Elizabeth Bishop and Modern American Poetryby Jonathan Ellis
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American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was one of the most praised poets of her generation. Yet she was never the most read or respected at the time. Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) and Sylvia Plath's Ariel (1965) both sold more copies than any of her collections, while Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959) continues to take the critical plaudits as the key work of poetry for most post-World War II readers. Lowell was godfather to the Confessional poets. His gift was somehow to fuse the radical themes of Beat writers like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac with the formal ingenuity of poet-critics like Randall Jarrell and Allan Tate. As a teacher at Harvard in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, he also acted as an informal mentor to a new generation of younger poets, including Plath and Anne Sexton. Bishop's influence, on the other hand, took time to make itself felt and is still something of a well-kept secret. While each of her four collections of poetry gained recognition from her peers in the form of various fellowships and prizes, this acclaim did not immediately translate into much academic interest or popular success. At the time of her death there was just a single critical book on her work, a short introductory study by the poet Anne Stevenson. Poetry readers knew her, if at all, as the author of the much-anthologised piece, ‘The Fish’ (Bishop called it ‘that damned Fish’,  so sick was she of requests to republish it).
Much has changed since the 1980s. Bishop, rather than Lowell, is the poet new writers usually cut their teeth against. She is a favourite poet of authors as diverse as Thom Gunn and Paul Muldoon, Jorie Graham and Louise Glück, Lavinia Greenlaw and Jo Shapcott. In fact, poets have been instrumental in raising Bishop’s profile, as well as providing some of the most acute and intelligent assessments of her work. Adrienne Rich’s 1983 review of Bishop’s Complete Poems is central to this. It was one of the first feminist readings of Bishop’s life and art, connecting ‘her experience of outsiderhood’ with ‘the essential outsiderhood of lesbian identity’.  While other poets disagreed with this assessment – notably Alicia Ostriker, who characterised Bishop in 1987 as one of those ‘poets who would be ladies’  – it laid the groundwork for women poets’ re-reading of Bishop in the 1990s as a more sensual and sexual writer than had previously been thought. The poetry of Deryn Rees-Jones in England, Caítriona O’Reilly in Ireland, and Sandra McPherson in America, all owe something to Bishop’s understated, almost invisible, focus on the human body.
Seamus Heaney has also been a prominent advocate of Bishop’s poetry, praising her ‘ultimate fidelity to the demands and promise of the artistic event’.  Other poets have stressed her fascination with science (Jo Shapcott), her interest in Surrealism (Mark Ford and Jamie McKendrick), and again and again, her sense of being an exile. Eavan Boland, for instance, sees in Bishop’s ‘fishhouses’ and ‘cold springs’ the index of the ‘true exile, the inner émigré, who sees them for the first time and may not see them again’,  while Tom Paulin praises her fondness for ‘makeshift, temporary dwellings’  which he sets in opposition to the ideological dangers implicit in being rooted in one place. Michael Donaghy makes a similar point in his recognition of Bishop’s ‘exile’ accent, which he celebrates for rejecting the two godparents of American poetry, Walt Whitman’s ‘yawp’ and Emily Dickinson’s ‘centripetal concision’.  It is not for nothing that John Ashbery once called her ‘the writer’s writer’s writer’.  She is the American poet to make sense to British and Irish writers, the only American poet of the last fifty years to be read and liked by almost all of her contemporaries
The phenomenon of Bishop’s rising reputation has been attributed to many causes. Robert Pinsky recently related it to the impersonality of her poetry, suggesting that ‘hers was a pure reputation based upon the quality of her work’.  Other readers have been more cynical about the process of canon formation. Joseph Epstein, for example, labels Bishop a careerist, blaming her rising star on the flood of biographical information that made her work ‘more penetrable and a little less impressive’  than it had previously seemed. While Pinsky props Bishop up as a late Modernist, Epstein denigrates her as a watered-down confessional, too shy to own up to her own autobiographical impulses. These two positions are the twin poles around which most scholarly activity now revolves. She has either to be an anti-Romantic like H. D. or Gertrude Stein, or a feminist subversive similar to Adrienne Rich or Sharon Olds. Vernon Shetley’s scathing attack on the ‘bizarre sentimentality’ of this kind of criticism is worth invoking here.  He pokes fun at the way in which Bishop has become a ‘kind of secular saint’  for both types of reader. To the Modernists she is a ‘prime weapon to wield against the egotistical sublime, and the baggage of phallocracy, hierarchy, and colonialism that is now assumed to come with it’.  To the polemicists her life is considered somehow ‘exemplary’.  She is the ‘autobiographer without ego’. 
