Join me on a tour through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.
Today we’re talking about a semi-modern master, Elizabeth Bishop. Since The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 is, well, complete, I didn’t pick up any other collections of her work. And I’ll be doing that throughout this challenge–reading the most complete book where possible.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was a relatively unknown poet during her lifetime, only publishing about 100 poems. She liked to tinker and perfect her works instead of moving onto new ones. Even with a small set of poems (the collection is less than 300 pages), she’s considered to be one of the most important 20th century poets. She’s referenced a lot in books about poetry, and she won a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award.
Many of her poems use older forms–she has a flair for iambic meter and rhyme, but she often doesn’t feel beholden to making strict use of these forms. She frequently varies meter and uses off rhyme within her poems, so though her work is really structured, it feels much more modern and contemporary than I would have expected. Bishop also painted, and her images are crystal clear, nuanced, and clever.
I am not the biggest fan of rhyme when it comes to poetry (probably because it’s really not my strong suit), so I have to admit that while I loved a lot of lines out of Bishop’s poems, I loved fewer of her full poems. But still lines like this inspired me to add them to my collection:
“sluggish firefliesfrom “Manuelzinho”
the jellyfish of the air”
She just has such a gift for image. With just a few words she manages to convey mood, movement, and another place, another world.
I also like the way the speaker in Bishop’s poems doesn’t just declare, she thinks and feel. This gives her poems a lighter touch, as if you are taken on a journey with the speaker to find the right words to convey the experience:
The great light cage has broken up in the air,from “Four Poems: II / Rain Towards Morning
freeing, I think, about a million birds
whose wild ascending shadows will not be back,
and all the wires come falling down.
Freed birds out a giant birdcage is an unusual metaphor for rain, but the insertion of ‘I think’ really struck me since there’s nothing concrete to be uncertain about. Instead it communicates not that the metaphor is not uncertain for the speaker, but that the scale is uncertain.
Some of the poems in the book are definitely a product of their time. If not quite racist, they certainly bring up uncomfortable aspects of United States culture towards race and white superiority:
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps–from “Arrival at Santos”
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter
do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.
I would say on the whole, the poem from which this is taken is critical about the tourist’s expectations and viewpoints, but not quite critical enough to assume that in a different country things were going to be not just different than what the speaker is used to but worse. This is a pretty tame example, but it illustrates subtle attitudes in a handful of her poems. Granted, inferior/interior is a good rhyme but has a lot of colonialist undertones.
Reading this book at the same time as I was reading a book on formal poetics (rhyme and meter and such) was very interesting because Bishop plays with form a lot and was referenced in the book several times. Overall her work is little formal for my taste, but she’s definitely a pretty approachable poet who rewards readers with really lovely sounding lines and excellent alliteration.
Hidden, oh hiddenfrom “Song for the Rainy Season”
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
Visit the Poetry Foundation’s site to read some of Bishop’s best known work in full such as “The Moose” and “One Art.”