Lying doggo

Christopher Reid

Among her admirers, who tend to be wholehearted and fervent, the feeling is that Elizabeth Bishop has not yet received anything like her critical due. Things are improving – in the United States more rapidly than over here, where admission to the Pantheon seems as slow and grudging a process, and as prone to archaic shibboleths and mysterious blackballings, as election to a Pall Mall club. It is still possible to be told, by fairly intelligent readers, that her poems ‘lack form’, or that her diction is ‘flat’ and that her lines ‘don’t sing’, just as one still runs across the stubborn assertion that Matisse ‘can’t draw’. But this is getting less common.

Why, though, has it been so difficult for people just to see that she’s great? Randall Jarrell did, clearly enough, when in a 1956 review of the Poems he wrote: ‘Occasionally you meet someone and feel in astonished joy: “Well, this is what people ought to be like”; this is what poems ought to be like.’ For Jarrell, evidently, it was not just the newness that was unmistakable, but the recognition, too, that Bishop’s peculiar methods and achievement were somehow exemplary or corrective. Robert Lowell, also an early enthusiast, addressed Bishop handsomely in a poem of his later years as the ‘unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect’ – again the highest praise, and with an emphasis on her role as touchstone and inspiration.

Significantly, the poets got there first; and later it was a younger poet, Anne Stevenson, who wrote the first book about Bishop. One wonders if this helped or hindered the advancement of her reputation where such things are decided. To have been taken up by Jarrell, crying with such operatic hauteur in the wilderness and making no secret of his contempt for the academic world, might have been considered as much a liability as an honour. But then Bishop herself seemed curiously uninterested in self-promotion. Much of her life was spent at what looks like a calculated distance from the literary and academic centres of power, lying doggo. Only towards the end did she return to Boston, where she had spent most of her childhood, to accept a post at nearby Harvard and make the rare, reluctant public appearance. Her privacy was valued and guarded. Even now the facts of her life are known only scantly.

In the absence of any comprehensive account of Bishop’s life, David Kalstone seems to have opted for an approach to the poet that might be termed semi-biographical. There are frustrations that attend even his scrupulous and sympathetic discussion of Bishop and her friendships with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. The author died before the project was finished, so that Becoming a poet must itself remain in a state of becoming, cruelly unfulfilled. The text we have here is partly the result of posthumous editorial work by Robert Hemenway, who tells us that Kalstone, at his death, ‘had all but completed a draft manuscript’. Presumably thanks to Hemenway’s own sensitivity to the material, and deft handling of whatever piecing and patching needed to be done, we should hardly know from the texture of the writing that there had been any such complication; and it is almost possible to neglect to ask precisely what distance is measured by ‘all but’, or how Kalstone himself judged the condition of that draft. Almost, but not quite.

Becoming a poet is organised into two sections, the first and shorter being devoted to Bishop’s relationship with Moore, the second to that with Lowell. This offers a necessarily partial view of the life, but also a firm enough structure upon which to hang, or drape, an account of Bishop’s poetic career. Perhaps the book’s most grievous shortcoming is its lack of any full discussion of the volume which Kalstone is reported – by James Merrill, in an ‘Afterword’ – to have considered Bishop’s ‘in many senses’ greatest, Geography III. The story, perforce, breaks off just where some sort of climax and rounding-out might have been expected. Instead, Merrill supplies his own elegantly tentative sketch of Kalstone’s opinions, along with the puzzling comment: ‘Nothing is lost by guesswork except the author’s own touch.’ Kalstone may be a little easygoing at times in the conduct of his argument, but he’s never as laid-back as that! What has been lost, most regrettably, is a resolution of themes taken up and developed in an occasionally rather loose and loquacious way throughout the book’s preceding 250 pages, and now left dangling. Some strong, final pronouncement that would have justified Kalstone’s method is noticeably missing and cannot be provided by anyone else.

The plan of attaching the central argument to an exploration of Bishop’s two most important literary friendships is none the less rewarded with its share of insights along the way. The volume of written correspondence between the parties concerned gives Kalstone plenty of material to work on, as do those private notebooks of Bishop’s to which he has had access. Quotations from these documents are fully, if frustratingly, referenced – frustratingly, because so much remains unpublished and beyond the reach of the common reader. If ever there was a poet whose every scrap of writing should be in print, that poet must be Elizabeth Bishop.

Every time her words are quoted here, the scrupulosity, the wisdom, the moral and aesthetic fineness of her mind, are registered with bracing clarity. Although she was not the least bit priggish, her nose for what was morally right seems to have been as precise and discriminating as, in the making of poems, her ear for what was metrically right. In both spheres, she gives the impression of having advanced beyond the security of the established rules and entrusted herself to courageous improvisation. Her ostensibly slight and anecdotal poem, ‘Manners’, from Questions of Travel, humorously shows the process in action:

My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
‘Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet.’

We met a stranger on foot.
My grandfather’s whip tapped his hat.
‘Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day.’
And I said it and bowed where I sat ...

