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

Monday, April 18, 2022

Review of Jonathan Post’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2022) by Angus Cleghorn

This very long series of over 700 volumes may not always be introductory. Such is the case with this fine book by Jonathan F. S. Post, Distinguished Research Professor of English at UCLA. The writing is clear enough for an introductory reader and compounded by expertise that displays knowledge of English poetic history as well as Bishop’s oeuvre. I was happy to bounce around from poem to poem to consider similarities and developments. A first-year college reader might drop a few balls with the mental pinball machine. Still, I would recommend this book to any reader of Bishop because Professor Post’s insights are fine-tuned with a good ear and extensive poetic foundation. The author cites Eleanor Cook; this book has a similar down-to-earth perceptive mastery that one finds in Cook’s books, such as Elizabeth Bishop at Work.

In order to find references to scholars the reader has to turn to References at the back of the book as there are no in-text citations or footnotes. I found this annoying because I had the sense that some of Post’s information was coming from sources but I could not see any. It makes the pages appear to lack academic integrity. I suppose the Oxford series is aimed at a general reader who prefers not to be weighed down by academic references, but Dr. Post’s academic skills and experience are such that I’d prefer to see where some ideas come from. I’ve always found footnotes cumbersome, but basic in-text citations would help. It wasn’t until I was a few chapters in that I finally turned to page 127 to find References. Nothing in-text leads the reader there.

Upon first reading page 1 from this Very Short Introduction, I was concerned because the first heading is “The Bishop phenomenon,” which is a recognizable title of a well-known essay by Thomas Travisano, and yet there is no citation for it: is this mere coincidence or a gaffe? It is troubling in a book that’s supposed to have authority. Two pages later a poem title was incorrectly printed as “Sub-Tropics” when Bishop’s prose poem series is actually called “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics.” The first part of the title is crucial in this “vignette,” as Post describes the three substantial prose poems on sub-tropical critters. My growing sense of dread was compounded by repetitious mis-appellations of “Machedo” Soares. Bishop’s lover’s name was elsewhere spelled correctly as Lota de Macedo Soares. Sloppy editing in the Oxford University Press machine. Several pages later Dr. Anny Baumann was described as a “lifelong friend,” however, Bishop only began seeing her in 1947 at age 36 as the “Timeline” at the back notes.

Post began to win me over as he described the “perfect pitch” of speech in “The Moose.” Also, since I had been wondering about the approach taken in this book series, I was relieved to find this in chapter one’s “Biographical beginnings”:

the focus of this Very Short Introduction is to introduce new

readers to her verse, the one truly inexhaustible ‘story’ of

Bishop’s life. From this perspective, biography is an

important first step because places and people, heightened by

memory and travel—those features of inner and outer geography

so crucial to Bishop—are part of the fabric of her verse. (10)

Nice balance there.

It’s the readings of the poems where Post excels. With Bishop’s late autobiographical poem “In the Waiting Room,” Post describes the retrospective narrator’s experience as a “child’s frightening identification of herself as female” while listening to her aunt cry out in pain in the dentist’s office, leading to Bishop’s self-consciousness amidst humanity: “But I felt: you are an I / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them. / Why should you be one, too?” Post plays with numbers adeptly:


Yes, ‘one, too’, a female, that is, but as ‘one’ becomes ‘two’, the young

girl, having been made uneasily aware of her body, her gender, and

her connection to others, separates from the child and, assuming

the adult poet’s consciousness, comes into the ‘night and slush and

cold’ of Worcester on the ‘fifth | of February, 1918’. The date

reminds us that ‘The War was on’, outside as well as inside. (13-14)


Complex and accurate. We next read about “Sestina,” also from 1976’s Geography III. I especially like how Post does not try and fill in biographical particulars beyond what the poem offers. There is a tendency in Bishop criticism to inject copious details from the life into the art, which Post does not do, and which is a measure of respect:


We don’t know why the grandmother is crying, although she hints that her

tears are environmental and seasonal, and are possibly connected,

moreover, to a larger world of fate as foretold by the almanac.

