In The Waiting Room Elizabeth

BISHOP (1971) This autobiographical poem published in Elizabeth bishop's last book, is about a girl on the verge of maturity, "three days" short of "seven years old." Robert lowell wrote comparable poems about his childhood, but "In the Waiting Room" has too much respect for art's power over circumstance to fit into Lowell's usual genre of confessional poetry. Bishop's poem is best understood as a relative of Wallace stevens's meditations on art or as a skeptical re-creation of two traditional schemes of human development: the growth of the poet's mind in William Wordsworth's work and the progress of the Christian soul in the poem Bishop herself paired with "In the Waiting Room," George Herbert's "Love Unknown" (1633). "In the Waiting Room" turns disorientation into insight, though the insight is laced with despair.

The instrument of young Elizabeth's epiphany is the National Geographic magazine that she reads as she waits for her aunt at the dentist's office. Pictures and words that blur conventional distinctions between the familiar and the alien play upon her mind until, with a start, she recognizes that her aunt's "oh! of pain" coming "from inside" is "me." All insides, all appearances of familiarity, she realizes, are, in truth, not insides but an anguishing outside—alienation: Domestic spaces are fictions that conceal the fact of the unknown. The realization dizzies and terrifies her, but it also inspires her first self-conscious artistry. Clinging to what David Kal-stone calls the "life-jacket" of "observation" (34)—a shy look at grown-up bodies and a precise phrase, "how 'unlikely'"—she defends herself against the inscrutable with her own primitive fictions. When her vertigo passes, she has been born as a creative being, someone knowingly involved in the "War"—not only World War I, a political struggle to forge community, but also a private version of that conflict: in Robert pinsky's words, "the war of the poet to work on the world of things and people as much as that world works on her" (7).

The "War" finds expression in the form of "In the Waiting Room." Flat, lulling language muffles the shock of revelation. The poet's savvy viewpoint passes into and out of the child's baffled one. The poem exemplifies Bishop's ideal, described by David lehman as "an art that feeds on what might otherwise consume it, that thrives on loss, that welcomes limits in order to transcend them" (68). Such an art offers make-believe security, not security itself: a waiting room, not a home.


Kalstone, David. Five Temperaments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Lehman, David. "'In Prison': A Paradox Regained." In Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P Estess. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983, pp. 61-74

Pinsky, Robert. "The Idiom of a Self: Elizabeth Bishop and Wordsworth." American Poetry Review 91.1 (January-February 1980): 6-8.

Shaileen Beyer

IRBY, KENNETH (1936- ) Kenneth Irby has been broadly influenced by such postmodern masters as Charles olson, Robert duncan, and Louis zukofsky, as shown in a broad range of poems that are formally complex and grammatically idiosyncratic while not swerving from a tone that is deeply personal. But a much deeper influence has been his affinity for, and immersion in, the Midwestern plains where he has spent most of his life. In an interview Irby said that his poetry partakes of a "Great Plains Mysticism" concerned with evoking the poet's spiritual, intellectual, and emotional relationship to the region (Bartlett 108). His poem "The Grasslands of North America" (1977), for example, rhapsodizes on the sensation that the poet gets each time he enters this homeland region. It seems to him that he is entering it again for the first time, every time.

Irby was born in Bowie, Texas, and was educated at the University of Kansas, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley. After serving in the army from 1960 to 1962, he began to publish small editions of his poetry and eventually produced 24 books, chapbooks, and broadsides. Best received among these include Catalpa (1977) and Call Steps: Plains, Camps, Stations, Consistories (1992). Fellow poets have often remarked on Irby's reticent nature and how he rarely acts forcefully to advance his career, although they all agree that he deserves to be better known, especially among working poets. Irby has taught at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and has received several awards and fellowships.

Irby's lines are typically varied in length and made musical by the skillful use of consonance, assonance, and internal rhyme. Though the length of the lines often follows the principles of olson's "breathed" meter (see ars poeticas and the black mountain school), Irby's poems do not have a signature appearance on the page. Instead the subject matter usually determines the overall form of the poem. Another highly significant characteristic of Irby's poetry is his use of grammatical unorthodoxy, like Gertrude stein, in order to highlight particular words in unfamiliar contexts. One method he uses is the inverted phrase, such as in an untitled poem from Catalpa (1977), which reads, in part: "the longer I live the more people I know / are dead, the more the crossing of that line."


Bartlett, Lee. "Kenneth Irby." In Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets, edited by

Bartlett. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987, pp. 107-124. Bromige, David. "Ken Irby's Catalpa." Credences: A Journal of Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics 3.1 (February 1979): 101-103.

Kelly, Robert. "On Irby." Credences: A Journal of Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics 3.1 (February 1979): 121-127.

Michael van Dyke

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