ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 24

 - Elizabeth Bishop


The early poetry of Elizabeth Bishop is discussed. The poet is positioned as an endpoint to modernism, and in her essay “Dimensions for a Novel,” a response to Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Bishop is shown to transfer Eliot’s concept of “tradition” to the construction of literary works. The poem “The Map” is presented as an expression of Bishop’s early thinking about geography and world-making. “The Gentleman of Shalott” is considered as a contemplation of the process of perception. Finally, “Sandpiper” is read as a meditation on the challenges of locating coherence in a shifting world.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 24 - Elizabeth Bishop

Chapter 1. Introduction: Elizabeth Bishop [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Frost was born in 1879, I think; Hart Crane in 1899, representing almost another generation from Frost. Auden was born in 1906, Bishop in 1911. She’s the latest, the youngest on our syllabus and she’s almost two generations distant from Robert Frost.

When I was a freshman at Yale in 1976, in April, Elizabeth Bishop came to read at Yale. She’s, in a sense, a part of our world in a way that the poets that we’ve been reading really aren’t quite. She was good friends with John Hollander, Penelope Laurans, on our faculty, Sandy McClatchy and others. She filled the art gallery lecture hall – 400 people. And this was at a moment, interestingly, when she was not yet at the height of her fame. She would become by the end of the century a figure as prominent, as often read and widely read and esteemed, as any of the poets we’ve been reading, which is a remarkable event in literary culture because Bishop would have seemed, to herself and to others through the course of most of her career, as an interesting poet but not as a major figure. And surely, she was herself uncomfortable with that kind of stature.

She was, I think it’s fair to say, excruciated by public occasions, including this one that I’m referring to. Listen to her read. I think there are some recordings of her on the Center for Language Study website. Bishop has a kind of exaggeratedly ordinary voice, in a sense, a very private voice that she was willing to put on stage but always only uncomfortably. So, in this particular reading, I’m remembering she had read for about 20 minutes and then looked across the stage with these 400 people in front of her at her host, Penelope Laurans: “Is that enough Penny?” she said. And of course, people wanted a lot more and a lot more of her, but she was reluctant to give it and uncomfortable giving it.

Bishop, in a sense, belongs to poetry after modern poetry, poetry after modernism. In September, I’m going to give a lecture course on poetry after 1950, and we’ll start with Bishop and pay a lot more attention to her than we have room to do in this course. But Bishop belongs, too, in any history of modern poetry and she provides, I think, an important endpoint to the work that we’ve been doing together. She provides, in a sense, a kind of extension of certain strains of modern poetry and also at the same time a kind of critique of them.

Bishop went to Vassar and she was on the literary magazine there. In 1929, I think, she interviewed the important guest on the campus, T. S. Eliot. I would have liked to have been in the room. She wrote – well, I guess what I want to highlight is the fact that Bishop was in college reading Eliot and having Eliot visit when she was really forming herself as a writer. She wrote a paper for one of her courses called “Dimensions for a Novel,” and this essay involved a reading of Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which you’ve read and which we’ve talked about. Bishop liked it; she was interested in it. In her account of the way in which she uses Eliot, she accents certain aspects of his ideas and downplays others. Let me quote from that essay. She says – this is on your handout:

A constant process of adjustment [and that’s Eliot’s word, “adjustment”] is going on about the past – every ingredient dropped into it from the present must affect the whole. [You remember Eliot writing about that in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he talks about how new work reshapes everything that’s gone before.] Now what Mr. Eliot says about the sequence of works of art in a tradition, in history [and this is Bishop’s extension of Eliot’s idea] seems to be equally true of the sequence of events or even of pages or paragraphs in a novel…. but I know of no novel that makes use of this constant readjustment among the members of any sequence.

So, what Bishop’s doing is applying Eliot’s idea of sequence in tradition to the way in which a literary work might itself unfold; that is, where every, as it were, new moment in a novel – here she’s talking about a novel – affects a kind of readjustment of what’s gone on before. It is, as she’s imagining it, a literary form in which there is a kind of continual reorientation required by both reader and writer.

