Elizabeth Bishop and Poetry of Place

 Photo: Elizabeth Bishop’s grandparents’ house, where she grew up.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is one of America’s best known poets. She wrote precise subtle poems, spending a great deal of time over them, and only published 101 poems in her lifetime. Professor Linda Anderson introduces us to Bishop’s poems, by thinking about Bishop’s home and childhood.

One of my favourite letters from the wonderful exchange between Elizabeth Bishop and her close friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell, contains a reply to Lowell’s excitement about his poem ‘Skunk Hour’, a poem he dedicated to Bishop. For him this poem represented a breakthrough and he felt that at last he’d reached the place he imagined Bishop to be as a poet. Her reply is characteristically sane and modest:

“What on earth do you mean? I haven’t got anywhere at all. Just
to those first benches to sit down and rest on, in a side-arbor at the beginning of the maze.”

Another friend and poet, James Merrill, talked about Bishop’s “lifelong impersonation of an ordinary woman”, thus indicating the gap between the tone she chose to adopt in her poetry and her anything but ordinary experiences. Being to the side, looking and not charging straight into the maze, is where Bishop situated herself and her poetry. But the maze in which you could so easily lose yourself was still always there.

Elizabeth Bishop’s early life was extremely tragic. Her father died when she was just eight months old and her mother, either from illness or grief, had a breakdown when Bishop was five years old.  Her mother became a permanent resident in an insane asylum and, though she lived for another eighteen years, Bishop never saw her again.  Bishop gave an account of her childhood experience in her story ‘In the Village’ and she used the child’s point of view, focusing on her immediate world, to tell it. The village is Great Village in Nova Scotia, home of her beloved maternal grandparents, and though it was a place of trauma for her it was also a place of intense and loving memory. Her long poem, ‘The Moose’, tells us a lot about both the place and the people:

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless….”

Bishop wrote about animals and she wrote about places but there is often a sense that there is something else in her poems dangerous and unknowable (the maze, the impenetrable wood). Places are in doubt because “I may be remembering it all wrong” (‘Santarem’) or because “the house was boarded up” (‘The End of March’).  Both of these statements are preceded by “of course” and the inevitable failure of ever really being able fully to arrive anywhere. In ‘Questions of Travel’ she asks what makes us want to travel

to stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful.

This poem ends with the traveller’s voice asking, “Should we have stayed at home,/wherever that may be”. Bishop could watch and she could wonder. She also worked hard to find the voice that assures. But never feeling totally at home with herself was what she made her poetry out of and what ultimately made her a great poet.

Favourite Elizabeth Bishop poems

We asked some poets which were their favourite Elizabeth Bishop poems, to give you an idea of what to read next! Here’s what they said:

Linda Anderson chose ‘The End of March’.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote this poem in 1974 whilst she was teaching at Harvard. She did not enjoy teaching very much and friends lent her a house in Duxbury on the coast that she could escape to, and which became the scene of this poem. What I particularly appreciate about this poem is how she uses a very ordinary event, a walk along the beach, and makes it carry profound feelings about life, and about the survival of hopefulness and creativity, despite losses and disappointments. She does this through her use of objects and tone, without ever changing register and using abstract language. The string she finds on the beach seems to link her to ghostly deaths and survivals  – possibly from the past – whilst the wire at the back of her dream house leads somewhere else, undefined. The poem remains in the present but there are other currents at work. Mostly, however, it is the structure of the poem that carries the meaning. The return journey has her going back over the same ground but now perceiving new detail – the multi-colored stones -and imagining the sun as a lion. She transforms the lines and traces of what had previously been a frozen scene into a playful one, and is able to write a quietly transcendent conclusion.

David Morley, co-judge of the 2013 Foyle Young Poets Award, went for ‘A Cold Spring’.

I love Elizabeth Bishop and have done since I was introduced to her poetry in a workshop. She is one of the most compelling influences on my own poems and my outlook on language. A poet-friend of mine and I once tried to memorise ‘A Cold Spring’. She succeeded! I managed about half of it but in trying to memorise the poem I found myself falling in love with the precisely-observed brilliance, the whole shimmer and encroachment of imagery and, of course, the irresistible “champagne bubble” fireflies:

“Now, from the thick grass, the fireflies begin to rise:
up, then down, then up again:
lit on the ascending flight,
drifting simultaneously to the same height, –exactly like the bubbles in champagne.”

Hannah Lowe, co-judge of the 2013 Foyle Young Poets Award judge, chose ‘Filling Station’.

I love this poem because of it’s tenderness towards people and place. It is never a poem of pure observation – the judgement of the narrator is clear in the first mock-despairing line “Oh but it is dirty!”, but what follows is a mix of curiosity and bafflement in the exploration of the family, but more so the objects – the plant, the doiley that tell us much about the people may live at the Filling Station. I love the use of brackets in the poem, building on the detail of observation. By the end of the poem the narrator’s view has changed – it’s both warmer and philosophical – “Somebody loves us all”. Also, who wouldn’t love the description of a “big, hirsute begonia”!

Maurice Riordan, the new editor for the Poetry Society’s Poetry Review, loves ‘Santarem’.

My favourite Elizabeth Bishop poem is ‘Santarém’.  It has just about the most throwaway opening line you could think of, ‘Of course I may be remembering it all wrong’. How unpromising is that! But in fact this poem is filled with transforming wonder, with its strange blue and golden light thrown on the crowded detail of life’s ‘dazzling dialectic’: the blue zebus, the two rivers ‘full of crazy shipping’, a cow going to be ‘married’, the lightning-struck brass bed ‘galvanised black’; and a wasps’ nest EB admires so much the shopkeeper gives it to her – only for her travelling companion Mr Swann, ‘really a very nice old man’, to ask ‘What’s that ugly thing?’

Poor Mr Swann, who wants to see the Amazon before he dies. I would die happy if I’d written this poem – and go to heaven with all my sins. I’d believe there was a heaven, and God, and I’d say, ‘Sorry, I wasted my life, but I’ve written this – forgive me.’ And He would.  ‘Santarém’ is not online but it’s one worth getting your hands on.

In Jo Shapcott’s Advice for Young Poets, Jo speaks of her admiration for Bishop’s attention to detail.

Observation is very important to me. I like really looking, to find out what is there. I think most poets do – we love this world we’re in; we love its materiality, its corporeality, and paying attention to it. I think what happens if you do that enough, something bigger appears, suddenly the context of the macrocosm is upon you. And you see that most in a poet like Elizabeth Bishop, who observes and observes with great detail, so that for example in one of her poems [‘The Bight’], the sea is not just the colour of the gas, it’s the colour of “the gas turned down low”. The detail has to be that precise. But then, the accretion of all these details makes you think of something much, much bigger by the end. In that poem, it’s to do with correspondences and relations.

Linda Grant Linda Anderson edited with  Jo Shapcott a collection of essays called Elizabeth Bishop: Poet of the Periphery (Bloodaxe, 2002), and her critical book Elizabeth Bishop: Lines of Connection will be published by Edinburgh University Press in summer 2013. Anderson’s poetry pamphlet, Greenhouse, is published by Mariscat Press in April 2013. She is the Director of the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts at Newcastle University.

Published April, 2013


2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Bishop and Poetry of Place

  1. Elizabeth Bishop is a genius!her poems are really awesome, she uses such fantastic imagery that i get spellbounded in it. i like almost all her great poems but i specially like her poem ‘A Cold Spring’.she has influenced me alot by her extremely wonderful poems.

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