Elizabeth Bishop: The Poet’s Poet

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Elizabeth Bishop has garnered the reputation of being one of the finest, one of the most formally perfect, poets of the second half of the twentieth century.  Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon have testified in lectures and in essays on her poetry, to the unchallengeable subtlety of her work.  And if she has been called a poet’s poet she is also pre-eminently a reader’s poet, and a poet whom it is always a serious joy to teach – students come alive when asked to discuss her work, partly because she communicates with an eager, unforced directness, partly because of the wit, the sheer pizazz and style with which she writes.

In the 1980s, there was a serious resistance to her work: she never came out as a lesbian, refused to appear in all-women anthologies, guarded her privacy and did not take direct political stances like her friend Robert Lowell.  She was seen as insufficiently political, a misreading of her work, which identifies with black Americans, and with the struggle of the poor and oppressed in South America.  But she, wisely, does not draw attention to those themes.  She designs beautiful cadences, perfect shapes, and then she runs a counter-theme against them: ugliness, bad taste, rough or unbroken surfaces and sounds infiltrate her paradise of pure form and make it both more ideal and more real.

In ‘Cape Breton’, she draws our attention to the “weaving water”, and then offsets it with “hackmatack”, the name of a hard American spruce much admired by Walt Whitman.  She also introduces an “irregular nervous saw-tooth edge”, and a “rough-adzed pole”.  A gifted amateur painter, she designs a composition which plays the rough against the smooth, and allows a coded unhappiness and anxiety to disturb the surface of her art.

Bishop’s personal life – like many other poets – was often unhappy – two lovers committed suicide – and she became an alcoholic as a young woman.  Behind the formal façade of her poems, there is a homeless, orphaned imagination, whose loneliness was expressed in her insatiable letter-writing and in late-night phone calls to friends.

She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 11th, 1911.  Her mother was from Nova Scotia, her father, who was half Canadian, half American, died in 1911, eight months after she was born.  Her mother became deeply disorientated over the next five years, was diagnosed as permanently insane in 1916 and died in a public sanatorium in Nova Scotia in 1934.  Bishop lived alternately with her grandparents in Nova Scotia and New England, and later with an aunt.  She suffered poor health and hadn’t much formal education until she was fifteen.  In 1930 she attended Vassar College and joined a brilliant generation there.

Bishop impressed everyone she met – she was musical, very well read, and was also a painter with a great knowledge of the visual arts.    She was a compulsive traveller, who manages to avoid all the pitfalls of tourist verse.

The roots of Bishop’s art can be traced to her undergraduate years at Vassar, and rather unusually it is to a single academic essay that we must turn to understand her idea of form and beauty.  As an undergraduate she read a famous essay by the distinguished scholar, M. W. Croll.  It was called ‘The Baroque Style in Prose’ and is one of the classic essays on prose style (it can be found in a collection of essays called The English Language, edited by George Watson).  Croll’s concept of baroque style – ‘not a thought, but a mind thinking’ – spoke to Bishop like a vocation.  She quoted Croll’s essay in letters to friends, because what she admired in the baroque was the “ardour” and dramatic energy and immediacy of an idea as it was formulated and experienced.  The result is a poetry of intense visual and vocal power, where the play of rhythm, rhyme, spoken inflection and carefully composed, sometimes abraded images, has a spontaneity and deft authority whose perfect cadences create that “unique feeling of timeliness” which she sought and admired in poetry.

We can see this in ‘Cape Breton’ where she places against the rapid movement of the song-sparrow songs as they float upward “freely, dispassionately, through the mist” – the sudden short, heavily stressed line “in brown-wet, fine, torn fish-nets”.  It’s this difference of movement and texture that makes Bishop such a continuously interesting and alive poet.

We can see her delight in rapidly changing tones and surfaces in one of her wittiest and most painterly poems, ‘Seascape’, where she describes “white herons got up as angels,/flying as high as they want”.  She is making the picture baroque, and her delicate ear starts a run of ee sounds: the herons fly “in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections”.  In the next line the word “region” picks up the ee sound, then hands it on to bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings”.