She takes over specifically that phrase “constant readjustment” and identifies this as a kind of poetics, if you will. This is really an important idea in modern poetry generally. And you could look at Eliot’s own poetry in, for example, “Prufrock” as exemplifying something of what Bishop is describing, that is, a poem that unfolds, disclosing at every point new principles of order and perspective. It’s an idea that is in that sense central to modern poetry, but Bishop takes it and she pushes it in her own work much further. She creates in her poetry a radically relative point of view that is adjusted to a kind of metamorphic and decentered world, as she sees it – a world that is living in change.

That phrase you might remember from the very end of “Primitive Like an Orb,” Stevens’s great, late poem. Bishop is, in many ways, a Stevensian poet, a poet of change, constant change. But significantly in Bishop’s imagination, as in Auden’s, there are no Stevensian giants, no major men, no large men reading. The poet in Bishop’s poetry describes the world rather than creates it. The poet is not like God as the poet is in Stevens. The poet is much more like an ordinary person, a woman on stage in a skirt, speaking uncomfortably, if you like, to a large audience in an ordinary voice. Her poetry is, in fact, full of ordinary people, and this links her to Frost.

There are generally few, oh, emblematic or archetypal figures such as you find in Yeats or in Moore’s poetry or often, for that matter, in Auden’s. There is in Bishop really no sublime, no Yeatsian ascent out of “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” There’s no Cranian verticality, no Icarus-like ascent of the sky. Instead, Bishop’s poetics of description are what I would call a kind of horizontal poetics that moves laterally, that is earthbound and is concerned with, in a sense – this is her primary recurrent trope – mapping the world, giving an account of the earth’s surface. It’s a perceptual poetics that she’s concerned with, something she calls “geography” or sometimes “travel.”

Chapter 2. Elizabeth Bishop Poem: “The Map” [00:11:09]

The poem that really inaugurates Bishop’s mature writing and that she placed first in her first volume of poetry, North and South, and that subsequently was placed first in all collected volumes of her poems is the poem called “The Map.” It’s a kind of preface to her work and it’s an inevitable place to start thinking about her. So, let’s look at it together. A poem written in – I believe at least begun New Year’s Eve, 1933 as Bishop left college. Maybe you seniors will write your own “Map” next year. She didn’t collect it in a book until 1946, which is her first book publication; like Stevens, like Frost, she’s slow to gather her first poems. The poem begins with a marvelous, limpid clarity.

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

It’s a deceptively declarative, flat voice, a voice of description. It is interestingly impersonal and intimate at once. It’s as if we were so close to her she need not introduce herself. We are invited to look over her shoulder with her at the map. She doesn’t, as I say, introduce herself or her subject really here. She just starts. The poem represents itself as happening now, as if it were recording the mind in action, a process, an action of perception.

The poem was gathered first for publication by Marianne Moore, who was Bishop’s friend and mentor – a friendship described in Bishop’s long, beautiful, funny memoir, “Efforts of Affection,” that I asked you to read when we were reading Moore; an essay that tells you a lot about Moore but also tells you a lot about Bishop. Moore, as her mentor, gathered this and two other poems and had it published in a volume in which an older poet presented a younger, as a teacher or mentor would present a protégé. Moore says about Bishop’s poems a number of interesting things. I’ve sampled just these sentences on your handout.

Some authors do not muse within themselves [but by contrast, Bishop does]; they [they, those other authors] “think” — like the vegetable-shredder which cuts into the life of a thing. Miss Bishop is not one of these frettingly intensive machines. Yet the rational considering quality in her work is its strength [the rational considering quality] — assisted by unwordiness, uncontorted intentionalness [phrases that only Marianne Moore could have produced], the flicker of impudence, the natural unforced ending.

These are important qualities of Bishop’s writing, although to highlight them is to risk a sort of misperception; that is, if Bishop presents herself as a kind of rational, considering intelligence in these poems, what she very rapidly uncovers is fantasy and the fantastic or fabulous or metaphorical. Just so, her poetry of perception and description rather than giving us a kind of poetics of objectivity that we might associate with Pound and Imagism, very quickly turns back on the perceiving subject to ask questions about the process of perception itself and to suddenly become a poetry very much about subjectivity. You can see this going on already in the lines that I’ve quoted here. Bishop no sooner says one thing than she elaborates it or questions it. “Shadows, or are they shallows,” she says. She’s formulated one idea, and then she asks a question about it, and then a further question about that. This is very much an image of, a poetics of a mind in action, a mind thinking. That is the drama that Bishop shares with us.

