Elizabeth Bishop: Why Is She So Good?
I first fell under the spell of Elizabeth Bishop in 1962, when as a graduate students at the University of Michigan I discovered The Fish and I think Roosters in a popular Oscar Williams anthology. How true these poems sound, I thought. Is anyone else writing poetry like this? Some weeks later, Donald Hall, noting my enthusiasm, handed me Bishop’s only available book, Poems, North & South and A Cold Spring (1955), with instructions to write a book about her for Twayne’s United States Authors Series. I sat down in Harvard’s Widner Library to do this early in 1963, but at that time so little had been published relevant to Bishop’s life and work that I was reduced to writing to Marianne Moore, whom I’d barely met, to ask if she thought Miss Bishop would mind answering my letters. Miss Moore thought not, and sent me an address in Brazil. Elizabeth Bishop, she told me, was living in a wonderful house with a pet Toucan and a beautiful Spanish writing desk, and she (Miss Moore) believed Miss Bishop would be glad to hear from a young admirer.
So began my three-year correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop out of which, in due course, I produced an unsatisfactory first book, but which so entirely changed my life and outlook on poetry that I was able to absorb the impact of Lowell, Sexton, Plath and even of Adrienne Rich on the American poetry scene without being more than temporarily affected. What was it about Bishop’s poetry that had completely captivated me? Partly, I felt honoured to be chosen by that seductively intimate voice. Isn’t it amazing how Elizabeth Bishop still manages to elect and then make friends with her readers while never ‘confessing’ to them anything intimate about her self? And then, partly it must have been that though she defined herself to me as an aesthetic “snob” who cared more for Art than for Life (ie. more for the iceberg than the ship), during the years of our correspondence – and her more important correspondence with Robert Lowell – her poetry and prose moved away from her early fascination with the baroque, the gothic, the abstract and the surreal towards a perfectly frank engagement with the complexities of her own life that she still could reconcile with her regard for personal privacy.
Bishop herself, in an essay called Writing Poetry is an Unnatural Act (brought to light in the recently published Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box) defined three qualities she most admired in the poetry she loved: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. Quoting Coleridge, she argued that the best poetry conveys “the most fantastic thoughts in the most correct and natural language”, opposing it to “the tiresome practice of conveying the most trivial thoughts in the most fantastic language.”
This is criticism, of course, that runs counter to main-line contemporary theorizing, which in too many quarters has shunted off post-modern poetry into an obscure siding accessible only to an initiated elite. Meanwhile, the contemporary fashion for writing workshops and for treating poetry as a form of group therapy has done away to a great extent with the idea of poetry as an art form achieved only by a few, and then only after long, arduous self-discipline. Now, Elizabeth Bishop, as everyone knows, was not only a ferocious self-disciplinarian in her craft but so particular a poet that her high standards of art allowed her to complete comparatively few poems. Those she considered finished were, as descriptions, ‘accurate’ as paintings (that famous and fabulous eye!); and yet they always sounded ‘spontaneous’, no matter how many years had gone into their making– twenty-seven years in the case of ‘The Moose’. As for that rarest and seemingly most Bishopian element, ‘mystery’, what is it but a form of magic that returns the reader again and again to poems like The Manmoth, A Miracle for Breakfast, The Fish, At the Fishhouses, Sestina, Crusoe in England, One Art, and of course The Moose – surely one of the finest poems written in the 20th century.
These are poems that no amount of academic analysis can spoil and no amount of re-reading, at least on my part, can ever exhaust. I do not believe that Elizabeth Bishop always wrote ‘great’ poetry. Part of her attraction is that she frequently failed to find her true note, her absolutely right voice, even in some of her (mainly early) published poems. In this, she was a poet’s poet for whom the chief advantage of having her drafts and unfinished work available for consultation in Alice Quinn’s recent collection is recognizing just how often she stumbled and how difficult it was for her to get her poems right. Hers was a high, almost unachievable aim, one that I hope will set standards for accuracy and spontaneity in poetry today beyond anything that is learned in creative writing courses or undertaken in pursuit of a university career. As for that unteachable, hardly achievable quality of mystery, that’s something the muse still reserves for a personal gift. I suppose what Elizabeth Bishop can best teach us today are the virtues of patience, wit, perspective, persistence and –dare I say it?– ambition not so much for fame or success as for a kind of interior sense of rightness and excellence.