Introduction: Bishop’s Century: Her Poems and Art
The Worcester Review XXXII, 2011
by Edward R. Cronin
Centennial celebrations are valuable times for scholars and others interested in important writers. Conferences are arranged, the canon is re-examined, and new research is revealed. Certainly, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson—who was speaking of course of a quite different situation—centennials “concentrate the mind wonderfully.” In the year 2006, Worcester celebrated the centennial of Stanley Kunitz, who live to see his 100th year. Last year, 2010, was the centennial year of Charles Olson, and this year 2011, is the centennial of Elizabeth Bishop. (A poet more unlike Charles Olson can scarcely be imagined.) During the 2011 year the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop has been celebrated by a series of readings, panels, and concerts, organized by the Worcester County Poetry Association. And, of course, the Association published this special Elizabeth Bishop issue of the Worcester Review. The essays in this issue are intended to increase our understanding of the kind of poet she aspired to be.
We all wish she had written more poetry. Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, has few more than 100 poems in it. (Some work, mainly fragments, have been gleaned from Bishop’s literary archives but this now published material add little to her well-established standing.) Bishop’s publishers often had to deal with her perfectionism; she was often reluctant to see work in print until it had undergone many revisions. The poem “The Moose,” for example, that is discussed in several of the following essays, took over twenty years to complete. Because “The Moose” is mentioned by a number of commentators, it may useful to use it as an exemplar of Bishop’s poetry in general.
Bishop has said that the qualities that she admires most in poetry are “accuracy, spontaneity, and mystery.” Let’s measure “The Moose” by these qualities. It may seem odd to call a poem that did not see print until many years after its conception “spontaneous” but to most readers it does seem such because of its seeming fidelity to immediate experience. Never mind that the gender of the moose had changed from its first mention in a prose account of a real experience Bishop had had as a young woman during a visit to her Nova Scotia relatives; the poem conveys both the poet’s sense impressions as she seems to receive them and her thoughts as they happen. Of course, “The Moose” is one of many poems that support the view of Thomas O’ Grady that Bishop may be termed a “Maritime” poet. What about “mystery?” The sudden confrontation of the bus passengers has a spiritual quality—paradoxical in a poem so grounded in physical reality (“accuracy”) and “otherworldliness,” to use essayist Robert Cording,s term, is a quality of many of Bishop’s poems. And finally, the importance of form to this mainstream poet. Bishop would agree with Frost’s famous statement that writing free verse is “like playing tennis without a net.” Underlying “The Moose” is a very tight net indeed and Renee Curry in her article had brought to light the intricate versification behind “The Moose.”
Other essays in this collection examine a number of other poems, of course. The piece by Wells, for example, looks at the power of Bishop’s metaphorical language in “The Bight.”An essay on Darwin and Bishop by Leslie Wooten may seem to be an odd pairing, but it is good to know that Bishop’s favorite prose writers were Hemingway, Chekhov, and Darwin. All three are masters of the telling detail, as is Bishop herself.
I have called Elizabeth Bishop a “mainstream” poet and it may seem as this is a category so large as to be useless. But throughout her life Bishop deftly stepped around any more specific designation. She accepted advice from her early mentor Marianne More, for example, but never imitated her, and her own reticence about her personal life—as well as her internalized definition of the nature of poetry—led her to reject out of hand the “confessional” poetry of her close friend Robert Lowell. Above all, she never wanted to be called a “feminist” or a “woman” poet and refused to be anthologized as such. Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet and the nine essays in this collection, and the brief poems written as tribute, all provide insights into the work.