Prose from Poetry Magazine

Safer Than Ambien

Reconsidering Elizabeth Bishop.

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 

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.

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2013

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

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  1. January 4, 2013
     lawrence guinchard

    The virtue of this dialogue is that I now know the name of
    a prescription soporific, however, I'd advise any user of
    this drug to read this review of the works of Ms Bishop as
    I'm sure sleep will soon follow.

  2. January 8, 2013
     Russ Kesler

    It seems inevitable that the word would eventually appear in Ms. Mlinko's piece: "ambition." Plath is lauded because her poems are ambitious. Bishop's poems, apparently (because they are mere "observations?"), are not ambitious. Would that more poets might aspire to poems that are not outwardly ambitious--that do not set out to ravish us with their music/wisdom/nameyourdesire. Is the implied corollary of a poem's lack of ambition self-satisfaction? Bishop's poems will long outlast Plath's, quiet though they are.

  3. January 11, 2013

    It would seem rationality is a door that Bishop's foot refuses to let close on her poetry. Of course, concluding her poem At The Fishhouses, there’s that all-to-familiar epigrammatic knowledge-stopper: "our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown." But even within the seemingly hard, unyielding frames of her more formal poems, the reader finds the pulse of a dynamic, evolving half-knowledge. We can see this in her Sestina, where the almanac states: “I know what I know, says the almanac;” but, with the almanac hanging by its string on the grandmother's kitchen wall, above the child drawing with crayons “a rigid house and a winding pathway,” the narration counters or conditions this truth statement:

    But secretly, while the grandmother
    busies herself about the stove,
    the little moons fall down like tears
    from between the pages of the almanac
    into the flower bed the child
    has carefully placed in the front of the house.

    Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
    The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
    and the child draws another inscrutable house.

    We may know what we know, but our little celestial spheres of half-knowledge hung in the vaults of reason and rationality must always fall, falling into the flowerbeds of our constructions, even if they are somewhat inscrutable. And so, I don’t see in Bishop a reach for the sheerly disinterested, ghostly Cartesian cogito but rather a sort of "intellectual grit" -- a capacity to reason that is relationally grounded in our finite senses.

    Bishop’s poems never attempt to merely describe things as is; they travel along the warp and woof of the perception of our surroundings – “dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.”

  4. January 11, 2013
     Henry Gould

    In 1966 lots of poetry gurus, of every "school", were crossing the land.
    Bishop's comment to Wesley Wehr sounds like an old New England
    tonic to all that, as well as to the Confessionals (for whom poetry-
    making had to be something hugely spectacular, public & cathartic).

    On another note, I was struck by this statement : "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." This is diametrically opposed to the ancient dictum of
    Horace : ars est celare artem (art is to hide art). Not that Horace is
    right, & Mlinko is wrong : it's just an interesting contrast. I do think
    the equipoise which Bishop achieves - when she blends a very plain,
    straightforward, understated manner, with some very ornate forms
    (sestinas & such) - works pretty well.

  5. January 12, 2013
     Michael Gushue

    "As I speak, blood is coursing through our bodies. As it moves away
    from the heart it marches to 2/4 or 4/4 beat and it's arterial blood,
    reoxygenated, assertive, active, progressive, optimistic. When it
    reaches our extremities and turns towards home--the heart--well, it's
    nostalgic, it's venous blood (as in veins), it's tired, wavelike, rising and
    falling, fighting against gravity and inertia, and it moves to the beat of
    a waltz, a 3/4 beat, a little off, really homesick now, and full of longing.
    When we first write our poems, how arterial they seem! And when we
    go back to them, how venous they seem!" Mary Ruefle, On

  6. January 13, 2013
     Michael Gushue

    "When we first write our poems, how arterial they seem! And when we
    go back to them, how venous they seem!" -Mary Ruefle, On

    Maybe every poet is both.

  7. January 14, 2013
     Thomas DeFreitas

    I've never liked Elizabeth Bishop's poetry all that
    much, and I could never quite place my finger on
    precisely why that should be. Ms Mlinko's adjective
    "lukewarm" comes close to capturing it. I find Miss
    Bishop to be prim and cautious, although the reader who
    is more attentive than I might note a few moments of

    Bishop can do several things that I can't do: she
    describes things beautifully -- that prose poem in
    Geography III is quite ingenious, and for some reason
    the lines in "At the Fishhouses," about the Christmas
    trees that stand "waiting for Christmas" give me a
    salutary chill. But -- if one may continue the
    temperature imagery -- reading the bulk of Bishop's work
    is like entering a spiritual tepidarium.

    But I do like "One Art" for its accessibility-within-
    formality, if I'm phrasing it correctly.

  8. February 25, 2013
     Leslie Cheung

    If this isn't anxiety of influence I don't know what is. I have a hard time looking at Ange Mlinko's poetry and not thinking of the stylings of Elizabeth Bishop.

  9. March 1, 2013
     tim dyson

    I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry. The art of description is the key to it. She was able to give us such a clear view of her world. What you see, feel and hear affects what you write. If you can relate that in an artful manner to the world of the reader, you are a good writer. Bishop was a master of taking you into her world. Whether one finds it interesting or not, you must acknowledge her mastery.

    It's amazing how much has been written about a little woman who only published about a hundred poems.

  10. September 2, 2013
     Cory Ferrer

    While not all of Bishop's poems grab me, I object to the assertion that she was not capable of genuine weirdness.

    Please check out her prose poems, "Rainy Season; Subtropics," and "The Hanging of the Mouse."