The reason why Bishop appeals so strongly to fellow poets can be seen in the sudden uncomfortable word “edged”, which brings in the idea of a margin and the marginal, as it abruptly breaks the pair of ee sounds in “green leaves”, before letting the sound come back with emphasis in “neatly”.  The two ds in “edged” are echoed in “bird droppings” to design an uncomfortable, deliberately bad-taste moment.  That moment of unease frays against the aesthetic surface she is designing, a surface she reasserts by transforming their faecal randomness into “illumination in silver”.  This use of images of discomfort and unease also suffuses Seamus Heaney’s poetry from Death of a Naturalist on – it is as though he has developed the ontological anxiety in her poetry into a form of social and political anxiety.

In Bishop, this tension between the aesthetic and a type of anti-aesthetic effect is one expression of her puritan upbringing – it introduces an anxiety into the delineation of a beautiful image, and this discomfiting effect then helps strengthen and make more flexible the particular aesthetic moment.

Bishop was also a gifted short story writer (her collected prose has been published), and she was also a marvellous translator. Many of her translations came out of the fifteen years she spent in Brazil, where she moved in 1952 to live with Lota de Macedo Soares.  She moved back to New York in 1967, and it was there that Lota committed suicide later that year.

Though Bishop continued to travel, she based herself in Boston and died there on October 6th, 1979.  She is one of the greatest American poets of the last century, and is the subject of many books, essays and academic dissertations; 35 years after her death, her work is revered and admired more than ever.

Edited extracts from an essay by Tom Paulin first published in The Irish Times, Saturday, September 11th 2004.

 

The Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
The Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

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The legend of Plath as a dark and driven and unstable young woman is a tremendous simplification of her work.  Her work will endure where poetry endures.

The trouble for us who come to study her work in depth at Leaving Cert or A Level is that we already know the ending – a bit like watching a film of The Titanic!  We know that Plath died by suicide in mid-sentence, so to speak,  at the age of thirty one.  Studying this arbitrary selection of her poems here should impress on us her vast and vital legacy.  She is, in my view, a very essential poet.

There is unfortunately a widespread tendency to interpret Plath’s work as autobiographical, to read her poems as if they tell her life story.  While it is quite obvious – and probably inevitable – that a writer’s life will influence what she writes, it is important to understand that poetry is art.  Writing about this issue, Ted Hughes pointed out that the reader must learn, ‘to distinguish between a subjective work that was trying to reach an artistic form using a real event as its basis, and a documentary of some event that did happen.’

Some critics read her later poems exclusively in the light of her suicide.  They argue that she signals her suicide (intentionally or otherwise) in a number of her last poems, through various references to despair, rage, loss, separation, or death.  This is by no means as obvious as these critics claim and after all hindsight has always been the great tormentor of those left bereaved and bereft after a suicide.   Many of these poems are the work of a woman who is coming into her own, recognising her own needs, using her own voice, finding her true self.  Look, for example, at ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’.  This is about facing and releasing the fears that are hidden beneath the surface – not about a woman who is contemplating death.

So therefore, it is important to read the poems as they stand.  Looking for signs of what was to happen afterwards in her life is to predetermine how the poems should be read, not actually attending to the poems themselves.

Note:  To help you prepare for your Leaving Cert you need to become very familiar with at least six of Sylvia Plath’s poems.  I would recommend that you concentrate on her later poems (from 1960 to her death) because of their power and honesty.  The following selection will be dealt with in some depth here:

  • ‘Morning Song’ (19th February, 1961),
  • ‘Finisterre’ (29th September, 1961),
  • ‘Mirror’ (23rd October, 1961),
  • ‘Pheasant’ (7th April, 1962),
  • ‘Elm’ (19th April, 1962),
  • ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, (4th October, 1962),
  • ‘Child’ (28th January, 1963).

The points made here represent one interpretation of her work.  It is important that you develop your own response to each poem; where this differs from the suggestions given here, trust your own judgement!  Become familiar with the poems and with the major themes running through Plath’s poetry.

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BACKGROUND

Plath wrote incessantly during her short life: poetry, short stories, articles, essays, and one semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  Her writings were first published in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic; later they appeared in book form.