Since only the grandmother talks, we’re also not sure of the exact

bond between adult and child, the family ties behind an afternoon

teatime ritual, although the child certainly wishes to please the

grandmother by proudly showing her a drawing of a house. (16)


It’s important for readers to not say too much and make assumptions about the object of the poem’s grief. Is the man with tear-like buttons Bishop’s father or grandfather? It is a child’s drawing so we can’t pinpoint identity beyond the poetic representation. 

Next are “Filling Station” and “First Death in Nova Scotia.” By the end of this very substantial chapter 1 it’s evident that this is no breezy Introduction. “Filling Station” is potentially linked, rightly so, to the gas station across from the Bishop-Bulmer house in Great Village (now Wilson’s). “Somebody loves us all” finishes the poem with potentially divine and parental overtones. “To the psychoanalytic critic, she is a compensatory sign for the mother Bishop lost …” (20). Here we see theoretical framework and, beyond that, interpretation extends to Bishop’s greatest prose story, “In the Village,” which begins with “mother’s wrenching scream” (20). Not many introductory readers will have read “In the Village” but this interpretive reach is necessary to read Bishop’s poetry in connection with the life in her One Art. Post returns to the end of “Filling Station” and its “loves”:


Not all of these contexts are equally persuasive, but one more

suggestion is needed. I think it is possible to read this gesture

rhetorically, that is, on its own terms, as an evocation of hope by

someone momentarily ‘filled’ by what she has seen. Bishop’s poems

often end in an open space, leaving us not so much reaching

irritably after facts as simply recognizing, as in ‘The Moose’, that

‘Life’s like that’. A person, the speaker, moved to questioning the

place of things, including her place in an initially foreign setting

like a messy filling station, can sometimes arrive at a better, more

generous understanding and say just this sort of thing.

(Scilla in bloom at the Elizabeth Bishop House, April 2022. See Wilson's service station in the background. Photo by Laurie Gunn. Click to enlarge image.) 

Casual expressions of life experience are intrinsic to reading Bishop. Much of the pleasure comes from being an accidental tourist accompanying her travels. This chapter ends by touching on “Questions of Travel”:


But surely it would have been a pity

not to have seen the trees along this road,

really exaggerated in their beauty,

not to have seen them gesturing

like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.


“Yes, surely. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this fantastic venture?” (24) To many readers the appeal of reading Bishop is adventure – geographic and verbal. 

Chapter 2 is on “Formal matters” and here Post really excels. Contemporary readers will appreciate his vast knowledge of the poetic tradition through centuries. “Bishop’s supreme valuation of formal variety as a means to singularity was certainly one of the reasons she was drawn to George Herbert, and perhaps a reason why, rather surprisingly, she never quite embraced Emily Dickinson” (29). It’s important and enjoyable to trace Herbert’s formal inventions as they affect Bishop’s poetic workings. Other influences near and far such as Robert Frost and the Brazilian cordel make their way into Bishop’s variety. Bishop’s collaboration with Marianne Moore is discussed in an excellent reading of “Roosters.” Here again, though, the lack of clear reference is frustrating when Post mentions the poem’s ‘“violence” of tone’ in quotation marks just like that. Not many introductory readers would figure out that this “violence” harkens back to a letter that Bishop wrote about “Roosters” to Moore, or that Thomas Travisano wrote an essay on Bishop’s ‘“violence” of tone’ in Elizabeth Bishop and the Music of Literature (Palgrave 2019). There is no reference at the back of the book for Travisano’s essay, Bishop’s letter, or anything to explain the odd punctuation here. Sloppy editing. 

This is not Post’s fault. He excels as formal reader of all kinds of Bishop poems, such as “Questions of Travel,” in which he brings in the Baroque and Hopkins to pinpoint prosodic iambs, dactyls, extra syllables, spondees, and Anglo-Saxon beat in this poem that to me sounds like water falling. “Here is not description per se, but the act of experiencing in the mind what the eye sees.” This goes back to a reference that is acknowledged in the text to an essay from 1929 by Morris Croll, “The Baroque Style in Prose.” George Lensing has written beautifully about this in a 1995 special issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal focused on Bishop and Stevens. Croll and Stevens depict “a mind thinking,” which is part of this section’s heading.


