"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 1

As I did in March with Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Moose," I am going to post a series of short pieces that comprise a reading of her story "In the Village." While not as detailed as the reading of "The Moose," I hope it will add some insight into the sources and structure of this poetic masterpiece.

Great Village around the turn of the twentieth century. Bishop's grandparents' home is the small house on the left of this image.

In contrast to the poem “The Moose,” it took Elizabeth Bishop only a few days to write “In the Village.” Arguably one of the most important works of art of the late twentieth century, “In the Village” evokes the time, place, people and events of Bishop’s Great Village childhood in language both sensuous and haunting.

Bishop always said that “In the Village” was “completely autobiographical” (One Art 291), but it is not simply a factual account of her early life. Yet when “In the Village” is read something essentially truthful is learned about who Bishop was. However, because “In the Village” speaks so powerfully about a particular experience in profoundly organic language, this work of art also operates on a universal level. For example, each reader knows love and loss in some way; humanity’s history can be viewed in part as a record of love and loss. “In the Village” is about a particular love and loss, but because Bishop evokes it so honestly, humanely and elementally, all love and loss are implicated.

What follows here and in subsequent posts is an exploration of the structure and texture of “In the Village.” This reading will focus on form: What genre is “In the Village”? a short story, memoir, reminiscence, prose poem? How does Bishop select, combine and unfold the myriad details of time, place, people, event? How does she transcend them? This reading will also focus on language ─ the way a vocabulary of the senses emerges and evolves: the way sight, sound, taste, touch and smell (the elements of human perception) connect with earth, air, fire and water (the elements of nature). And how both of these realms speak to the emotional elements of life and death: love, grief, joy, fear, hope and so on.

Structure: The Genre Question

Elizabeth Bishop usually argued, “I’m not really a story writer...never meant to be at all” (One Art 285). Her Collected Prose shows, however, that she spent a good deal of time writing prose of one sort or another. Some of her prose pieces are essentially fiction (e.g., “The Baptism,” “The Sea & Its Shore,” “In Prison,” “The Farmer’s Children” and “The Housekeeper”), but they are not conventional short stories in part because Bishop incorporated many factual, even autobiographical, elements into them. “The Baptism,” for example, is substantially derived from experiences Bishop witnessed or heard about during her Great Village childhood. “In Prison” is a slightly surreal evocation of what it means to be a writer (though Bishop never names herself as that writer), derived in large part from a series of personal experiences (trips, dreams, memories), which Bishop herself had and wrote about in journals and letters.

Further, Bishop’s stories often have a parable-like quality. For all the literalness of the details, Bishop allows these details to function as signs or symbols for larger issues ─ though she rarely uses them to make overt moral statements or judgements. “The Sea & Its Shore” is about a solitary man trying to cope, not very successfully, with an overwhelming world. While clearly an imagined scenario, even here Bishop draws on her own life. She names this man Edwin Boomer, a rather obvious cypher for Elizabeth Bishop. Boomer’s experiences are often traceable to Bishop’s own, but they also resonate as allegory for the larger world. “The Farmer’s Children” is a moral or cautionary tale, but it too was triggered by ‘real life’ ─ a newspaper account Bishop read. She also incorporated many personal childhood symbols into this story and lets this mix of personal and public run to the larger issues of childhood generally.

Thus, even her ostensibly fictional stories derived in significant ways from actual or dream experiences. The fictionalizing functions in part as a kind of cloak to cover the more obvious elements of fact (autobiographical or otherwise) ─ or as a kind of vehicle to take the facts beyond their literal confines and into the larger realm of allegory. For Bishop, the source of art was a place in the mind and on the page where sensory experience, memory, dream and imagination converged.