She considered poems written before 1956 as ‘juvenilia’.  Her first published book, The Colossus, includes only poems written after this date.  Her remaining poems were published after her death in three collections: Ariel and Other Poems, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees.

Her last poems are generally seen as Plath’s outstanding achievement and that is why we concentrate on them here in this review.  Here she truly found her voice, expressing herself in a distinctive, unique style.  She was aware of this herself: while writing them she informed her mother, ‘I am a writer…. I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me.  I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name…. (Letters Home, 16th October 1962).

Her husband, Ted Hughes, describes these poems equally glowingly:

‘Her real self showed itself in her writing … When a real self finds language and manages to speak, it is surely a dazzling event’   (The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1982).

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MAJOR THEMES IN PLATH’S POETRY

Motherhood:  Plath wrote many poems dealing with all aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, at a time when writers, especially poets, rarely touched on such topics.  Her best-known work on the theme, ‘Poem for Three Voices’, evokes powerfully the variety of emotions experienced by women around pregnancy, miscarriage, motherhood, and adoption.  Her poems on this theme are remarkable for their lyricism (their song-like quality), depth of feeling, and tenderness.

                   What did my fingers do before they held him?

                   What did my heart do, with its love?

However, being a realist, she also reflected the other side of being a mother: the drudgery, the anxieties, and the level to which a mother is bound to her child:

                   I have never seen a thing so clear …

                   It is a terrible thing to be so open: it is as if my heart

                   Put on a face and walked into the world.

Both attitudes are seen in ‘Morning Song’.  The mother’s life is shadowed by the child’s arrival, but is enriched by the joy of love.  ‘Child’ also reflects the simple pleasure she derives from her child; his eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing that she longs to fill with the beauty of the world.  But there is also an underlying threat to the child’s safety, which distresses her.

Identity:  Plath frequently returned to the issue of double identity in her writing.  The subject of her undergraduate thesis in Smith College was: ‘The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Dostoevsky Novels’.  Her interest in what appears on the surface and what is hidden is reflected in ‘Mirror’.  Here, the depths hide something frightening and sinister; something the woman would prefer to avoid but cannot escape.

‘Elm’ also deals with doubleness: the apparent calm of the elm in the opening stanzas, and the hidden terrors that surface as she talks.  A similar preoccupation is at the heart of ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’.  The practical, square box is a simple container: apparently there are no mysteries here.  However, it conceals something sinister, but also fascinating.

Nature:  Plath’s abiding interest in the world around her, her interest in nature, is reflected in many poems.  Her descriptions are remarkable for their concrete, precise detail.

‘Finisterre’ paints a graphic picture of the scene before her eyes, conveying the harshness of the sea, the bleakness of the rocks, the delicacy of the flowers on the cliff, and the effect of the mist.

Her painterly style creates graphic images in ‘Pheasant’: the bird itself, the flowers, the hill and elm in the background, the earlier scene where the snow was marked with the ‘crosshatch’ footprints of various birds.  This poem also reflects her stance against the destruction of nature, a concern that features in many of her poems.

Psychic landscapes/Mindscapes:  While her descriptions of landscapes and seascapes are very striking, the scene is at times simply the backdrop to the mood of the speaker.  In ‘Finisterre’, the place is identified by the title.  The landscape is captured in a series of wonderful images.  Many of these are personified: cliffs are ‘admonitory’, rocks hide their grudges, the sea wages war, and mists are without hope.  The place assumes an atmosphere that is oddly human.

Plath with husband Ted Hughes
Plath with husband Ted Hughes

 PLATH’S TECHNIQUE

 Style:  Plath’s style changed considerably during her career – unlike, say, Hopkins.  However, there are certain features that mark all her work:

  • Her remarkable use of language
  • Unusual and striking imagery

Language:  Plath’s ‘crackling verbal energy’ is apparent in her poems’ biting precision of word and image.  Her writing has been variously praised for its tactile quality, power, incisiveness, control, taut originality, and luminosity.  Joyce Carol Oates observed that, ‘the final memorable poems (‘Elm’, and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ among others) … read as if they’ve been chiselled with a fine surgical implement out of arctic ice.’  In her Journals, Plath constantly urges herself to develop ‘diamond-edged’, ‘gem-bright’ style.  This she certainly achieved.  Part of her technique was to reuse certain words in many poems, which thus took on an almost symbolic meaning: smiles, hooks, element, dissatisfaction, vowels, shriek, horse, sea.

