Soul deep

Piercing the surface of the everyday, a poet's sharp eye and quicksilver style are on display in a new collection

Robert Pinsky, Boston University professor and former US poet laureate, is most recently the author of 'Gulf Music.' Robert Pinsky, Boston University professor and former US poet laureate, is most recently the author of "Gulf Music." (PETER MITCHELL)
Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Pinsky
February 17, 2008

Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters
Edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz
Library of America, 979 pp., $40

Certain great art establishes only gradually the kind of wide, deep appeal known as "classic." Such art may be perceived at first as merely popular, like the work of William Shakespeare and Duke Ellington, and eventually acquire critical esteem. Other works may at first appear peculiar and arcane, like those of Vincent van Gogh or Emily Dickinson, and then for later generations come to seem universally, immediately appealing.

Elizabeth Bishop's poems have taken a middle course, quietly attracting a diverse following that has grown steadily. During her lifetime, bait-and-tackle shops began to display (as they still do) framed copies of "The Fish" - often in unauthorized printings without proper credit, to the poet's irritation. Bishop's "One Art" may be the most quoted and most memorized poem in many generations. And it, too, is sometimes reproduced without legal permission, in blogs or albums. Bishop's poetry has been set to music by distinguished composers like Elliott Carter, and it has been incorporated into trashy pop songs. Academic critics and high school students, feminists and curmudgeons, fellow poets as different as Frank O'Hara and James Merrill - all have embraced this sharp-edged, slyly elegant work, with its way of interlacing the domestic and the volcanic.

For instance, when a child accompanies her aunt to a dental appointment, in humdrum Worcester:

My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
- "Long Pig," the caption said.

Bishop commands one of the great deadpans in literature: It's hard to imagine a quieter, more deftly understated setting for this image of cannibalism - or for the phrase "spilling over / in rivulets of fire." It's not just that the triggering material is contained in a magazine; below the calm surface of Bishop's lines, and the outward calm of the child they recall, a volcano of perception rumbles. "Crusoe in England" begins with the line "A new volcano has erupted" and implicitly compares volcanic islands to individual, isolated people, a nightmare of "islands spawning islands."

That is Bishop's great characteristic subject: the pulsing, rock-melting heat and pressure inside a person, under the thin, still crust of custom. Even her love poems are about isolation, tentatively or temporarily overcome. In the early poem "Love Lies Sleeping" the uniqueness of each individual is both painful and redeeming:

queer cupids of all persons getting up,
whose evening meal they will prepare all day,
you will dine well
on his heart, on his, and his,
so send them about your business
dragging in the streets their unique loves.

The plural cupids - one for each separate person - show a savagery and generosity toward the lovers resembling those qualities in the poet herself. The late poem "Breakfast Song," published after Bishop's death, presents a morning scene, quotidian yet sublime, with a more explicit shadow:

My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death,
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?

Informal but meticulous in manner, unflinching in attention, Bishop's poems gain new overtones from this volume's inclusion of prose. The "cold, filthy place" of this poem resonates with the soiled clay marbles and a playmate's propped coffin in the poignant, compact short story "Gwendolyn."

And along with the profound themes of a life, there is also the context of daily living, especially for this poet with her wistful, complicated relation to what is ordinary. The letters, along with insights into Bishop's works and days, also supply interesting gossip and personal images: Randall Jarrell in bathing suit and funny straw hat, writing on the beach at Cape Cod; Robert Frost as "a malicious old bore" contrasted with Dylan Thomas as immensely appealing as well as self-destructive.

Such material, with its lively mix of triviality, revelation, character, atmosphere, serves as a reminder that artists, even great artists, do not live their lives as statues or as pages in an anthology. Contradiction, fallibility, rough drafts, and bad patches are part of the story, along with triumphant achievement, which in Bishop's case didn't necessarily feel triumphant at the time.

Fascinated by a dull, normal, genteel world she could imitate but never really join, Bishop wrote in a super-refined, transformed version of that world's speech. Thanks to the meticulous editing of Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz, her range and peculiarity are demonstrated in this volume that puts Bishop's poetry into the context of her essays, stories, and personal correspondence.

The book supplies a satisfying sense of knowing the poet and an equally satisfying sense of inexhaustible, mysterious genius, flashing by before it can be entirely defined. Her voice as a poet probably reached its highest, most openly lyrical pitch in the great conclusion to "At the Fishhouses," her hymn to pure attention, and to its limitations, both embodied by the cold harbor water:

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 an amazing moment, with a magician's speed, the last three words here make two separate verbs seem like one. That stroke also epitomizes Bishop's work: the fluid, rapid, and mortal action of knowledge, made live in words.

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