ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 25

 - Elizabeth Bishop (cont.)


In the final lecture of the course, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” is considered with an emphasis on Bishop’s ambivalence towards the notion of home. The idea that modernists use poetry to do the work that religion no longer does is reflected upon, and connections are drawn between Bishop, Frost, Eliot, Stevens, and Crane. Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s” is considered as a formal rebuke to the ambitions of modernism alongside Auden’s statement that “poetry makes nothing happen” but ultimately the two poets are shown to offer poetry as a solution to modern alienation in its capacity to renew human community through communication.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 25 - Elizabeth Bishop (cont.)

Chapter 1. Elizabeth Bishop Poem: “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Today I’m going to try to talk a little bit more about Elizabeth Bishop, and I’m also going to try to give some big perspectives on the poets we’ve been reading and also some ways of thinking about how they fit together.

Let’s look at Bishop’s poem, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” the poem placed second in her second book called A Cold Spring, published in 1955 – the latest poems that we’ll discuss in this course. On Wednesday I talked about Bishop’s poetics of geography or travel as a horizontal poetics, as opposed to the ascendant and sublime impulses in many of the poets that we have been examining this term. This poetics is ultimately a poetry of shifting perspectives and local perceptions. The question that it immediately poses is, well: how do we put these perceptions and these points of view together? The, I think, exciting but also difficult textures of Bishop’s great landscape poems, “Florida,” “Cape Breton,” “At the Fishhouses,” “A Cold Spring,” and others, all pose this very clearly to us, this problem. You might see the grains of sand that the sandpiper searches through in that little poem “Sandpiper” as, again, exemplary of this problem in Bishop – that is, how do we hold onto, organize, and find coherence in a world of discrete and shifting phenomena?

This is really the master problem that Bishop addresses very self-consciously in this poem, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.” Like “The Map,” it’s a poem that is in part about a representation. She, by implication, begins the poem by referring to a book, presumably the one mentioned in the title, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.” What kind of book is that? She doesn’t specify, but as the poem unfolds there’s reason to believe it’s a Bible, I think – perhaps a family Bible. She says:

Thus should have been our travels:
serious, engravable.

Our travels, our experience in the world, our experience of geography, and our experience as geography should have been, ought to be, serious. It ought to add up to something. I ought to be engravable, something that might be bound in book form. The image of a book with illustrations in a complete concordance holds up an idea that word and image, perhaps word and flesh or representation and experience, might be bound together in a coherent unity, might be shown to exist in concordance or in some kind of correspondence.

Against this ideal or this model of things, where illustration and text are bound together, Bishop poses her own wayward experience – her travels – which this poem will list, record, and give us fragments of. What the poem reveals to us is a world of discrete fragments, parts that gain meaning, if at all, through their mere adjacency or through the perceiver who holds them together – holds them together through the quality of her attention and the sensibility behind it, a form of attention for Bishop that is always pushing towards revelation and seeking meaning or something beyond surface detail but never quite arrives there and never, in that sense, arrives at a place of repose or rest or home.

Let me read the second paragraph which brilliantly represents the world brought into being by this poetics of geography.

Entering the Narrows at St. Johns
the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.
We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs
among the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.
And at St. Peter’s the wind blew and the sun shone madly.
Rapidly, purposefully, the Collegians marched in lines,
crisscrossing the great square with black, like ants.

The poem is composed almost of the fragments of a travel diary or bits of a letter, and if you read Bishop’s letters you will indeed find observations like this on every page.

In Mexico the dead man lay
in a blue arcade; the dead volcanoes
glistened like Easter lilies.
The jukebox went on playing “Ay, Jalisco!”
And at Volubilis there were beautiful poppies
splitting the mosaics; the fat old guide made eyes.
In Dingle Harbor…

And we jerk from one place to another, with each sentence one country, one spot on the map.

