It is John Ashbery who takes the cake – in this case, the triple-decker cake with the solitary little sugar bride on top – for his description of Elizabeth Bishop: she is ‘the poets’ poets’ poet’. It sounds farcical, but it’s strictly true, and there’s as little getting round it as there is improving on it. As I begin, therefore, I feel stirrings of a wholly impersonal desire maybe to pan her. No, not really, but where else have the culture vultures not been, with their guides and follow-me signs?
Marianne Moore and her mother finished her in Brooklyn (decorum studies?) after she left Vassar. James Laughlin, founder of New Directions, publisher and friend of Ezra Pound, was so desperate to publish her that even after he accepted he wasn’t going to be allowed to, he still hoped at least to be permitted to announce that he was. The alpha males – and the alpha-beta males, and the beta-alpha males – of her generation, Lowell and Jarrell and Berryman, vied with each other to slip her the bays, though this could take strange and even injurious forms: in a Dream Song that cuts a lusty swathe through the ranks of American poetesses (no. 187), there is a tacky reference to ‘Miss Bishop’s too noble-O’, while Lowell wrote lurid, clodhopping monologues ‘for’ her (‘I would drift and hear/My genius begging for its cap and bells/And tears bedewed my flat, untasted beer’) and poemised perfectly good short stories of hers; when he says, ‘“The Scream” owes everything to Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful, calm story “In the Village”,’ he means it. Her standing is the more remarkable in that she didn’t demand it, and had no way of compelling it; she gave readings rarely, unwillingly and not well, didn’t (at least until her last decade) teach, didn’t review, hardly blurbed, and her rate of production was anything but intimidating. She did have a ‘first read’ contract with the New Yorker (from 1946), but even that – at that time – would have seemed more like an eccentrically coined practical arrangement by a long-term absentee than something to be envied; in the heyday of ‘lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals’ (Frank O’Hara), the New Yorker was not viewed as a particularly serious publisher of poetry. Appearing there did nothing to contradict Bishop’s self-stylisation as a ‘poet by default’: ‘I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it.’ In a generation at worst of noise-makers and grimly professional professionals – ‘Les Maudits: the compliment/ each American generation/pays itself in passing’ (Lowell’s ‘For John Berryman’ in Day by Day) – Bishop stood out for her unassumingness and positiveness and the reticence of her personal style.
She wasn’t a player – she wasn’t even American, but three parts Canadian. She had spells in New York and Washington, but she didn’t (as she might have said) ‘get on’ in those places, and preferred the less assertive, more unregarded corners of Maine and Key West, where the US seems, a little improbably, to fade, and concede some of its identity to its neighbours, before, in 1951, taking herself off the power map altogether by emigrating to Brazil for 15 years. Where once she had traded on absence and alienation – ‘the sea, desperate,/will proffer wave after wave’ or ‘And I shall sell you sell you/sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me’ – now she offered her presence, only it was her presence somewhere else: ‘We leave Santos at once;/we are driving to the interior’ is how she importantly/briskly/newsily ends ‘Arrival at Santos’. She hardly needed Brazil in order to be distant, but it did provide her with a wonderful alibi: Brazil was serio-comic, excessive, tropical, garish, serendipitous, violent, unpredictable, harmonious and inconsequential; it was expressive of her and complementary to her. It was a new landscape and a different society from that in the college-bound poem-vitrines of her peers; which of them, in the 1950s, wrote about poverty or race? Brazilians assumed she was there in disgrace, or maybe on the run. ‘They think if I were any good I’d be at home,’ Bishop said. Americans – except the few who knew – assumed much the same.
A cynical analysis would suggest it was because she was so unthreatening that she was chosen for her role, and while there is probably some truth to this, there isn’t much, and it was mainly her contemporaries’ straightforward and never fathomed fascination with her difference that set her up and kept her there. In the 1960s and 1970s younger American poets – James Merrill, Frank Bidart – sat at her feet; later, others, younger still, filled her classes when she taught, protestingly, at Harvard and MIT. Nor is hers at all a transatlantic reputation: she is ours as much as theirs, or even theirs as much as ours. I can think of dozens of British and Irish poets, men and women, younger and older, who have written about her, thought about her, commended her, invoked her example, sworn by her. Nowhere such unanimity.
