Elizabeth Bishop

Bishop's poetry resists easy classification, and despite her friendship with Lowell and her generational affinities with the confessionals, her work displays a greater degree ofreticence and restraint than that ofpoets like Lowell, Berryman, Plath, and Sexton. I have decided to conclude this chapter with a discussion of Bishop not because I think her poetry falls neatly or easily into the confessional mode, but because her work - by its very resistance to the more intimate styles of her contemporaries - tests the limits of the confessional paradigm as a strategy for reading poetry that is personal or autobiographical in nature. According to at least one of the definitions of the confessional poem - "a type of narrative and lyric verse . . . which deals with the facts and intimate mental and physical experience ofthe poet's own life"9 - several of Bishop's poems would qualify.

Bishop's life history would seem to have made her an ideal candidate for the confessional mode. Her father died eight months after she was born and her mother - deeply disoriented by her father's death - spent the next five years in and out of mental asylums. She was declared permanently insane in 1916, and Bishop would never see her again. After spending a year with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, Bishop was brought back to Massachusetts to live with other relatives. Problems with her health as a child prevented her from attending school regularly, and as a result she felt more comfortable with books than with most other people. Her life was spent in various parts ofthe world, much ofthe time living as a guest in other people's homes. As a woman poet who was a lesbian, who was never part of any literary "movement," and virtually all of whose poetic contemporaries were men, she felt marginalized within both literary culture and American culture at large. Many ofBishop's poems deal either directly or more covertly with themes of isolation, alienation, or loss. This is particularly true of the poems written after 1967, when her longtime lover and companion Lota de Macedo Soares (with whom she had lived in Brazil since the early 1950s) committed suicide.

But while Bishop wrote a number of poems in the first-person voice -some of them personal or autobiographical narratives based on her childhood and later life - her style and overall approach to this material remains more distanced than that of the confessionals. Bishop's poetic clearly differed from that ofpoets like Plath and Sexton, who felt that the more deeply they mined their own psychic histories in their poems, the more powerful the resulting poetry would be. And though she continued to admire the work ofher close friend Robert Lowell, Bishop expressed reservations even about his capacity to reveal so much about himself and his private life in his poetry. Bishop explicitly rejected the confessional mode in both essays and letters to other poets. She considered the poetry of Sexton and W. D. Snodgrass to be "egocentric - simply that," and she considered the general tendency in poetry of the 1960s to substitute anguished self-revelation for more subtle self-presentation to be a peculiarly "American sickness." The "sickness" or "morbidity" exhibited by confessional poets made Bishop feel that such poets - rather than boasting about their private catastrophes - should "keep some of these things to themselves."

Even the poems in which Bishop allows moments of personal revelation can hardly be called "confessional." The poems in her final volume, Geography III (1979), illustrate the difficulty of reading her work under the aegis of confessionalism. "In the Waiting Room" is a narrative poem in which a seven-year-old girl (generally accepted as being some version Bishop herself) is waiting in a dentist's office and reading a magazine

(National Geographic) while her aunt is being treated by the dentist. The pictures in the magazine - of African women's breasts - horrify the girl; at the moment in the poem when she believes she hears her aunt's cry ofpain from inside the dentist's room, the girl realizes that it is her own voice she is hearing:

Suddenly, from inside, came an oh! of pain - Aunt Consuelo's voice -not very loud or long, I wasn't at all surprised; even then I knew she was a foolish, timid woman. I might have been embarrassed, but wasn't. What took me completely by surprise was that it was me: my voice, in my mouth. Without thinking at all I was my foolish aunt, I - we - we falling, falling, our eyes glued to the cover of the National Geographic, February, 1918.

At this apparently climactic moment, the poem takes a turn that is in some ways the opposite of the typical "confessional" movement toward self-revelation. Rather than enacting a more direct contact with the reader by offering an intensified vision of the self (for example, if the poem had more explicitly focused on the young Bishop's discovery of sexuality or gender identity), Bishop confuses the very definition of self by refusing to offer up any single version of the personal and poetic self for analysis. Not only is the aunt's cry of pain conflated with that of the girl (identified later in the poem as "Elizabeth"), but both of them are implicated in the larger social and historical reality represented by the National Geographic of February 1918. As Elizabeth Dodd has noted, the focus of the poem is not only on the personal awareness suggested by Elizabeth's cry of painful self-recognition, but also on the larger awareness of humanity in general: "the young Elizabeth is not really discovering her sexuality so much as her own participation in the human race."10 The poem ends, in fact, with a deliberate turn away from the personal and toward the larger historical context:

The War was on. Outside, in Worcester, Massachusetts, were night and slush and cold, and it was still the fifth of February, 1918.

By specifying the exact date, place, and historical context, Bishop works against the tendency of the confessional lyric to focus on the personal to the exclusion of outside forces or events. Bishop is more self-analytical than self-dramatizing. Her characteristic poetic gesture is not that which typifies the work of Lowell, Plath, or Sexton, who tend to use images and metaphors as tropes for a personal self which is mythologized in a dramatic narrative of discovery or revelation. Instead, we find a distancing or self-reading suggested by the strategic shift from first person to second person:

I said to myself: three days and you'll be seven years old. I was saying it to stop the sensation of falling off the round, turning world into cold, blue-black space. But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them.

