The Craft of Elizabeth Bishop

I have to admit to feeling some anxiety about preparing a Book Club for Poets discussion of the work of Elizabeth Bishop. In the past, I’ve taught hour-long classes on just one poem by Bishop. How could I talk in a meaningful way about “her work” in just two hours?

Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry is writing that not only bears but actually benefits from repeated close readings, our appreciation of her craft deepening each time, especially for her masterpieces, like “The Moose.” I decided that one way to prepare our discussion would be to point out the kinds of things that Bishop can teach us about working both on the small scale of line and stanza and on the large scale of patterns across an entire poem. Can we set this as a challenge for ourselves as writers—can we produce poems that are artistically satisfying, compelling, on both the small and the large scale?

In preparing for this discussion, I was struck especially by the many uses Bishop makes of repetition in her poetry. Repetition can be used to emphasize rhythm and create pattern across stanzas, as in the opening stanzas of “The Moose”:

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in
the bay not at home;

The repetition of bay in the last two lines of the second stanza are not merely repetition, in the pejorative way we use that term when, say, grading compositions. Instead, the repetition creates music, both with identical rhyme in those lines (which also rhymes with day and bay in the first stanza) and with a particular rhythm: “the bay coming in / the bay not at home.” In addition, the third stanza also begins with another dependent clause starting with where, continuing the syntactical pattern set by the first two stanzas. Another way that the third stanza repeats the work of the second is through a similar use of comparison: Stanza two compares how the river moves at rising tide and at ebbing tide. Stanza three describes how the sun looks at high tide and then at low tide: the sun “sometimes . . . sets / facing a red sea” and other times “veins . . . / rich mud in burning rivulets.” The overall effect is very balanced and calm—an almost storybook opening, which will give way to swift movement and “interruptions” and epiphanies later in the poem.

Smaller-scale repetition like this can be used also to intensify imagery, as in “At the Fishhouses.” Look at the references to color and translucence in these lines:

All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster poets, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks
is of an apparent translucence . . .

A bit later, Bishop describes other surfaces that shine in a pale, translucent way—the “layers of beautiful herring scales” that line the fish tubs and wheelbarrows, scales that look like “iridescent coats of mail, / with small iridescent flies crawling on them.” Not only does all this silver and iridescence reveal what is beautiful, even dreamlike, in an unlikely location—“down by one of the fishhouses”—but these images also intensify, by contrast, a  discordant image that soon follows: “an ancient wooden capstan” with “some melancholy stains, like dried  blood.” On the larger scale, echoes of the earlier shine and silveriness recur in the fish-scale “sequins” on the “vest” and “thumb” of the old man and, even later, on the “thin silver / tree trunks” making up the ramp that leads into the ocean, as well as “the gray stones” beneath the surface of the water. This is an important ramp: it marks the moment the poem shifts into the narrator’s meditation on the significance of the ocean and, eventually, of knowledge and time.

In a poem like “In the Waiting Room,” repetition serves another function: to evoke the perspective of a child. Note how often a form of the verb wait (which I’ve formatted in boldface) appears in the opening lines:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs . . .

This repetition works to reinforce other elements of the language that suggest a child’s voice: the short sentences of “It was winter. It got dark / early” and the parenthetic and, strictly speaking, redundant statement about a childhood milestone: “(I could read).”

The repetition of key words and images is presented quite differently later in the poem. For instance, the syntax gets more complex when the narrator contemplates what it means to be human, and we start to feel the narrator’s adult voice assert itself. Instead of following the primary pattern of the opening lines quoted above—mostly clauses beginning with subject and verb, followed by modifiers—the sentence that explores the significance of the child’s epiphany delays the appearance of the main verb, forcing the reader to complete the entire sentence to understand the full meaning of the main clause. So even though this passage echoes images that appear earlier in the poem—boots, hands, voice, National Geographic, breasts—the poem feels as though it’s doing something very different than the opening lines did:

What similarities—
boots, hands, 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?

Similarly, the final stanza repeats many details already mentioned in the poem: the city and state, the season, and the date. But now, after the child has realized that she is “an Elizabeth,” a human being among many others, the repeated details take on a charged sense of significance. How strange that the world should still be as it was:

The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

The steady, primarily iambic three-beat pattern is very strong here, and the long vowel sounds—outside, night, cold, 1918—add to the music of the lines. This is clearly not the repetition of a child’s voice but a rhetorical frame that echoes the opening of the poem while amping up the music.

Other poems in Bishop’s work repeat key phrases in this heightened way. Look again at “At the Fishhouses.” After the narrator describes the ramp leading down into the water, she calls the sea “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, / element bearable to no mortal.” Several lines later—after a funny narrative passage about a seal listening to hymns—she says, “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, / the clear gray icy water . . .” This repetition, with some variation, introduces the most meditative section of the poem, which describes the sea as “icily free above the stones.” In this section the narrator again repeats the phrase, with variation: “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.” With each repetition, each echo, the narrator moves further away from the narrative moment and deeper into her final metaphor, in which “our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.”

In the Book Club discussion, we also talked at length about the different modes Bishop uses, and these modes also form large-scale patterns in her work. In “The Moose,” the narrative of the movement through the Nova Scotia landscape is suspended by a lyric moment describing the fog, which allows the narrator an imagined intimacy with “white hens’ feathers,” “gray glazed cabbages,” and the flowers of the garden. This kinship with nature is echoed in a later moment of intimacy with nature, this time on a larger scale: the moose herself, “high as a church, / homely as a house,” brings all the passengers on the bus together in their response: “Why, why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?”

There is so much more to say about Bishop’s work. One participant e-mailed me later, saying that if I ever taught a course on Bishop to let him know. I’d welcome that opportunity, and if it comes along, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

All poems are quoted from  Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983).

© 2012 Martha Carlson-Bradley


Bishop Poems to Discuss on April 11

It’s been hard to narrow down the list of Elizabeth Bishop poems that the Book Club for Poets will discuss on April 11, 2012, but here are poems I hope to cover during out time together:

“In the Waiting Room”
“The Armadillo”
“Crusoe in England”
“The Moose”
“One Art”

As time permits, we may discuss additional poems suggested by Book Club participants, including these:

“The Fish”
“At the Fishhouses”
“Questions of Travel”
“The End of March”
“Five Flights Up”
“Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”
“Song for the Rainy Season”

We’ll meet from 7 to 9 p.m. on April 11, 2012, in the New England Room of the Danforth Library, New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire. Poets who want to discuss the craft of Bishop are welcome to attend, free of charge.

From the Poetry Foundation website:

“During her lifetime, poet Elizabeth Bishop was a respected yet somewhat obscure figure in the world of American literature. Since her death in 1979, however, her reputation has grown to the point that many critics, like Larry Rohter in the New York Times, have referred to her as ‘one of the most important American poets’ of the twentieth century.”