When I started reading her, the book was still The Complete Poems of 1969, white and yellow and blue, like a Ukrainian flag and tonic. A subsequent printing of it contained all four – just four – of her books: North & South (1946), A Cold Spring (1955), Questions of Travel (1965) and Geography III (1976). Each book was underweight, by the standards of Larkin, let alone America: the first two were quickly republished as one, which made sense, and rang up the Pulitzer Prize in 1956; the third was bulked up by the inclusion of her story ‘In the Village’, rather as Lowell’s Life Studies had been by his prose memoir ‘91 Revere Street’; the fourth was flyaway flimsy, just ten poems in large type, none of them long, and one a translation from the unctuous Octavio Paz. We readers of the Complete Poems looked at each other sagaciously, with a sort of masonic wink, knowing that ‘complete poems’ really meant ‘completed poems’, and thought of all the ones that weren’t, the ones that waited, according to report, for years, for the right word to come along. The unseen, the unknown, the unpublished, the ‘unwritten’ Bishop was always if not sweeter then perhaps rougher or wilder or more yielding or revealing than the one we saw. Bishop devotees were always itching to tear the poems away from her half-done, to free them from her inner censor or inner finisher or varnisher. This is why the otherwise contentious inclusion, in Poems, of a selection of 27 ‘unpublished manuscript poems’ is both exciting and inevitable: it is the way her reputation is tending. It’s not that ‘My love, my saving grace,/your eyes are awfully blue … early & instant blue’ (‘Breakfast Song’) is particularly deep or wonderful poetry – though it’s not too shabby, in an unexpectedly kooky James Schuylerish ‘loving you’ way (and surely the great bard of breakfast would have appreciated the way ‘instant’ picks up the ‘coffee-flavoured mouth’ that is kissed at the beginning) – it’s that we need to know she wrote it. It doesn’t do her down either. Not feet of clay, just plain feet. For too long Bishop came across an immaculate mermaid.
In 1983 and 1984 there came two volumes, The Complete Poems (interpreted, by now, as 1927-79) and The Collected Prose. The Poems had added juvenilia, more translations (more Paz) and a tiny section of ‘new and uncollected poems’ – all of four pieces, the récolte of 1978 and 1979. Since then, the posthumous publishing of Bishop has gone steroid: a book of her watercolours; a book of uncollected poems and fragments called Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box; and then the letters, big books of letters, a selected letters, her correspondence with Lowell, her correspondence with her editors at the New Yorker, her correspondence with Marianne Moore (forthcoming); a Library of America single-volume edition of poems, stories, drafts and 53 letters – again (the inescapable come-on) many ‘published for the first time’.There is a sort of sibylline deal with Bishop, in reverse. She comes to us originally with very little, eighty or a hundred poems, and we offer her the farm; then she comes again, with a little more, and then a little more, but we have already given her everything. And we stand there with our pockets turned inside out and our shoulders at half-mast, and she keeps giving more.
The poems are one-offs and all sorts. They seem to have remarkably little in the way of dependable qualities to fall back on – no constancy in the way of grammar or line-length or rhythm or machinery. They have tics aplenty – waywardnesses, one might call them, and Bishop liked to come across as wayward – but always different ones. They repeat words, they don’t repeat words; they jump, they don’t jump; they widen out, they don’t widen out; there are runs of questions, there are no runs of questions. It’s as though each poem has to be designed separately, from scratch; there is no blueprint, no assembly line. It’s hard to argue that rhyme is always important to Bishop, or a lavish way with words, or an attractive quibblingness of tone, because straightaway one can turn up examples to the contrary, and find her unrhymed, parsimonious, decisive and just as good. She was raised on psalms, studied music, was fond of singing, translated sambas, wrote Dylanesque ballads about innocent miscreants (‘The Burglar of Babylon’ reads to me like something that might have appeared on Blood on the Tracks) and blues (‘Don’t you call me that word, honey,/Don’t you call me that word./You know it ain’t very kind & it’s also undeserved’), and yet the poems of hers that I go back to are composed in a straggling, spifflicated, slightly backward, Victorian-hued, musical talk. Others again are stiff, almost puritanically joyless, in their acceptance of necessary descriptive duties. The result is that, line by line, she may be as anonymous, as manifold or, better, as mistakeable as a great poet gets. Other poets are predictably and more or less unvaryingly themselves, like cellophane packs of cigarettes from a vending machine; with Bishop you get the surprise gift in a plastic ball – sometimes purposeless and perplexing, more often flat-out exhilarating, the toy of your dreams, like ‘An acre of cold white spray … Dancing happily by itself’. Bad Lowell is just bad Lowell; it has something parodic and clanking about it, as the epigrams sail bafflingly past their targets. Lesser Bishop may be disappointing, but it isn’t demoralising, somehow doesn’t affect the whole. You stand in front of the machine, the dispenser of miniature planets, and throw in more quarters; surely you will be luckier next time; you have the obscure but possibly correct feeling that it is your fault for not understanding the toy you have been given.
