Ellen Bryant Voigt on the Craft of Syntax

file00089154203When a poet doesn’t want to explore sentence structure in poetry, I opined at the last Book Club for Poets discussion, it’s as serious as saying that he or she isn’t interested in imagery or metaphor or alliteration. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax offers numerous examples of the ways in which syntax is a powerful poetic tool: it heightens the music and rhythm of a poem, affects the pacing and unfolding of ideas and images, creates and varies patterns of language, and reinforces or plays against the unit of the line. And this tool is as essential in free verse as it is in metrical verse. Voigt says toward the end of the book,

It’s true that during the twentieth century, coincident with a greater tolerance for dissonance in all the arts, more room was sought for asymmetry and variation in poetry, but this now seems less a revolution than an evolution of aesthetic intent. And after one hundred years of free verse invention and mastery, contemporary poets need not focus solely on lineation … Lineation affords quite evident and audible opportunities for making pattern, and we will and should go on exploring them all. But it’s useful to remember that other sorts of pattern are also there for us to use—rhythms inherent to the language we write in, the source of its muscle and sinew and music, its clarity and its resonance and its power. (144)

Those patterns-beneath-the-patterns are what we focused on in our discussion of The Art of Syntax. In Donald Justice’s “To the Hawks,” for instance, the sentence structure creates certain kinds of repetition and variation, in addition to the more obvious couplets and internal rhymes. Voigt notes, for instance, that the poem both begins and ends with sentences that are complete, end-stopped, within the couplet stanza (101–102; 108). Here are the opening stanzas:

Farewell is the bell
Beginning to ring.

The children singing
Do not year hear it.

And here are the concluding stanzas:

Her mouth is open
To sound the alarm.

The mouth of the world
Grows round with the sound.

In between this opening and ending, the sentences begin to overflow the unit of the couplet, so that the fourth and fifth sentences are much longer (104): the fifth sentence is over ten lines long; the fifth, eight lines. The syntax also becomes more complex, including “hypotaxis” (sentences that include both a main and dependent clauses) (104-105):

… The sun Is in fact shining
Upon the schoolyard,

On children swinging
Like tongues of a bell

Swung out on the long
Arc of a silence

That will not seem to
Have been a silence

Till it is broken
As it is breaking.

Justice’s poem also shows how syntax can unfold in a way that puts particular emphasis on an image. See how the delayed predicate in these lines emphasizes “farewell”:

The young schoolteacher,
Waving one arm in

Time to the music,
Is waving farewell.

What Voigt calls a “violent enjambment” (107) also slows our comprehension of what is happening here: “Waving one arm in” seems to be a description of movement—as in, I’m not waving my arm outward toward the world but inward, toward myself or toward the interior of a building. But the rest of the sentence “corrects” this initial reading: the teacher is waving “in / Time to the music.” After that momentary adjustment, our minds are hit with the final line and, with it, the reality of what’s happening in the poem: students and teacher in a schoolyard being interrupted mid-gesture, mid-song, as a nuclear bomb hits.

In our discussion, we also spent time reviewing statements Voigt makes about English in particular—that it is a language that relies on the stress of syllables to create meaning and that our syntax depends heavily on the order of words in a sentence (rather than word endings to indicate “subject,” “direct object” and so on). What all this means is that the tension between metrical patterns and speech rhythms is particularly marked in English. I have already discussed meter and syntax—quoting Voigt—in my post about Larkin’s “The Trees” and “Cut Grass,” so for now I’ll point out what Voigt notices about the “flexible grid” (54) that meter often has to be in English poetry, as illustrated in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29.” She notes how the Bard slowly unfolds the “fundament” of subject and predicate, delaying the completion of his first sentence—while varying the iambic pattern in virtually every line of the poem (54-61). Try reading the poem aloud and listen especially for the bunched stresses, as in men’s eyes, outcast state, deaf heaven.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising
Haply I think on thee—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Do you see it? The first main clause of the poem does not appear until line 10: “Haply I think on thee—” And at this point, the entire mood of the poem also shifts, from despair to joy. What also anticipates this shift—in terms of sound—is the truly iambic rhythm of “With what I most enjoy contented least,” which Voigt identifies as “the poem’s first exactly iambic pentameter line, one that is completely consistent with lexical, syntactical, and rhetorical stresses” (57-58). This line concludes the poem’s opening octave, and the following sestet also ends with a line in which the spoken rhythms of English match the abstract pattern of iambic pentameter: “That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” The emotional resolution of the poem is mirrored by the regularity of the iambic pentameter, which gives the poem what Voigt calls its “unmistakable and gratifying closure” (61). Far from being a “flaw” in English poetry, this tension between meter and syntax gives poets an opportunity to embody and resolve tension and drama.

