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The Power of Reticence

When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived,” she told Robert Lowell in 1948.1 Elizabeth Bishop’s life started with a double tragedy. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 8, 1911, she lost her father when she was eight months old. He had been an executive in a construction company founded by his own father. Her mother, who came from Canada, never recovered from the shock and was committed to a sanitarium when Elizabeth was four. She never saw her again. From the ages three to six, she lived in Great Village, Nova Scotia, with her maternal grandparents, and then from 1918 to 1927 in various suburbs of Boston with her mother’s older sister, who was married but childless. Kept from school often by asthma, eczema, St. Vitus’s dance, and various nervous ailments, she was primarily educated at home until at the age of sixteen she was enrolled at the prestigious Walnut Hill School for Girls in Natick where she published her first poems in a student magazine. There are not many sixteen-year-olds with the literary sophistication and poetic skill to write this well:

I introduce Penelope Gwin,
A friend of mine through thick and thin,
Who’s travelled much in foreign parts
Pursuing culture and the arts.
“And also,” says Penelope
“This family life is not for me.
I find it leads to deep depression
And
I was born for self-expression.”
And so you see, it must be owned
Miss Gwin belongs to
le beau monde.
She always travels very light
And keeps her jewelry out of sight.
“I will not let myself be pampered
And
this free soul must not be hampered
And so besides my diamond rings
I carry with me but two things:
A blue balloon to lift my eyes
Above all pettiness and lies,
A neat and compact potted plant
To hide from a pursuing Aunt.
(Just as they took my photograph
I saw one coming up the path.
That’s why my eyes are turned away,
I mostly look the other way.)
My aunts I loathe with all my heart
Especially when they take up Art.
And anything in the shape of one
Can make me tremble, turn, and run.”

There is another stanza of roughly the same length, equally clever and funny. Bishop did not remember writing it. It comes from 3,500 pages of folders, notebooks, and journals she left to the library at Vassar, where she was a student between 1930 and 1934 and which Alice Quinn mined to compile this collection. While still in college Bishop met the poet Marianne Moore, who was twenty-four years her senior. Moore’s greatest lesson, she said later, was her insistence on getting every detail in a poem right. Bishop herself would go to astonishing pains to make sure that she was being accurate. For her poem “Crusoe in England,” she had a friend visit a goat farm to find out how goats open and close their eyes. Although they remained lifelong friends, Moore ceased being a mentor in 1940 when she and her mother rewrote and retitled Bishop’s antiwar poem “Roosters,” objecting to its impolite language. In their view, a proper young lady did not speak of a water closet in a poem. Bishop stuck to the original version and gradually stopped letting Moore read her poems until after they were in print.

After graduating from college, she briefly considered a career in medicine, but with a small legacy left by her father and a few poems already published in magazines, she decided to pursue a literary career. For the next four years she divided her time between New York and Europe where she lived mostly in France and took extended trips to England, Spain, Italy, and Morocco. She purchased a house in Key West in 1938 after falling in love with its wildlife and scenery during previous visits. Nonetheless, she never quite settled down. She went back and forth to New York visiting friends, still unable to make up her mind what to do with her life. Her asthma continued to be a problem and she was already drinking heavily. From around 1939, alcoholism began to dominate her life. She gained twenty-five or thirty pounds over the next couple of years and her drunken binges took a toll on her self-confidence and her relationships with people. Her periods of procrastination appear to correspond with periods when her drinking got out of control.

Bishop’s first collection of poems, North and South, was finally published in 1946 after being rejected by several New York publishers. The reviews were mostly favorable. Literary friends helped her with fellowships, residences at writing colonies, and publishers. She was appointed a consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress in 1949–1950 at the urging of Robert Lowell, whom she had met two years earlier and who was to become her closest poetry friend. In 1951, her life took another unexpected turn when she took ill on a trip to South America and remained with friends in Brazil. For the next eighteen years, she made her home in Rio de Janeiro, nearby Petrópolis, and later on in Ouro Prêto. A Cold Spring, her second volume of poetry, appeared in 1955. Her relationship with her companion, Lota de Macedo Soares, a woman of aristocratic background and considerable wealth, whom she had met a few years earlier in New York, gave stability to her life. Freed from responsibilities and financial pressures, she was happy. With all that, she didn’t write more poems, but she did translate a memoir and some poetry from Portuguese. Brazil also became the setting for several exquisite poems that were collected a decade later in Questions of Travel (1965), her third book of poetry.