In Dingle Harbor a golden length of evening
the rotting hulks held up their dripping plush.
The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the duchess was going to have a baby. [This is one of Bishop’s
provocative juxtapositions in the poem.]
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees,
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all [implying, of course, that all of these
scenes had frightened her]:
A holy grave, not looking particularly holy,
one of a group under a keyhole-arched stone baldaquin
open to every wind from the pink desert.
An open, gritty, marble trough, carved solid
with exhortation, yellowed
as scattered cattle-teeth;
half-filled with dust, not even the dust
of the poor prophet paynim who once lay there. [Just dust.]
In a smart burnoose Khadour [presumably their guide] looked on

Looking at this series, this way Bishop’s life seems to add up, she continues reflecting on the poem and on its structure.

Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
Open the book.

And we’re back to the book now, that ideal form of representation in which text and image are bound.

(The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)

Bishop wants us – as in “The Map,” too – she wants the book as something that can be held and touched. She’s a marvelously tactile poet. Along with the unity of experience that it promises to give us is a sense of intimacy, too, with an object.

Open the heavy book [she says to us]. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
– the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets,
– and looked and looked our infant sight away.

The Nativity is the scene of the Incarnation, that moment when the Word is made flesh; Christmas morning, that moment when the divine takes human form and so becomes present in the world. This is specifically here, as Bishop imagines it, a scene of revelation. That wonderful phrase, “the dark ajar” – as if the shadow were a door and you could enter it; “the rocks breaking with light” – that which is solid opening. What emerges is a flame, a sign of spirit.

But notice how in this light, the sacred is secularized. What Bishop finds there is not the holy family but “a family with pets.” There is nostalgia here, in this poem, poignant and powerful; that is, a nostalgia not so much for the holy as for the family once constituted by their relation to the holy, the family with pets but also the family that gathered around the book to look at them – a family gathered through religious practice, who might then have “looked and looked our infant sight away.” In that, looking expresses a kind of primal longing for community and for human connection – a longing expressed through looking, importantly for Bishop, which is really what the poet is doing in “The Map,” I think, in the way that she invites us into her act of looking in that poem. Here Bishop’s nostalgia is sad but also resigned. This Nativity is a scene that can be remembered and looked at from afar but not entered into, as the belief system that it comes out of and refers to can be looked at from afar but not entered into.

Chapter 2. Perspectives on Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot [00:12:38]

Bishop, as several people remarked in section this week, calls us back in lots of different ways to Frost. Frost is perhaps an unusual place to begin a course on modern poetry because – remember him? – he really is generally an exception to the metropolitan scene and inspiration of modern poetry. Modern poetry is a poetry of the city, of the metropolis, of the world city, and of the place where the world’s peoples, goods, languages, traditions and cultures are all “accessible,” to use Marianne Moore’s word from her poem “New York.” Pound, Eliot, Crane, Moore, Hughes, and even Williams and Stevens in their somewhat different ways, are all poets of the metropolis. The sense of ambivalence about modernity in these poets is an ambivalence in many ways about the city and what it promises and also what it in many ways threatens us with. Their sense of experience, their visions of modernity and of modern forms of community are all located and expressed there.

Frost aggressively defines his work against that context. In doing this, he links his writing to nineteenth-century American writing and art and links his writing to rural culture, which dominates the nineteenth century. There is an anti-modern strain in Frost just as there is in Yeats and, more complexly, in Pound and in Eliot. What’s modern about Frost is what has changed in the rural cultures that he writes about; that is, the collapse of farming economies and communities and the decay of nineteenth-century Protestantism, the white church on the village green. You feel that loss in the terrific aloneness of Frost’s people. The great poem “Directive” is about all of these things. Frost’s poetry struggles to incorporate the secular truths of modern science and to make poetry, like science, a disenchanted knowledge. In this way, Frost has a lot in common with Auden, and Frost, again like Auden, is fundamentally concerned with poetry as a form of knowledge, a way to know the world.