For this session of the Book Club for Poets, we had time not only to look at one of Voigt’s own poems in terms of its syntax but also to do a writing exercise ourselves. I’m hoping to do more exercises in the future.

We were also so taken with Donald Justice’s poems in Voigt’s discussions that we decided to discuss Justice’s Collected Poems (Knopf, 2006) for our April 16, 2013, meeting. If you have favorite poems within the collection, let me know, and I’ll try to fit them into our discussion.


Voigt, Ellen Bryant. The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song. (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2009).

© 2013 Martha Carlson-Bradley


The Craft of Jane Hirshfield

The Book Club for Poets had decided, months ago, to discuss the work of whichever poet won the 2012 Donald Hall–Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. That poet turned out to be Jane Hirshfield, and in many ways, this “chance” selection seemed uncannily appropriate for us. While expressing her own distinct voice, Hirshfield’s poetry also echoes many of the qualities we find in the work of poets we’ve already discussed, such as the spirituality of Li-Young Lee’s work and the gnomic quality we noted in both Kay Ryan’s and Emily Dickinson’s poems. The Book Club also benefited from the many interviews Hirshfield has given and the essays she has published. Two in particular—“Spiritual Poetry” and “Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking”—amplified points we made in our summer discussion about how craft can help us express the inexpressible.

In my summer post about Li-Young Lee’s poems, I focused on two of the techniques identified by Mary Johnson as ways of expressing spiritual experiences—rhetoric and paradox. In “Spiritual Poetry,” Hirshfield identifies further techniques, such as expressions of “abundance” and the use of dialogue. We see dialogue in “The Promise,” for example, in which the narrator of the poem engages in a one-sided conversation with several actors in her world—flowers, a spider, a leaf, her own body, the earth itself. Each time she commands “Stay,” these actors immediately change or flee. Especially effective, I think, is the metaphor that compares the inconstancy of the speaker’s own body to the well-meaning but futile—and comic—attempts of a dog to obey its master:

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

The one exception to the pattern of failure are the human “loves” of the speaker, who come in at the conclusion of the poem:

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,

The rhetorical device of repetition—Stay, Stay, Stay—at the beginning of the first five stanzas heightens the effect of each disappointing response and gives an ambiguity to that promise of the lovers in the final stanza. It’s possible to read that Always as a promise doomed to failure. (Like the cut flowers, no human lover is immortal.) Or we can interpret that Always as the exception to the rule: love outlasts even the people who inspired it and shared it with us. Or we can see both endings as true, simultaneously.

Several other Hirshfield poems we discussed use dialogue, such as “Bruises,” which addresses the narrator’s aging body and possibly an aging lover, and “Shadow: An Assay,” which explores several possible roles and meanings of the narrator’s shadow.

Much of what Hirshfield has said in print focuses perhaps less on specific ways of using language and more on the attitude of the poet toward the world. “Permeability,” for example, might mean allowing an image to contain multiple meanings. (“The moon in Japanese poetry is always the moon; often it is also the image of Buddhist awakening,” she notes in “Spiritual Poetry.”) But permeability is also an openness to all aspects of experience. “If a life is walled so tightly that it lets in no pain, grief, anger, or longing,” Hirshfield says in “Spiritual Poetry,” “it will also be closed to the entrance of what is most wanted.“ A poem that illustrates this willingness to be open is “A Blessing for Wedding,” which also demonstrates the technique of “abundance.” In the poem, the narrator lists images taken from someone’s wedding day:

Today when persimmons ripen
Today when fox-kits come out of their den into snow
Today when the spotted egg releases its wren song
Today when the maple sets down its red leaves
Today when windows keep their promise to open
Today when fire keeps its promise to warm …

We noted, during our Book Club discussion, that the imagery is satisfying not only for its precision but also for its surprises (the egg releasing not a wren but its song) and for subtle echoes and variations: the red of the fox kits is echoed in the maple’s leaves and the fire, for example; the cold of the snow is balanced by the warmth of the fire, and the ripening of the persimmon is balanced by the dying of the leaves. The abundance and fullness of the images in the poem help create a sense of “the richness of all that passes—a passing we know ourselves part of” (Hirshfield, “Spiritual Poetry”). But the when the listing continues, the narrator does not censor out aspects of life that we might normally consider inappropriate for a wedding day:

Today when someone you love has died
or someone you never met has died
Today when someone you love has been born
or someone who will not meet has been born
Today when rain leaps to the waiting of roots in their dryness
Today when starlight bends to the roofs of the hungry and tired
Today when someone sits long inside his last sorrow
Today when someone steps into the heat of her first embrace.

It’s not that the images get increasingly ominous here: instead, the speaker alternates between death and birth, drought and rain, hunger and starlight, sorrow and embrace. What the narrator is wishing for the married couple is not just happiness but fullness of experience. Only by being open can the couple fully experience their marriage, which must include joy and grief, sensuality and mortality: “Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly / Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears …”

Similar to permeability are the modes of expression that Hirshfield identifies in “Two Secrets.” These modes concern specific language techniques but focus even more on the poet’s attitude toward—relationship to—the outer world. Here is how Hirshfield defines these “inward and outward” looking modes:

Outer images carry reflective and indirect meanings as well. Poems … generally take one of three possible stances. In the first stance [subjective mode], outer reference serves the poet’s interior thinking: the world beyond the self appears, but the relationship is that of monologue, with a human-centered consciousness dominating. In the second stance [reflective mode], the poet and the outer world stand face to face in mutual regard; out of that meeting, the poem’s statements arise. Here the relationship is that of dialogue, with the wider world treated as both equal and other. In the third stance [objective mode], the poet becomes an intermediary, a medium through whom the world of objects and nature beyond human consciousness may speak; in poetry’s transparent and active transcription, language itself becomes an organ of perception. (131. Boldface added throughout. Phrases in brackets are Hirshfield’s terms, which appear also on 131.)

These modes are beautifully illustrated in Hirshfield’s own “Love in August.” The first stanza is written in objective mode, or “pure observation,” which, she says, is rare—in terms of entire poems being written in this mode—outside “Buddhist and Taoist traditions” (141). And, in fact, this stanza does read like a haiku:

White moths
against the screen
in August darkness.

This is a scene that will no doubt seem familiar to us, though the short lines focus our attention intently on each individual component of the image: the “white moths” seen first in isolation, then in location (“against the screen”), and then in contrast to the “darkness” of an August night. It’s hard for our metaphor-loving minds not to read significance into the ending of summer and into moths themselves, but the language is focused on the visual image of something in the “outer” world.

The even shorter second stanza is written in subjective mode: “Some clamor / in envy.” The narrator is projecting the human emotion of envy onto nonhuman creatures. It’s an imaginative leap that works, I think, to convey the restlessness and persistence of moths in response to a light they cannot reach. In less-skillful hands such anthropomorphizing runs the “risk,” as Hirshfield puts it, of “sentimental fog” and “solipsism” (“Two Secrets,” 131). But in “Love in August,” the poet uses the subjective mode with restraint and for the purpose of expressing the outer world vividly rather than using the outer world to look only inward.

The final stanza demonstrates the reflective mode—in which the nonhuman and human appear in equal stature, revealing something about both inward and outward realities, and the relationship between them:

Some spread large
as two hands
of a thief

who wants to put
back in your cupboard
the long-taken silver.

Because human interpretation is included here, we understand the relevance of the images, of the moths, to the human narrator: the moths themselves are a gift, and seeing them this clearly creates a sense of something being restored to us. But the moths are themselves “only”—and wholly—moths: though compared to something human, they aren’t forced to personify the narrator’s emotion or to suggest a reality “more important” than they are. It’s that intersection of the human and nonhuman—on the thinness of a screen—that is the gift.