In another early statement, this in a letter to a poet, Donald Stanford, she quotes a literary critic on Baroque – that is, seventeenth-century – prose which she liked. And this quotation is also on your handout.

“Their [that is, the writers of Baroque prose] purpose was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking…. They knew that an idea separated from the act of experiencing it is not the idea that was experienced. The ardor of its conception in the mind [that’s my misprint] is a necessary part of its truth.”

The ardor of the conception in the mind is what Bishop wants. “Ardor” – that’s an important word. It suggests passion, a certain amount of heat, emotion, and heart. In Bishop’s case, this ardor is communicated sometimes through the deceptively cool manner of self-interrogation and in particular through the grammatical form of the question. Here in this very first paragraph of her poetry, Bishop is asking questions. There’s a kind of level of clarity and detail in her observations that makes what’s she’s looking at interestingly unstable and uncertain. She turns back on it, asks questions about it.

You could contrast Bishop’s questions with Yeats’s great rhetorical questions, a form that we stressed in reading “Leda and the Swan” and other late Yeats poems. In general, thinking about Bishop’s relationship to Yeats, you could say that romance quest, which is this essential structure that’s behind all of Yeats’s poetry, romance quest has come down in Bishop to the act of asking questions, raising questions, here in this poem and very frequently in other Bishop poems questions specifically about boundaries, about the way in which we categorize and frame the world, how we draw lines and separate and connect things at the same time. As we do, one thing seems to turn into another; opposites interact, opposites are involved.

Notice the pair of opposites that she’s stressing here. Land and water: these are primary categories that her poetry centers itself on over and over again. Bishop is a poet of the seashore. There are poems throughout her career that station themselves on the beach, in particular; a place of unstable, uncertain dynamic boundary. You can see the same kind of play of similarity and difference between terms in Bishop’s poetry on a formal level already working here in this first stanza. It is rhymed poetry, isn’t it? But what an interesting set of rhymes! Green, edges, ledges, green; under, itself, shelf, under. These are rhymes where it seems as though words are a little too close together. They’re repeated, “green,” or maybe a little too far apart.

In the second stanza then, the rhyme scheme gives way entirely. And this is like Bishop to set up one pattern and then drop it.

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
– the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Then the rhyme scheme returns, and, again, it’s a peculiar one that includes not just a rhyme but a repetition of particular words.

Mapped waters [she says] are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
– What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

It’s a poetry like aspects Yeats’s – no„ like aspects of Moore’s, that presents itself with a kind of resolute clarity and simplicity and lucidity of language that sometimes seems to feel like prose. There is a lyric power here but it’s got at through a language, again, close to that of ordinary life. As Bishop observes the boundaries that she’s talking about here – the sea and the shore – she’s also concerned with another set of opposed terms and ones that will follow her throughout her poetry; and that is the difference between the real and representation and the ways in which representation, that which is represented, can take on a certain kind of reality itself, as she fancifully allows the forms of the map to do here. The map really becomes a world and not only a representation of it, and the poet plunges really imaginatively into it – takes us with her, as she does, entering the versions of life that it suggests to her.

In that third stanza there, though, as she returns to that peculiar rhyme scheme, there’s a certain kind of holding back, a gathering of her intelligence in reflection on the process that she’s been engaged in. What emerges there is a kind of key idea, the one I’ve already mentioned, geography or topography here. Geography, topography: they display “no favorites.” They represent a poetics that is non-hierarchical in its orientation and, again, this is a link to Moore. Bishop is interested in a point of view that takes no sides, except to suggest, to insist on, the relativity of all cognitive categories. “North’s as near as West”: it always is, right? That is, it’s as near to the perceiver, whose perspective is constantly shifting, constantly readjusted.

I talked about perspectivism in Auden. Well, Bishop has a hold on the same idea and will make it even more central, make it more thematically central to her work than even Auden. The opposition that she ends with is the one between the historian and the mapmaker. She presents herself here clearly on the side of the mapmaker, one whose colors – colors of rhetoric – are more delicate than the historian’s and on the side of the historian; who could we place? Perhaps Yeats, perhaps Pound, perhaps Eliot; certainly Bishop’s great contemporary, Robert Lowell. Bishop presents herself as engaged in a poetics of geography and of mapmaking that is more delicate than that of the historian.

