Elizabeth Bishop

December 5, 2010

While searching for more information on Elizabeth Bishop who I found to be one of my favorite poets of the semester I ran across on article (with pictures!) describing her epistle relationship between herself and Robert Lowell. I wish we had been able to learn more about each poet’s personal life and delve more into that. I know some critics disagree with mixing what a poet says with their own life, but I feel that a poet wouldn’t say the same things if they lived another life. Our experiences shape our opinion after all–would Bishop write about geography and loneliness if she hadn’t been forced to move around numerous times, alienating herself from those around her. Would she have been enamored with Brazil if Lola her lover had not been Brazilian and they had not set up a life there?

I hope you all enjoy reading the correspondence of the two writers:



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Recap: Bishop

December 4, 2010

I was trying to think of a way to go back and celebrate some of the major poets we studied this semester, and I think I’m going to go about it by talking about my favorite poems from some of the authors. First up: Elizabeth Bishop. My favorite Bishop poem happens to be one of her most popular ones, and one that we have discussed in class: “In the Waiting Room.”

I think this poem, in many ways, is the speaker’s realization of her own identity as a woman, and furthermore, as a citizen of the world.  The speaker’s contemplation of these ideas is best seen in the lines “What similarities–/boots, hands, even the family voice/I felt in my throat, or even/the National Geographic/and those awful hanging breasts–/held us all together/or made us all just one?” Bishop beautifully introduces the idea of a young girl contemplating the threads that weave together women of different races; it’s a thread that transcends cultural boundaries, family heritage, and even sexuality. I think Bishop’s brilliance lies in the fact that she presents a believable speaker who addresses her realization of her sexual identity but has no way to resolve it, except to be immersed back into the “outside” world. One of the more interesting lines is “Then I was back in it.” Is she back in the world where she doesn’t recognize her acceptance of female identity and sexuality? Regardless of this line’s ambiguity, Bishop addresses these “big” issues with accessible language  and wonderful poetic control. She deserves to be studied among the best contemporary poets, and I think “In the Waiting Room” is one of her strongest poems.

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Bishop Letter

September 10, 2010

Hi guys-

So, for another class I’ve been reading this book, “Letters of a Nation” that includes letters from all sorts of people: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, William Faulkner, and Elizabeth Bishop! Her letter is to a couple of friends the day after her lover, Lota has passed, and goes into vague detail about the death. However, I thought it would be interesting for the class to compare/contrast how she says she feels in prose versus the villanelle we read in class yesterday, “One Art” which Scanlon said is usually read to be about Lota’s death.

Oh, and just so you know, when you open the document ignore the first letter, which takes up the first half of page one. The italics at the bottom of page one is background information, and the actual letter is on page two.

Enjoy!Bishop Letter

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Thoughts on Sunday, 4 A.M.

September 7, 2010

I am totally baffled by the imagery Bishop provides in Sunday, 4 A.M.   I get the feeling that it is either dreams or awakening, disoriented, still partially in a dream-like state, but it reminds me of the ramblings of my ten-year-old, Justin, who is autistic.

The first thing he does when he comes home from school, is drop his book bag and commence to spinning, clapping and spouting incomprehensible ramblings in a loud announcer voice. These are the three things which I have absolutely forbidden him to do at school, because it creates a major disconnect, for him, from reality.  But he gets a twenty minute free pass when he gets home from school. 

His ramblings provide very clear visual images that are, however, difficult to piece together.  Sometimes they actually make sense and I find an underlying theme, but more often that not I have to ask him what it all means.  His answer comes in the form of a loud belly laugh and more images, which either solve or deepen the puzzle.

Does anyone out there have any thoughts on Sunday, 4 A.M. that might help me to visualize the connections that Bishop is making?

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September 7, 2010

In reading Elizabeth Bishop’s Man-Moth, I am struck by the lucid image she provides of a man, bent on reaching into the heavens.  In the end, though, he slips back to earth.  Unaware of what he has lost, he quickly falls back into his old life and fruitless dreams.  I can not help but comparing Bishop’s clear image of the Man-Moth, who “trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb” (16) and after failing “returns / to the pale subways of cement he calls home” (25/26), to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, The Poet, a sweeping indictment of the poets, who have misled him in his attempt to find transcendental meaning in his existence. By laying claim to Emersonion Transcendentalism and adapting it to her own unique style, Bishop provides a strong echo and much more lucid image of Emerson’s description in The Poet. 