After the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop began to spend more and more time in the US, returning first in 1966 to teach a part of the year at the University of Washington in Seattle and then at Harvard University where she took over Robert Lowell’s courses while he was in England. Around that time, she met a young woman, Alice Methfessel, who became her close friend and companion. In 1974 she moved permanently to Boston to teach both semesters at Harvard. Her final poetry volume, Geography III, was published in 1976. In that last decade of her life, she participated more actively in literary activities, which in the past she had found intolerable because of her shyness and terror of meeting new people. By this time she had won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was the recipient of many other prestigious honors, which, of course, made her a widely known and admired figure. She submitted to interviews and spoke of herself and of her ideas about poetry and gave many poetry readings. In her letters, she tells of working on new poems, but as was usually the case, she could not finish most of them.

As we can now see from Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, the poems she was writing and not publishing varied a great deal. There are early verses that sound as if they were written in the seventeenth century, side by side with poems that are absolutely modern. Like any young poet, she was experimenting, searching for a style. Bishop was immensely well read in the poetry of the past and equally familiar with contemporary American, British, and French poetry. One can hear both George Herbert and Wallace Stevens in some of her youthful poems. The unfinished “Stoves & Clocks” recalls Marianne Moore’s meticulous way of describing things and her ability to give herself up entirely to the object under contemplation. Bishop could be as colloquial as W.C. Williams and as witty as Auden. She took both the English tradition and American modernism in stride as if combining the two was the most obvious thing to do.

Bishop wrote many love poems. Most of the ones she left out of her books are slight and uncharacteristically sentimental, but one or two are extremely good:

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.
An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightning struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;
And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one’s back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as the kisses are changing without our thinking.

What she most admired in poetry was the naturalness of tone. “It takes great skill to make it seem natural,” she said. She was never afraid of sounding flat, trusting ordinary words to make sublime poetry. There are a few awkward lines in this untitled poem that she may have wanted to fix, but most likely she kept it out of her first book because of its subject matter. It may not have mattered or been clear to the reader that this was a lesbian love poem, but it apparently did so to Bishop, who censored herself, being still uncertain about her sexual inclinations at the time. It was written, according to Alice Quinn’s detailed and invaluable notes, either in the late 1930s for Louise Crane, a college friend, or for Marjorie Stevens, a woman she was living with in Key West between 1941 and 1946. A notebook from this period and a typed copy of the poem were given to a Brazilian friend who read no English and it was not discovered until the American poet and scholar Lorrie Goldensohn visited Brazil in 1986 and met the woman while doing research for her book on Bishop.

The Complete Poems, 1927–1979may lack in bulk but not in quality. The book includes some of the finest and most original American poems written in the last century, among them “Roosters,” “The Fish,” “A Miracle for Breakfast,” “The Bight,” “Squatter’s Children,” “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” “The Armadillo,” “Sestina,” “Crusoe in England,” “In the Waiting Room,” “The Moose,” “One Art,” and many others that are almost as good. What stands out in Bishop’s poems is her magic realism, her light touch, and her extraordinary formal mastery. The ordinary and the fabulous coexist easily in them. Some early poems like “The Imaginary Iceberg,” “The Man-Moth,” “Gentlemen of Shalott,” and “The Unbeliever” show the influence of Surrealist poets and painters she discovered during her stay in France. For me, they recall most of all the prose poems and travel journals of Henri Michaux with their fabulous bestiaries and imaginary geographies. Michaux’s odd vision is the consequence of his refusal to keep his subjective reality separate from the outside one. Without warning the reader, he lets the two combine as they please. Not Bishop. Except for a few lapses in these early poems, she was against mixing fact and fiction in unknown proportions. She had too much respect for fact and sense to give herself over to the imagination immediately, while at the same time she had too much imagination to resist its temptations in the long run. For Bishop, the role of the imagination was not to create something out of nothing, but to bring another, previously unperceived dimension to the experience. Intellectually and temperamentally, she seems to belong, but not quite, to our pragmatist poetic tradition that goes back to Emerson and Frost.