‘Pheasant’ is a good example of her skilled control of descriptive language.  The form here is less dominant, and the poet’s feelings are reflected in the personal voice that speaks throughout.  The words are simple, the descriptions are vivid, and the poem is crystal clear – a good example of Plath’s descriptive powers at their best.

‘Elm’ shows her powerful response to loss, pain and terror.  The feeling of despair, for example, is conveyed through a number of highly charged nouns and verbs.

 Imagery:  Certain images recur in Plath’s poetry, taking on a symbolic meaning that gains added force through repeated use.

  • The moon symbolises barrenness, coldness, and the negation of life. in ‘Elm’ it is merciless, cruel, and barren, associated with pain and suffering.
  • The mirror often symbolises the hidden alter ego (the ‘other self’), as in ‘Mirror’.
  • The horse is a symbol of vitality. In ‘Elm’, love gallops off like a horse.
  • The sea is often associated with undefined menace or hidden threat, as is so graphically evident in ‘Finisterre’.

She uses many other images, however, that are not symbolic, images that add to the vividness and immediacy of what she is describing.  One of the most distinctive features of her work is her use of metaphors, many of which are visual.

Examples abound:

  • Mists are ‘souls’, which ‘bruise the rocks out of existence’ (‘Finisterre’).
  • The pheasant is ‘brown as a leaf’, a ‘little cornucopia’ (‘Pheasant’).
  • The bee box is ‘square as a chair’, a ‘midget’s coffin’ (‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’).
  • Bees are like ‘African hands, / Minute and shrunk for export’ (‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’).
  • The baby’s mouth opens ‘clean as a cat’s’ (‘Morning Song’).
  • Her crying is ‘a handful of notes’, which rise ‘like balloons’ (‘Morning Song’).

Plath attached great importance to colours, often identifying them with specific attributes.  The repeated use of colour to suggest certain qualities links her poems to one another, giving added force to her meaning.

  • Red signifies vitality, life force: the pheasant’s vitality is envisaged largely through its vivid colouring.
  • Green too signifies the positive, creativity, life force: the pheasant is red and green.
  • Black is associated with death, anger, depression, aggression, and destruction: the black headland that opens ‘Finisterre’ underlines the sinister mood.
  • Surprisingly, white too is sinister: the white faces of the dead, the white mists in ‘Finisterre’.

 

In Summary then…

Sylvia Plath was a lyric poet in the Romantic tradition.  She wrote poems that drew on her own experience of life and explored a range of emotions from love and joy to terror and despair.  Like the Romantics, she looked inwards rather than outwards; her experience is gauged by what she has lived through.

‘Elm’ is perhaps the most striking example of this.  It is one of a number of poems she wrote around the same time, expressing agonising emotions.  Some of these emotions were quite ‘acceptable’, provided they were not shown too openly: the grief and loneliness expressed in ‘Elm’, for example.  However, less acceptable was the intensity with which she voiced these; it was considered ‘over the top’, too revealing.

The writer and critic Joyce Carol Oates sees in these poems the seeds of Plath’s eventual suicide.

Her poems have that heart-breaking quality about them that has made Sylvia Plath our acknowledged Queen of Sorrows, the spokeswoman for our most private, most helpless nightmares, her poetry is as deathly as it is impeccable; it enchants us almost as powerfully as it must have enchanted her.

Not everyone agrees with this estimate, however.  Janice Markey sees Plath’s writings as life-affirming:

‘The enduring success and greatness of Plath’s work lies in its universal appeal and in an innovative, effective presentation.  Plath was the first writer in modern times to write about women with a new aggressive confidence and clarity, and the first to integrate this confidence and clarity in a sane, honest and compassionate vision’.

