date from when she was in her fifties.  In these poems she captures the confusion and complexities of childhood, its terror, panic and alienation.  In ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, she pieces together, as a child’s mind would, the details in order to understand them: ‘Arthur’s coffin was / a little frosted cake, / and the red-eyed loon eyed it / from his white, frozen lake.’

It has been said that Bishop preferred geography to history and it is significant that she remembers reading National Geographic in ‘In the Waiting Room’.  The title of her first book, North and South, contains the idea of opposites but opposites that co-exist.  Yet her descriptions of place are never just descriptions of place.  Morality, history and politics are also evident in Bishop’s landscapes.  In ‘Questions of Travel’, Brazil and its otherness prompt Bishop to ask if it’s right to watch strangers in another country.  She dwells on the country’s traditions (‘In another country the clogs would all be tested’), religious influences (‘a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque’), history (‘the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages’).

In her poetry there is self-discovery, a sense of difference, moments of heightened awareness (epiphanies), a strong sense of here and now, an absence of any religious belief but a belief in the mystery of knowledge ‘flowing and flown’.  In ‘At the Fishhouses’ what begins as accurate and gradual description of landscape gives way to a downward movement towards the dark cold centre of meaning, here imagined as deep beneath the ocean surface and something that we can never know or understand fully.

In Bishop the act of writing and the art of writing bring shape and order to experience.  In ‘Questions of Travel’ she describes the traveller taking a notebook and writing.  The use of ‘we’ in the poem and the way in which every traveller is contained in ‘the traveller’ allows everyone to enter into the experience.  This record of thought and feeling is what Bishop herself does in her poems.  She was interested in form: the sonnet and the sestina are very formal, but in other poems where the structure and rhythm may not be obvious at first there is often a very fine command and control.

***

In one of her finest poems, ‘Crusoe in England’, she imagines Robinson Crusoe lonely for his island and his friend Friday; and remembering his time there, she writes:

                   The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun

                   rose from the sea,

                   and there was one of it and one of me.

Here we have the voice of Robinson Crusoe, and the voice of Elizabeth Bishop, and the voice of all other lonely, observing, travellers.  It is significant that Bishop was attracted to the figure of Robinson Crusoe, an isolated figure, someone ill at ease having returned to society.  Her sexuality and her struggle with alcohol were part of her own sense of isolation.  In a letter written in 1948 to Robert Lowell she said, ‘When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.’  Her later work suggests a happier Elizabeth Bishop, but her life was never uncomplicatedly happy.

Bishop’s The Complete Poems 1927 – 1972 contains just over 140 poems and some thirty of these are translations from French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  She wrote very slowly, very carefully, sometimes pinning bits of paper on her walls, leaving blank spaces (‘with gaps / and empties for the unimagined phrases’ is how Robert Lowell described it in a poem for her), waiting for the right word.  Some of her poems were several years in the making.  She worked on ‘The Moose’ for over twenty-five years, yet it seems effortless as all good poetry does.  She writes a poetry that echoes the rhythms of natural speech and her rhymes are not always easy to detect.  End rhymes and cross rhymes or slant rhymes create a special and effective music.  And what Yeats says of all true poetry is true of Bishop:

                             ‘A line will take us hours maybe;

                             Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

                             Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.’

 

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Sample Answer:

‘Bishop’s poems are constructed around movement and reflection.  She is a meticulous writer who effectively combines precise observations with striking imagery’.

In the words of famous American poet, Robert Lowell, ‘I don’t think anyone alive has a better eye than she has’ – there is ample evidence in her poems on the course of the truth of this statement.

Each of her poems, from ‘The Fish’ to ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, throbs with movement and reflection.  Bishop is a poet who seems preoccupied with the passion of movement, yet never strains in her ability to capture its beauty, strangeness or intricacies in imagery which can be dramatic, and at times almost outrageous, in its originality.  In ‘The Fish’, she describes how the fish hung ‘a grunting weight’ while his eyes ‘shifted a little’.  Through the poem, Bishop reflects on its suffering movements before she finally ‘let the fish go’.  Further activity is observed in ‘At the Fishhouses’ including the motion of wheelbarrows, the sea that considers ‘spilling over’, the standing seals and ‘forever flowing water’, all elements within a sea of change.

‘Filling Station’ has dirty monkey suits, wickerwork baskets and dogs, bringing to vivid life the ordinary, mundane scenes of a petrol station.  The observations here are precise, honest and real, ‘a dirty dog’, ‘a big dim doily’ … (‘Embroidered in daisy stitch / with marguerites, I think, / and heavy with grey crochet’.); the comic books which provide ‘the only note of colour’.  Much description, little movement it seems, until the observer moves outside where ‘high-strung automobiles’ fill up with gas as they impatiently prepare to depart the scene.

Movement is never described for its own sake or in isolation.  It expands on a theme, a tone, a mood that the poem is trying to reflect on.  The repentant wastrel in ‘The Prodigal’ mentions ‘pigs’ eyes’ following him, while the farmer comes at dark to inspect his labourer.  These images are used to emphasise to us the misery and remorse of the prodigal, a lonely emigrant worker in a foreign land at the soul-destroying job of pig-herding.

In her later poems, Bishop’s reflection on what she observes becomes a theme in itself.  In ‘Questions of Travel’, for example, there are ‘too many waterfalls … and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops / makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion’.  Bishop feels a pang of guilt as the scene unfolds and asks, ‘Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / in this strangest of theatres?’  It is noteworthy too, that in describing the skies of Brazil she imports her imagery from Nova Scotia in saying, ‘the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, / slime-hung and barnacled’.  However, some things she observes will always be ‘inexplicable and impenetrable’ and can only be pondered on ‘blurr’dly and inconclusively’.

In all her poems, Bishop describes and defines movement, reflecting on landscape, animals and on people who work in and traverse that landscape.  No detail seems too trivial for her to note in her observations.  She paints striking pictures with imagery which is surprising, unusual and captivating – all the more so because many images depict ordinary, everyday scenes.  Bishop was a meticulous worker, whose attention to detail shows she had a reflective mind and was a keen observer.  Her craft, like her knowledge, is ‘flowing and flown’.

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