I am very object-struck…. I simply try to see things afresh,” she said in an interview.

I have a great interest and respect…for what people call ordinary things. I am very visually minded and mooses and filling stations aren’t necessarily commonplace to me.2

Not since Whitman had there been an eye so democratic. Moore sees well what she wants to see; but her world is circumscribed. There’s a whole lot of America she never noticed. Bishop’s letters and poems describe everything from dance halls to rattlesnakes. This account of a black gospel quartet in a black church in Key West comes from a letter written to Marianne Moore in September of 1943:

They were really a sextet and extremely good—the best thing of the sort I’ve ever heard down here. They wore zoot suits of narrow black and gray stripes, enormously padded shoulders, coats to the knees, and yellow shoes with knobs on the toes, very high collars, tie pins, black ties, white handkerchiefs arranged in four points, enormous white carnations, and around their necks on cords hung crosses three or four inches long that glittered like emeralds and rubies. In spite of all this and their rather lurid presentations—they prefaced their hymns with “Give us a hand, dear Christian friends”—they sang marvelously, and acted out some of the songs in a very queer dreamlike way, walking around the church and making very large, slow gestures.3

Reading Darwin, Bishop was impressed by “the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless, heroic observations…his eyes fixed on facts and minute details.”4 What one wants in art, she said, is the same thing. Here are two stanzas from an abandoned poem, “Apartment in Leme,” about a district overlooking the Copacabana in Rio where she shared an apartment with Lota de Soares Macedo in 1951 that show her ability to do just that:

2.

It’s growing lighter. On the beach two men
get up from shallow, newspaper-lined graves.
A third sleeps on. His coverlet
is corrugated paper, a flattened box.
One running dog, two early bathers, stop
dead in their tracks; detour.
Wisps of fresh green stick to your foaming lips
like those on horses’ lips. The sand’s bestrewn:
white lilies, broken stalks,
white candles with wet, blackened wicks,
and green glass bottles for white alcohol
meant for the goddess meant to come last night.
(But you’ve emptied them all.)

3.

Perhaps she came, at that. It was so clear!
And you were keeping quiet: [Oh, slightly] roughened,
greeny-black, scaly
as one of those corroded old bronze mirrors
in all the world’s museums (How did the ancients
ever see
anything in them?),
incapable of reflecting even the biggest stars.
One cluster, bright, astringent as white currants,
hung from the Magellanic Clouds
above you and the beach and its assorted
lovers and worshippers, almost within their reach
if they had noticed.
The candles flickered. Worshippers, in white,
holding hands, singing, walked into you waist-deep.
The lovers lay in the sand, embraced.
Far out, saffron flares of five invisible
fishing boats wobbled and hitched along,
farther [out] than the stars,
weaker, and older.

Unlike many of our poets, Bishop had no desire to write a long poem. Something needn’t be large to be good, she said. She was sure that most complicated experiences and ideas can be presented in the simplest possible way. Modesty, for her, was the supreme poetic value. She disliked poems that assumed a tone of moral superiority to preach to the reader and in doing so treat him as a dimwit. Her preferred tactic was to stay in the background and let her images cast their spell on the reader. She could write a tough political poem without making a single, overt political statement:

THE ARMADILLO

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,
or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,
receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.
Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair
of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.
The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,
and then a baby rabbit jumped out,

short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!
5
Has there ever been a more terrifying poem about the slaughter of innocents? If so, I can’t recall it. The conversational tone, the concise and yet visually rich narrative have a surprise in store. The bewildered, frightened, and defenseless creatures fleeing the shower of fire remind us of someone else. Bishop is our guide in the poem, but a discreet one. We see what she sees and only grasp in the end how much all this is like the firebombing of cities. She leaves it to us to savor the irony and the absurdity of the armadillo’s “weak mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky.” Bishop’s famous modesty was a form of intellectual integrity. She had no ready-made religious, philosophical, or political beliefs and so did her thinking in a poem together with the reader. Consequently, she never struck a false note. When it came to her poems, this shy and insecure woman was intellectually independent, clearheaded, and wise.

Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box is a tantalizing collection. One wonders what prevented Bishop from finishing what often appeared to be promising beginnings to poems. In a letter to Moore from Key West in 1937, she writes: “Once more I am overcome by my own amazing sloth and unmannerliness. Can you please forgive me and believe that it is really because I want to do something well that I don’t do it at all?”6 The question mark at the end of that sentence indicates that she is not sure herself if that is the true reason. Whatever it was is now beside the point. In a letter to the critic Jerome Mazzaro written in 1978, she explained the process of how her poems came about:

…It takes an infinite number of things coming together, forgotten, or almost forgotten, books, last night’s dream, experiences past and present—to make a poem. The settings, or descriptions, of my poems are almost invariably just plain facts—or as close to the facts as I can write them.7

With that in mind the new book makes fascinating reading. These poems and drafts, in various stages of completion, cover the span from 1929 to the year of her death. Quinn has done immense labor in assembling and annotating these drafts Bishop could not bring herself to destroy. She includes an appendix with fragments of essays, memoirs, and lectures, and sixteen drafts of the villanelle “One Art,” one of her most famous poems. Bishop once said that life was untidy, awful, but cheerful. She rarely forgot that when she sat down to write, so even her fragments are lively and interesting. Several poems Quinn has found are more than that and surely belong in a future edition of her collected poems. Here is one:

FOR GRANDFATHER

How far north are you by now?
—But I’m almost close enough to see you:
under the North Star,
stocky, broadbacked, & determined,
trudging on splaying snowshoes
over the snow’s hard, brilliant, curdled crust…
Aurora Borealis burns in silence.
Streamers of red, of purple,
fleck with color your bald head.
Where is your sealskin cap with ear-lugs?
That old fur coat with black frogs?
You’ll catch your death again.
If I should overtake you, kiss your cheek,
its silver stubble would feel like hoar-frost
and your old-fashioned, walrus moustache
be hung with icicles.

Creak, creak…frozen thongs and creaking snow.
These drifts are endless, I think; as far as the Pole
they hold no shadows but their own, and ours.
Grandfather, please stop! I haven’t been this cold in years
.
The draft of this poem comes from the mid-1970s. It recalls poems Bishop wrote about her childhood while she was living in Brazil. I have in mind “First Death in Nova Scotia,” which closes with her dead little cousin Alfred clutching a tiny lily as he sets out over roads deep in snow with his eyes tightly closed. “For Grandfather” is not as compact; the second and third stanzas are a bit wordy, but it is still a powerful and moving poem. What these uncollected works lay bare for me is how much emotion there was in Bishop’s poems to start with, which her endless tinkering tended to obscure in the end. It has made me read her published work differently, discovering intimate elegies and love poems where previously I heard only an anonymous voice. “The enormous power of reticence—that is the great lesson of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop,” Octavio Paz said of her.8 He was right. As the old saying goes, less is more.

  1. 1

    The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), pp. 288–289.

  2. 2

    Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, edited by George Monteiro (University Press of Mississippi, 1996), p. 100.

  3. 3

    Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. 118.

  4. 4

    Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess (University of Michigan Press, 1983), p. 288.

  5. 5

    Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927–1979, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), pp. 103–104.

  6. 6

    Bishop, One Art: Letters, p. 59.

  7. 7

    Bishop, One Art: Letters, p. 621.

  8. 8

    Elizabeth Bishop and her Art, p. 213.

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