Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979) has emerged as one of the great American poets of the twentieth century. She was Poet Laureate of the United States in 1949/1950, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956, winner of the National Book Award in 1970, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1976. Yet, outside of literary circles she is not extremely well known. The Poetry Foundation remarks that she “was a respected yet somewhat obscure figure in the world of American literature.” Bishop was not very prolific, publishing only 101 poems in her lifetime beginning with her first collection in 1946 and her last in 1977 (some poems have also been published posthumously).
Bishop wrote in a distant, detailed and objective style, often coming across to this reader as impersonal, even cold, though such is tempered by the conversational tone. One has to look deeply and know much about her to eek out any personal subject matter in her poetry. She studiously avoided the personal, confessional style often used by her contemporaries, such as by her good friend Robert Lowell. The Poetry Foundation further describes her style:
Her verse is marked by precise descriptions of the physical world and an air of poetic serenity, but her underlying themes include the struggle to find a sense of belonging, and the human experiences of grief and longing.
Analyzing her small but significant body of work for Bold Type, Ernie Hilbert wrote: “Bishop’s poetics is one distinguished by tranquil observation, craft-like accuracy, care for the small things of the world, a miniaturist’s discretion and attention. Unlike the pert and wooly poetry that came to dominate American literature by the second half of her life, her poems are balanced like Alexander Calder mobiles, turning so subtly as to seem almost still at first, every element, every weight of meaning and song, poised flawlessly against the next.”
Bishop was a lesbian who insisted on being excluded from female poetry anthologies, which often put feminists at odds with her. It was important to Bishop that she be “judged based on the quality of her writing and not on her gender or sexual orientation.” That’s a breath of fresh air in today’s world where people, especially critics and academia, seem concerned first with the identification of the writer rather than on the content of their work.
This new edition from Arion Press includes a selection of thirty-nine of Bishop’s “most important and most representative poems.” The selection was chosen by Harvard professor Helen Vendler, who also writes the introduction. Ms. Vendler is a frequent contributor to Arion Press works and, as long time Books and Vines readers know from my many statements about her contributions to these editions, her introductions are always engaging, insightful and important. Her work here certainly fits that description. Ms. Vendler was friends with Bishop in the 1970’s, and so while she writes comprehensively and thoughtfully as an intellectual reflecting on Bishop’s poetry, she also speaks with personal first hand knowledge as one who knew the poet. Ms. Vendler mentions that, when comparing Bishop to her contemporaries, Bishop:
…seemed decorous, “feminine”, “modest”, hardly dangerous. Living in Brazil, and publishing at intervals of several years, she was not visibly part of the American cluster of poets. Although she was always esteemed by her fellow-poets, it was only in her latter years that she was understood and prized by the wider public. Since her death in 1979, she has become the most popular poet of her generation, in part because of her plain-spoken language but also because of her candor and depth of feeling.
Though Bishop is certainly modern in style, Ms. Vendler tells us that Bishop:
“is always conscious of her predecessors…The achievement of poetic originality is to have expressed perennial themes in a contemporary way…As the rich theme of desired freedom displays further and further instantiations of itself over time, the surprising modern version of it enriches those past poems and all those to come. Bishop never forgot the past, and tenaciously worked at her poems for years until they seemed wholly her own while wholly inseparable from tradition…“
Despite a couple readings, I have to say I struggled with getting pulled into many of Bishop’s poems. Having just read some works of C.P. Cavafy, which I found deeply moving, Bishop came across as a bit distant, somewhat lacking in the ability to spark an emotional connection within me. I admittably often struggle with modern verse — its nuances and hard to decipher meanings take away the fun of reading verse to me. When you add to that struggle hard to understand (to me) allusions and apparent emotional detachment, the result is a set of poems that many times left me questioning the meaning of what I was supposed to get from the experience. In fairness, this is not a criticism of Bishop, but of my own inability to “get it!” One more inclined to understand and enjoy modernist poetry would certainly get more from reading Bishop than I do. In fact, in doing research for this article and reading detailed analysis on some of these poems, my enjoyment, along with my understanding, increased. Perhaps I am just too lazy to put in the work required to embrace the visions to be mined from these poems?
Interestingly, one poem I did very much appreciate was the earliest in the collection, To a Tree, from 1927, written when Bishop was only sixteen.