A strong parallel can be drawn between the experience of Bishop’s Man-Moth and Emerson’s description of the “ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer the fact … (and) the centrifugal tendency of man, to his passage out into free space, … (which)  help him to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up” (199).  Of particular note is Emerson’s depiction of his experiences with the false poets;

With what joy I begin to read a poem which I confide in as an inspiration!  And now my chains are to be broken: I shall mount above these clouds, and opaque airs in which I live, – opaque though they seem transparent, – and from the heaven of truth I shall see and comprehend my relations.  That will reconcile me to life and renovate nature, …  Such is the hope but the fruition is postponed.  Oftener it falls that this winged man, who will carry me into the heaven, whirls me into mists, then leaps and frisks about with me as it were from cloud to cloud … he does not know the way into the heavens, and is merely bent that I should admire his skill to rise, like a fowl or a flying fish, a little way from the ground or the water; but the all-piercing, all feeding and ocular air of heaven that man shall never inhabit.  I tumble down again soon into my old nooks, and lead the life of exaggerations as before, and have lost faith in the possibility of any guide who can lead me thither I would be.                                                   (191-2)


On a lighter note: 

Bishop’s Man-Moth leads Emerson and his reader to new celestial heights.


Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. Man-Moth. The Complete Poems 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984. 14-15.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Poet. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller Selected Works. Ed. John Carlos Rowe. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. 186-206.

Skipp, Abi. Wendy Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. Photo. Paris: June, 2010. Flickr. 07, Sept., 2010. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/9557815@N05/4741708111/>

Designed by Tim Sainburg from Brambling Design

Designed by Tim Sainburg from Brambling Design

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Questions of Travel and Rhyme

September 7, 2010

After reading Questions of Travel, I felt that it was important to mention how Bishop plays with language. In many of her poems there is a regular rhyme scheme. For instance “The Burglar of Babylon” begins with the stanza:

On the fair green hills of Rio

There grows a fearful stain:

The poor who come to Rio

And can’t go home again. (112)

The first and third lines of this stanza rhyme merely because the word “Rio” is repeated, yet the second and fourth lines are slant rhymed. In the rest of her poem, Bishop continues to rhyme the second and fourth lines of her stanzas. In the fourth stanza, the slant rhyme returns as bishop rhymes “come” with “catacomb”. Additionally “The Armadillo” is marked by a regular rhyme scheme, however what makes Bishop unique in her usage of language are the embedded rhymes, and echos of rhymes that one can find in poems like “Song for the Rainy Season”. In the last stanza Bishop writes:

the great rock will stare

unmagnetized, bare,


the forgiving air (102)

This stanza is an example of how Bishop creates these echoes within her poems. By creating a rhyming couplet and then later ending a line with a word that continues the rhyme. Bishop is not only connecting ideas but playing with sound and the way the human reader will hear her work.

Additionally, in “Squatter’s Children” Bishop writes, ” apparently the rain’s reply/ consists of echolalia”(95). I found this poem to be one where Bishop became most innovative in her usage of sound and rhyme.  Every stanza ends with a rhyming couplet, yet within the poem there are also the echos that I previously mentioned. Yet this poem is also a good example of the repetitions that Bishop embeds in many of her poems.  She writes, ” they play, a specklike girl and boy/alone, but near a specklike house”(95). The repetition almost acts like the echolalia that Bishop writes about, however for the reader it accomplishes something unique. When one examines the repetition in ” Visits to St. Elizabeths” the words “that lies in the house of Bedlam” have a constantly evolving meaning that changes and deepens with every stanza.

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Mapping Identity

September 7, 2010

After finishing Questions of Travel and considering it alongside our previous Bishop readings and critical essays, it seems to me that there exists a common theme of identity formation in terms of geography (spatial relationships, domain and borderline areas) in all of these works. Looking first at the critical essays, if we think of poetry in terms of a physical space, many of the essays discuss and evoke the following questions: To whom does this space belong? To whom is it accessible? Should the rights lie exclusively with an educated elite few or a universal population/private versus public space? Can art and “politics” reside together in this space or do they require separate domains? The boundaries and delineations of this space seem to be in a constant state of flux and poetry, itself, at different periods in time and geographic locations has reflected upon its identity.  The Modernist Period in particular was characterized by a sense of self-consciousness or self-doubt.  A lack of or changing identity resulted in a body of work that was defined by this crisis, in turn, giving it an identity and a place.