In previous postings about our Book Club discussions, I’ve talked about the power of pattern and repetition in poetry. “Love in August” illustrates the power of variation. The layering and shifting of modes create much of our experience as readers of this poem. Consider how much the poem would lose if it were rewritten, for example, only in subjective or objective mode. Or think how less intense the poem would be if it didn’t contain the objective mode in the first stanza.

I think also that it’s important for us as poets to periodically ask the “big picture” questions about our craft. What do our own poems reveal about how we see our relationship to the outer world? And can we try to see the world in more varied ways?


Hirshfield, Jane. “A Blessing for Wedding.” In Come, Thief, 59. New York: Knopf, 2012.

———. “Love in August.” In Come, Thief, 28. New York: Knopf, 2012.

———. “The Promise.” In Come, Thief, 22.New York: Knopf, 2012.

———. “Spiritual Poetry,  Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/178390; originally published June 28, 2006.

———. “Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking.” In Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, 125-52. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

© 2012 Martha Carlson-Bradley

Some lines by Jane Hirshfield

A sweater takes on the shape of its wearer,
a coffee cup sits to the left or the right of the workplace,
making its pale Saturn rings of now and before.

—from “Sweater,” in Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield

The next meeting of the Book Club for Poets will meet on October 16, 2012, to discuss Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield. The discussion starts at 7 p.m. in the New England Room in Danforth Library, New England College, Henniker, NH. The discussion, designed for practicing poets at all levels, is free and open to the public.

Saying the Unsayable—Li-Young Lee’s Poetry

When I’m asked to define poetry, I like to say that poetry is the use of language to express experiences beyond the ordinary scope of language. This way of thinking about poetry, it seems to me, includes the widest possible range of styles and schools of poetry. And this definition is especially relevant when we think about poets who focus on spiritual or mystical experiences, the way Li-Young Lee often does in his writing.

In the Valparaiso Review, Hila Ratzabi comments that Li-Young Lee “is not only one of our best contemporary poets of the sacred; he is an authentic mystic, in the classical sense of the mystic who uses language to access a realm beyond language.” When reading Lee’s books for our Book Club for Poets discussion, I remembered a wonderful class I took with Mary Johnson, author of An Unquenchable Thirst; her Writing Beyond the Senses class was offered during the New Hampshire Writers’ Project’s 2011 Writers’ Day conference. It occurred to me that many of the techniques Johnson discussed for “expressing transcendent experiences” are illustrated beautifully in Lee’s poems.

Among the techniques that Johnson mentioned in our class were paradox, metaphor, and “wisdom’s voice,” which (for our Book Club for Poets discussion) I called “rhetoric”—the skillful use of word choice and syntax for artistic effect, especially when the effects resemble those of the Bible and other spiritual texts. For today, I’ll be focusing on rhetoric and paradox.

Let’s look at rhetoric first. In “Persimmons,” a poem in Rose, Lee’s first book, the poet concludes the poem with elements of what Johnson calls “wisdom’s voice”:

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

The Oh recalls other poems and spiritual texts, like the Bible. (A quick online search in the King James Bible shows that “oh” is used ten times in the Book of Job alone, and in eleven of the Psalms, among many other passages.) And, as the Bible often does, this final stanza of the poem uses listing—or “litany,” as Johnson puts it—as a rhetorical device, in this case, a list of noun phrases: the strength, the tense / precision; scent of the hair, texture of persimmons, the weight. The last line also shows how effective variation within repetition can be. Hear what would be lost if Lee had too strictly followed the noun–prepositional phrase pattern in the last thee lines:

scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
the ripe weight in your palm.

This isn’t bad, but the inversion of the phrases in the last line, as Lee wrote it, keeps the pattern from sounding too predictable and also puts the emphasis on the physical sensation of the persimmon in the palm—ending the poem with the ripe weight. This is the phrase and the image that lingers in our minds.

Another poem that the Book Club discussed, “Become Becoming,” also uses repetition and variation very successfully. Many of the lines have similar beginnings:

Wait for evening.
Then you’ll be alone.