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SYLVIA PLATH – AN AMAZING POET

One of the problems when reading poetry is how much do we need to know about the poet’s life and background.  The poet Thom Gunn argues that the making of poems is not like turning out clay pots; poems are rooted in and tell directly or indirectly of a life.  People who have never read a Sylvia Plath poem know that she killed herself at thirty one and therefore, her death has come to overshadow and dominate the life.  In Plath’s case, probably more so than the other poets on our course, her life is so emotionally complicated and complex that a fuller understanding and appreciation of the poems are possible when they are read against the life.  That life was in Sylvia Plath’s own words, ‘magically run by two electric currents’ and these she named ‘joyous positive and despairing negative’; her poetry reflects those charged polar opposites.

The seven poems that we have chosen here were written in the space of two years – the last one, ‘Child’ two weeks before she died.  Her poems describe the natural world and the domestic world but, whether she is writing about a pheasant, an elm tree, bees, or her child, she is primarily writing about herself.

Her poetry is always very urgent and intense.  That poetry has sometimes been described as hysterical and self-dramatising but such descriptions ignore the clear-sighted understanding she has of a situation.  She very often courageously writes of troubled emotions, the darker side of life, her own experiences.  Ted Hughes once told Eavan Boland that Sylvia Plath’s face changed in absolutely every single moment of expression.  She did experience extremes and, if her work is more pessimistic than optimistic, more shaded than light, she herself defended it as follows:

Don’t talk to me about the world needing cheerful stuff!  What the person out of Belsen – physical or psychological – wants is nobody saying that the birdies still go tweet-tweet, but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there and knows the worst, just what it is like.  It is much more help for me, for example, to know that people are divorced and go through hell, than to hear about happy marriages  (Letter to her mother, 21st October, 1962).

‘Morning Song’, ‘Finisterre’, ‘Mirror’, ‘Pheasant’, ‘Elm’, and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, in Seamus Heaney’s words, reveal, ‘the terrible stresses of her own psychological and domestic reality’.  If she writes about a dramatic landscape, as she does in ‘Finisterre’, we see that landscape as Plath sees it.  She brings to it, just as every viewer would, her own preconceptions and concerns.  Anne Stevenson, in her book Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, writes that Plath’s, ‘raw-edged response to personal sorrows and joys, her apprehensions of the world’s horrors and injustices, as well as its beauty, were excessive to an unusual degree.’

Asked once about the importance of poetry, Plath said:

‘I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people.  As it is, they go surprisingly far – among strangers, around the world, even.  Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime.’

She wanted her poetry to mirror the life lived, its ordinariness and its extraordinariness, so much so that Plath once famously said that she wanted to get a toothbrush into a poem and that she was interested in writing about, ‘The real world.  Real situations, behind which the great gods play the drama of blood, lust and death’.

Her mother, Aurelia Plath, said that Sylvia Plath, ‘made use of everything and often transmitted gold into lead …… These emotions in another person would dissipate with time, but with Sylvia they were written at the moment of intensity to become ineradicable as an epitaph engraved in a tombstone’.  But on the page the thoughts and feelings are shaped and crafted.  Eavan Boland speaks of Plath’s, ‘great elan, her handling of the line, her very unusual take on language and image – all of those things have become coded into the poetry that we now have.  Robert Lowell speaks of Plath’s, ‘perfect control, like the control of a skier who avoids every death-trap until reaching the final drop’ and Michael Schmidt says of her poetry that it ‘is hard to imagine a poetry more forcefully stamped with a personality and voice’.

Therefore, it is clear that the legend of Plath as a dark and driven and unstable young woman is a tremendous simplification of her work.  Her work will endure where poetry endures.

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SAMPLE ANSWER:  Nature imagery in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia Plath was a very ambitious writer.  In 1958, before the publication of her first volume of poetry, she wrote in her journal: ‘I think I have written lines which qualify me to be The Poetess of America ….. I am eager, chafing, sure of my gift.’  Plath dedicated much of her short life to writing and developed several features that became characteristic of her style.  One of the most interesting and accomplished features is her depiction of nature in her work.