It is strange, leafing through these Poems, that, while most of the pages seem to come up in colour as expected, are vibrant, gaudy, full of lush deep-pile detail, familiar, others – ‘From the Country to the City’, ‘Little Exercise’, ‘Anaphora’, ‘Letter to NY’, ‘Sunday, 4 a.m.’, ‘Night City’ – look utterly new, as though I had never seen them before. A book of Bishop’s is a funfair, each ride or booth is its own idiom, and still there are corners where no one looks, and there isn’t anything much going on. She is one of those poets where you endlessly revisit the individual poem, where you glut yourself on a few individual poems – in my case, ‘Large Bad Picture’, ‘Florida’, ‘Roosters’, ‘Seascape’, ‘Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance’, ‘The Bight’, ‘Cape Breton’, ‘Filling Station’, ‘Sandpiper’, ‘Crusoe in England’, ‘Poem’, ‘The End of March’, ‘Santarém’, ‘North Haven’ and many more – without getting any closer to an encapsulation of the poet, or perhaps, because of the way the poems deflect our questioning (like scales, like tesserae, like azulejos, a favoured Bishop word, which I like to think she liked because it makes no stipulation as to colour, while looking as if it could be the Portuguese for ‘blue eyes’), without even having to reach for the poet at all.
Bishop is – this isn’t the same, but it may be related – a poet of ‘eye’ and not ‘I’, or even of ‘eye-and-tears’ and not ‘I’, and also of ‘we’ and not ‘I’. Both the ‘eye’ and the ‘we’ are ways of not saying ‘I’, of getting around it or playing it down. (It’s not that Bishop never says ‘I’, but she seems almost to ration it, in a militant modesty, to no more than its statistically probable occurrence among the other pronouns.) She makes that very change, movingly, in a fragment called ‘A Short, Slow Life’:
We lived in a pocket of Time.
It was close, it was warm.
Along the dark seam of the river
the houses, the barns, the two churches,
hid like white crumbs
in a fluff of gray willows & elms,
till Time made one of his gestures;
his nails scratched the shingled roof.
Roughly his hand reached in,
and tumbled us out.
Originally, that read ‘I lived in a pocket of Time’ (and ‘tumbled me out’) – a little nightmare of scale and vulnerability and the end of cosiness, alongside the pocket plays on ‘close’ and ‘seam’ and ‘fluff’. But no, that wouldn’t do, too much pathos, too much drama of self, too much contemplation of the ungainly blunt fingers (what is their rude gesture?), and so the ‘I’ is scratched out and becomes a ‘we’, and the poem loses its identity and its urgency (perhaps neither of them especially Bishop-like qualities anyway), and the Robert Louis Stevenson or Hans Christian Andersen idea, now gone mousy and a little folksy, fails to survive.
A Bishop poem (watch it closely) goes on looking long after one thinks it should have looked away – from having seen enough, from having got or given the message, from irritation or boredom or pain. It is a type of looking, in part a quantity of looking, that sees – literally – sideshows where it looks, that specialises in distracting the reader (what is the main item here?), that disregards the conventional ‘cut to the chase’ grammar of looking which winnows as it sees, that is quite unafraid of the most outlandish qualifiers and similes, that continually proposes and interposes objects or scenes of probable symbolic worth (but are they?). The old man in ‘At the Fishhouses’ sits there,
sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.