Wait for the playground to empty.
Then call out those companions from childhood:

The one who closed his eyes
and pretended to be invisible.
The one to whom you told every secret.
The one who made a world of any hiding place.

And don’t forget the one who listened in silence …

In teaching poetry workshops, I’ve often been surprised by how powerful simple anaphora can be. I’ve asked participants to write five or six short, related sentences—and to then experiment by writing “And” before each one. The pattern, with its echoes of Whitman and the Bible, almost always gives a text gravitas and makes it sound like a poem. The effect is so immediate that it almost seems like cheating. What Lee does here is more complicated than simple anaphora. He repeats syntactical structures (clauses in imperative mood starting with wait; clauses that begin with then; noun phrases starting with the one) but alternates between them. The last line quoted above—“And don’t forget the one who listened in silence”—combines two forms that appear above it: the imperative command in “And don’t forget” echoes the “wait” clauses while the line also includes another “the one who” phrase. Some readers have interpreted the imperative mode and use of lists as Lee’s use of the language of self-help books, and passages in poems like “Immigrant Blues” certainly borrow phrases typical of self-help texts. But the imperative is also the language of prayer: Give us this day our daily bread. / And forgive us our trespasses …

The final lines of “Become Becoming” create a startling metaphor that is also paradoxical:

Then you’ll remember your life
as a book of candles,
each page read by the light of its own burning.

The book is simultaneously read and destroyed—the way our lives are most fully fixed in our minds, that is, comprehended, when we also understand that they are fleeting. Another poem that concludes with paradox is “Falling: The Code”:

… and dream I know

the meaning of what I hear, each dull
thud of unseen apple-

body, the earth
falling to earth

once and forever, over
and over.

How can “the earth fall to earth”? How can something that occurs “once and forever” also occur “over and over”? And yet, if we see the apple as a product of the earth, this falling makes perfect sense. And if we imagine multiple apples falling, what happens “once” in a single apple’s existence occurs “over and over” as each individual apple joins its mates in falling. Earlier in the poem, the narrator has invited us to compare the apples to “bruised bodies,” who, like humans, can feel “the terror of diving through the air” and yet, in daylight, “all look alike.” It’s not much of a leap to imagine individual human lives “falling to earth / once and forever, over / and over.” It’s to Lee’s credit that he allows his readers have this recognition on our own. We get to interpret the imagery instead of having the poet do it for us.

When I read Lee’s poetry, it strikes me afresh that poetry in general—not just mystic poetry—uses language to create experiences beyond the scope of ordinary language. It is through the structures and patterns of language, not just imagery, not just ideas, that we create experiences for our readers.

Poems Cited

Li-Young Lee. “Become Becoming.”  Behind My Eyes (New York: Norton, 2008), 21–22.

———. “Falling: The Code.” Rose (Brockport, N.Y.: 1986), 28–29.

———. “Persimmons.” Rose (Brockport, N.Y.: 1986), 17–19.

© 2012 Martha Carlson-Bradley

July 17, 2012, Discussion of Li-Young Lee

ImageOn Tuesday, July 17, 2012, the Book Club for Poets will be discussing poems by Li-Young Lee, in the Sayce Lounge, 4th floor of the Simon Center, New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire, 7-9 p.m. Here are some links to several of Li-Young Lee’s poems. If you have a particular favorite that you’d like to discuss, please let me know.

“A Table in the Wilderness”
“Black Petal”
“Immigrant Blues”
“The Children’s Hour”
“The Cleaving”
“The Hour and What Is Dead” (also audio)

(from www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/291)

“A Hymn to Childhood”
“Arise, Go Down”
“Early in the Morning”
“Eating Together”
“Falling: The Code”
“From Blossoms”
“Have You Prayed”
“Immigrant Blues”
“Little Ache”
“Little Father”
“Secret Life”
“The Cleaving”
“The Gift”
“This Hour and What Is Dead”
“This Room and Everything in It”

(from www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/li-young-lee#about)

“Become Becoming”
“From Blossoms”
“Night Mirror”
“One Heart”
“Out of Hiding”
“Praise Them”

(from www.poetry-chaikhana.com/L/LeeLiYoung)

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