Oh, tree outside my window, we are kin,
For you ask nothing on a friend but this:
To lean against the window and peer in
And watch me move about! Sufficient bliss
For me, who stand behind its framework stout,
Full of my tiny tragedies and grotesque grieves,
To lean against the window and peer out,
Admiring infinites’mal leaves.
One can already see the simple, direct, melancholic style she was to use throughout her life, as well as her way of observing things as if looking at it through a lens. Her personification of a tree as her friend is telling, an inanimate object that accepts her for as she is, placing no demands upon her.
In 1955’s poem At the Fishhouses Bishop uses the sea as a symbol of man’s knowledge, or lack thereof. Bishop’s modernism clearly shows in her questioning our ability to really know anything. The poem closes with:
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold, hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
In a poem titled Brazil, January 1, 1502 Bishop compares what the first Portuguese explorers saw of what was to become Rio de Janeiro (the River of January) with her own witnessing of the same natural scene some 450+ years later. Hilbert’s comment on Bishop’s “miniaturist’s discretion and attention” is clearly on display here:
Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage —
big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
blue, blue-green, and olive,
with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a satin underlay turned over:
in silver-grey relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air–up, rather, in the leaves —
purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
rust red and greenish white;
solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
and taken off the frame.
In Questions of Travel Bishop ponders why we travel and if we would be better off imagining things that would have been a pity to miss by not traveling:
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theaters?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, were are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?
One of my favorite set of lines is from Crusoe in England, where Bishop writes:
What’s wrong with self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiarly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
“Pity should begin at home.” So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.
The name of this edition from Arion Press, The Little of our Earthly Trust, comes from Poem, published in 1976 in her final anthology. The intersection of memory and art, or perhaps the importance of details in memory that form Bishop’s poetry is pondered:
Our visions coincided — “visions” is
too serious a word — our looks, two looks:
art “copying from life” and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
–the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.
The edition is illustrated with twenty-four prints by artist/sculptor John Newman. Mr. Newman currently teaches at the NY Studio School and the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His work is represented in many public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Tate Modern in London, the National Gallery in Canberra, the Alberina Museum in Vienna. He has had over 50 one-person shows and participated in numerous group exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.
We are told that Mr. Newman has long been a reader of poetry and Elizabeth Bishop is one of his favorite poets. For this Arion Press artist book, Mr. Newman has made twenty-four drawings of small sculptures made between 1998 and 2016, with a twenty-fifth for the cover. Having mentioned Alexander Calder earlier, these prints by Mr. Newman seem to be the print equivalent of Calder’s sculptures, in a reflection of Bishop’s verse. Arion Press mentions of Mr. Newman’s work for this edition:
Reversing the process in his early sketches for objects-never-to-be-made, he has now depicted forms he has already made, each from one point of view, as works of graphic art, flat on the page, in gouache, in black, gray, and white, on tan paper. These drawings have been transformed into relief prints and printed by letterpress from polymer plates on French mould-made paper. The titles and dates of creation of the sculptures are used as the titles for the prints, which appear on the facing page of poetry, below the running foot.
This execution of this edition from Arion Press is high quality all around. The presswork is, as always, excellent. The type is English Garamond composed and cast in Monotype for the text and handset large sizes for display. The result is very readable, and the use of white space is excellent. The paper is Magnani wove, Italian mouldmade, for the text and Canson Mi-Teintes, French mouldmade, for the prints. The binding is Smyth-sewn, with headbands, in a three-piece cover: a gray goatskin spine with titling, black cloth sides, with an inset additional print on the front cover. Quite attractive all in all! The edition is limited to 300 copies for sale and is signed by John Newman. Elizabeth Bishop is well deserving of a private press edition of her work, and Arion Press has done an admirable job in publishing this important work.
About the Edition
- Designed by Andrew Hoyem
- Selected and with an introduction by Helen Vendler
- Illustrated with twenty-four prints by John Newman, images printed from polymer plates
- The type is English Garamond composed and cast in Monotype for the text and large sizes for display handset
- The type and the 24 relief prints in three colors from polymer plates were printed by letterpress.
- The paper is Magnani wove, Italian mouldmade, for the text and Canson Mi-Teintes, French mouldmade, for the prints
- The binding is Smyth-sewn, with headbands, in a three-piece cover: a gray goatskin spine with titling, black cloth sides, with an inset additional print on the front cover
- 9-7/8 by 6-7/8 inches, 192 pages
- Limited to 300 numbered copies, all copies are signed by the artist
- The price is $1200 for non-subscribers, $840 for subscribers
Pictures of the Edition
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