At the same time, poetry preserves for Frost certain archaic, primitive powers of enchantment: powers associated with primitive motives and childhood experience that make it a crucial alternative to science and scientific knowing. Think of the magic trick at the end of “Directive” when Frost takes us to the ruined house of nineteenth-century culture – the ruined farmhouse of “Home Burial” maybe – and steals from the abandoned children’s playhouse “a broken drinking goblet like the Grail” and uses it to invite us to drink from a primal source “too lofty and original to rage,” that spring, and in drinking to “be whole again beyond confusion.” What are we drinking there then at the end of Frost’s poem, this poem published at the end of the Second World War? We’re drinking a kind of elemental power that seems to fuse language and longing and imagination. This is, in Frost, a conscious rewriting, I think, partially even a send-up as well as a competition with Eliot in The Waste Land and the Grail myths that are one of the central motifs of that poem: one of the central motifs that embody for Eliot a sense of the holy, which is present, however, for Eliot only through literary allusion, something fascinating but unavailable as actual experience; something available only, in a sense, as quotation.

Chapter 3. Perspectives on Wallace Stevens [00:17:57]

Poetry in Frost, as in Eliot, does the work religion no longer does. But notice how in Frost, in “Directive,” the belief that poetry asks from us is a belief in a fiction, in make-believe. And in this Frost is strangely and wonderfully and surprisingly perhaps fully the contemporary of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane whose work proceeds from that same assumption. Stevens’s wartime poem “Asides on the Oboe” begins:

The prologues are over. It is a question, now,
Of final belief. So, say that final belief
Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose.

This is the theme of Stevens’s wartime masterpiece “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction.” And notice the contradictory impulses in Stevens’s title. When poetry takes the place of religion for Stevens it presents itself as a supreme fiction, a total representation of the world and experience.

But we only have partial, provisional access to that fiction. What Stevens gives us is merely notes – notes, something that Elizabeth Bishop might present us with, too. In this sense, in Stevens the shift from religion to poetry is also a shift from totalization, from system to contingency and incompletion, to parts rather than a whole. For Stevens, the disappearance of the Christian God as the center of emotional, spiritual, cultural life is essentially, however, a cause for celebration. In Eliot it’s a cause for mourning – mourning and anxiety, distress. In Yeats it’s a cause of fascination and horror; in Crane, for the making of new myths, new metaphors. Hughes’s secular poems are Christ-haunted. Christ and all of the iconography associated with him is a source of hope and also irony for black culture and a reproach to the white world.

Chapter 4. Perspectives on Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore and Hilda Doolittle [00:21:05]

How do people, how does culture find bearing in a world without divine sanction? This is played out as an ethical question, a question about how to live and act rightly in Moore and then later in Bishop. In general, it is a less urgent question, a less central one in the later poets than in the earlier ones. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Yeats says in “The Second Coming.” Bishop is fundamentally at home in this condition, which is a condition of centerlessness or homelessness. She liked the phrase “the world’s an orphan’s home” in Moore. Bishop is at home then with a certain kind of homelessness. Travel is her metaphor for the mobility of consciousness in a world without a stable center. Her poetry is written from the disturbingly and disorientingly decentered point of view that we find already in those early poems of hers, a point of view that takes for granted the absence of central authority that religion once provided. Remember in “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” that holy grave? It’s not even particularly holy, she says. The place of the sacred in Bishop has been vacated.

Might poetry fill it? This isn’t a question Bishop asks or is concerned with. But it is, as I’ve been suggesting, an urgent one in many ways for the poets who preceded her. The poetry of the period 1920 through 1940, say – really the great phase of modern poetry – this period is structured, I think, by two big questions: how should poetry be written and what can it do, what can it accomplish in the world? In the first lecture I talked about these different impulses which are at once opposing but also, I think, related and interlocking. I called one of them formal and inward-turning, an aesthetic; the other rather outward turning, concerned with the moral, the political, and the social. The first one tends to limit the definition of poetry to say what is particular to this art, to isolate what is essential to it. The other works to extend poetry’s scope, to give it an expanded role in culture, in the world, and in our lives. You see different versions of both of these impulses in the career trajectories of H.D. and William Carlos Williams, who begin as masters of a certain kind of short poem and go on to create epic poems of cultural sweep – H.D.’s being called Trilogy, Williams’s Paterson.