                If we look next at Bishop’s collection Questions of Travel, the reader is asked to consider identity in terms of geography immediately with “Arrival at Santos.” In this poem, as with many others in the collection, Bishop takes the reader to a borderline location to discuss the running themes of: boundaries, inclusion v. exclusion, “here” and “there,” “us” and “them,” expectation and reality, truth and fantasy/delusion/denial, shelter/safety and exposure/danger, innocence/naivety and knowledge.   At these borderlines she is able to create a tension that reflects a struggle with sense of self, “homelessness” (or belonging) and/or  the dynamics of power that define human relationships.  Often, identity is defined in terms of who/what you are not which may only complicate, rather than aid, founding a solid sense of who/what you are.  “Other-ing” is a common tool in nation-building and identity formation and sometimes serves as a justification for unbalanced power dynamics between groups that become engrained in their sense of identity.  Bishop addresses this as well when she obscures or challenges the lines/territories differentiating a person/group from another in some of her poems in this collection.  Another recurring spatial representation is structural: that of “the home” or house.  Who or what can live in this space delegated to comfort, security and safety and how are they (or not) impervious to “dangers” of the natural or outside world? In short, these physical spaces, their occupants, and the interactions at the frontline represent complications in the human need for classification and delineation to provide order in their world.

                All of this being said, I think “The Map” was a great way to begin looking at these discussions.  I’d like to offer a reading that considers Bishop’s concept of interaction at the borderline and human demarcation of the world in this poem as commentary on poetry or meta-poetic in nature.  If we consider the art of mapping as something to help us in placing our “YOU ARE HERE” sticker, it can be argued that poetry attempts to do the same as a guide to understanding and ordering the world around you in some way.  However, the first line of Bishop’s poem reads, “Land lies in water; it is shadowed green” which calls to mind the end of Brooker’s essay where he paraphrases Emmanual Levinas when arguing, “…art is not reality, but its shadow…” followed by, “Art…works by substituting an image of reality for reality itself,”(72).   Taking “lies” in Bishop’s poem to have double meaning, she is telling the reader that art cannot “be true” but only represent truths just as the land on a map is only a depiction of the land it represents. She follows this by going to the edge, the border between water and land.  With tension evoking words like “hang,” “lean,” “lift,” and “tugging” she describes the interaction of these elements at their meeting place.  Perhaps here Bishop is contemplating the ability of art to attain what it is seeking: what is true.  Can it be held without it being “perturbed” or disturbed? Or it is grasping, unable to hold it firmly as “the fine tan sandy shelf” is an unstable ground?

If the first stanza discusses a map in terms of itself, contained, then the second stanza discusses the map in terms of utility as the world interacts with it, violating its isolation.  The piece of art, lifeless in its representation has been stained by a history of use.  As the narrator interacts with the map, art meets its audience and through this lens (“under a glass”) becomes an entity with the possibility of sustaining life, “expected to blossom” or “provide a clean cage for invisible fish.”  Mentioning the printer next, she notes the marks of an artist/creator within his work as he stamps himself on it and into it, making himself known and disturbing a separation of the two. Perhaps this is an image to show that intent and intrinsic value can or inevitably exist within the same space of art.

 To summarize my interpretation of the rest of the poem, Bishop restores balance in this contained space (the map) by finally explaining the relationship between land and water as a representation “feeling” for the unattainable while the unattainable/unrepresentable “lend(s)” itself to the representation.  This image lacks the tension seen in their relationship in the first stanza.  She continues by saying that although this might “agitat(e)” elements existing within representation, or the art, it leads to a further “investagat(ion)” of the unrepresentable or what is unattainable.  Art may be upset/challenged by the reality it attempts to recreate, but it also allows, in turn, for a deeper examination of the reality, creating balance.  Finally, she could be concluding that balanced mapping and, by extension creation and art, is not indulgent and “displays no favorites”, but is “delicate” and careful in its representation which makes it not untrue.

