Poetry: Elizabeth Bishop



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‘Elizabeth Bishop’s beautifully crafted poems are frequently explorations of her difficult past.’

Discuss this statement, supporting your answer with reference to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on your course.

It was a relief in some ways that Elizabeth Bishop did not carry for me the same notoriety or preconceptions as a Sylvia Plath or a W.B. Yeats. It wasn’t long, however, before I was finding that her beautiful poetry began to reveal an equally intense past. It may not have ended as dramatically as poor Sylvia, or had quite as many marriage rejections as our beloved Yeats, but her poetry nonetheless revealed a person for whom life had forged a difficult path. From the desperate tragedy of her early years, through her relentless battles with the twin demons of depression and alcoholism, she lived a life of constant challenges, but a life that she managed to explore in poetry of real lyrical beauty. It’s no wonder that she has been described as “one of the most important American poets”. The poems that I felt particularly explored her past were ‘The Prodigal’, ‘Filling Station’, ‘Questions of Travel’ and ‘The Fish’.

I think that maybe the most blatant example of Bishop confronting her painful past was in the allegorical poem, ‘The Prodigal’. This really was a poem that I felt better captured how far into the abyss an alcoholic can descend than anything I’ve ever come across. The idea of  Bishop herself, or any alcoholic, finding themselves alongside ‘self-righteous’ pigs, practically being choked daily by the synaestheticbrown enormous odor’ and surrounded by the ‘glass smooth dung’ – a typically memorable metaphor – on the walls, really captured dramatically how low someone can go. In a country like ours, where every occasion seems to be drink-soaked, it was a stark reminder of the misery alcohol can cause for some. Even though this carefully crafted poem appeared to be simply retelling the story of the prodigal, I really admired the way she was clearly exposing and exploring her own desperate addiction. In fairness, the image of the ‘first star’ suggested that there could be hope for the Prodigal, and all alcoholics – and therefore Bishop herself.  The key was final acceptance and turning to those who could offer love and support by deciding to ‘go home’. However I felt that this notion was fairly poignant in Bishop’s case, given the reality of her life of ‘exile’ and that she had no real home as such. This was a poem that really struck a chord with me; I have nothing but respect for anyone who is prepared to share the difficulties of their life, in any form.

Another poem where I felt Elizabeth Bishop’s  explored her difficult past was in the poem ‘Filling Station’. Here the first thing that struck me was the disgusted tone. In horror, she declares ‘Oh, but it is dirty!’ seemingly taken aback by the filth of this family – the father in his ‘monkey suit’ and his sons ‘all thoroughly dirty’. To me though, this poem is less about these hard-working people, who I felt didn’t deserve Bishop’s disgust, and more about the poet herself and her troubled past. By the time I had read the poem a second time, I started to wonder if it was possible that she was actually jealous of this ‘dirty’ family and their cosy companionship. The possibly female (motherly?) touch with the beautifully crafted sibilant description of the ‘rows of cans so that they softly say: Esso-so-so-so’ was a further reminder of the background support offered by family; and of course reinforced the idea that ‘somebody loves us all.’ Family, home and love, I felt, are central to this poem – three things that were sadly absent from Elizabeth Bishop’s tragic life. Yet again, this was a poem that left me ultimately feeling great sympathy for the poet herself, even though in this case  she was exploring her past in a more subtle and indirect way.

A poem that is very much seems to explore Bishop’s troubled life is ‘The Fish’. In the first half of the poem I was genuinely amazed by the incredible imagery that the poet gives us – of a creature that I would normally pay scant attention to. It’s clear that she has an extraordinary painter’s eye when she describes for us the ‘dramatic reds and blacks’ of the fish’s ‘entrails’. She also shows her keen eye with the beautiful metaphor of the ‘fine rosettes of lime’. Not to mention the almost forensic detail we are offered when she tells us that the fish is ‘infested with sea lice’, a disturbing thought for those of us who are fond of the odd fish and chips meal! This level of fine craft in her descriptive skills very much highlighted for me why she is a poet who is still so highly thought of. However, what really caught my interest in this poem is her dramatic reaction to the hooks she finds in the fish. The realisation that this fish has also had a difficult life is massive for her. Suddenly she sees the fish as a kindred soul, somebody who has endured many problems and yet has still survived. I think that maybe she feels that surviving life in itself deserves ‘medals’ and this revelation is so dramatic to her that ‘victory filled up the little rented boat.’ This perspective really gave me a sense of a person who was still struggling to come to terms with her troubled past.

The last poem that I felt also highlighted the poet’s difficult life was ‘Questions of Travel’. I think that this was my favourite of Bishop’s poems because of the way in which she challenges a conventional wisdom that we all take for granted – that travel is a universally positive thing, that it ‘broadens the mind.’ Here again she shows her craft as a poet with a beautiful metaphor for the waterfalls as ‘mile-long, shiny tearstains’ and the memorable simile of the Brazilian ‘mountains like the hull of capsized ships.’  Much as I feel she might have a point about the nature of being a tourist, where we often find ourselves ‘watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theatres’, what really caught my interest here in this poem was the last line where she poses the rhetorical question: ‘should we have stayed at home’ but then follows it with the ambiguous and dramatic line, ‘wherever that may be.’ For me this was another case of Bishop indirectly conveying another sad truth of her troubled life,that she never truly had a home, a loss that I believe she never recovered from, and one that lurks in the background of many of her poems.

The thing I enjoyed most about studying the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop was the way in which her and her frequently thorny life was dealt with in a really subtle way. She described in beautiful imagery what her painter’s eye could see, but in many cases the observations she made often revealed more about Bishop herself than about what she was observing. She is a poet whose craftsmanship as an imagist is easy to admire, but in the end it was the depth that she brought to her work, in the way that she explored her incredibly difficult past, that I really began to be drawn to; and maybe that above all is the reason she is remembered as “one of the most important American poets.”