Elizabeth Bishop is one of my favorite poets. She actually didn’t write all that many poems during her life (compared to other poets who lived as long as she did). She was meticulous, picking and choosing every word with the utmost care. This, naturally, slowed Bishop down. She was not hugely famous during her lifetime, although famous enough to be Poet Laureate from 1949-1950. However, since her death her reputation has skyrocketed.
Born in 1911 in Massachusetts, Bishop had a harrowing childhood. Her father died when she was a baby. Her mother was mentally ill and institutionalized. Elizabeth’s grandparents raised her after that, but then her father’s side of the family got custody and she was moved off to live with them. She didn’t really know them, she missed her grandparents, she developed asthma. She was one of those human beings who experienced complete despair from before she was 10 years old. To add to the confusion, her paternal grandparents realized she was unhappy, maybe felt she was too much to handle … whatever the case, Bishop was moved yet again to with her aunt (her mother’s sister). Bishop’s aunt was very poor, and the Bishop grandparents sent money for the care of Elizabeth. They lived in a tenement, in a terrible neighborhood. But Bishop’s aunt introduced her to poetry. So there’s that. Bishop was a sickly child (exacerbated by the grief and disorientation of being essentially an orphan, made worse by the fact that her mother was still alive – just locked up and she couldn’t see her). Bishop rarely went to school. So she was self- and aunt-educated. She ended up going to Vassar, thinking she would be a composer or a musician (music being her first love), but she had also started writing and publishing poems by that point. She started a literary magazine with classmate Mary McCarthy. She graduated from Vassar in 1934.
Because her dead father had been successful financially, she had a pretty big inheritance. She was independently wealthy. This fact also helped shape Bishop. Unlike a lot of other artists starting out, she never had to take a day job. She never had to teach or do other things to make ends meet. She was extremely shy, maybe even crippled by it (although her letters reveal that she was not a shrinking wall-flower personality to her friends and lovers: she was bubbly, funny, and irrepressible, with a great eye for the perfect anecdote.) She traveled the world. She loved to travel. She did not huddle in New York City like many of her fellow poets, who jostled for seats at the bar in Greenwich Village, forming a small community. She was out of the country. She lived in Brazil. She lived in Florida.
Introduced to Robert Lowell in 1947, they formed an intimate kinship almost immediately, starting up a correspondence that continued for the rest of their lives (it has been recently published and it’s amazing: Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It was a symbiotic artistic marriage.
Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell, after reading one of his poems.
“It took me an hour or so to get back to my own metre.”
I am interested in how the work affected each other. They traded drafts back and forth, they made comments and critiques. They were not just “fans” of each other. They took the other’s work seriously enough to really engage with it, be honest about what didn’t work. Lowell valued her input, and vice versa. Lowell was much more famous in his own day than Elizabeth Bishop. He was part of a “trend,” which helped, an openness and personal-ness in subject matter that was to become known as “the confessional poets,” the most famous being Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who were in a later generation. (The two of them both took a class with Lowell, and the three of them would go out for drinks afterwards. Why can’t I have a time machine?
Lowell’s stuff was extremely confessional, talking about his hospitalizations for mental breakdowns (he was bipolar), and was seen as shocking at the time, although it was also hugely influential. In my opinion, as much as I love him, his stuff doesn’t hold up as well as Bishop’s. Her poems may seem descriptive and distant, in compared to Lowell’s searing tell-alls, but once you really read them, and get inside of them, you realize just how personal every word is, how exquisitely placed. The images she puts in your mind (her famous moose, the now-famous fish-houses and shoreline) stay there forever.
They never married. Lowell had many lovers, and a wife. Bishop stayed with one woman for many years (sadly, this woman committed suicide; yet another plot-point in the tragic story that was Bishop’s personal life, she was surrounded by mental illness from a very young age). But theirs was a soulmate kind of connection. Lowell did ask her to marry him, and her cooler head prevailed. But, they were each other’s “perfect reader”. Every writer needs one. Not a critic, not a gushing fan … but someone who is able to really hear not just the words, but the intent. Who can speak to the theme, the greater picture.