Continuing in this pastoral vein, self-mockingly comic, the poem can be read as a treatment of the absurdity and precarious dignity, not just of a manner of behaviour, but of a manner of writing, too. The versification plays with bathos – and wins; the homespun-looking quatrains prove to have a lilt and grace of their own. It’s all a matter of makeshift improvisation: you feel that Jacques Tati could have taken the scene described here and turned it into a small film, charming, but disturbingly poignant. There are grounds for regarding ‘Manners’ as a covert manifesto poem – the paradox seems allowable in Bishop’s case – with practical application, furthermore, ‘beyond all this fiddle’.

Which brings us to the author of ‘Poetry’ herself. From the memoir that Bishop wrote under the title ‘Efforts of Affection’ we already know that the friendship between the two women was not an uncomplicated one. There Bishop describes, with a multitude of illustrations, the ‘chinoiserie of manners’ which governed life in the Moore household. It is clear that Bishop’s privileged and long-lasting association with the older poet owed much to her own tactful handling of occasional awkwardnesses. Negotiating Moore in person sounds as problematic a business as getting to grips with one of her trickier poems, those bewildering constructions of morally-weighted abstract nouns, double and triple negatives, unplaceable allusions, and general flightiness of syntax and logical articulation. Easier to pick up a Calder mobile and hold that steady! Kalstone rehearses all this ably enough, but his major contribution to our understanding of the relationship lies in his account of the split which almost occurred over Bishop’s poem ‘Roosters’.

Moore’s attempt, with the help, and possibly at the prompting, of her redoubtable mother, to rewrite ‘Roosters’, which Bishop had innocently sent for their inspection, makes a curious and telling episode. Bishop was taken aback – not least, one imagines, because the purpose of disrupting the artfully sustained sequence of three-line stanzas, as well as meddling with the moral design of the poem, cannot have been obvious. (The Moore version, under its new title, ‘The Cock’, is printed in an appendix.) Moore later showed some contrition, but for a while relations were impaired. Bishop changed minor details and never offered her work for tutorial comment again. Differences of outlook came to be tacitly respected, but were never thereafter put to so stern a test, and Bishop preserved her right to follow her own imperatives, free of the strictures which others might seek to impose on her.

The episode, trivial and a touch comic as it might appear, illuminates that strain of independence which was so important to Bishop’s poetic development, and Kalstone is right to have spent time on it. It also lends perspective to Bishop’s dealings with Lowell, discussed in the second part of his book. With this later friendship, a fondly observed chinoiserie of manners was replaced by an altogether more wayward system of behaviour. Whether by luck or judgment, Bishop narrowly avoided sexual entanglement with Lowell at the outset of one of his manic phases. Her move, soon afterwards, to Brazil, for a long period of domicile there with a female companion, helped keep the man at a safe distance. The exchange of letters and poems, however, in the years that followed, seems to have been in some respects a source of nourishment to both parties, and Kalstone’s analysis of this give-and-take is both shrewd and largely persuasive.

Things only began to turn seriously awkward when Lowell, without permission, used Bishop’s autobiographically-based prose story, ‘In the Village’ – a work of deep personal importance to its author, addressing as it does the anguish and alienation felt by a child in the face of her mother’s madness – as the material for a poem of his own, ‘The Scream’. The poem amounts to little more than a collage of phrases from the story, choppily versified in the manner characteristic of For the Union Dead, and devoid of any larger resonance to a reader not already acquainted with its pretext. When shown the poem herself, Bishop admitted to being ‘very surprised’, but not before, in an effort to accept the blow on the chin, she had offered some complimentary remarks. A polite response grew less easy to summon as Lowell’s piracies increased. His Pound-like hoity-toitiness over errors of translation from the French, in poems that were to appear in Imitations, was clearly a strain on Bishop’s patience. Then it upset her to find words of her own, written in confidence at a low point in her personal affairs, rehashed and robbed of explanatory context, in one of Lowell’s opportunistic Notebook sonnets, ‘Letter with Poems for a Letter with Poems’. What most stirred her indignation, though, was a similar outrage against the private feelings of Lowell’s second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, whose vulnerably revealing letters were also thus plundered. Bishop wrote to expostulate. Her arguments were level, frank, achingly eager to allow due weight to both sides of the question; but by this time the production of fourteen-liners was in full swing, History was in the making, and there was no reasoning with the man in charge.

In recounting how Bishop fended off the encroachment of these two powerful personalities, Moore and Lowell, Kalstone does indeed go some way towards explaining how she became a poet. The sense of how that becoming was a constant process is kept convincingly alive in these sadly interrupted pages. It is a pleasure to observe Kalstone, his mind alert to nuances, his prose imparting an agreeable flavour of its own, as he investigates these matters. Perhaps in the circumstances it would be churlish to complain that the discussion is occasionally long-winded, too reliant on paraphrase, and apt to follow a more meandering than strictly parallel course in respect of its subject. A more serious charge is that, by concentrating on Bishop’s defensive strategies, Kalstone leaves no room for a proper consideration of those positive, idiosyncratic qualities which are the essence of her greatness, and his zeal for unravelling problems of biography does mean that he shows less interest in the art of the poems than he should. ‘Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?’ exclaims that genius of improvisation, Robinson Crusoe, in Bishop’s poem, ‘Crusoe in England’. Anyone who wishes to get the true measure of her achievement should think about that line.