Poetry News

Elizabeth Bishop's Geography

By Harriet Staff

When we look at a map, what do we really see? Is there such thing as cartographic neutrality? An essay on the Paris Review website dwells on Elizabeth Bishop's geographic poems, and how her perspective is less removed than it may initially seem.

As a prelude to her 1976 collection of poems, Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop quotes a kind of catechism from a textbook titled First Lessons in Geography: “What is Geography?” it asks. “A description of the Earth’s surface,” it answers. “What is a Map?” “A picture of the whole, or a part, of the Earth’s surface.” “Of what is the Earth’s surface composed?” “Land and water.” It’s as if neutrality, a false remove, is something maps cultivate about themselves: a necessary fiction.

Bishop’s poetry deals crucially in the same illusion of neutrality centering on the idea of description. The first poem in her first collection, North and South, published in 1946, is called “The Map,” and it is as fortunate an introduction a reader could ask for to the concerns that would mark all of Bishop’s work. It examines a world map with incremental care, noting the map’s colors and the placement of its text, drawing associations in its forms. From the poem’s first line—“Land lies in water”—to its last—“More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors”—she echoes the questions in First Lessons in Geography and depicts herself as the mapmaker of the poet she would be.

Read the full article here.

(And if you just want to listen to the Yeah Yeah Yeah's song referenced in the article's first paragraph, here you go.)

Originally Published: September 6th, 2012