If he was in a 19th-century painting, he would have had some splendid allegorical or mythological label, but here he’s just a quiet and slightly sad man (the phrases seem to proceed, too, in short hacking motions), unheroic, but also (given that he is a destroyer of beauty) unvillainous. In ‘Cape Breton’, ‘A small bus comes along, in up-and-down rushes,/packed with people, even to its step,’ like a crowded pogo-stick. Things in Bishop are anarchically themselves. Her shoes clack in different keys. Here, it is the noticing itself that confers value, and is its own reward. In ‘Under the Window: Ouro Prêto’,
A big new truck, Mercedes-Benz, arrives
to overawe them all. The body’s painted
with throbbing rosebuds and the bumper says
Here am I for whom you have been waiting.
The driver and assistant driver wash
their faces, necks, and chests. They wash their feet,
their shoes, and put them back together again.
The awe – technology overlaid with romance overlaid with religion – disappears the moment the clapped-out huaraches make their entrance. These are just men, men in magnificent machines. Plenty of poets would have given you the Mercedes, and most the ill-translated and vainglorious annunciation (what’s not to like about found poetry?); but few the rosebuds (and another truck is described as having ‘a syphilitic nose’), and probably none the shoes. (As often in Bishop, there’s a persistent, slightly mocking tendresse towards men.) There is a motivelessness, a plenitude, a willingness to sweep and pan as well as seize and resolve, a comprehensive refusal of hierarchy and abstraction. It’s a fabulous orchestra – and no conductor. The ground note is often humorous – the frantic little bus, almost bouncing over the landscape – but never abjectly depends on being so: a passive or latent humour. It’s not exactly Kafka, but it’s on the way towards something like this, the tired, faintly disorderly scene after a demonstration:
In the empty lanes one occasionally saw a policeman on a horse, motionless, or the carriers of flags and banners spanning the whole street, or a workers’ leader surrounded by colleagues and shop stewards or an electric tram car, which hadn’t managed to flee in time, and was now standing there dark and empty with the driver and conductor sitting on the platform.
Or this, the end of a long day manning the lifts:
After four o’clock there was a small lull, and not before time. Karl leaned against the railing beside his lift, slowly eating his apple, from which a strong sweet aroma rose from the very first bite, and looked down the lift-shaft, which was surrounded by the large windows of the storerooms, behind which great bunches of bananas glimmered faintly in the dark.
In both these passages from Kafka’s Amerika, a great core of power – the demonstration, the lift – is left behind, and then the protagonists are able to draw breath, like stunned casualties of America. The sentences slow down mesmerically, until we are left with the mute brotherhood of driver and conductor, with those exquisitely strange bananas. They are an aftermath: like the shoes, like the sequins.
It is not that Bishop’s life was short of disturbance, or even tragedy: her father died before she was one; her mother lost her mind, leaving her child to be raised by grandparents and aunts; there were accidents and suicides, ill-health and alcoholism, break-ups and breakdowns – all those things that were fuel and grist for her generation of American poets – but one wouldn’t know it. ‘Although I think I have a prize “unhappy childhood”, almost good enough for the textbooks – please don’t think I dote on it,’ she wrote to an early biographer; the ‘I think’ there is already heroic. She probably suffered as many broken bones in her life as Berryman, but unlike his (the admittedly charming ‘Dream Song 165’), hers didn’t make it into her writing. The little girl narrator of ‘In the Village’ – a story that reflects the last crack-up and committal of Bishop’s mother – is, in her dreamy, only child way, endlessly plucky and resolute. She both knows and doesn’t know what is going on. The poems end either with reserve and ambivalence – ‘faithful as enemy, or friend’ (‘Roosters’), ‘Half is enough’ (‘The Gentleman of Shalott’), ‘Again I promise to try’ (‘Manuelzinho’) – or with a slightly unlikely exhortation: ‘Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!’ (‘Pink Dog’), ‘Somebody loves us all’ (‘Filling Station’), ‘from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, please come flying’ (‘Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore’), or, paradigmatic of the lot, ‘awful but cheerful’ (‘The Bight’).