Bishop was solitary, with a small literate following. She wrote about fish houses and the beach and small observational moments. He opened up his psychology, pouring passion and unrequited feeling into his poems. Bishop had some serious reservations about Lowell’s work, which she shared with him. They worked FOR one another, over decades.
William Logan writes, in the NY Times review of their correspondence:
Their admiration even made them light fingered – they borrowed ideas or images the way a neighbor might steal a cup of sugar. Lowell was especially tempted by this lure of the forbidden, using one of Bishop’s dreams in a heartbreaking poem about their might-have-been affair, or rewriting in verse one of her short stories. They were literary friends in all the usual ways, providing practical advice (the forever dithery and procrastinating Bishop proved surprisingly pragmatic), trading blurbs, logrolling as shamelessly as pork-bellied senators (Lowell was adept at dropping the quiet word on her behalf). There was a refined lack of jealousy between them – that particular vice never found purchase, though in letters to friends they could afford the occasional peevish remark about each other. The only time Bishop took exception to Lowell’s poems was when, in “The Dolphin” (1973), he incorporated angry letters from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick. ” –Art just isn’t worth that much,” Bishop exclaimed. She flinched when poets revealed in their poems too much of themselves, once claiming that she wished she “could start writing poetry all over again on another planet.”
These poets, in short, inspired each other. Lowell always seems to be stuffing her newest poem into his billfold, so he can take it out later like a hundred-dollar bill. Bishop saw immediately how strange and even shocking “Life Studies” (1959) was (its confessional style caused as violent an earthquake in American poetry as “The Waste Land”); but he noticed something more subtle, that she rarely repeated herself. Each time she wrote, it was as if she were reinventing what she did with words, while he tended to repeat his forms until he had driven them into the ground, or driven everyone crazy with them. Bishop was loyal enough to admire, or pretend to, even Lowell’s mediocre poems.
If Lowell and Bishop often seem to love no poems more than each other’s, as critics perhaps they were right. A hundred years from now, they may prove the 20th century’s Whitman and Dickinson, an odd couple whose poems look quizzically at each other, half in understanding, half in consternation, each poet the counter-psyche of the other. Their poems are as different as gravy from groundhogs, their letters so alike – so delightfully in concord – the reader at times can’t guess the author without glancing at the salutation.
Bishop finally settled down in Key West.
For a long time she was known as a “poet’s poet”, but her appeal is much broader than that. She’s up there with Robert Frost, a poet with whom she has much in common. Her work has that mix of grandeur and homeliness. You wonder how she does it. She writes about “small” things: the look of waves, a moose in the darkness, fishing rods, in the same way that Frost writes about “small” things – an axe, a snowfall, an apple. Yet nobody could say that these were trivial poets, or “surface” poets. They plumb the depths of the human condition itself, not by focusing on experiences with electric shock therapy, or family dramas (and some of the confessional poets are terrific, my faves, this is not an either/or kind of thing), but by excavating the meaning and grace and import in things, objects, nature.
Bishop’s poem “One Art” stands out as different from her others. It is directly personal. In it, she speaks in an “I” voice, rare for her. The poem’s form is formal, with set-up obvious rhymes and a sense of rhythmic repetition. You can feel the influence of her soulmate Robert Lowell in “One Art”, even though the expression, the poem itself, is all hers.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Seamus Heaney, in a lecture he gave on Elizabeth Bishop, makes the observation that if you read “One Art” out loud, the person listening to you may not know that “Write” is not “Right.” They can’t see the word on the page. But it works as “Right” as well, like: “CORRECT it.” “RIGHT what has been made wrong.” Brilliant.
