Reviewers of Elizabeth Bishop’s work have small trouble in demonstrating its perfection: she is an easy poet to quote from, and it rarely occurs to them that this very fact might indicate limitations to that perfection. The cisatlantic notices for The Complete Poems almost all singled out as exemplary her eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with a big fish.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
You would have to catch a big fish of your own to check up on any of this, and it would have to be old and sick like the fish in the poem ('He didn’t fIght./He hadn’t fought at all,’) if it was going to lie still enough to allow the faculty of observation full play. But the point of such writing is that it is not only precise — I will accept that she is precise here, as she is so demonstrably precise elsewhere — but it makes a point of its precision, and creates emotion in making that point. As moments like these accumulate, the build-up in authority becomes more and more convincing, to the stage where the reader simply hands over control: even if he stops long enough to admit that he finds tarnished tinfoil hard to imagine, tacitly he will insist that it can still be imagined.
An appreciation of Bishop’s work travels from point to point along a line of such observational intensities, and that is the unity of her poetry — intense moments accumulating. Since there are half a dozen such instances packing out even the smaller of her poems, the tendency is to ascribe unity to the poems as well. And after all, I suppose it could be argued that any poem, no matter what shape it is in otherwise, has established its reason for being if it contains even one observation like this:
Below, the tracks slither between
lines of head-to-tail parked cars.
(The tin hides have the iridescence
of dying, flaccid toy balloons.)
This idea comes from 'Going to the Bakery’, a poem set in Rio de Janeiro. Now it happens to be a fact that a toy balloon has to be inflated and allowed to die down before its colour will take on the pastel glow that Bishop here equates with an iridescent Detroit paint-job: I can assert this with such boldness solely because a tired balloon left over from our baby daughter’s party reminded me, on the day before I first read this poem, of the opalescent finishes supplied as an option on the Oldsmobiles assembled in Australia in the late fifties. A not-yet-inflated balloon would scarcely have worked the trick: it’s something to do with the stretching and relaxation of the rubber. So to this image I bring a certain capacity of verification; and someone else who had never made that particular mental connection might see that it was nevertheless likely to be true; and one way or another we are both involved.
All well and good, and it could be said that this is involvement enough, that there are not many poets who will make the faculty of sight a public issue. The vision is personal only in its power. Otherwise, it is as community-minded as you like. We and the writer are united in identifying truths which, like scientific truths, are finally tautologies: this does not deprive them of interest, but it does deprive them of animus, and the ultimate effect is one of consolation in a universe where everything has been stripped of unpredictability through being defined in terms of something else.
Obviously this line of argument would quickly collapse if it could he shown that the moments of observation in Bishop’s work are as incidental as they are powerful, and really go to serve a further purpose, that of being combined into a poem which supplies them with a transfiguring energy as well as drawing from them a store of tangibility. 'One is first struck by the magnificent surfaces of her poems,’ the blurb quotes Martin Dodsworth, and indeed one is; 'later one sees that the point is to feel something else underlying the descriptions and lending them an air of dream, despite (and perhaps because of) their clarity.’
I think that Dodsworth here has intuitively recognized, without raising the problem to the plane of intellect, that 'to feel something else underlying the descriptions’ is an activity that needs to be recommended and won’t come naturally to a mind discriminating enough to be impressed by her faculty of observation in the first place. In fact there is a frequently ruinous dualism at work in Bishop’s poetry. A poem is likely to be critically demolished by its own best moments. The self-contained quality of the intense observations amounts to inertia, and the argumentative lines joining them together, far from being lines of force, are factitious even at their best and at worst degenerate into whimsy. Here the opening stanza and a half of 'Going to the Bakery’, leading up to the lines I last quoted, are sufficiently illustrative:
Instead of gazing at the sea
the way she does on other nights,
the moon looks down the Avenida
Copacabana at the sights,
new to her but ordinary.
She leans on the slack trolley wires.
Sheer marmalade. It would take a more unsophisticated poet than Bishop to indulge in anthropomorphism with a show of technical conviction: trying it, she lapses instantly into the trained poet’s equivalent of automatic writing. In another poem, 'Seascape’, she goes all free-verse in an attempt to give the device some muscle, but there is no cure for it.
But a skeletal lighthouse standing there
in black and white clerical dress,
who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better.
He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet,
that that is why the shallow water is so warm,
and he knows that heaven is not like this.
Heaven is not like flying or swimming,
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare
and when it gets dark he will remember something
strongly worded to say on the subject.
The observation about the lighthouse’s clerical paintwork is not enough to offset the speculative rigmarole that follows. Additionally it can be conjectured that in trying to get above the equation of the lighthouse and the clerical garb, in trying to make something more out of the automatic and inertial device of establishing those two entities in terms of each other, she admitted her first limitation by running slap into the second. The observation tends to precede the poem, and by preceding it precludes it. Fancy takes over from the stymied imagination.
