POETIC VOICE: RECONCILING INFLUENCES
To begin to understand Bishop’s unique style,
which is the source of
the two apparently
opposing interpretations of her work
subsequent critical controversy,
one must really start with Moore and
who influenced her throughout her career.
With Alice Quinn’s recent
publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected poems, drafts and
fragments titled Edgar Allan Poe and
the Jukebox, she has stirred up new discussion and debate about
the mid-twentieth century poet. Critics are disagreeing over how
the collection will affect readers’ perception of the poet. Adam
Kirsch believes that the collection can increase readers’ understanding
and admiration of Bishop (Times
Literary Supplement). He sees the collection as “chosen
material that cast a great deal of light on Bishop’s mind and methods”
(3). Helen Vendler, on the other hand, vehemently asserts that
the publication will alter readers’ opinions of the meticulous and
reticent writer. She declares the publication a “betrayal of
Elizabeth Bishop,” and believes the poems “[transgress] her commitment
to exactness.” This new debate about Bishop’s uncollected work
reminds readers of the critical debate surrounding Bishop that has
persisted for many years. Both arguments involve her fastidious
revision process and discomfort with giving readers obvious insight
into her personal life.
Bishop’s career almost appears fated for discussion
and debate because of her relationship with two poets of diametrically
opposite writing styles. In a conversation about her revision
process, she said “If I’ve shown my work to anyone for criticism, it’s
usually been to Cal Lowell or Miss Moore” (Wehr 323). Bishop’s
two major influences, poets Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, embodied
very different poetic styles. Moore strove to be what Bishop
described as “fundamental[ly] … [a poet] who has brought a brilliant
precision to poetic language by meticulous conservatism … [and]
maintaining the ancestral, ‘out-of-date’ virtues of American culture”
(Ribeiro 15). Her other influence, Lowell, “had … embraced poetry
in the grand style, thinking in terms of the largest gesture, history
and politics” and, more famously, the poet who started what Bishop
herself called “that nonsense of confessional poetry” (Millier 198 and
Schiller 22). Bishop’s relationship with both of these poets
created a tension between their opposing approaches toward
poetry. Her response to this tension resulted in the creation of
her own style of writing, one that satisfies both Lowell’s
“confessional nonsense” and Moore’s “meticulous conservatism.”
Although she created a unique blend of these elements, a debate arose
over which was the defining characteristic of her poetry: the precision
learned from Moore or the personal revelation she learned from
The original critical discussion surrounding
Elizabeth Bishop focuses on those two different sides of her writing
styles. The prevailing critical interpretation “valued [her
poems] for their brilliant surfaces, keen observation, and formal
perfection” (Travisiano 903). Bishop strove to provide perfect
representations of the physical world through her poetry. To her
“the physical world was real, and language, if used carefully, could
describe it well enough to communicate something essential” (Gioia
25). Many critics praise her ability to render realistic and
vivid images of the scenes she described.
The opposing critical interpretation, however,
centers on the personal and emotional side of Bishop’s poetry.
These critics focus on Bishop’s relationship to the overwhelming
popularity of “confessional poetry” from the early 1940’s to the early
1970’s. Confessional poetry gave poets an outlet to express their
personal experiences or emotions. Poet-critic Jonathan Kirsch
writes, “The motive for confession is penitential or therapeutic—by
speaking openly about his guilt and suffering the poet hopes to make
them easier to hear” (Kirsch x). While confessional poetry
existed before 1956, critics often refer to Robert Lowell’s Life Studies as a benchmark in the
development of modern confessional poetry. In this compilation,
Lowell depicts a raw and honest look into his life and exemplifies the
candid autobiographical expression of the confessional movement.
Bishop’s poetry, however, does not fall neatly into
this category of “confessional” because she does not immediately place
herself into her poetry, even though “connections between Bishop’s
themes and images, and her autobiography, are obvious to anyone who
reads her letters or visits the archive at Vassar” (Costello,
“Impersonal Personal” 334). Bishop adamantly opposed confessional
poetry throughout most of her career, but one sees her reliance on
personal experiences as subjects in much of her poetry. From
chronicling her experiences and travels in foreign lands to reminiscing
about her childhood in Nova Scotia, Bishop could not avoid her personal
life from seeping into her poetry.
To begin to understand Bishop’s unique style, which
is the source of the two apparently opposing interpretations of her
work and the subsequent critical controversy, one must really start
with Moore and Lowell, who influenced her throughout her career.
The awe that Bishop held for Moore defined their early
relationship. In a letter after an early meeting with Moore,
Bishop gushed about Moore’s presence by stating that she “really is so
nice — and the most interesting talker; I’ve seen her only twice and I
think I have enough anecdotes to meditate on for years” (One Art: Letters 23).
Bishop’s initial reverence for the poet grew, and the two became close
friends. Along with the poetic basis for their relationship,
Moore also acted in a maternal way toward the younger poet.
Shortly after they met, Bishop’s mother died in a sanatorium.
Although Bishop never had much of a relationship with her mother, the
maternal void was now permanent. Moore somewhat eliminated this
void, by providing support and guidance for Bishop.
