Writing poems was always a slow process for Elizabeth Bishop. Although she had published prose and poetry in college magazines at Vassar, which she attended from 1930 to 1934, her first book of poems, North & South, did not appear until 1946. She worried about the thinness of the volume - it contained only 32 poems - and kept promising the publishers additional poems, which in the event were not completed in time. She also worried about the poems appearing to take no account of the recently ended world war. At her insistence the volume carried a note that "Most of these poems were written, or partly-written, before 1942." The volume appeared as a result of a prize offered by Houghton Mifflin for a poetry fellowship, the $1,000 award to be supplemented by publication of the manuscript. The publicity of the prize ensured wide reviews of the book, some by influential figures, and Bishop's literary career was established.
The title is the first of a series of volume titles that would reflect the poet's many travels and geographically dispersed residences over her lifetime. Such movement began in childhood, when she was taken care of at different times by maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, and paternal grandparents in New England. At various times she lived in Nova Scotia, Boston, New York, Key West, and Brazil. But for some critics, the title North & South reflects the two geographical poles - New England and Nova Scotia - of the orphaned child's early dislocation.
The first poem in the book, "The Map," is as much about art, printing, and language as about interpreting the signs and codes of a map and the "excitement" that imaginative engagement with its promises and mysteries can bring. "The Map" is generally viewed as Bishop's first mature poem. It had appeared in an anthology titled Trial Balances in 1935, with an introductory note by Marianne Moore, with whom Bishop carried on a long correspondence for many years, and who was an important early influence and supporter. Learning from Moore's practice, in this poem Bishop begins her characteristic strategy of focusing carefully upon one object, using a close examination of its characteristics as the starting point of a larger exploration of its imaginative potential.
Later volumes of Bishop's work would contain poems that presented more concrete detail, and for some readers such poems represent her major achievement. In this volume "Florida" is the poem that comes closest to the later mode. In North & South a more characteristic vein is a dream state, in which the physical detail remains more distant, transformed by the half-waking, half-sleeping condition in which events and places are described. By one critic's count, a third of the poems begin or end with the speaker or speakers in bed. The perspective of physical dislocation is suggested most fully by the titles of the two companion poems "Sleeping on the Ceiling" and "Sleeping Standing Up."
Bishop's biography provides an important context for her poems, but its presence is muted in the poems themselves, especially in this volume, with none of the overt statement of the later 'confessional' poets. Although there are a number of poems about the importance of love, for example, Bishop was very guarded about her own lesbianism and personal relationships. Love is an anxious emotion in the poems of North & South, and the narrator is usually genderless or a generalized "we." One first-person poem is "Chemin de Fer," but the narrator remains an observer of a hermit living in a cabin, whose cry of "Love should be put into action!" results in his firing a shotgun. Even more ambivalent is the allegory of "The Weed." The dream upon "a grave, or bed," is of a thickly growing plant splitting the heart, almost being swept away by the results of its growth, then returning "but to divide your heart again."
A group of poems concerning Paris at the center of the book came out of a trip to Europe that Bishop took with Louise Crane, where they encountered Vassar friend Margaret Miller. An automobile accident led to the amputation of part of Miller's arm - she had been an aspiring painter. But the overt remembrance of Miller's presence in Paris recognized by the dedication of "Quai d'Orléans" to Miller was only added years later. Another later dedication is of the final poem of the volume, "Anaphora," to Marjorie Carr Stevens. As North & South was in final preparation Bishop's life with Stevens in Key West was coming to an end. The dedication was only added after Stevens's death in 1959.
The geographical dislocations of Bishop's life are mirrored in a number of poems about houses, places for creativity that are both shelters and at the same time threatened. The hermit's cabin in "Chemin de Fer" is one example. The closing lines of "The Monument" offer a statement of the theme:
It may be solid, may be hollow.
The bones of the artist-prince may be inside or far away on even drier soil.
But roughly but adequately it can shelter what is within (which after all cannot have been intended to be seen).
It is the beginning of a painting, a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument, and all of wood. Watch it closely.
Another place associated with art is the harbor scene of "Large Bad Picture," painted by Bishop's Great-Uncle Hutchinson, a one-time portrait painter and the first illustrator of Stevenson's Treasure Island. In this poem, whether the ships reach their destination through "commerce or contemplation" is a question raised, but left open, like the motive for the painting itself.
North & South was widely reviewed, and received important notices from Seldon Rodman, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell. The volume was in the running for the 1946 Pulitzer Prize, although it was beaten by Lowell's book, Lord Weary's Castle. Bishop took nine years to publish her next volume of poems. Such was the publisher's concern about the relatively few poems in this next book that it was issued along with the poems in the 1946 volume as Poems: North & South - A Cold Spring. This time, however, Bishop won her Pulitzer.
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