To some degree Wallace Stevens set the table for his modernist

contemporaries when he wrote in ‘Of Modern Poetry’, ‘The poem

of the mind in the act of finding | What will suffice. It has not

always had | To find: the scene was set; it repeated what | Was in

the script’ (my italics). There is a great deal of Stevens in Bishop;

Harmonium was a book she said she had almost by heart; she

elsewhere spoke of admiring the ‘display of ideas at work’ in his

poetry. And there are lines in her poetry that, without the example

of Stevens, seem unthinkable in their majestic play with

perception: ‘This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as

angels, | flying as high as they want and as far as they want

sidewise | in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections’ (‘Seascape’).

But ‘if accuracy of observation is equivalent to accuracy of

thinking’, as Stevens himself observed in Adagia, it is Bishop, not

Stevens, who best fulfilled the modernist ideal of poetry as the act

of finding on a human scale in a world of familiar and not so

familiar objects. (42)


Bishop often found the unfamiliar through animals; this otherness helped her sometimes criticize human morality, something she found in Marianne Moore’s poetry


… without condescension, ‘without “pastoralizing” them as [the critic]

William Empson might say, or drawing false analogies’. And in this

‘unromantic, life-like, somehow democratic, presentation of animals’

Moore helped Bishop (who was also aided by her reading of Darwin) to

write about animals and, more broadly, nature from a sympathetic but

not exclusively human-centred perspective …. (51-52)


This enables Bishop’s poetry to be read now as a critique of the Anthropocene age. Sometimes Bishop’s animal poems are more closely linked to humanity, as in “The Armadillo” dedicated to Robert Lowell. Chapter 3 focuses on Lowell and Moore as influential practitioners for Bishop’s animal descriptions. 

One of Bishop’s most critical poetic representations of humanity occurs in “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” which Post discusses with subtlety: “her delving—to redeploy an idiom from ‘The Map’—into the shadows that inhabit the shallows” (55). Those shadows become the forest canopy under which indigenous women retreat while being attacked by rapacious Portuguese colonizers. Post weaves Ovid’s Philomel story from Metamorphoses as well as Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece into the poem’s tapestry to show that Bishop is


appropriating one kind of violence (sexual) through another (artistic),

to reveal a world long familiar to the reader but now seen mysteriously

anew, as only the closely woven fabric of her marvellous art can do.

For Bishop the explorer, coming to terms with the cheerful natural landscape

means coming to understand the sometimes awful footprint of

human history. (59)


Chapter 4 on poetry and painting includes some of Bishop’s paintings from Exchanging Hats by William Benton and continues fine analysis: “We might regard ‘The Fish’ as a painter’s paradise, and also a reader’s” (67). I feel the same way about “Seascape” and “Pleasure Seas.” Excellent examples from “A Cold Spring,” “Santarem,” and “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” are canvased. Post precisely notes that only “Large Bad Picture” and “Poem” are technically ‘ekphrastic,’ meaning “a poem about an artwork, usually a painting. The doors open wider if we use ‘ekphrasis’ in the original classical sense of any verbal description of something seen (think ‘Cape Breton’) …” (75). As with many of Bishop’s readers, Post reads “Poem” with delight, as did Howard Moss when he received it at The New Yorker: “I wish I could read a poem like that every day for the rest of my life” (80). 

This book features six illustrations, two of which are photographs by Rollie McKenna somewhat similar to the cover of Elizabeth Bishop in Context, which Post wrote to me that he regretted not having read by the time his book went to press. Chapter 5 on “Love known” begins by finding Thomas Travisano’s 2019 biography Love Unknown an unclear title aside from the allusion to the Herbert poem. For Bishop knew love, as the posthumous poems “It is marvelous to wake up together,” “Breakfast Song” and “Vague Poem (vaguely love poem)” display in different ways. Post does nice work with more subtle expressions of desire such as “Quai d’Orleans” and “Four Poems,” the latter of which he reads as an experimental poem. A section entitled “Still explosions” examines “The Shampoo,” and finds its first stanza perplexing: “Odd to think of lichens exploding” (93). Really? On daily walks I observe lichens on rocks and their various amoebic shapes do burst (perhaps my eyes perceive via Bishop’s painterly descriptions). I can forgive Dr. Post’s different aperture when I read this rich conclusion about the final stanza:


… set off with a dash (for spontaneity) and a comma (for a pause),

the single word ‘Come’, a directive that carries lightly the weight

of an entire tradition of carpe diem poems in English. (Think

Marlowe’s ‘Come live with me’ or Ben Jonson’s ‘Come my Celia,

let us prove | The sports of love.’) And in that directive, we might

fancy Bishop taking control of those loose black hairs in ‘O Breath’

that were flying around, intolerably blown about, and weaving

them into a love-knot about something as domestically simple and

sensual as washing a companion’s hair. (94)


While it may not quite be an entire tradition’s weight, we might also find Emily Dickinson’s dash and comma style here. Earlier in the book Dickinson was understandably downplayed in favour of Herbert, but her signature pauses may figure in “—Come,” and in the delayed foreplay of “Four Poems” and its spaces. After “The Shampoo,” Post finds that another domestic poem about Bishop’s love for Lota de Macedo Soares. “Song for the Rainy Season” “… continues the association of eros and aqua, both life-giving forces in Brazil” (97). 

“Bishop is the great travel poet of our modern era,” chapter 6 begins authoritatively (103). “[L]yric time and leisurely thinking” are observed by Bishop in a 1965 letter to Robert Lowell referring to “Walking Early Sunday Morning.” At the back of the book we can find reference to Roger Gilbert’s influential Walks in the World: Representation and Experience in Modern American Poetry from 1991. Post locates “‘The End of March’ [a]s a ‘walk poem’ along the shore south of Boston …” (104). Complexity overflows from this poem, especially its accumulative ending. As often the case, Wallace Stevens is read into this poem’s mechanics. To me, the whole poem can be read as a dialogue with Stevens’ metrical form and his imagination embodied in lion figures; Post chooses the “lion of the spirit” from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” Back in 1991’s Questions of Mastery, Bonnie Costello discussed Bishop’s use of Stevens’ lion sun while referring to Harold Bloom’s prior interpretations. The richness of “The End of March” and Bishop’s meta-dialogue with Stevens endures — partly because Bishop’s poem is so playful with its “artichoke” crypto-dream house and flaming “grog a l’americaine” Stevens would enjoy, also because readers can choose a suitable measure of rich textural engagement within the basic message of the poem: “Go for a walk, especially along a beach. It might change your mood, your inner weather, for the better” (116). 

From the influential author of “Sunday Morning” to “Bishop’s ultimate Sunday poem,” (117) we go to Santarem where the poet’s mind is in motion again; amidst the “dazzling dialectic” of converging blue and brown rivers, an older Bishop plays with self-correction, as pinpointed in Post’s knowledge of rhetorical figures:


the device of ‘metanoi’, meaning ‘afterthought’, for the first time

she confuses church and cathedral, then again as ‘epanorthosis’

or ‘emphatic correction’, by enjambing the phrase across a stanza

break and adding an exclamation point: ‘the church | (Cathedral,

rather!)’. (117)


And yet everything is so well remembered about this place “in which contemplation wins out over commerce” (119). This subtle use of Bishop’s “Large Bad Picture,” and its dialectical “commerce or contemplation” is doubtfully picked up by many introductory readers, and so it remains an unacknowledged reference. 

Jonathan Post in his epilogue does refer to “the classroom. For a number of years, I taught Bishop in a seminar called, simply, ‘How to Read a Poem’” (120). It is this pleasure that jumps off the page. One feels the company of a master who makes it easy, in his own words,


… because Bishop is so good at taking you through the steps.

First step, look closely; second step, look closer still; third step

look even more closely, but especially now with an eye to where

the poem is going, not to where you think it should be going,

but where its diction, syntax, grammar, and punctuation

lead. This means listening to the poem, bringing the ear out of

hiding in order to help the eye to see and the mind to think.

Bishop’s poems are always about surfaces getting deeper, about

knowledge as process. (121)


She “makes us feel that we’re all there as part of the poem’s creative energy at the moment of its arriving” (123). 


Angus Cleghorn teaches English at Seneca College in Toronto, and once explored the Moose route in Nova Scotia during a stay at the Bishop-Bulmer house in Great Village.


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