If I’ve made a strong enough argument, I think it is fair to say that “The Map” encapsulates an interpretation of identity formation, as discussed in the critical essays on audience and the artist/poet and the purpose of art (externally and internally) as well as other works by Bishop, in terms geography and spatial relationships and interaction.

**I also have forgotten to mention our mapping of the critics, themselves.  Placing them in relation to one another also helped us to define them individually. 

                (Lastly, I don’t mean for this to be what I think is a comprehensive list of Bishop’s themes in total.  The aspect of time, elements of form and many other important things I probably haven’t even realized yet add depth to the Questions of Travel collection and should be discussed; I just thought it might be interesting to consider the combination of this selection of poetry and critical discourse about poetry in terms of space.  Thoughts?)

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Thursday’s Readings vs. Questions of Travel

September 5, 2010

For me, completing the readings for last class was a chore. I just wasn’t pulled in by Bishop’s poetry and, even after class, was left not particularly liking the works we had discussed. I assumed that Bishop wasn’t really my taste. However, this weekend when I was reading her “Questions of Travel” section, I felt like I was enjoying an entirely different poet! I LOVED this collection.

I was trying to think what it could be about these particular poems that set them apart (for me) from the other works we just read by the same author. In my case, I think that it is the more personal voice and quality that a lot of the poems in “Questions of Travel” seem to possess. I love her portraits of people and the descriptions of Brazil and her other destinations. These are just my thoughts.

Did anyone else have such an altered reaction to this weeks reading compared to our first selections by Bishop? Did you notice something in “Questions of Travel” that seemed to be so different?

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Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”

September 2, 2010

The fish has caught the speaker.     No, Really:  The fish has CAUGHT the speaker.    This is the shocked impression that I was left with after the last stunning line of Bishop’s “The Fish.”

As the speaker cradles the impressive weight, and recognizes each detailed wound – the speaker is left in a paralyzed, appreciative vacuum:  the only thing they can manage to do is to gaze, memorize.  Every inch of The Fish is a full narrative.  A Fish is worth a thousand words.

At the climax, there is no loss of victory by releasing The Fish; nothing is forfeited.  The Fish has left his impression: the five hooks in his lip, his white sea lice, his sea weed.  The Fish leaves with a surreal purposefulness.

The Fish has caught the speaker.

A quick thought concerning “The Man-Moth,”  why was “The Fish” larger, clearer and more emotionally personified than the Man-Moth, a creature that is half human? What does this imply about the regal-ness of the natural world?

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Bishop and Heaney

September 1, 2010

I don’t know about everyone else,  but I found parts of Heaney’s essay, “The Redress of Poetry” quite tough to follow. It seemed like he was continuously shifting his analysis back and forth between poetry’s connection to political and societal ideas, traditions etc., and to its inherent relationship to the natural world through language and the complex interaction between the two. But I really couldn’t say much more about it, and certainly nothing more concrete. However, one passage in particular stuck out to me, and I thought about it after reading  Elizabeth bishop’s poem ” The Fish.” The passage from Heaney is on page 15 of his essay:

“On the contrary, I want to profess the surprise of poetry as well as it’s reliability; I want to celebrate its given unforseeable thereness, the way it enters our field of vision and animates our physical and intelligent being in much the same way as those bird-shapes stenciled on the transparent surfaces of glass walls or windows must suddenly enter the vision and change the direction of real birds’ flight. In a flash the shapes register and transmit their unmistakable presence, so the birds veer off instinctively. An image of the living creatures has induced a totally salubrious swerve in the creatures themselves. And this natural, heady diversion is also something induced by poetry and reminds me of a further (obsolete) meaning of ‘redress’…“Hunting. To bring back (the hounds or deer) to the proper course.’ In this ‘redress’ there is no hint of ethical obligation; it is more the matter of finding a course for the breakaway of innate capacity, a course where something unhindered, yet detected, can sweet ahead into it’s full potential.”

