Book Review

The Durable Art of Elizabeth Bishop

The knife there on the shelf—
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
—“Crusoe in England”

Few recent American poets have found readers outside a coterie of like-minded devotees. The good ones attract readers from multiple camps, readers who can’t deny a quality of experience richer than mere identity, better than mere technique or fashion. Perhaps this explains why Elizabeth Bishop’s poems appear to be so enduring, so admirable across a spectrum of readerships. Perhaps it is her containment, her solitude that we admire. Midway through Thomas Travisano’s authoritative biography of Bishop,[1] we find this telling passage about the poet’s visits to New York:

When in the city, Bishop made her own definite impression. Partisan Review editor Clement Greenberg explained that Bishop was noticeable because she did not fit the standard literary pattern of the time. “I remember Elizabeth because she stood out. Elizabeth wasn’t a yacking literary type all the time. She wasn’t Delmore Schwartz.” He added, “You felt with Elizabeth life came first.” She was not concerned with presenting a marketable persona. In Greenberg’s words, “She wasn’t a celebrity figure, one whom journalism could catch hold of. Her poetry did it.” He added, “She wouldn’t have fitted in with the Partisan Review crowd.” Perhaps most important, according to Greenberg, “I never felt Elizabeth belonged in any crowd.”

Paradoxically, Bishop’s popularity, as far as poetry can be popular, derives from her isolation, her individuality, her lack of self-importance. We can read into her. The poems of Robert Lowell can seem all burnished ego, brilliance giving way to exegesis, while Bishop’s appear happy to remain partly hidden. They trust the reader like a secret friend.

To be fair, Lowell was often a real friend to Bishop, a companion in the art who saw her strengths clearly and would remark that “her large, controlled, and elaborate common sense is always or almost always absorbed in its subjects, and that she is one of the best craftsmen alive.” If I seem to disparage technique in the paragraph above, it’s not because I don’t believe it is the true test of a poet’s sincerity, but because it is insufficient to explain the power of the best poetry. Lowell leaves a lot of technique on view, while Bishop folds it into the visible world or what Lowell called “her marvelous command of shifting speech tones,” a comparison to Robert Frost. Suffice it to say that in Bishop we have acute artistry that has managed the most difficult trick of all—to attract a wide audience on its own merits.

So much of Lowell’s work remained provisional, hasty even in its revision, and sometimes this autobiographical urgency leaves another kind of emphasis, more like the best gossip than the best poetry. In his lucid moments, Lowell could see this with humility. Travisano’s biography tells of an awards ceremony at the Guggenheim Museum in 1964 when Bishop, who lived at the time in Brazil, was represented on stage by her friends Lowell and Randall Jarrell:

Before turning the podium over to Jarrell, Lowell paused to observe of Bishop that “her poems come slowly. You feel she never wrote a poem just to fill a page. If the poem stops coming, she’ll often put it away several years—or forever if it doesn’t come. I think she’s hardly ever written a poem that wasn’t a real poem.” He also praised the “beautiful formal completeness to all of Elizabeth’s poetry.”

While it’s true that the poems collected in her lifetime nearly always feel finished and complete and able to stand on their own, they are just as remarkable for what is left unsaid. Perhaps it is not so curious that Bishop criticism has been biographical as often as not, her reticence inviting our search for clues, our desire to know her as the person in the poems, which are often read as markers of her life. Some poets—Yeats and the so-called “confessionals” come to mind—seem to demand such treatment, but Bishop has only received it posthumously as bits of new evidence come to light.

