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Beautiful Swimmer: the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

March 1, 2009


The twentieth-century poet and critic Randall  Jarrell foresaw, at the edge of his dreams, a startling but hopeful future for poetry:

Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-tone shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see—otherwise I’d die—a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.

Usually it’s Homer he’s holding—this week it’s Elizabeth Bishop. Her Poems seems to me one of the best books an American poet has ever written: the people of the future (the ones in the corner) will read her just as they will read Dickinson or Whitman or Stevens, or the other classical American poets still alive among us.*

Jarrell’s vision convicts the bemused tube-consumer in me. It also delights one of my better selves: the solitary reader I strain to be in the last evening hours, when my imagination is hungry and my eyes are tired. When the two selves conflict, I most often find myself leaving the screen-lit sofa for soft lamplight and a book of poems. Once there, it is Bishop’s Complete Poems I open most often. I agree with James Merrill that “of all the splendid and curious works belonging to my time, these are the poems that I love best and tire of least.”

Jarrell’s grouping of Bishop with Homer brings a certain image to mind. One in which Homer stands in for the great sea of our literary tradition. Because truly great poetic gifts are not so generously spread across each generation as we might believe, this sea is one in which most poets merely tread water– though, to be sure, many tread competently, and some marvelously.

Bishop never treads. A sincere reading of her work assures us that she glides gracefully through the seas of poetry, parsing its currents, bringing its hidden depths to light, turning the swells of its formal achievements into vehicles that motivate her unique craft. Indeed, she is the great freestyle swimmer of contemporary American poetry.

Bishop undertook each new form with the same easy poise and careful precision. When she  employed the villanelle for her celebrated “One Art,” the form’s dusty origins in the laborer’s fields of Renaissance Italy were stripped away to reveal a glowing weapon against the ache of loss. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she writes in that poem’s deceptively calm refrain, “so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

Brisk, vigorous, and matter-of-fact, her cool modern voice defies our enduring urge to collapse beneath the residual weight of mortal disappointment. Humble and humane, she understood the grief of bereavement. Yet she seemed immune to the kind of bardic ambition eager to call up grandiose rhetoric to express it. She grounded “One Art” in ordinary, familiar annoyances–“the fluster/of lost door keys, the hour badly spent”– and let it build inevitably, with the mounting force of life’s woes, into an elegy of tragic proportions. The poem turns from mundane items and ideas to keepsakes–“my mother’s watch”–before taking on the weighty subject of beloved places–“two cities,” “two rivers,” “a continent”–and, finally, people–“you (the joking voice, a gesture I love).”

I can think of no form better fit for the kind of elegy Bishop chose to write: The villanelle turns on two alternating refrains, and in Bishop’s poem these repeated verses state the belief that her losses are, despite her grief, endurable. But as the poem unfolds, we see that she rewrites these lines not to affirm, with calm remove, her belief in their truth; she goes back to them again and again to persuade herself into belief. As the refrains propel her onward into the poem, she lists her losses one by one, though she cannot stop to mourn them. The villanelle’s cyclical form drives her onward into poetic refutation, soliloquy. She must argue her pain into art:  to pause the poem’s momentum is to give in to the leveling force of her subject, to shrink back from a noble grappling-match with anguish, to settle for despair.

Wrested in Bishop’s hands from their historical place in a peasant’s roundsong, these refrains push the poem out of that era–out of all eras–and into a timeless universality of common thought and feeling. In contemporary poetry, Bishop’s deft revitalization of the villanelle is rivaled only by Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke.

“A style,” wrote Jarrell, “ought to make it easy for you to say all that you have to say, not, as most do, make it impossible for you to get free from one narrowed range of experience and expression.” Bishop’s style took many forms, yet it always continued the song of her experience with an ease and simplicity that seemed natural and inevitable, never locked in convention or obscured by contrivance. Whether she coiled her verses into the iron spring of a villanelle, stretched them into the hypnotic string of a sestina, distilled them into a sonnet, or sculpted them into the ornate syllabics that often recalled the work of her beloved Marianne Moore, Bishop’s formal choices always gave the appearance of conforming to her plain, elegant voice; rarely, if ever, was it the other way round.

If Bishop developed a signature form, an approach to verse which finds its apex in her poetry, it is the observational narrative that occupied, in varying permutations, many of her most memorable poems. In these free flowing lyrics we see an unmatched attention to the particular details of a place, be it a maritime scene in Nova Scotia or Brazil, a roadside filling station, a bus ride in moose country, or a doctor’s waiting room in Worcester, Massachusetts. The objects and inhabitants of these places unfold, steadily, wondrously, to reveal startling views of Bishop’s inner life, an emotional and intellectual landscape she unveils in fashions that are insightful and utterly familiar. In her poem “The Bite,” Bishop concludes her reflective description of daily dockside bustle with a compact lyrical summation; it suggests a sense of work that is dirty and beautiful, and, like life itself, necessary and ongoing: “all the untidy activity continues/ awful but cheerful.”

Perhaps J.D. McClatchy put it best when he said, “the descriptive surfaces of Bishop’s poems yield in fact–through shifting scales and perspectives–to dark, abiding mysteries. Her imagination, fascinated by travel, shuttled between north and south–between the Nova Scotia of her childhood and the Brazil of her adult life; between moral austerity and family, and the languid estrangements of exile.”

Such “dark, abiding mysteries” are plentiful in Bishop’s tight, concentrated oeuvre. The consistent quality of her work can be attributed to her fastidious editing and small, restrained output; she shaped many of her poems for years before publishing them. While the absence of average poems from Bishop’s catalog attests to her self-discipline, it speaks louder of her undeniable gift, one which quietly survived her age, and which beats on, tirelessly, past our own. The closing sequence of her poem “At the Fishhouses” affirms how Bishop was, is, at home among the seas–of Nova Scotia, and of poetry:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,

slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,

icily free above the stones,

above the stones and then the world.

If you should dip your hand in,

your wrist would ache immediately,

your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn

as if the water were a transmutation of fire

that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

If you tasted it, it would taste bitter,

then briny, then surely burn your tongue.

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:

dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,

drawn from the cold hard mouth

of the world, derived from the rocky breasts

forever, flowing and drawn, and since

our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

*Jarrell quote culled from the pages of Harriet.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. iheartfilm permalink
    March 1, 2009 5:39 am

    Love Elizabeth Bishop. I’m always cracking open her Collected Poems. Her work had a rolling quality – so smooth and yet intricate.


  2. October 22, 2009 8:32 am

    Liz is awesome.

    She lived in my hometown, precisely where I live now.

    Santarem and the meeting of the two rivers


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