Perhaps poets have often been more willing than academics to embrace and describe this movement of form and focus. Free to steal and borrow across countries, cultures and languages, they do not seem as impelled as others to fit Bishop into a particular tradition or school. Her evasiveness may in fact be the reason behind their attraction to her poetry in the first place. Whatever the case, the sudden rise in Bishop’s fortunes has no real precedent. How has she replaced Lowell so quickly in poets’ affections? When did she suddenly become such an imitated poet?
The truth of course is that Bishop was always admired among her peer group. Her first book of poems, North & South (1946), was ecstatically reviewed by Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore, all of whom were (or would soon become) close friends and regular correspondents. Influence works both ways. The Bishop-Moore relationship, for example, is one of the most keenly debated literary friendships in the twentieth century. Lorrie Goldensohn, Victoria Harrison, and others, see Moore’s role as that of a mentor-mother to Bishop’s student-daughter. According to this interpretation, Bishop learnt how to become a poet from Moore having grown up as a writer in the older poet’s shadow. More recent readings have stressed Bishop’s independence. They see the infamous quarrel over Moore’s editing of Bishop’s poem, ‘Roosters’, as bringing to the surface tensions that had always been present. Some even see Bishop as providing Moore with poetic examples to follow in her later writing. Whatever one borrowed from the other, their friendship clearly nourished each other’s ego, providing Moore with the sense that her poems were still being read by a younger generation, and Bishop with the reassurance that she could actually write.
Critics and readers often discover forgotten or undervalued poets through the praise and recommendation of their more famous friends. For most of Bishop’s life, readers heard of her through Moore. She was admired for coming after Moore, for writing in what critics saw as a continuation of the elder poet’s Modernist style. The reverse is now the case, in spite of the recent publication of Moore’s Complete Poems. Moore is now known as the addressee of Bishop’s poem, ‘Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore’, or as the eccentric subject of her memoir, ‘Efforts of Affection’. One can only imagine both poets’ feelings of amusement at this state of affairs, conscious as both were of the vagaries of literary taste. Poets, Bishop once wrote, do not have to worry about being ‘consistent’. They can borrow and steal from whomsoever they please. The truth about influence in this particular case is surely somewhere in between both versions. Bishop’s borrowings were probably less than has been assumed, just as Moore’s were probably greater. If contemporary poets are imitating Bishop now, they are perhaps imitating a little of Moore through her, just as Moore in turn famously appropriated all kinds of other writings. I make this point not to underestimate Moore as a presence in Bishop’s poetic life or to undermine Bishop’s own influence on contemporary poets today, but to show how fugitive a subject influence remains.
The same ambiguities that characterise the Bishop-Moore relationship are also at work in regard to Bishop and Lowell. Revising the way we think about their relationship revises the way we think about the development of American poetry in general. For many years, the idea of a breakthrough narrative dominated discussion of post-war American poetry. According to the majority of critics, Lowell was the main transitional figure in this story. His single collection of poems, Life Studies, was credited for bridging various disparate schools and traditions under one banner: the Age of the Confessional (or, as Bishop nicknamed it, the ‘School of Anguish’). This type of narrative obviously privileges certain kinds of poetry above others. In terms of Confessional poetics, the life of the poet becomes the main object of attention. Political engagement is preferred to political detachment, sexual frankness to sexual reserve. There is no place in this kind of tradition for poets like Bishop who always made a point of effacing their lives from the work.
Since Lowell’s death, the extent to which he himself borrowed and stole from other artists has become more apparent. In the case of Life Studies in particular, he relied on both the practical advice and writing example of Bishop who was then in Brazil and had just published her autobiographical story, ‘In the Village’ (1953), and her second collection of poems, A Cold Spring (1955). Lowell versified the former as ‘The Scream’ and was inspired to begin work on autobiographical prose himself. His own childhood memoir, ‘91 Revere Street’, is very different in tone from ‘In the Village’, though both address the role of childhood memories in forming the artist. ‘Skunk Hour’, one of the signature poems in Life Studies, is also a tribute of sorts to Bishop’s poem, ‘The Armadillo’. Bishop thus freed Lowell to write autobiographically rather than the other way round. This undermines the idea that Lowell is responsible for a sudden breakthrough in American poetry or even that there was one at all.
This does not mean that Bishop is the secret founder of the Confessional poets or a more autobiographical poet than she looks, but it certainly questions the need to define poetry according to neatly defined categories and schools that the majority of writers revise and sidestep. The grandiloquence of Lowell is obviously no longer fashionable. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he straddled American poetry like a Colossus, absorbing and reshaping whatever historical or personal crisis passed his way. Yet there is a less egotistical side to his work that reminds us of Bishop. The same could be said of the way her reputation has shifted. For most of her career, the conversational intimacy of her poems and stories was misunderstood for a lack of intellectual scope. This same voice is now being read for its nuanced take on the ethics of travel and the politics of gender. Yet there remains a trace of egotism to her work that is reminiscent of Lowell. Perhaps we simply need to read poems one by one, noting their debts to other poets as they occur, not as a means to make one writer more important or original that the rest, but to show how each of us passes on knowledge to the future.