In that word, “delicacy,” there is certainly some implication of gender. The opposition between the mapmaker and the historian: well, it would be too simple to call it an opposition between woman and man, and yet gendered terms are there in Bishop’s language, I think. This poem, as I suggested, is composed in 1933 after Bishop has left Vassar and has made friends with Moore who will be a central figure in her life. If, in some sense, emotion might exceed its cause, might lead Bishop to get carried away, there were lots of reasons why this might be so.

Chapter 3. Elizabeth Bishop Poem: “The Gentleman of Shalott” [00:30:05]

Bishop grew up at first in Nova Scotia. She is a Canadian poet as much as an American poet – a poet of uncertain national identity, you might say. Her father died when, I believe, she was five. Her mother in grief went mad and was institutionalized, and Bishop was separated from her, so that she grew up very much as an orphan. Much has been made of her biography. I wouldn’t encourage you to because Bishop herself treats it as an important frame and resonance for her poetry, but not as a rule as its subject. There is, I think, simply the important point to be made that here is a poet who grew up with a certain primary sense of dislocation and disorientation, and an acute sense of divided identity: biographical facts that, in a sense, lead us very quickly into the ethical and cognitive problems that are central to Bishop’s work, and I think to this problem in particular: how do you hold yourself together? It’s an important one and one that we all in various ways struggle with.

Bishop finds various ways to raise that question, to figure it and explore it. One early, amusing, and suggestive instance is the poem called “The Gentleman of Shalott.” And I’d like to look at that with you to get a little more sense of Bishop’s poetics and some sense of her early self-conception as a poet. Remember the idea that she’s taken from Eliot: she wants to imagine a kind of writing that would include time in it, that would include change in it, and in which the organization of the whole would be constantly subject to readjustment; a text that would incorporate flux, a text that would be determined locally rather than by some global and general perspective.

The, I think, unstable orders of a poem like “Prufrock” are important for Bishop in that Prufrock is, in fact, a figure behind this one of Bishop’s, “The Gentleman of Shalott.” Bishop’s character is a kind of dandy, like Prufrock. Bishop is also at the same time playing with Tennyson and his poem, “The Lady of Shalott.” A kind of gender switch has occurred in Bishop’s poem. What does it mean? Well, I’ll leave you to ponder it, but I think that one way to understand her joke here – I’m not going to write about the lady of Shalott, I’m going to write about the gentleman of Shalott – one way to understand her joke here is to suggest that this poem is in part about what it means for Bishop to be a woman poet, and it implies that that meant for her a certain kind of gender switch, a sex change, and one that might introduce a certain amount of stress, as well as comedy. Well let’s listen to some of it.

Which eye’s his eye?
Which limb lies
next the mirror?

Her joke is that the gentleman of Shalott, like the lady of Shalott, is fixated on a mirror, but the mirror that is in place here is one that, as she’ll describe it, goes down the body, splits this figure, and creates a kind of divided figure.

Which limb lies
next the mirror?
For neither is clearer
nor a different color
than the other,
nor meets a stranger
in this arrangement
of leg and leg and
arm and so on.
To his mind
it’s the indication
of a mirrored reflection
somewhere along the line
of what we call the spine. He felt in modesty
his person was
half looking-glass,
for why should he
be doubled?
The glass must stretch
down his middle,
or rather down the edge.
But he’s in doubt
as to which side’s in or out
of the mirror.
There’s little margin for error,
but there’s no proof, either.
And if half his head’s reflected,
thought, he thinks, might be affected.

This is poetry that presents itself as light verse. In that way, it’s again like much of early Auden, and yet it is a poem that is secretly very serious. Well, much of the lightness as well as the seriousness of the poem depends on its formal organization. These lines are, well, aren’t they about half as long as a normative line of poetry? And they’re rhymed, but they’re rhymed in a most interesting and playful way. In fact, the poem has a lot of play in it. The pleasure that it gives is one of a certain mild exhilaration and uncertainty, of a pattern that includes and that in fact tolerates, or even generates, dramatic change in line length and surprising rhymes. The gentleman is, in a sense, trying to hold himself together. The idea is repeated by the poet trying to hold her lines together in rhymed couplets.