Obviously, Heaney is relaying (or trying to relay) a lot in this passage, but I’m most taken in by his thoughts on the relationship between the representation of the “real world” through poetry (and language) and the physical form of the thing itself, the actual animal–in Bishop’s case: the fish. Here’s an excerpt from the last 21 lines of Bishop’s poem “The Fish”:

A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels–until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go. (55-76)

I’m sure there can be many readings of this poem: maybe the rainbow that flows forth over the oil and the rusted engine symbolizes the romantic idea of the triumph and power of nature over mankind’s attempts to control it; maybe the fish’s “victory” in this poem, and perhaps the narrator’s as well, is that same triumph–the continuous ability of the fish to outlast and survive a man’s (or woman’s) attempts to capture and kill it. Or maybe the fish is a metaphor for something else entirely.

Regardless of these readings, I found Bishop’s presentation of the fish to point back to the passage from Heaney’s essay. Through her language, Bishop has re-created this particular fish for us, and maybe this image of the “real” creature is the one that touches that intelligent part of one’s brain, that through her capacity to reproduce the “real world” through poetic language, Bishop has presented to us the “unhindered potential” of her poetic form of the fish.

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How Beautiful a Fish Can Be

September 1, 2010

This evening is the first time that I have read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish”. Before now, my only contact with the poem was through a spoken performance given in my Literature in Performance class one year ago. When I first heard the poem I couldn’t really focus on it and it was hard for me, a lot of the time, to follow what was being said, i.e. the basic narrative. However, upon this reading, silently, at first I was much more involved in the poem and found myself lost in the splendorous “victory” the speaker feels at catching the fish after it’s having got away so many times.

I loved the way our understanding of the fish built up and up, at first unimpressed by his “grunting weight, / battered and venerable / and homely.” It is almost easy to miss that key word–venerable–in lieu of the numerous derogatory adjectives: “his brown skin…like ancient wallpaper” or “full-blown roses / stained and lost through age”. Again, we are led to a pleasant description–the “full-blown roses” only to be disappointed on the following line through their shriveled metaphoric state. It is easy to find yourself disgusted by the “barnacles,” the skin “infested / with tiny white sea-lice” or the impoverished state of the “rags of green weed” hanging beneath his body.

And yet, Bishop takes us by the hand, walking us through her own evolving perception of the fish. We begin to see that the creature isn’t entirely helpless, that, in fact, if we are not careful in how we handle him, we may be “cut so badly” by his “frightening gills”. His “coarse white flesh,” forcing us to think about the skin of the fish, is described (instead of in scaly terms that might bother many who are unaccustomed to finding beauty in such humble places as fish) as being “packed in like feathers”.

She goes on to describe his eyes as “far larger than mine,” usually taken as a good quality, though she does qualify this line, making them “shallower, and yellowed”. It seems as though the speaker would like to raise the fish to her level, but must ultimately face the truth of reality: she is the fisher, it the catch. This goes on until she has elevated the fish still further, turning the “five big hooks” into “medals with their ribbons / frayed” and the “old pieces of fish-line” into a “beard of wisdom”. From here, she has turned this “homely” fish into a veteran of war and thus her simple catch into a feat deserving of victorious celebration. The “oil” becomes beautiful in her eyes, a “rainbow” that spreads to all around her “until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”

And finally, the anti-climactic last line: “And I let the fish go.” At first, we may wonder why the speaker does this. But upon further reflection, and a second reading, we remember that the fish “didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all.” The repetition of the lack of will on the fish’s part along with the short length of the lines adds emphasis to them. We must acknowledge, as the speaker ultimately does, that, if the fish is anthropomorphized into a noble war veteran, he must be treated as such. One can almost see it, swimming in its lake, tired of being caught, tired of being let loose, tired of being the object of human’s pleasure at his own physical expense. And just as quickly as it came, the victory has left.

On another note, related to my introduction, after reading this silently to myself and thinking about all that I have written here and more, I decided to read the poem to a friend of mine. Curiously enough, upon the first reading to them, despite the feeling I put into the reading, they (like me) didn’t follow the narrative. After reading it aloud to them a second time they were better able to understand the poem. But, I wonder why this is. Does it have to do with our disposition towards things that we listen to on a daily basis? Are we as attentive as we should be or as is required to appreciate (or even understand on a more basic level) the things we perceive? Seems like an unrelated and more philosophic point of inquiry, but it never hurts to get the wheels turning a bit. I hope you all enjoyed this poem as much as I did.

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