There are of course differences between Bishop and Lowell. Whereas the majority of Bishop’s poems float free of conventional categories, Lowell’s nearly always operate within recognisable boundaries and registers. In the ‘40s, he is an ornate, rather precious stylist, in the ‘50s a personal chronicler, in the ‘60s and ‘70s a plunderer of his own and other people’s lives. Bishop went through more phases than she probably completed poems. Aside from the debts to Moore and Lowell already noted, she was an avid reader of baroque prose and Metaphysical poetry. Her favourite poets were Charles Baudelaire, George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In her teens and twenties, she went through a W. H. Auden phase; in Key West she imitated Wallace Stevens, in New York and Washington Dylan Thomas; in Brazil she translated poems by Manuel Bandeira, Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Vinícius de Moraes. It is this aspect of Bishop’s writing above all that has made her such an influential figure among contemporary poets. There are many different Elizabeth Bishops to imitate. This was the case even before her biography became better known. John Ashbery was an early fan of her writing, praising the Surrealism of her early books. May Swenson, a close friend and another lifelong correspondent, was drawn to the erotic nature of her middle phase. Even Philip Larkin had heard of Bishop (though he was a little surprised that she had heard of him).
With relatively few exceptions, our best poets still have time for Bishop and time to write about their readings of her work. She can be heard through their poetry in various registers and voices as her own poems echo with the words of old friends and numerous loved writers from the past. In the words of ‘In the Waiting Room’, she shows us the ‘similarities’ that hold ‘us all together’, the poetic forms and traditions that continue to bring different sorts of poet and reader into the same room, all falling over and into the same book.
1. Bishop, Elizabeth. 'In Prison'. Collected Prose. Chatto & Windus, 1994: p.190.
2. Bishop, Elizabeth. One Art: The Selected Letters. Pimlico, 1996: p.515.
3. Rich, Adrienne. 'The Eye of the Outsider: Elizabeth Bishop's Complete Poems, 1927-1979', in Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985. Virago, 1987: p.127.
4. Ostriker, Alicia. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America. The Women's Press, 1987: p.54
5. Heaney, Seamus. 'The Government of the Tongue', in The Government of the Tongue. Faber and Faber, 1988: p.101
6. Boland, Eavan. 'An Un-Romantic American', Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 14. No. 2 (1988): pp.85-86.
7. Paulin, Tom. 'Dwelling Without Roots: Elizabeth Bishop', Grand Street, No. 35 (Summer 1990): pp.94-95.
8. Donaghy, Michael. 'The Exile's Accent'. Metre 7/8 (Spring/Summer 2000): pp.182-183.
9. Ashbery, John. 'Second Presentation to the Jury', World Literature Today, 1 (Winter 1977): p.8.
10. Pinsky, Robert. In Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau (eds), Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. University of Massachusetts Press, 1994: p.351.
11. Epstein, Joseph. 'Elizabeth Bishop: Never a Bridesmaid', The Hudson Review, Vol. 48 No. 1 (Spring 1995): p.41.
12. Shetley, Vernon. 'On Elizabeth Bishop', Raritan, Vol. 14 No. 3 (Winter 1995): p.160.
13. Ibid. p.161.
14. Ibid. p.160.
15. Ibid. p.152.
16. Ibid. p.161.
Anderson, Linda and Shapcott, Jo (eds.). Elizabeth Bishop: Poet of the Periphery. Bloodaxe Books, 2002.
Diehl, Joanne Feit. Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity. Princeton University Press, 1993.
Dodd, Elizabeth. The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glck. University of Missouri Press, 1992.
Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. University of Columbia Press, 1992.
Harrison, Victoria. Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Hogarth Press, 1989.
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Moore, Marianne. The Poems of Marianne Moore. Faber and Faber, 2003.
Roberts, Neil (ed.). A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Blackwell, 2001.
Travisano, Thomas. 'The Elizabeth Bishop Phenomenon', in Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano (eds.), Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and their Readers. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996: pp.217-244.
Zona, Kirsten Hotelling. Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and May Swenson: the feminist poetics of self-restraint. University of Michigan Press, 2002.
Author: Jonathan Ellis. Jonathan Ellis holds a Leverhulme Research Fellowship at Reading University. He has published articles on several twentieth-century poets and is currently completing a book on Elizabeth Bishop.