Forty years after her death, we might wonder that a new biography is needed at all. Previous books by Brett Millier and Megan Marshall have been good, though Marshall took considerable flak for layering in a memoir of her own coming-of-age as Bishop’s student. There is also a useful “oral biography” by Gary Fountain (with Peter Brazeau) and extensive literary criticism by many hands, including Bishop’s fellow poets. Professor Travisano comes to the task as the author and editor of previous books on mid-century American poetry and the founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society. His book feels congenial, collegial and, except for a few minor stylistic lapses, gracefully written. Intimate knowledge of his subject remains respectful and never spills over into betrayal. Bishop emerges as someone frequently admirable, even loveable, not only the orphaned waif bearing the stresses of her awful childhood, but a woman who to a very great degree triumphed over adversity and made the best of any good fortune she had. She was a survivor. While Marshall’s book puts a great deal of emphasis upon Bishop’s alcoholism, Travisano touches the subject more delicately, pointing out that Bishop also enjoyed years of happy sobriety that made possible some of her best writing. If Travisano’s readings of the poems are usually strictly biographical, well, so are most others these days, nearly turning Bishop into a thing she dreaded—an example of identity poetics—when she would rather have been a window on the world. The truth is that these biographical readings contain some justice. Her window is psychological, too, and Travisano is right to point out her poetics of “the mind at work”—something she gets from George Herbert more than anyone else.

You can demonstrate this poetics of the mind in her early surrealist poems, her poems of travel, which the novelist Tom Robbins nearly equated to magic realism, and any of her late masterpieces of character in extremis. Since it’s high time I quoted a poem as proof of this, here are some lines found toward the end of “Crusoe in England”:

Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
and love, but they were pleasant rather
than otherwise. But then I’d dream of things
like slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I’d have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands
like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, eventually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.

Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
—Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.

And then one day they came and took us off.

Events are important, but not as important as the way the mind apprehends them, and their effects over time. The word “pretty” in “he had a pretty body” takes on a wistful desolation, as it does at the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Experience in a Bishop poem is psychological, which might be why even her most exotic subjects do not seem foreign to us. This part of “Crusoe in England” is usually read as veiled autobiography about Bishop’s sexuality, and no doubt she was aware of such possibilities as she wrote and revised. But the way she writes allows more shaded readings, even blurring what we now call the binaries of gender in the same way that dreams and waking states are part of the same mental excursions.

What I would really like to do now is keep quoting, right to the end, but time and space won’t allow it. In my twenties, encountering people who worried for my sanity because I wrote poetry, I would read them “Crusoe in England” as a demonstration of real power in the art. It’s as perfect an experience as any recent poem I know, and Bishop gives us quite a few such experiences. My own list of favorites would include “The Weed,” “Roosters,” “The Fish,” “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” “The Bight,” “At the Fishhouses,” “The Shampoo,” “Arrival at Santos,” “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” “Questions of Travel,” “Manuelzinho,” “The Armadillo,” “The Burglar of Babylon,” “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto,” and everything in the slender Geography III. She was working at the same high level when she died at 68 of a cerebral aneurysm. Notice the psychic landscape in “Santarém”:

Two rivers. Hadn’t two rivers sprung
from the Garden of Eden? No, that was four
and they’d diverged. Here only two
and coming together. Even if one were tempted
to literary interpretations
such as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female
—such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off
in that watery, dazzling dialectic.

Critics are forewarned: poetry, like experience, will always elude our interpretations.

If I sometimes tire of her famous villanelle, “One Art,” that isn’t because it fails as a poem, only because the thing is so bloody ubiqui­tous. Her elegy for Lowell, “North Haven,” is among the most moving poems of its sort—it out-Lowells Lowell. And I don’t just love “Pink Dog” as a self-portrait in disguise, but also as a poem about endurance and celebration in the face of catastrophe, a poem in which the tears of the clown are allowed to flow without drenching the whole thing in sentimentality. Is her little posthumously published “Sonnet” ending with the word “gay” a late paean to identity? Maybe, but it’s also a Herbertian conceit for imaginative freedom. Bishop’s poems are too intelligent to succumb to merely sociological readings, even when they make such readings possible.

The completeness of Bishop’s “finished” poems was cast into relief by the publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box (2006), Alice Quinn’s edition of poetry drafts found in manuscript after Bishop’s death. The book contains several poems that most poets would have been content to include in a published volume. Some of these appear to be private: “It is marvelous to wake up together” and “Breakfast Song.” Others are working from more formal impulses: “The Soldier and the Slot-Machine,” “Suicide of a Moderate Dictator” and the volume’s title poem. The publication of these drafts hasn’t harmed her reputation and for the most part only reinforces the impression of how rigorous an artist she remained.