Bishop’s faculty of observation works mainly in the sense of sight and there are strict rules governing it which are occasionally made explicit, as in these lines from 'The Bight’:
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
Tempted with the boundless opportunities offered by synaesthesia, she takes refuge on the far side of a semi-colon and rejects the temptation by diverting it to Baudelaire. Little dramas of scrupulousness like this one are constantly fought out. They are triumphs of minor tactics. Perhaps it is an obsession with these tiny battles that allows far larger ones to rage ungoverned. Getting back to 'The Fish’, for example, we have more than seventy lines of meticulous observation before the speaker makes her decisive move. The local brilliance of the writing is unquestionable:
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
— the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly —
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
Now this really does go like a dream, and precisely because of its clarity: the observation (the 'feathers’), the presentation (that concrete use of the abstract 'dramatic’) and the technique (the folded in and snapped out p-b/b-p sequence in the last two lines) are absolutely in accord. But what the poet never realizes is that seventy lines of this painstaking stuff are taking time: in the reader’s mind the fish is croaking while she runs the micrometer over it, making nonsense of the poem’s punch-line.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels — until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
Whereupon, muttering 'Thanks for nothing, lady’ with its dying gasp, it undoubtedly sank like a plummet. It’s not so much the tone failing here, as the tactics. When tactics and tone fail together, the results can stagger towards the gruesome, as in her 'Invitation to Marianne Moore’, where her fellow poetess is made to share the attributes of Mary Poppins.
From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.
But it would be misleading to suggest that there are many Bishop poems dismissible on grounds of tweeness. The tone at its lowest is usually comfortably above that, at a level where the prosaic and intellectually platitudinous are twisted towards poeticized quiddities by professionally executed changes of direction. These closing lines from 'Quai d’Orléans’, which cap a series of brilliantly exploited observations on water-lights and leaves, illustrate the point.
We stand as still as stones to watch
the leaves and ripples
while light and nervous water hold
'If what we see could forget us half as easily,’
I want to tell you,
'as it does itself — but for life we’ll not be rid
of the leaves’ fossils.’
Thus with a gasp and a quick flurry of soul-searching does the poem haul itself onto the metaphysical plateau, making the exterior interior at the price of abandoning the judicious — and genuinely suggestive — language that places 'nervous’ just so as to concentrate the effects of trembling the poem has already established, and places 'interview’ to clinch the consistently employed vocabulary of seeing.
It’s instructive that when Richard Wilbur gets a poem wrong, this is exactly the way he gets it wrong: the tag falls so perfectly pat that it reads like a bromide. But Wilbur’s sense of tactics, perhaps in the light of her example, has always been more highly developed than Bishop’s, showing itself as an acute sense of sustained argument. So similar in many ways, the two poets differ in their approach to form. Rather than plug a gap with prose, Wilbur will tighten the argument a notch and let the sequence of thought become a riddle. Bishop, eager to be clear and unwilling to perpetrate asymmetries, will interpose something that contributes to the total sonic unity but which fails to measure up to the standards that the fully felt sections of the poem have already set. The prosaic half of the dualism feels a duty to the poetic half: it feels bound to get in there and comment, compose a motto, ask a rhetorical question, round things out. And it seems to me that she comes closest to striking a balance when she realizes that a dualism exists and makes a link out of the gap’s unbridgeability, as in her classic poem 'Cirque d’Hiver’, whose marvellously observed toy horse has so little to say to her.
His mane and tail are straight from Chirico.
He has a formal, melancholy soul.
He feels her pink toes dangle towards his back
along the little pole
that pierces both her body and her soul
and goes through his, and reappears below,
under his belly, as a big tin key.
He canters three steps, then he makes a bow,
canters again, bows on one knee,
canters, then clicks and stops, and looks at me.
The dancer, by this time, has turned her back.
He is the more intelligent by far.
Facing each other rather desperately —
his eye is like a star —
we stare and say, 'Well, we have come this far.’
It is probably too neat to say, but I will risk saying it, that such a poem dramatizes her own poetic situation to perfection. The whole force of her talent is to establish the thingness of things; which being done, the things have nothing much to add. It is as if a composer were to be frustrated in his symphonic ambitions by an irrepressible gift of producing short and self-sufficient melodies: he would be disabled by an excess of talent. I don’t want to suggest that this book is a record of failure. On the contrary I believe it contains more than its fair share of excellent poems, and where the poems are not excellent, their component parts are frequently enthralling. Elizabeth Bishop is an important modern poet if anybody is. But I think that the very terms in which her work is praised serve to indicate that hers is a poetry of a particular emphasis, and that it has not yet been sufficiently questioned whether this emphasis might be damaging to the aims implicit in her forms and themes. She aims beyond precision. If 'precision’ is the cardinal word in our aesthetic vocabulary, we will be praising her for the very thing that she has striven (correctly, in my view, although not often successfully) to transcend.
(The Review, 1971)
Elizabeth Bishop, like Louis MacNeice, is one of those poets whose dubious fate is to be rediscovered by each new generation of critics, always with the insistence that they previously have been ignored. Twenty years after I wrote this piece I found young critics writing it again, but the argument had changed, and perhaps for the better: nowadays it is assumed, especially by the Martian poets she has influenced, that her poems add up to more than the sum of their shiny components. I still don’t believe it, but am glad to see her enshrined — this time, one hopes, for keeps. Among the muffed style points spoiling this performance, the most regrettable is the use of 'I think’ to soften something that should never have been thought. 'I think that Dodsworth here has instinctively recognized, without raising the problem to the plane of intellect. . .' Dodsworth’s plane of intellect ran deeper than that. 'Sheer marmalade’ has two things wrong with it, and is therefore, since it is doing only two things, a total failure. As a verbless sentence it has negative impact, and there is nothing wrong with marmalade. Also she didn’t lapse 'instantly’, she just lapsed, and she didn’t run 'slap’ into something, she just ran into it. When the words work that hard it almost always means that the thought isn’t working hard enough.