Chapter 5. Perspectives on Ezra Pound and Hart Crane [00:25:08]

But the poet who more than any embodies these two impulses in the shape of his career is Pound, of course: as I said, the author of the shortest and the longest poem in modern poetry, the exponent of Imagism, and the author of The Cantos. Imagism seems to want to get outside of history, to explore the “sudden liberation… from space limits and time limits,” Pound says, in a kind of autonomous aesthetic experience. The Cantos, however, are a poem, as Pound called it, “including history”: a poem of the greatest possible range and scope and ambition.

In Imagism, there’s an attempt to establish the primary poetic unit, to cut away what is inessential, to find what is true. This is a kind of formal program that expresses a drive towards truth telling that we find in somewhat different terms in Frost and Auden and Moore. Think of Frost’s sense of fact versus, in “Mowing,” the “easy gold at the hand of fay or elf.” Or think of Yeats’s stylistic transformation as expressed in that short poem “A Coat” or “The Fisherman,” poems from 1915. Think about Moore’s and Auden’s severe revisions of their work, in each case involving cutting out poems or cutting away many lines in order to arrive at what Moore called, in “Poetry,” that poem subjected to severe revision, “the genuine.” These are all creative acts of, I think you could say, self-limitation and they’re linked to the general recurrent theme in these poets – in these poets in particular: Auden, Moore, Frost – to the general theme of restraint or reticence. “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint.” Remember Auden’s stone god “that never was more reticent, / always afraid to say more than he meant.”

This impulse that I’m describing in modern poetry is also related to formal experiments with restraint. You see this worked into Moore’s syllabics. Modern poetry in many ways seeks to restrain the singing voice and the lyric voice of romantic poetry as received through nineteenth-century poetry. Frost’s vernacular, his will to get the “sound of sense” into his poems functions in this way. So does Hughes’s vernacular, his black speech. Think about Eliot’s syntactic and logical discontinuities and disjunctions, the way they interrupt and fragment lyric utterance, or think about Pound’s incorporation of blocks of prose, as he did in The Cantos. There is in all of these examples a tendency to define what is modern in modern poetry by the incorporation of traditionally non-poetic forms of speech and language use and, moreover and importantly, non-traditional methods of organizing poetic language. At the same time, this impulse can be seen as a way not of limiting or curtailing poetry’s scope, but rather the opposite: expanding it, expanding it to include even, as Moore puts it, “school-books and business documents,” making poetry available for people and cultures and experience that had not previously been represented in poetry.

Other modern poetry is experimental in a very different way, indeed in its revival and recovery and incorporation of historical poetic forms. You could understand Hart Crane’s reclaiming of Elizabethan and nineteenth-century forms of ornamental rhetoric and versification as exactly this kind of reclaiming of archaic materials. There’s something similar going on in Pound, in Pound’s recovery of Provençal and Anglo-Saxon verse forms, his revival of these forms. Pound and Crane are both heroic poets. They answer that question – what can poetry do? what can it effect in culture? – by saying simply “everything.” That’s really the extraordinary presumption of their long poems – The Bridge and The Cantos. They are very different poets, however, and to some extent exposed – no, opposed figures, although indeed their claim for poetry made them both exposed figures in poignant and complicated ways. When I talk about their difference, I’m thinking of Pound’s suspicion of rhetoric, his suspicion of representation, and his will or drive to get beyond these things versus Crane’s faith in rhetoric, faith in rhetoric and imagination, and their power to transform the world.

In a sense, you couldn’t have two more different poets. But both of these poets take poetry as a kind of metaphor, as not only a metaphor but as the salient instance, of the creative impulse in history. What makes history happen? What makes action in history? And they place poetry at the center of all that is most important that we do. They both propose that poetry can fulfill the central mediating functions that religion once did.

