Life Studies

The Collected Prose

by Elizabeth Bishop, edited, with an introduction and Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 278 pp., $17.50

Some poets never write prose; others, like Hardy, are better known for their prose than for their poetry. When poets do write prose, they write the sort appropriate to their nature as people. The born critics (Eliot, Berryman) write criticism; the evangelists (Shelley, Snyder) write exhortations; the narrators (Hardy, Lawrence) write fiction; the priests (Herbert, Hopkins) write sermons. These crude distinctions are made here only to say that in Elizabeth Bishop’s prose we can see, even more clearly than in her poetry, some central truths about her nature as a writer. One such truth is that she was not a critic; when, for a time, she was supposed to be the poetry critic for The New Yorker, she found herself unable to write a single piece. After three years of silence, she gave it up.

Though she thought her paralysis came from knowing so many of the poets whose books The New Yorker sent to her in Brazil, the absence of any criticism in this book suggests that Bishop’s formidable descriptive powers were elicited only by landscapes and attributes, not by books or even by people (including authors). She was of course apt in noticing, in other poets, exactly what a critic might notice (the pastiche of her early poetic imitations of Herbert, Hopkins, and Moore proves that); but a poem—always available, permanently in print, immortal—set up in her no compulsion to record its character. She was stirred only by the pathos of what vanishes. The ephemerality, pitifulness, and obscurity of things have a central part in Bishop’s prose, which strives, almost to excess, to record vanished minutiae.

Nor was Bishop a writer of fiction, properly so-called. That insatiable curiosity about how life is actually lived by other, unrelated, distinct persons is absent in her. She is not inquisitive about customs, manners, and morals in the way the realist novelist must be—searching, possessing, noting, absorbing, mastering them. Nor does she have the imagination of alternative social structures that impels allegorical novelists from Swift to Kafka to create alienated views of their own social order. She lacks, most of all, what we call fictional imagination—the power to bring another social world (realist, allegorical, fantastic, or utopian) into virtual existence. The linguistic imagination proper to the creator of fiction is a heterogeneous one, devoted to the sheer polyglossia of the lexicon, the distinguishing marks of different classes of language, the jargon of trades (from the domestic to the sacred), and the subtleties of linguistic change over historical time. This, too, Bishop did not possess in its active or creative form. (Like all writers, she possessed it in its passive form, a pure relish of all linguistic differentiation.)

Bishop’s prose, as we find it here, is not, then, really fictional. Rather it is (though lightly fictionalized by changes of name) almost entirely autobiographical. Robert Giroux’s two-part division of this collection into “Memory: Persons and Places” and “Stories” belies, consequently, the true unity of the prose, the lyric impulse that generated “memories”…

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