Here, as C. K. Doreski notes, Bishop conflates the adult poet with the "cautiously authorial" child in the poem.11 The girl is already self-conscious in a way that is painstakingly analytical and reflective rather than dramatic (a tendency that we also see in the curiously reticent and undramatic protagonist of a poem such as "Crusoe in England"). In order to prevent the sensation of "falling off / the . . . world" - a trope that may indicate a fear of losing control over her life or of falling into a fixed social identity like that of her "foolish" Aunt Consuelo - the young Elizabeth turns to a detail that is at once prosaic and secure: she will soon be seven years old. This knowledge is not threatening in the way the National Geographic pictures are, but it places her in a social realm: we are defined by our age as well as by factors such as our race, class, and gender.

The doubling of pronouns at the end of the passage creates a kind of vertigo of self-consciousness: "But I felt: you are an I." The movement from "I" to "you" doubles back on itself, as the narrating self ("I") changes to an observed self ("you") and then to a socially constructed self which is both an "I" and an "Elizabeth." This "Elizabeth," now named and thus inserted into a social role, is somewhat ominously identified as one of "them." The identification with "them" - not only her aunt but all the people in the waiting room, with their "shadowy grey knees, / trousers and skirts and boots" -is perplexing to the young Elizabeth, who until now has only been herself, not part of a social group to which she is required to belong. "Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone?" she asks. "What similarities . . . held us all together / or made us all just one?" Where another poet might have used such speculations as an occasion for tortured self-doubt or anger towards the pressures of conformity, Bishop reaches a place of characteristic reticence and control: "How - I didn't know any / word for it - how 'unlikely.'" The quotation of the word "unlikely" suggests that it may be a word she has heard adults like her aunt using. Ironically, she has had to adopt the language of "them" in order to describe her feelings about the change in herself. The placing of the word in quotes suggests that such moments as that experienced by her younger self in the waiting room do not have any special status as sources of insight or epiphany.

In the poems of Geography III, Bishop adopts three different strategies for examining the self: the use of a fictional persona (as in "Crusoe in England"), the presentation of some version of the poet's younger self ("In the Waiting Room," "The Moose"), and, most directly, the presentation of her current, adult self. "One Art" is the most successful example of the final category. In this poem, Bishop thematizes both her profound sense of loss and her refusal to engage in certain forms of emotional self-revelation. As the form of the poem suggests (it is written in the traditional and highly regulated form of a villanelle) this discussion of the "art of losing" will take place within a controlled poetic environment; there will be none of the aesthetic or emotional "messiness" that can be associated with the freeverse confessional lyrics of her contemporaries.

The poem was, in fact, not only extremely worked over (there are seventeen extant drafts of the poem) but also purposefully restrained in its emotional expression. Changes in the title itself from earlier to later drafts indicate the gradual turn away from raw "confession" to more artistically controlled oration, which Brett Millier compares to "a speech in a brave voice that cracks [only] once."12 The first title was "How to Lose Things," followed in later drafts by "The Art of Losing Things" and finally the noncommittal "One Art." Similarly, changes in the body of the poem indicate a shift toward greater emotional subtlety. As Millier puts it in her excellent study of the poem's successive drafts, "each version of the poem distanced the pain a little more, depersonalized it, moved it away from the tawdry self-pity and confession that Bishop disliked in many of her contemporaries." Even in its final version - which seems highly controlled compared with earlier drafts - Bishop felt somewhat uncomfortable with the degree of its self-revelation: "I'm afraid it's a sort of tear-jerker," she wrote in a letter to one of her friends.

The poem's early stanzas adopt an ironic tone, suggesting that "the art of losing isn't hard to master" and that we should "lose something every day" in order to learn how to accept the inevitability of loss. As the poem progresses, however, the losses become deeper and more serious:

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 then, 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.

From the loss of valued objects such as her mother's watch she moves to ever larger losses: houses, cities, rivers, and finally continents. The three houses were her house in Key West, Florida, and two houses in Brazil; the continent is South America, which she felt she had lost with the death of Lota. As Millier suggests, the emotionality and confessionality of the poem are deflected by the emphasis on objects and places rather than on people and relationships.

The most forceful expression ofloss is reserved for the final stanza, which underwent more revision than any other part of the poem. The "you" addressed here is a younger woman with whom Bishop had been involved at the time the poem was written, and whose desire to end the relationship was the final, intolerable loss that occasioned the writing of the poem. The earlier drafts referred to the "exceptionally beautiful" blue eyes of her lover, who is later dematerialized as "a joking voice, a gesture / I love."

But perhaps the most important evolution takes place in the final line. In an earlier draft, Bishop had expressed a sense of desperation, suggesting that we can master losing "anything at all anything but one's love. (Say it: disaster)." The interposed parenthetical phrase - "(Say it: disaster)" - later becomes the more writerly and less obviously confessional "(Write it!) this disaster" and later still "(Write it!) like disaster." By the final draft, Bishop cannot even admit, without equivocation, that such a loss does in fact constitute a disaster: it may only "look like" disaster.

Depending on how we read the poem, this change may seem like the heroic reserve of a woman who - like her predecessor Marianne Moore -refuses to make her poetic art a place for expressing her personal grief. Or it may look like the gesture of a poet who so deeply repressed her own feelings that she can only express herselfin the most restrained and equivocal manner. In either case, Bishop's poem remains a monument to the process of poetic composition in the late twentieth century.

Chapter 9

Dealing With Sorrow

Dealing With Sorrow

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