She wasn’t immune to careerism. Indeed, she was part of a group of mid-century poets who often seemed to feel “entitled” to their success, passing around awards and fellowships like drinks at a club. Bishop generally transcended the careerism of her peers by writing as well as she did. Travisano points out that Bishop was both a person prone to anguished doubts and a poet who knew the enduring value of her work. She was nobody’s fool and often saw clearly the foolishness of her friends.

Travisano’s biography is the best we have so far, even though most of the narrative will be familiar to readers by now. He devotes more pages to Bishop’s parents, to her father’s early death and her mother’s descent into madness, than earlier biographers, choosing not to dwell too long on Bishop’s probable abuse by an uncle. This circumspection honors Bishop’s own, which she might have inherited in part from her father, William:

His fundamental reticence is confirmed [in an obituary] by the statement that he was a “self contained man, intensely interested in his work and the welfare of the company with which he was connected,” and by the further observation that “his love of home and quiet environment kept him from becoming very well known socially.” Reading these words, Bishop would feel a kinship in his reticence, as surely as she would identify with the statement that he was “a wide reader of solid literature.” This was not much to go on for a child seeking to know a vanished father.

Biographies are imaginative efforts, like the stories we tell about ourselves, hoping for coherence whether it exists or not. Bishop was only eight months old when her father died, so the job of composing her own biographical narrative was painfully real.

Bishop’s mother, Gertrude, was apparently very much attached to her husband, and his sudden death plunged her into circumstances that were hardly propitious. A Canadian often feeling isolated in the United States, where her husband’s family were evidently far less sympathetic than her own, Gertrude’s fears of losing her daughter soon developed into full-scale paranoia and worse. “In June 1916, when Elizabeth was five, her mother was placed in a mental institution, the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth. Bishop’s mother would never emerge from this hospital alive—and Bishop would never see her again.” Partly this was a matter of borders. Gertrude had lost her legal claim to American citizenship, and while Elizabeth was largely raised by relatives in Massachusetts, spending summers with her sympathetic grandparents in Canada, there was no chance of having her mother moved to a closer facility.

Travisano makes good use of hospital records and other documents to narrate this horrible situation, leaning also on Bishop’s early poems and drafts, and versions of what became her most famous short story, “In the Village.” Gertrude’s very real suffering in the hospital could only be imagined by her daughter. “In nearly every one of Bishop’s recurrent visualizations of her mother, Gertrude appears either as vulnerably naked or as wrapped in and shielded by the traditional attire of mourning. Never does her mother appear at rest or wearing casual clothes.” The biographical fallacy is any suggestion that such details can explain how or why Bishop became a great artist. They can’t. Nor can they explain how this girl, raised in such difficult circumstances, became so enamored of literature, so well-read by the time she entered Vassar College, so boldly confident of her own taste, so willing to seek adventure, both in her unconventional affections and her desire to see the world. The narrative is important as an underpinning of many of her poems—her famous “Sestina,” for example—but it does not explain what made her the kind of poet she was, why she became meticulous instead of rash, compassionate instead of haughty. Still, Travisano’s book seems just in its summing up of her early years:

Along the way, Bishop had acquired, in compensation for her losses, a sharp sense of humor, a keen ear for language, a love of natural beauty, a decided skepticism toward received opinion, an understanding of the value of freedom, and a keenly developed sense of the ridiculous. Perhaps most important of all, at least for her development as a writer, she had learned to watch, to wait, to listen, to keep her own counsel, and to miss almost nothing as she quietly studied and absorbed the encoded language and mysterious behaviors of the adults who surrounded her.

This appears to be true on the evidence of the poems and letters Bishop left behind, all of which Travisano has read with sensitivity.