Plath shows a very keen eye for detail in her fine and striking portrayals of nature.  It is easy to picture the ‘Black admonitory cliffs’ in ‘Finisterre’ and she can also recreate the beauty of nature’s creatures as we see in ‘Pheasant’ where she marvels at ‘the wonder of it, in that pallor / Through crosshatch of sparrows and starling’.  She manages to capture the beauty and richness and ‘rareness’ of the pheasant in one remarkably apt image: ‘It’s a little cornucopia’.  Imagery, of course, adds a new dimension to Plath’s descriptions of nature.  She uses imagery in a way that sends echoes of suggestion, of splendour, of menace through a poem and invites interpretations from the reader.

Much of her imagery is of a visual kind, in itself emphasising the importance of ‘seeing’ and ‘reflecting’ in her work.  One of her common images from nature, very like Heaney, is water.  In ‘Finisterre’, for example, Plath recreates the sights and sounds of land’s end in a dramatic evocation of the sea as it explodes, ‘Whitened by the faces of the drowned’.  The sea ‘cannons’ to the dead, suggesting that for Plath, it represents a destructive force that humans can only hope to oppose in their unheard prayers to ‘Our Lady of the Shipwrecked’.  The scene at the sea cliffs is a grim one.  Nature is unforgiving; it is a receptacle of death, ‘Leftover soldiers from old, messy wars’, and it holds potential for more evil where ‘rocks hide their grudges under the water’.  Certainly, it is not a benevolent force, not a nostalgic, romantic or sentimental place.  Plath’s vivid and perhaps unexpected images have created a disturbing ‘Bay of the Dead’.

However, a further development occurs in Plath’s imagery when she begins to use it, not merely to create a vivid picture of external reality, but as a device to suggest the inner reality of her own mind.  In this way, Plath uses imagery as an expression of landscape but also as a reflection of her own inner mindscape.  (Hopkins does this also in his Terrible Sonnets).  In other words, Plath succeeds in fusing external events with her own inner feelings.  In the poem ‘Elm’ the poet creates a dark, disturbing and surreal world where love is ‘a shadow’, sunset an ‘atrocity’, where winds are violent, the moon ‘merciless’, and the tree/woman is ‘terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me’.  The poem concludes with death that seems, rather than being final, to be ongoing.  The external landscape of the tree may indeed express the inner turmoil and disturbances of Plath’s mind, that has become ‘inhabited by a cry’ that ‘Nightly … flaps out / Looking with its hooks, for something to love’.  The poet is ‘terrified by this dark thing’ that ‘petrifies the will’.

Imagery, therefore, captures various states of emotional distress.  Often this unexpected power of her images originates in objects that at first appear commonplace, such as the elm tree or, in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, the bees.  Nonetheless, the echoes that emanate from such commonplace objects are unexpected and startling.  The bees in the bee box, for example, are variously described ‘a Roman mob’, ‘maniacs’, who speak ‘unintelligible syllables’.  However, the poet has to ‘live with’ them overnight.  Such imagery certainly animates the bees in the poem, but it could also evoke the inner turmoil and chaos within the poet’s mind.  Her inner voices are like the bees: she can’t control them, can’t understand them, they remain ‘dark, dark’.  She also sees them as ‘Black on black, angrily clambering’ and their shriek ‘appals’ her.  In the poem she decides, hesitantly, to ‘set them free’ from her mind, which up to now has remained a ‘coffin’, a locked up box with ‘no exit’.  The poet, dressed in her ‘moon suit and funeral veil’ both wishes for and fears their release.  But the conclusion is more hopeful than that in ‘Elm’, for tomorrow she will ‘set them free’.

(As an interesting exercise, you might examine the poem ‘Mirror’ with some of these ideas in mind.  Stanza two of that poem should reward you with some thoughtful insights!  Another worthwhile study would be Plath’s use of colour and what it might symbolise in her poetry.)

It is clear, therefore, that Plath’s striking metaphors and startling similes are usually central to a poem’s development.  Her images can evoke vivid descriptions of the external world, the poet’s feelings for that world, and at times she has the ability to fuse these feelings to the emotional insecurities of her inner world.

A must read - if you can find the time!
A must read – if you can find the time!

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.’

 

words-in-air-robert-lowell-and-elizabeth-bishop1 

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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