April 30, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop, Consultant in Poetry, 1949-'50

(My continuing series on the Consultants in Poetry, or Poet Laureate as the honor would later be known, continues here with the eighth Consultant, Elizabeth Bishop. I have generally focused my comments on her early work: those poems that appeared in North & South (1946) and A Cold Spring (1955) which were published around the time of her Consultantship.)

I've sometimes said that poets aren’t quoted for their craft. Craft might make a poet memorable, but if they are quoted, it’s because they had something useful to say. Elizabeth Bishop had a thing to say. She wasn't a didact, as Shapiro could be, or a scold as Tate sometimes seemed; instead, she was philosophical and astute and direct. In a time when the political, mystic and esoteric poem predominated, Bishop wrote apolitical and ontological poetry. While some previous Consultants in Poetry, such as Adams and Lowell, seemed to brick themselves inside obscure, imperious poetics, Bishop’s poetry feels liberated and sane and inclusive. She speaks to the weird business of living, the manner in which humanity thinks of nature and industry, the psychology of the new myths, and the cultural sprawl of America. Still, her ruminations never eclipsed her eloquence or her pristine, startling images. Bishop was as generous a poet as she was discerning. Over the course of her long career she published only four collections of poetry, though her Complete Poems (1979) includes several new pieces. At the time of her Consultantship in 1949, she had published just one collection of poetry, North & South, which included the oft anthologized poems “The Fish” and “Love Lies Sleeping.”

As a reader who generally focuses on a poet’s voice, I often overlook tone. I don’t think I’m alone in this; the twentieth century is littered with voice-poets: personas that exercise themselves in some poetic form. Bishop, in comparison, is often a poet of tones. The tone of her poems swings from guileless to yogic; it vacillates from devastation to elation, from cordial to cold. The tonal shifts of her poem fill them with sincerity as we sense her exploration and discovery, even as we experience our own. The force of her poem “The Imaginary Iceberg” is largely the result of the modulation of her tone. Take, for example, the following three excerpts:

We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
This is a scene a sailor’d give his eyes for.
Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible)
to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.

Beginning on a playfully petulant note, her tone then becomes gruff before resolving, finally, upon a sermonic almost officious affectation. This sort of movement is common in her poems, and is much more impressive to me than the ventriloquist poet who makes all the world speak in his voice.

But it is her use of image that most distinguishes Bishop. Her ability to draw on the familiar, the totem, to create something vivid and new is remarkable. For example, it seems every Modernist had to eventually immortalize some ugly aspect of modern industrialization: a glowering factory or bank of smog. Many poets have drawn easy lines connecting smoke-stacks to Dante's Inferno, or Mars' forge, painting industry as an inevitable, inhuman burden. But Bishop sees a reflection of our own physiology in the industrial scene she describes in her poem "Varick Street."

At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work.
Trying to breathe,
the elongated nostrils
haired with spikes
give off such stenches, too.

The effect of this image is the content of the poem. The connection she draws between humanity and our industry is profound, especially given the proliferation of poems that cast industry as hellish and nightmarish: an otherworldly thing that imposes on our consciences, but which is somehow removed from us. Bishop sees no such distance. Rather than adopting the common moral posture or the conservationist's position, Bishop characterizes industry as part of us, part of the flawed us:

...The presses
print calendars
I suppose; the moons
make medicines
or confectionery. Our bed
shrinks from the soot
and hapless odors
hold us close.

Bishop's eloquence never takes license with clarity. In a genre that allows for, and often excuses, so make fakery and fury, Ms. Bishop never defers to the lyric or the language or the gesture. Her poems are not coy, her sentiments are not vague, her scenes, not ephemeral. This last quality is especially impressive considering the imagination of many of her scenes. Particularly in her early works, Bishop's poems often have a fantastical or metaphysical element to them. Her poem "The Man-Moth" is as inventive as it is tangible in its description of a subterranean urban creature.

Up the facades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him,
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)

This poem, and a few others, read like the genesis of a myth. What could, in the hands of a lesser talent, devolve into genre writing, transcends because it is indifferent to formula. The conclusion of the poem, rather than revealing the meaning of the Man-Moth, focuses instead on our interrogation and exploitation of him. We are left to consider the place of the mythic in the new urban landscape and how our appetites betray us.

Bishop, a cultured and traveled poet, enjoyed society, but never deferred to it. Her poems about New York and fellow poets are jubilant and inclusive. Her description of Marianne Moore is frolicsome and bashful, silly and intimate, and it leaves the reader feeling fond of these humans and their friendship rather than awe-struck or overlooked. Bishop seems to have been aware of the privilege she enjoyed, and studiously avoided the tourist-pornography which is still popular today. Exotic locations and subjects were not, for her, an excuse to leave the reader behind in his or her dingy life. Rather, she took the opportunity to show the common features of nature and the universality of humanity. And while she was, perhaps, limited in her comprehension of poverty and lack, her attempts to capture the poor were not entirely dewey eyed or, conversely, stewed in misery. Her description of a rural bus in her poem "Cape Breton" (from Cold Spring) exemplifies her sharp-eyed empathy:

It passes the closed roadside stand, the closed schoolhouse,
where today no flag is flying
from the rough-adzed pole topped with a white china doorknob.
It stops, and a man carrying a baby gets off,
climbs over a stile, and goes down through a small steep meadow,
which establishes its poverty in a snowfall of daises,
to his invisible house beside the water.

In addition to her ability with image, Bishop was a master of the illustrative and narrative list. In "Roosters" and "Florida" she uses lists that are expansive, that open rather than summarize or narrow her subject. These are lists which cannot be completed but which are not unfinished. Sometimes her lists read like that manifest of a naturalist, but they are not only exercises nor catalogs. Her lists always add up to something, as is the case with "Faustina, or Rock Roses," where she describes an old woman:

It exposes the fine white hair,
the gown with the undershirt
showing at the neck,
the pallid palm-leaf fan
she holds but cannot wield,
her white disordered sheets
like wilted roses.

Clutter of trophies,
chamber of bleached flags!
-- Rags or ragged garments
hung on the chairs and hooks
each contributing its
shade of white, confusing
as undazzling.

I began this discussion of Bishop's work with the point that poets aren't recalled for their craft, and then I proceeded to expound on Ms. Bishop's craft: her tone, images, and manifests-- all of which were essential to the expression of her ideas, her meanings. It seems a contradiction, I realize, but I do not mean to suggest that craft is irrelevant or inferior to meaning; only that craft is insufficient in the same way that a maxim is insufficient. Lowell had much craft, but relatively little to tell the world. Shapiro had much to say, but his craft was sometimes not up to the task. Bishop possessed both craft and purpose, and so embodies the full potential of poetry: to delight and to reveal. Her poems fill me with hope and joy, not cheaply or blithely, but with circumspection and solidarity. All of which is exemplified in her boastful and fearful poem, "Insomnia:"

So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

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