No sooner had I agreed to air my resistance to Elizabeth Bishop than I got cold feet. I consulted a friend whose generosity and taste are unassailable to talk me through it.
X: Only a mean person would declare Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry safer than Ambien.
ME: I do feel a bit furtive, wondering if declaring myself will make friends of mine that are friends of hers new enemies of mine. Surely they will question my judgment, my refinement. There have even been times when I’ve defended her poems — because we do have other antagonisms in common.
X: But a common enemy doesn’t always make one friends.
ME: Right. Oh dear. All this talk about enemies and friends! As if there were actual hate involved, which there isn’t.
X: Therein lies the problem.
ME: When I despise poets, it’s usually because they’ve thrust their secrets on me in a ritualized self-shaming that is not cathartic for me or morally absolving for them. Bishop never commits that error. When I disdain poems, it’s often because they have “a palpable design on us,” as Keats put it. Bishop’s never do. But sometimes I will have my expectations overturned by a poem that spills its guts in a new and interesting way, or a poem that ambushes me with an ultimatum which proves too ravishing to deny. Astonish me, the old Modernists used to say. I can be won over by a stylish poem that is full of life. Bishop’s are full of — observations.
X: So you’re saying that she never upends your expectations.
ME: That’s a good way to put it.
X: Do you object to observations, descriptions?
ME: Forms cast as observations. Some people love her forms; I find them rote — “Songs for a Colored Singer.” “In Bedlam.” Forms checked off a list, kept at arm’s length, like “Sestina,” whose muted permutations hang rocks on my eyelids.
X: Sedative. Somnifère.
ME: Some are chummier, like “In the Waiting Room,” another conventional poem that seems of all her poems like the worst sort of compromise — neither garbage-picking Confessional nor up to the standards of “At the Fishhouses,” “The Bight,” and “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”
X: So those are the Bishop poems you like.
ME: The texture in those poems is dense and strong. Like tweed. In heather hue: small weave of color like the shore in “Sandpiper.”
X: People are attracted to her natural, conversational style. It undercuts her cerebralism. Her modesty makes her braininess OK.
ME: It’s true, we pretend to judge poems but we really judge the poet behind them, or what appears to be their congeniality.
X: You were never Miss Congeniality, I take it.
ME: But didn’t you find, when Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments came out six years ago, the teapot tempest that ensued was baffling? The conviction that Bishop’s integrity would be damaged by publication of the official poetry’s “maimed and stunted siblings” (Helen Vendler’s description in the New Republic) suggested only one thing — that some people are deeply invested in managing the messiness of creativity. (You see this with criticisms of the complete Larkin now — a body of work must be manageable! Don’t waste the casual reader’s time with anything but the best!) The old saw about poems never being finished, only abandoned, seemed to have been forgotten in the rush to preserve Bishop’s legacy as a poet of sterling sensibility, chiseling masterpieces over many years that, when finally unveiled, could have had no other outcome.
X: One must defend the brand!
ME: The problem is, this is sheer rationalism. Poetry critics today are afflicted by rationalism. What educated, logical, well-fed person would object to what Bishop said in a conversation with Wesley Wehr in 1966: “People seem to think that doing something like writing a poem makes one happier in life. It doesn’t solve anything. Perhaps it does at least give one the satisfaction of having done a thing well or having put in a good day’s work.”
X: Maybe she was being tongue-in-cheek.
ME: Would Mandelstam have spoken like this? Villon? Sappho? Her friend and mentor Marianne Moore has a reputation for fastidiousness, but was capable of real weirdness (as in “An Octopus”) as well as rigor (Bishop herself called Moore’s craft a “musical inaudible abacus”). Poetry didn’t make Sylvia Plath happier, but she wanted to consume the universe with her verbs. Her ambition energizes. Next to either of them, Bishop looks wishy-washy. I’m Saint Paul spitting out the lukewarm here.
X: OK, but I know you like craft. You’d rather have craft than no-craft.
ME: Actually I don’t like craft that isn’t part of the drama of the poem. Unobtrusive craft, craft that assumes its own naturalization into the order of things, is dissembling.
X: But then there’s her unhappy childhood. I think that her caution, and competence, and control, emerged from the hurt of being an orphan. “One Art” suggests as much...
ME: Maybe there are arterial poets, who flush oxygen into the art, and venous poets who bear tired blood back to the heart.
X: Bishop is a venous poet.