Bishop is, in general, a very interesting poet technically. Here, as elsewhere, how relaxed, how unpretentiously casual, how disorientingly casual, even, the voice is! There isn’t here or elsewhere in Bishop Frost’s tension between speech and meter. Rather, as in this case, each keeps getting adjusted to the other. It’s important; there’s almost no blank verse, no iambic pentameter in Bishop. The canonical heroic meter doesn’t appear here, except, I think, possibly in one or two examples. There are in Bishop free verse poems. There’s meter and rhyme. There are often poems that move in and out of these forms, much as “The Map” begins in rhyme, moves out of rhyme, and returns to rhyme.

The poems don’t seek Moore’s highly idiosyncratic crafted formal arrangements. Instead, Bishop’s practice is probably closest to Auden’s, who’s got a form for every occasion and a form for every purpose. But Auden’s forms are always in a sense pre-set, drawn from an existing repertoire. What is right for this occasion? A ballad – I will do a ballad, a sestina, elegiac quatrains, et cetera. That’s the way in which Auden presents himself. And Auden adheres strictly to his forms, and he uses those forms to shape and interpret the occasions of his writing.

In Bishop’s case, it’s really just the other way around. What she does is alter her forms under the pressure of the occasions of her writing, her purpose and subject. Nothing in Bishop is pre-set. Everything is provisional, in the process of being remade, and in the process of constant readjustment on a technical level as well as on the perceptual level that I began by talking about. This is a vision really of what the world is like and how writing might respond to it. All of these things are going on in this little poem, “The Gentleman of Shallot”, and with a sense of comedy.

If the glass slips
he’s in a fix –
only one leg, etc. But
while it stays put [so long as we accept this provisional arrangement]
he can walk and run
and his hands can clasp one
another. The uncertainty
he says he
finds exhilarating. He loves [and here’s that phrase from the essay on
that sense of constant re-adjustment.
He wishes to be quoted as saying at present:
“Half is enough.”

A kind of motto that Bishop might have adopted, too.

Chapter 4. Elizabeth Bishop Poem: “Sandpiper” [00:40:57]

Let’s look at another version of this figure, this time not a person but a creature, and I mean specifically the sandpiper who appears in a much later book, Questions of Travel, from a book written largely in the 1950s and early 1960s. “Sandpiper” is on page 131. Again, it is a poem that takes place on the shore. Instead of the gentleman of Shalott in his fussy way, and yet practical way, getting along in the world, we are introduced to a finicky bird:

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 sense of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

Another poem that is stationed on a shifting boundary, the boundary of the tide. Bishop is engaged here in a kind of playful, active revision of the visionary innocence celebrated by William Blake. I quote the lines on your handout that Bishop is referring to:

To see a world in a grain of sand [this is the beginning of “Auguries of
And heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Well, here, Bishop is sort of playfully saying: well, what kind of figure is really Blakean? What kind of figure wants to see the world in a grain of sand? Well, a sandpiper, looking for his food.

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 [and this is again Bishop correcting – proceeding by
correcting her perception], the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) [and again the sandpiper, like the poet, is
focused on detail] 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. [“North’s near as West.”]
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.

The poem’s own structure shifts interestingly in terms of its line lengths and Bishop’s ways of using enjambment or end-stopped lines. The world is – well, the place is a world of vast forces, of roaring, and of mist, and yet it’s also minute and clear – all of these things at once or in succession. The bird’s perspective can’t tell us whether the tide is higher or lower because he is, as it were, in the picture: he’s always wherever it is. It is a position again of constant readjustment.

What is he looking for? “Something, something, something.” A calculatedly vague word, a word that we see Frost using in “For Once, Then, Something.” Instead of moving here towards generalization, the poem moves towards more detail: towards a list, a series finally of colors, simply. In a sense, Bishop moves away from the black and white to other shades, shades that involve combinations of colors.

The question is really, how can the world be seen serially? How can it be made? How can it be seen as a series of perceptions, and yet be able to cohere? This is a fundamental question of Bishop’s poetry. It is, as it were, the complement of the question: how can you hold yourself together? Well, how can you hold the world together, how can you hold the world that you perceive together? Bishop’s great poem on this subject is the travel poem, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” which I promise to talk about on Monday. Thanks.

[end of transcript]


“The Map,” 1935 “Sandpiper,” 1962 and excerpts from: “The Gentleman of Shalott,” 1936. Copyright (c) 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

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