Pound and Crane become cautionary figures for later poets. To some extent Yeats does, too; that is, figures who seem to show the limits of poetry precisely in their efforts to expand them. This is one way we can understand Bishop’s poem, “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s” on page 133. This is a poem that describes Bishop’s periodic visits to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeths Hospital where Pound was institutionalized, incarcerated, after his return to the United States on charges of treason. Bishop was living in Washington as the Poetry Consultant to the Librarian of Congress and it befell her almost as an official duty to visit Pound, hear him talk, and bring people to Pound, and it became the occasion for this poem built on the form of “This is the House that Jack Built.” This is the poetry that Jack made.

This is the house of Bedlam. This is the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is the time
of the tragic man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

And she continues adding, each time adding and, of course, in Bishop’s distinctive manner not only repeating but revising the terms that she’s given us; again, a poetics of constant readjustment. As the poem builds, characters are included, not only Pound but Pound represented as the man but also a soldier, a boy, and a Jew, figures that are versions of Pound perhaps, reaching a climax in the final stanza:

This is the soldier home from the war. [Perhaps that’s Pound in some
These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is round or flat. [Again, Bishop touching a map.]
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances carefully down the ward,
walking the plank of a coffin board
with the crazy sailor
that shows his watch
that tells the time
of the wretched man
who lies in the house of Bedlam.

Chapter 6. Perspectives on W. H. Auden [00:35:38]

It’s a great poem. I spoke of Auden’s and Bishop’s perspectivism. Here, Bishop gives us multiple perspectives on Pound and by extension on the social and political ambitions of modernist poetry. Pound is “tragic,” “talkative,” “honored,” “old,” “brave,” “cranky,” “cruel,” and finally simply “wretched” – a word that comes from “The Seafarer.”

Arguably, one strain of modern poetry ends here in 1950 in the madhouse, in Bedlam. Importantly though, it is not that Bishop stands apart form, in a position to judge, Pound. Instead, she is interestingly, I think, implicated in the scene. She must have enjoyed, and by her choice of title calls attention to, the irony that Pound is in a madhouse that has the same name as Bishop. In Bishop’s great war poem “Roosters,” there is a sense that to oppose conflict out in the world one must encounter conflict in oneself. Here, too, I think in multiple ways Bishop implicates herself in the objects of her critique and satire.

The child’s verse form, it’s important. Bishop identifies with, I think it’s fair to say – she’s certainly interested in – children, throughout her poetry. This interest points, I think, to Bishop’s sense of herself as a minor poet; that is, a mapmaker, not a historian; a poet who refuses to write the major, culturally central, aggressively ambitious poetry to which modernism and, above all, the poetry of Pound aspired. Auden’s perspectivism in “Musée des Beaux Arts” seems to position the poet and poetry similarly. So does that famous statement in the Yeats elegy, “For poetry makes nothing happen.” These poems, “Musée des Beaux Arts” and “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” read like rebukes to modern poetry’s promethean ambitions – its verticality, if you like – and rebukes, too, to Auden’s own political poetry of the 1930s, exemplified by a poem like “Spain 1937.”

But, as I stressed, Auden doesn’t put a full stop on that sentence, “For poetry makes nothing happen.” Rather, he punctuates it with a colon and continues, “it survives.” There is perhaps a double implication here. Either poetry does not have an effect on the world but still survives, despite its lack of making something happen, or it survives because it makes nothing happen. It is not a cause and it doesn’t take up causes effectively. What it does rather, as Auden represents it here, is create a space: a space of happening, a landscape, and a model of the world, seen in the same time as a valley and a river, the river that flows through it.

There’s terrific power of affirmation in this claim about poetry’s survival at the moment of Yeats’s death, at the moment of the onset of the Second World War when “all the dogs of Europe bark.” Ultimately, in Auden, poetry survives as “a way of happening,” as he calls it, that is, a “way” in a sense of both a method and a path; and implicitly, as I suggested talking about this poem earlier; it survives as a kind of open space, a place to come into to collect and gather in for us. And it is figured, I think, finally and implicitly as a mouth, the human mouth – open to speak old words and new words, too. Poetry survives in my mouth and also in yours, which seems like a good last sentence to end this course with. So, thank you very much.

[end of transcript]


“Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” 1955 and “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” 1950 from THE COMPLETE POEMS 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. 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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