It is in rare, late poems that Bishop permits herself not a long look so much as a brief glance at the worst: ‘A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift’ (‘Five Flights Up’) or in ‘One Art’ (a poem so stifled in its compressed clamour I’ve never cared for it): ‘It’s evident/the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’ Whether it was bravery, discretion, stoicism, writerly morality (a refusal to pass off despondency on the reader), or a life-aesthetic of no fuss, Bishop was reluctant to make herself the subject, much less the object, of her poems. Either she clapped the telescope to her blind eye – a blind I, that would be – or else she swung the thing round and minimised the hurt in that oddly inclusive and luminous way that is the result of looking the wrong way through a telescope. The ending of a story called ‘Mercedes Hospital’ makes the point: ‘The Mercedes Hospital seems so remote and far away now, like the bed of a dried-up lake. Out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of the salty glitter at its bottom, a slight mica-like residuum, the faintest trace of joyousness.’ ‘Aus meinen großen Schmerzen/Mach ich die kleinen Lieder,’ Heine wrote – ‘out of my big hurts I make small songs’ – but even that is too obvious, or too transactional, for Bishop, who doesn’t want you even to think about the big hurts, at least not till much later, if at all.
The decades have worn against the writers of disaster. ‘I am tired,’ Lowell wrote in For the Union Dead, ‘Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.’ (That was in 1964; most of his moiling was still ahead of him.) Fifty years later, we are all, in Berryman’s sardonic words, ‘Henry House’, all ‘the steadiest man on the block’, and the stronger the reaction against the confessional poets, the more prominence accrues to Bishop’s self-exemption, the more stark and heroic and solitary her small output seems, the more remarkable her finicky pursuit of accuracy, beauty, detail. She seems to be continually revising for a closer approach to the truth – ‘not a thought, but a mind thinking’, as Bishop describes the characteristic posture of a poet perhaps unexpectedly dear to her, G.M. Hopkins – but even then it’s not possible to say whether it’s as a scientist twiddling a microscope, or a slightly tongue-tied trainee delivering a report to a roomful of under-managers. Bishop seems like a humble and prudent saint among self-destructive and swaggering deviltons. I was haunted, for instance, while writing this, by the notion that I had come across the plural form of the word ‘linoleum’ somewhere, and I hadn’t been reading much of anything but Bishop. Sure enough, there it was – or there they were – a couple of days later, in ‘A Summer’s Dream’: ‘the floors glittered with/assorted linoleums.’ Her grateful and somehow practical vocabulary – like a milliner’s or a cabinetmaker’s or a costume jeweller’s – that is so full of exquisite and exact colour distinctions (‘the smallest moths, like Chinese fans,/flatten themselves, silver and silver-gilt/over pale yellow, orange, or grey’) and justified flights of fancy (‘impractically shaped and – who knows? – self-pitying mountains’) seems increasingly immune to the ravages of time and literary inflation. There wasn’t a knack, and so it couldn’t be learned, you thought; whereas just possibly something like Lowell’s ‘a red fox stain covers Blue Hill’ could. One is contrived and synthetic – you can imagine Lowell muttering: ‘I want to get some colour-clash going, and the whole thing is to sound doomy and monosyllabic and Gothic, and I need something to deepen the colour and keep everything from just sounding superficial; I know, “fox”’ – the other is beyond contrivance. Maybe there is something in those bell-curved Brazilian mountains that echoes the outline of Eeyore, but other than that I have no idea where ‘self-pitying’ might have come from. But it’s absolutely right, the inturned curl, the slump, the soft steepness of it.
Perhaps one more caveat. The subtle sweetness of Bishop isn’t always the thing. You have to be in the mood for something that’s mostly middle. She doesn’t offer much to beginners and sophomores. She can seem touristic, evasive, wispy. She can seem small-scale and unurgent (it’s her word, I’m a little embarrassed to recall: ‘the pulse,/ rapid but unurgent, of a motorboat’). It’s a lasting puzzle that there aren’t simply more poems, and that the letters read more like a main of communication than the poems, however adorable and sinuous and unwilled these last are in their coming to being. In one letter to Lowell, she writes about ‘that strange kind of modesty … in almost everything contemporary one really likes – Kafka, say, or Marianne [Moore], or even Eliot and Klee and Kokoschka and Schwitters … Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time’. Attractive though the idea of modesty is, especially modern modesty, sometimes you want something a little grander, more willed, less elliptical: Shostakovich or Beckmann or Sebastião Salgado. I remember the time I first read Bishop’s ‘The Armadillo’, excited because Lowell was said to have partly modelled ‘Skunk Hour’ on it, and thinking: ‘What’s this for? Dystopic Beatrix Potter.’ I still don’t really know, and it’s not a question that occurs to me with ‘Skunk Hour’.