Most writers’ college years would make pretty dull reading. Bishop’s don’t, because she was already an interesting person who came at a privileged world from an oblique angle, and she was remembered by other writers, such as Mary McCarthy and Eleanor Clark. Attending Vassar in the 1930s afforded young women more opportunities than many other colleges would have done. Bishop interviewed T. S. Eliot, who visited the campus in 1933, and the elder poet praised her work for a short-lived rebel magazine, Con Spirito, created in opposition to the staid Vassar Review. It was at Vassar that Bishop developed her affection for two eccentric poets, Herbert and Hopkins. And it was at Vassar that Bishop learned of her mother’s death in 1934 and her strange repatriation to a grave in Worcester, Massachusetts—a gravesite where Bishop’s own ashes would be interred many years later. It was also at Vassar that Bishop’s drinking life began, though it would be some years before it developed into a dangerous addiction with which she struggled for decades.

She emerged from college a full-blown poet, with a lover, the wealthy socialite Louise Crane, and a rich network of friends. Reticent she may have been, but she could also be ebullient and would prove attractive to other people all her life. Late in the biography, Travisano relates the testimony of other poet friends, some of whom visited her in Brazil:

In July 1970, James Merrill arrived for a visit. Bishop found that his company offered her a tremendous experience of relief. As she wrote to [her friends] Fizdale and Gold, “Jim Merrill was the perfect guest, while I was far from the perfect hostess, being in the middle of a nervous breakdown (or something), I believe.” Yet it was during the course of this visit that Merrill drew the conclusion that “It was du coté de chez Elizabeth . . . that I saw the daily life that took my fancy . . . with its kind of random, Chekhovian surface, open to trivia and funny surprises, or even painful ones, today a fit of weeping, tomorrow a picnic.” It was then that Merrill decided, “Elizabeth had more talent for life—and for poetry—than anyone else I’ve known, and this served me as an ideal.” At one point, a Bishop friend entered the house while Bishop was tearfully recounting to Merrill her many recent tribulations, and when this friend displayed consternation, Bishop said in Portuguese, “It’s all right, Jose-Alberto. I’m only crying in English.” Merrill later recalled that following “a solid week of rain” in Ouro Prêto, Bishop proposed a visit by taxi to a nearby town. As the taxi jounced through the countryside, it passed “all at once under a rainbow—like a halo on the hill’s brow.” After Bishop spoke a few words in Portuguese to the driver, the latter “began to shake with laughter.” Bishop explained that in the north of Brazil, “they have this superstition—if you pass underneath a rainbow you change sex.” Merrill added mordantly, “We were to pass under this one more than once.”

Her fifteen years in Brazil, most of them lived happily with her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, an influential builder and landscape architect, intensified her poetry as well as her life. The sorry end of that relationship, Lota’s ambiguous death from an overdose while visiting Elizabeth in New York, certainly opened more grief and abandonment. But Bishop remained a survivor, outliving many of her troubled friends even if her own life was not a long one. She died in the midst of “All the untidy activity,” still writing, still maintaining an interest in the world. One could do a lot worse.

So much writing about Bishop implies that she was a victim of circumstances, but Travisano’s book corrects that impression, which might be its real contribution. Her suffering was in many respects outweighed by her stamina, her curiosity, her humor, and certainly by her work.

Merrill’s anecdotes about his visits with Elizabeth are among the best in this good book because they convey her durability and her accep­tance of change, her awareness of flux and ambiguity, whether in love or the fortunes of art. Did she learn her lack of sentimentality from her early friendship with Marianne Moore, or was it already part of her make-up? However it developed, it helped her fashion a voice many readers want to return to for new illuminations:

Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. 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.

In another poem Bishop says she “stared and stared” at a fish until a kind of new covenant arrived in a rainbow where some oil had spilled in the bilge of a boat. Her epiphanies are never absolute. But they are vivid and real. They make me want to go on quoting and quoting, so here is the end of “At the Fishhouses,” a great poem set by the sea in Nova Scotia:

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 first 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.
[1] LOVE UNKNOWN: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop, by Thomas Travisano. Viking Penguin. $32.00.