Unknown Subject: Elizabeth Bishop and writing from inexperience

Former Foyle Young Poet Helen Bowell tells us about Elizabeth Bishop and the difficulty of writing from another’s perspective.

Reflection

How do you write about lives you have no experience of? Especially if those lives are often marginalised because of their socio-economic status, gender, sexuality or race?

Elizabeth Bishop might seem a bit of a weird choice to look at this issue with. She’s principally famous for her subtle, thought-provoking descriptions of animals and landscapes in poems such as ‘The Fish’, ‘The Moose’, ‘The Map’… and other works not beginning with ‘The’. But her descriptions of those often considered social ‘outsiders’ can be more problematic – and this is true despite the fact that she experienced life on the margins, as a keen traveller, and as a female, lesbian poet in a male, very heteronormative world.

Early in her career, in the 1940s, Bishop wrote a poem called ‘Songs for a Colored Singer’, about the hardships faced by an impoverished black woman. Bishop was a white woman, and since she inherited a great deal of money from a young age, she never had to worry about making ends meet. Although she knew what it was like to be on the fringe of the in-group, she didn’t know what it was really like to experience poverty, or racial prejudice.

As Adrienne Rich points out, we could praise Bishop’s “attempt to acknowledge other outsiders […] long before the Civil Rights movement made such awareness temporarily fashionable for some white writers.” But her poem poses lots of problems for us: tellingly, it’s called ‘Songs for a Colored Singer’, as though this wealthy white writer is able to speak for, or in place of, her black female protagonist. Bishop uses the first person (‘I’) throughout the poem, and I find this appropriation of the black woman’s voice to be a major spanner in the works.

Writing

Bishop’s attempts to imitate black English in the poem fall flat. The piece is full of simplistic monosyllables and gratingly perfect rhyme: “I sit and look at our backyard/ and find it very hard”, for instance, I find almost cringe-worthy!  When she rhymes “bus” with “monogamous”, the latter word jars, seeming almost comically incongruous, as though a black woman could not seriously use a word with four syllables.

I think it’s a good guideline to only take on someone’s voice when you have a genuine, honest reason for doing so, and there are plenty of artists who remind us how (sadly) relevant this point is today. Beyoncé recently sampled a Malcolm X speech which characterises black women as “the most disrespected […] unprotected […] neglected woman in America”. Bishop’s speaking for that woman in her poem has to be based on prejudices, since it’s simply impossible for the poet to talk about the experience of being a black woman – any more than I could tell you about life as a homeless man.

For me, another big ethical problem with Bishop’s poetry about social outsiders is that it’s clear she feels sorry for them. While this may seem compassionate, the person doing the pitying is always looking down on, and feeling superior to, the person they pity. ‘Songs for a Colored Singer’ may well be written from a place of sympathy, but that doesn’t excuse the stereotypes. Equally, when Bishop moved to Brazil, she marvelled at the Brazilian “primitive art” (with ‘primitive’ meaning not produced through formal education – it’s not quite as bad as it sounds). But, as her Portuguese translator Paulo Henriques Britto observes, Bishop’s admiration for such art is really “patronizing affection”. Again, there’s that idea of looking down on someone else – and even if this is done affectionately, it’s still harmful.

In her defence, Bishop does fully acknowledge her own prejudices, and analyses them herself –  particularly in her fascinating dramatic monologue ‘Manuelzinho’, based on a real person called Manuelzinho who worked for her partner, and squatted on her and her partner’s Brazilian estate. This poem is narrated by Lota (“a friend”) whom Bishop clearly portrays as arrogant and cruel: “And once I yelled at you/ so loud to hurry up/ and fetch those potatoes/ your holey hat flew off”. The speaker only sees the comedy of Manuelzinho’s hat flying off as though in a cartoon, while the reader may pity his panic, and react uncomfortably to the speaker’s unfeeling caricature. This is the dramatic irony of the dramatic monologue: the oblivious speaker unwittingly reveals herself to be the bad guy. Since the reader and the poet understand the speaker’s cruelty and inequality, Bishop is able to analyse the warped power dynamic between the squatter/worker and his master. Bishop is clearly struggling with her own prejudices. Her speaker apologises for her behaviour towards the end of the poem, just as Bishop maybe wishes to: “Unkindly,/ I called you Klorophyll Kid./ My visitors thought it was funny./ I apologize here and now.”

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It turns out she’s asking the very question I’m asking: how can we as poets write about other people’s experiences responsibly? Because we can’t just stop trying to imagine other experiences – otherwise literature would be confined to the writer’s experience, and as a lot of writers seem to spend a large amount of time reading and staying inside, that wouldn’t make for the most exciting literature.

It’s important for me to understand, for instance, that as a straight woman born into the biological sex of my gender identity, I can’t begin to understand the difficulties – or joys – of being anything other than heterosexual and cis-gendered. And I can’t look at other people without being influenced by prejudice: I often find myself wondering about the accent, race, or wealth of someone I meet, even though I know it’s not relevant to my understanding of their personality. As long as you’re aware that you can make mistakes (without that paralysing your poetry), hopefully you’ll make fewer.

Bishop keeps searching for the answer throughout her life. In her poem ‘The Riverman’ (in the same collection as ‘Manuelzinho’) the protagonist seeks a mirror “no one’s ever looked at, / that’s never looked back at anyone, / to flash up the spirits’ eyes / and help me recognize them.” Bishop, just like you and me, is looking for that “virgin mirror”, uncontaminated by cultural prejudice, through which to ‘recognize’ or identify with those outside her realm of experience.

Though I can’t exactly resolve this issue, I’d say it’s important to recognise your own privileges and prejudices. And one way of doing this is to be an active and wide-ranging reader – read about the experiences of others in their own words.

What do you think? Do you think about the ethics of poetry – yours or others? Do you think poetry has a duty to take these kinds of questions into account? I’d love to see you carry on the conversation in the comments below!

Helen Bowell

Helen Bowell was commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2010 and 2011, and is a graduate of the Writing Squad. She has been published on Young Poets Network and in places such as Alliterati, PUSH, Stirred Poetry and Forward anthologies, and is currently working on the Dead Women Poets Society, a series of lectures/readings seeking to resurrect women poets lost to the mists of time and patriarchy.

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