By far, most of Bishop’s prose writing was non-fiction: accounts of the people, places and events of her life. However, all her non-fiction reaches beyond mere reportage. It often enters the realm of meditation, or, as Bishop called it, “contemplation.” Bishop’s non-fiction writing includes travelogue (“To the Botequim & Back” and “A Trip to Vigia”); memoir (“Gregorio Valdes,” “Mercedes Hospital,” “Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore” and “Memories of Uncle Neddy”); and autobiography. This latter category is the largest of Bishop’s non-fiction writing. Indeed, she wrote the autobiography of her childhood and young adulthood in a series of discrete stories (some of which she never finished or published). Those she published (in the order of childhood chronology) were: “In the Village,” “Primer Class,” “Gwendolyn,” “The Country Mouse” [*Note below] and “The U.S.A. School of Writing.”

“In the Village” is included in this list because it is the central work connected to Bishop’s childhood ─ and, as mentioned above, Bishop always stated that it was “entirely, not partly, autobiographical” (One Art 477). Yet Bishop also knew that “In the Village,” in spite of its myriad details, was not simply a conventional retelling of the facts of her early life, or even a straight forward rendering of her memories. Bishop always called “In the Village” a story, but she also referred to it as “prose-poetry” (One Art 272), “poetic prose” (One Art 291) and “a prose-poem” (One Art 431).

“Story” is a word which can be applied to both fiction and non-fiction. The Concise Oxford defines it as “an account of imaginary or past events; a narrative, tale, or anecdote.” Bishop often said of her poetry and prose that the events she described actually happened, that much of what she wrote was factual, or as close to fact as she could make it. Yet she often set these happenings and facts in imaginative narratives, which resonate with the facts in complex ways. In essence, all of Bishop’s prose writings are stories. She preferred to explore and contemplate “the human situation” (Letter to Anne Stevenson) through a story rather than through exposition or commentary. Thus, even autobiography incorporates techniques of fiction or drama (e.g., the use of monologue or dialogue, character and plot development). Another way Bishop turned what might have been mere exposition into story was by using the kind of language structures she employed in her poetry (e.g., figurative techniques such as simile, metaphor, alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia). Read aloud, her stories possess cadences and rhythms which are more commonly found in poetry. It can be said, too, that reversely Bishop's poems often possess prosaic qualities (e.g., colloquial or idiomatic vocabulary, direct speech literally in quotation marks, long lines with lots of dependent clauses).

What all this means is that while Bishop acknowledged that there are two general categories in writing ─ prose and poetry ─ she regularly brought together elements from both. Just as the source for her art was the convergence of senses, memory, imagination and dream, so the source for the form of her art was a kind of convergence of poetry and prose.

In the case of “In the Village,” Bishop herself acknowledged that its genre was more “prose-poetry” than straight prose. M.H. Abrams defines “prose poem” as “densely compact, pronouncedly rhythmic and highly sonorous compositions which are written as a continuous sequence of sentences without line breaks” (A Glossary of Literary Terms 151). Technically, by this definition, “In the Village” is not a prose poem (for one thing, it is too long); but parts of it, such as the opening section, are very much a version of Abrams’s definition. However, in some way clear to Bishop, “In the Village” is not a typical story even in her unusual prose oeuvre. Bishop was a poet of hybrid genres, combining aspects of poetry and prose in ways which are both startling and effective. Bishop offered no stated treatise on what she was doing technically, or why she was doing it. She was suspicious of generalizations and explanations. She wanted her poems and stories to speak for themselves ─ and they do so, idiosyncratically. “In the Village” is a master work of memory and imagination. In it Bishop determined to use all the techniques of form which best served her story, regardless of what realm ─ poetry or prose ─ they came from. In the next parts of this reading, I will dig deeper into these ideas and this story.

*Note: Bishop started a story about her years living in Revere, MA, in the 1920s with her Aunt Maude and Uncle George, titled "Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs," but she never finished it.

To hear Halifax, N.S., storyteller Claire Miller read “In the Village,” visit the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia website at: www.elizabethbishopns.org/media.html

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