The Illusion of Utter Transparency

Alice H. Methfessel Trust/Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
Elizabeth Bishop in Key West, Florida; undated photograph by Lloyd Frankenberg from Elizabeth Bishop: Objects and Apparitions, the catalog of an exhibition celebrating Bishop’s centenary, published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 2011

In the hands of great poets words do things they don’t for the rest of us. They “reek” “of meaning,” as Elizabeth Bishop wrote about other symbols. Bishop’s greatness is nearly universally agreed on, but her words eschew specialness, increasingly so as her work develops, always in the direction of greater directness and freedom. Bishop seems to want to domesticate out-of-the-ordinary, difficult, uncanny things, to make them part of common experience, even when it proves impossible.

In her poems, the almost nineteenth-century rural landscape of Nova Scotia, where she spent much of her childhood; the sun-bleached midday of Key West, where she sojourned as a young adult; and the irreducible otherness of Brazil, where she lived in her forties and fifties, are close-up, vivid, sharply focused. As Randall Jarrell put it early on: “All her poems have written underneath, I have seen it.” But Bishop’s “home-made” realism is as illusionistic as any other art. “When readers praise Bishop’s ordinary everyday diction,” notes Eleanor Cook, who is one of Bishop’s most attentive readers, “they are also praising her sentence structure, grammar and syntax both, as well as a natural speaking rhythm.” All these things, as Cook demonstrates, are the product of intensive, deeply considered labor. “Writing poetry is an unnatural act,” Bishop asserted. “It takes great skill to make it seem natural.”

Borrowing from her sometime mentor Marianne Moore, Bishop wrote that “the three qualities I admire in the poetry I like best are: Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery,” and her early work is profuse with descriptive pinning-down. Bishop told her first biographer, Anne Stevenson, that she admired “the beautiful solid case being built up out of his heroic observations” by Charles Darwin, and goes on to say that “what one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

This is a positivist approach to poetry—objective, jeweler-like. Cook cites William H. Pritchard’s comment that some of Bishop’s poems—the earlier ones, Cook cautions—risk “overkill” in detail. It’s not a surprise to learn from Megan Marshall, her latest biographer, that at one point she considered attending medical school. Bishop came to view poetry as “a way of thinking with one’s feelings,” but it took her a while to achieve “spontaneity,” the seemingly relaxed tone we think of as quintessentially hers. Her earlier work is not only painstakingly descriptive; its mystery comes by way of modernist difficulty and is tinged with surrealism as she imitates the contraptions of metaphysical poetry.

Bishop’s drastic childhood is essential to her story. Her father died when she was…

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