In the same lecture Heaney takes a close look at the way her language operates in “One Art”:
The first time “master” and “disaster” occurs, in stanza one, they are tactfully, elegantly, deprecatingly paired off. It wasn’t a disaster. The speaker is being decorous, good-mannered, relieving you of the burden of having to sympathize, easing you out of any embarrassed need to find things to say. The last time the rhyme occurs, however, the shocking traumatic reality of what happened almost overbrims the containing form. It was a disaster. It was devastatingly and indescribably so. And yet what the poem has not managed to do, in the nick of time, is to survive the devastating. The verb “master” places itself in the scales opposite its twin noun, “disaster,” and holds the balance. And the secret of the held balance is given in the parenthesis “(Write it!)”. As so often in Bishop’s work, the parenthesis (if you have ears to hear) is the place the hear the real truth. And what the parenthesis in ‘One Art’ tells us is what we always knew in some general way, but now know with an acute pang of intimacy, that the act of writing is an act of survival.
Marianne Moore was a huge influence and early champion of Bishop’s stuff. Moore wrote in re: Bishop:
Some authors do not muse within themselves; they ‘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 – assisted by unwordiness, uncontorted intentionalness, the flicker of impudence, the natural unforced ending.
Moore said that Bishop was “spectacular in being unspectacular.”
Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, writes:
Few poets of the century are as candid as Elizabeth Bishop. We know more about her from her poems, despite her reticence, her refusal to confess or provide circumstantial detail, than we do of Plath or Lowell or Sexton, who dramatize and partialize themselves. Bishop asks us to focus not on her but with her. Her disclosures are tactful: we can recognize them if we wish. Her reticence is “polite”. Given her vulnerability, she could have “gone to the edge”, as A. Alvarez likes poets to do, praising Plath and Lowell for their extremity. Instead she follows where William Cowper led, using language not to go to the edge but to find her way back from it; using poetry – in an eighteenth-century spirit – as a normative instrument. Even in her harshest poems, such an art is affirmative.
It’s a toss-up as to what is her best-known poem. There are two that seem to make it into the anthologies the most: “At the Fishhouses” and “One Art”. If you read these poems one after the other it is very difficult to not be in awe of her versatility. The voice used in each is so completely specific, and perfect to the subject matter.
Every time I read “At the Fishhouses” I am lulled into a quiet space, almost a dream-space where her images work on me in unexpected ways. I SEE that scene, but not one word is prosaic, or merely descriptive.
At the Fishhouses
Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.
Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
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.
Maybe I love it because the landscape is familiar to me, an East Coast girl who grew up 10 minutes from the vast heaving Atlantic. The fishing industry is part of the landscape of my childhood, and it’s all there in her language. Bishop makes it look so easy that it is hard to remember just how good she is.
But, for me, “The Moose” is her greatest poem. Somehow I had missed it, I was not familiar with it (it’s not as commonly anthologized, first of all) and for whatever reason, about 10 years ago Dad brought it to my attention. I think it was re-published in The New Yorker. A treasured memory is telling my dad I was getting into her, and how much I loved her, and he asked if I knew her poem “The Moose.” I didn’t. He pulled out a book (he always knew where the right books were), and read it out loud to me. My father had a gravelly voice, unforgettable, warm and grumbly, and he was wonderful when reading out loud. As much as I love “The Moose” (and I DO, it’s now in my Top Bishop poems), what I really love is that when I read it now, I still hear it in my father’s voice.
Poet Randall Jarrell said a great thing about Bishop:
All her poems have written underneath, I have seen it.”
Yes. That comment is what I think of when I read “The Moose.”
From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,
where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;
where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;
on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,
through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;
down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.
Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts. The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.
Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;
the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.
One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.
A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.
On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
A dog gives one bark.
A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.
Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.
The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .
In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
–not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;
deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.
He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.
“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”
Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.
Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
–Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.
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.
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless. . . .”
Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”
Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,
by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.