the beginning of her life as a poet, Elizabeth Bishop was interested in the way that our perceptions can be refined through our encounters with the natural world. Written when she was 16 years old, "To a Tree" (1927) gives us an early glimpse into her way of viewing the world. The tree outside her window, her "kin," asks nothing but "To lean against the window and peer in / And watch [her] move about!" Personified nature is interested in her, but what of her own interest in nature? What does she make of her life, an existence "Full of tiny tragedies and grotesque grieves," as she looks back at nature? Central to our understanding of Bishop's work is our understanding of the tense moment when the poet turns her gaze from herself to the world. As she incorporated the natural world into her poetry, Bishop developed a voice that remains one of the most unique in American poetry. She captures subtle moments that are deeply felt and elegantly rendered, and in this tradition she was influenced by Marianne MOORE with whom, beginning in 1934, she maintained a lifelong friendship. In 1947 Randall jar-rell introduced her to Robert lowell, thus beginning a second lifelong friendship and mutual artistic influence. Bishops impact is felt in the poetry of Anne sexton, Sylvia plath, and Rita dove—although Bishop never adopted the tradition of confessional poetry, as did these poets. Her poems are absorbed with precisely capturing the world through language, and in this emphasis she is more closely aligned with the Metaphysical poet George Herbert, the romantic poet William Wordsworth, and the victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, William Thomas Bishop, died eight months after her birth. Her mother entered a mental institution in 1916, and Bishop lived in Great Village, Nova Scotia, with her mother's family. Bishop was never again to see her mother. In 1918 her paternal grandparents expressed concern about the rural education Bishop would receive in Nova Scotia, so she was moved to her aunt's house in Massachusetts. She graduated Walnut Hill, a boarding school, in 1930 and enrolled at Vassar College, where she was a classmate of the poet Muriel rukeyser. But it was travel, not the influence of other contemporary poets, that was the hallmark of her life. In Mexico during 1942-43, she met the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. She traveled down the Amazon in 1961 with the novelist Aldous Huxley. Even in the final years of her life, while teaching at Harvard University, she continued her travels to Ecuador and Peru. For her work, Bishop was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1956 and the National Book Award in 1976.
Journey is a central theme in Bishop's poetry; "These peninsulas take water between thumb and finger," Bishop writes in "The Map" (1946), "like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods." The landscape is rendered, by simile, into a domestic world: Topographical features become human, embracing the texture of nature. "More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors," she claims. Through a different kind of perception—subtler, more intuitive than those who work with words—the mapmaker becomes the ultimate interpreter of the external world.
And so it is that artistic vision, expressed by the mapmaker, is understood to be a valid guide to our travels both to the external world of nature and to the internal world of individual consciousness. The depth of this vision is examined in "The Man-Moth" (1946) in which Bishop, working in the tradition of surrealISM, imagines a creature who lives under the surface of the city, emerging, "trembling," to "investigate as high as he can climb." If we catch him, we are told to hold his tear, "cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink." As a visionary in his own right, the Man-Moth is the embodiment of the poet. His visionary tear is refreshing only because he holds himself apart from the world, living by night and perception alone. As Bishop makes clear in "the fish" (1946), elu-siveness yields perception; she ends that poem, "And I let the fish go."
"Questions of Travel" (1965) examines the tension that arises in the development of artistic vision itself. Should vision be developed in isolation, the poet asks, or should vision be broadened by experience? Recalling Blaise Pascal, Bishop wonders if we should just sit quietly in our room. The poem begins with an image of too many waterfalls, and the reader realizes that there is too much in the external world to be understood, much less analyzed in the brief time for observation. Yet, the poet concedes, it would have been a pity not to have seen Brazil, not to have had the moment in which, stopping for gasoline, she heard "the sad, two-noted wooden tune / of disparate wooden clogs" moving across the floor. In any other country, she concedes, the clogs would have been tested to have identical sound. The choice to open ourselves to experience is never free. The dilemma—to gain new experiences by travel or stay in one place and write—is made even more complex by the flawed nature of writing itself: There is cost both in the distracting nature of travel (which, paradoxically, yields experience) and in the troublesome, flawed act of writing (which, paradoxically, yields insight).
Bishop often built poems out of moments experienced in her journeys. In 1946 and 1947 she visited Nova Scotia. In a letter dated August 29, 1946, she wrote to Moore of her trip by bus back to the United States: "Early the next morning, just as it was getting light, the driver had to stop suddenly for a big cow moose who was wandering down the road. She walked away very slowly into the woods, looking at us over her shoulder." The bus driver had commented that these were "very curious beasts" (141). It was nearly 30 years before she published the memory of that bus trip in "The Moose" (1976). The 30-year-old memory of a bus ride as rendered in the poem lets us see the way the natural world provides a moment of grace, of easement from our troubling histories. If humans have an eternal tendency to recollect, then the presence of the moose gives us a moment away from our thoughts. As the moose looks the bus over, the poet asks, "Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?" For Bishop, as David Kalstone proposes, "the actual existences that lie outside the self—geography, other minds, the world as prior creation—are like rafts, respite and rescue from guilt" (246). Through what Kalstone called her "creaturely" depiction of animals in the natural world, a technique evident also in the appearance of the little mammal in "the armadillo" (1965), Bishop provides solace from thought and attendant regret.
In Bishop's poetry there is a need for respite. In the villanelle "One Art" (1976), the subject is loss. We are told to practice losing something every day, then practice "losing farther, losing faster." The "fluster of lost door keys" or an "hour badly spent" is loss of one kind; the loss of one we love is quite another. In the final quatrain of the poem, however, the poet's voice breaks as certainty dissolves. If the act of writing is taken to be a vehicle to help us cope with loss, then the vehicle is frail. The poet's voice falters in the wake of too great a loss.
"Sonnet" was published in the New Yorker after Bishop's death in 1979. At the end of her life, what did the poet think about when she turned her gaze to nature? She begins the poem with a single word: "Caught." The bubble in a carpenter's level is caught— "a creature divided," as too the compass needle is caught, "wobbling and wavering." The second movement in the poem begins with the single word freed. The mercury from a broken thermometer is free, as is the rainbow-bird who becomes free, "flying wherever / it feels like, gay!" But the tension remains for Bishop. The poem is, after all, a sonnet—one of the most challenging and potentially restraining of all poetic forms (see prosody and free verse). A longing for freedom, juxtaposed with the presence of restraint, rests at the center of the poet's vision. The more we examine the description of contrast, the more we understand the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.
Was this article helpful?