Commentary on ‘Sandpiper’ by Elizabeth Bishop

Sandpiper

By Elizabeth Bishop

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
And that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
In a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
Of interrupting water comes and goes

And glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
Where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
Rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
He stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

A “music video” treatment of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Sandpiper” produced by Pink Dog Productions

Commentary: This exquisitely constructed poem sees the poet compare herself in an extended analogy to the lowly sandpiper. The poem is inspired by observations made on a return visit to Nova Scotia in 1965 and in it she personifies the bird, giving it human characteristics and eccentricities.  She tells us that ‘he’ is ‘a student of Blake’, referring to the great English poet and painter, William Blake, who famously celebrated seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower’ in his poem, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, which, by the way, is a poem from one of his notebooks now known as The Pickering Manuscript.

We sense the continuous, nervous movement of the bird as ‘he runs to the south’, searching, exploring, discovering.  The bird is ‘finical’ or finicky and ‘awkward’ as it ceaselessly searches for the perfect grain, the discarded morsel.  The movement ‘south’ in turn mimics Bishop’s own migration south from Nova Scotia to Boston to Key West and later further south to Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.

Colm Tóibín in his effortlessly scholarly work, On Elizabeth Bishop, mentions that the ‘search for pure accuracy in her poems forced Bishop to watch the world helplessly, as though there was nothing she could do’.  She shares this trait with many other poets and artists.  This debilitating feature is also evident in Hemingway and Hopkins, this ceaseless search for the perfect word or phrase, and also features and is dramatised in the content and unique structure of Emily Dickinson’s poems with her use of dashes and capitalisation and other structural tricks to highlight the honing and triple distillation of each poem.  It also reminds me of something my son wrote very honestly  in one of his blogs, writing about his own writing process and that famous Irishman, Jack O’Metty!:

I’m the type of person who makes casual reference to Alberto Giacometti in everyday conversations. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a Euronews cultural vignette which outlined the great sculptor’s methods: starting from a large scale he would pare down and reduce his sculptural figures until almost nothing remained save only the most minimal of features which could be said to represent man.  Giacometti’s problem was knowing when to stop before his clay figures, once larger than himself, disappeared to nothingness.  I use this as a metaphor for my own critical thought.  I consider and consider and pare and reduce until sometimes nothing remains. The trick is to create some academic content before this happens. I don’t always succeed. https://nicholasstreet.wordpress.com.

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 and this tension between land and sea is very evident here in ‘Sandpiper’ and also in such poems as   ‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’ and ‘The Fish’, with the sea viewed as a strange, indifferent, encircling power.  In this poem, the sandpiper patrols that dividing line between sea and land and perhaps this is a metaphor for the conflict between the artist and life.

Bishop is fascinated by geographical extremities: straits, peninsulas, promontories, wharves, bights, mountains, jungle, outback, attracted to the near-isolation of these places.   Colm Tóibín makes the very astute observation that she, ‘made her homes on a single line of longitude, or close to one: Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, New York, Key West, Rio de Janeiro, Boston’.

In 1976, three years before she died, she wrote:

All my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper – just running along the edges of different countries ‘looking for something’.  I have always felt I couldn’t possibly live very far inland, away from the ocean; and I have always lived near it, frequently in sight of it …. timorously pecking for subsistence along coastlines of the world.

The second stanza opens with the domestic simile, ‘the beach hisses like fat’ and the caesura which follows is meant to demarcate the dividing line between left and right, sea and land, north and south.  A feature of her style is her continuous self-correction and search for exactness and greater precision in her description of the scene:

He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
Where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
Rapidly backwards and downwards.

This is immediately followed by another feature of her poetic work and craft: contradiction and deeper clarification of what has gone before:

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

The poem ends with the poet again personifying the bird and it is clear to us that if we but simply change the gender, she could be talking about herself and the poetic process, just as Heaney does so eloquently in such poems as ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’:

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!

Perhaps we can say, ‘Poor bird, (s)he is obsessed!’ with the impossibility of the task which she has undertaken as a poet: It’s as if the sandpiper who has been looking for ‘something, something, something’ suddenly sees the drab beach (with its millions of differing grains of sand as opposed to Blake’s one grain) transformed into a dazzling bejewelled walkway glistening with diversity and riches,

The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Bishop (7)

Works Cited:

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems, 1927 – 1979.  New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroix, 1983

Tóibín, Colm. On Elizabeth Bishop, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Digital

See also Reviews Rants and Rambles:  https://vinhanley.com/2015/08/28/themes-and-issues-in-the-poetry-of-elizabeth-bishop/

Advertisements

One thought on “Commentary on ‘Sandpiper’ by Elizabeth Bishop

Comments are closed.