As their relationship continued to change and the
two grew closer, they exchanged written work frequently. When
Bishop began sending her work to Moore, she often found no value in it
if Moore did not approve. She once wrote that a story she sent to
Moore, “The Sea and Its Shore,” was “so untidy. I am afraid it is
a little CHEAP … If you don’t care for it, please don’t bother to send
it back but throw it out the window or down the elevator shaft”
(46). The influence that Moore exerted over Bishop’s work
eventually began to mold the way in which Bishop wrote; Bishop began to
create her work in a way that would satisfy Moore’s critiques.
Bishop wrote, “When I think of the care and time that you … have taken
with that poor story, I feel that you should … be quite out of patience
with me. I only hope that from now I shall be able to notice my
own roughness and lack of natural correctness better” (54).
Bishop became attuned to the style that Moore would approve and began
to follow suit. Bonnie Costello, who has written extensively on
both Moore and Bishop, explains, “Both poets admire[d] accuracy,” and
Moore helped Bishop to develop her skill of precision (Costello,
“Friendship and Influence” 136).
Although one can see the influence that Moore had
over Bishop’s poetry on many levels, it is especially notable in the
“example of meaning generated through contemplation of a single object,
the familiar object reseen, the commitment to accuracy, the reach of
simile, the wisdom of tone, the naturalness of diction — these are
gifts that Moore gave [Bishop]” (Millier 76). Bishop’s poem “The
Fish” exemplifies these characteristics of Moore’s influence. In
this poem, Bishop describes the experience of catching and analyzing a
fish. In an interview, she said, “I always tell the truth in my
poems. With ‘The Fish,’ that’s exactly how it happened” (Wehr
48). She begins by stating “I caught a tremendous fish / and held
him beside the boat / half out of water, with my hook / fast in a
corner of his mouth” (Complete Poems
42). Bishop outlines her reaction to the aesthetics of the fish,
and she expresses her personal responses to the object itself.
She continues providing the facts around the fish and eventually “the
accumulation of detail forces its conclusion” (Millier 154).
Every minute detail that Bishop shares about the experience of catching
a fish and examining it builds to her throwing it back into the
water. Bishop uses the poem to describe the process by which she
arrives at the conclusion or her final action.
Moore's criticism still affected this poem, no
matter how truthful Bishop kept it. After sending “The Fish” to
Moore in 1940 (which Bishop described in the letter as being a real
“trifle” and being “very bad,” comments which she made about many of
her poems sent to Moore), Bishop responded to Moore’s criticism,
writing, “I did as you suggested about everything except ‘breathing
in’” (One Art 87). This
early poem largely depended upon Moore’s critique. Without
Moore’s suggestions and approval, Bishop could have continued to
believe it a “trifle,” and she may not have published what would become
her most anthologized piece.
As their relationship continued, Moore’s influence
over Bishop’s style extended beyond the way in which Bishop composed
her poetry: it began to influence Bishop’s comfort with writing about
certain subjects. When Bishop sent Moore a personal or emotional
poem, the older poet responded with unfavorable remarks. For
example, in the poem “Insomnia” from A
Cold Spring, Bishop indirectly expresses the isolation that she
felt during her stay at Yaddo, the artists’ colony. After Moore
read the completed poem, Bishop reports that Moore regarded it as a
“cheap love poem” and “was very opposed to that one” (Spires
122). Bishop continues by stating, “I don’t think [Moore] ever
believed in talking about the emotions much” (123). Bishop began
taking a similar attitude toward personal poetry, adopted a reticent
attitude, and allowed Moore to shape the subjects of her own poetry.
Although Bishop continued to rely upon Moore’s
influence, eventually she became more resistant to the criticism that
Moore provided. One sees this prominently in Bishop’s response to
the comments Moore provided on “Roosters,” Bishop’s attempt to comment
on the political atmosphere of the time. In October of 1940, only
ten months after she willingly took Moore’s advice on “The Fish,” she
wrote, “what I’m about to say, I’m afraid, will sound like ELIZABETH
KNOWS BEST … I can’t seem to bring myself to give up the set form,
which I’m afraid you think fills the poem with redundancies … maybe I
can explain it” (One Art
96). Bishop goes on to respond to each of Moore’s comments about
the poem and provides justification for her decisions to leave the poem
as she initially composed it. Kirsch explains that one can see
the difference between the two poets because “[‘Roosters’] is not …
strictly a meditation on its subject … Bishop was giving notice that
her artistic path would be very different than Moore’s” (71-72).
Bishop relied on the technical and linguistic precision that Moore
taught her, and Moore’s influence is evident in many of Bishop’s
poems. However, Bishop’s poetry transcends the keen observations
and lucid surfaces of Moore.
The result of the conflict surrounding “Roosters” is
an interesting shift in the relationship between Bishop and Moore after
which Bishop began to address Moore with less reverence and more
equality. Bishop continued her accolades for Moore, but in a more
reserved tone; she focused more on her life and less on the poetry the
two women exchanged. In a letter in 1942, Bishop tells Moore of
sending pieces to a publisher, but does not go into further detail
other than saying, “I sent J. Laughlin ‘The [Imaginary] Iceberg,’
‘[The] Weed,’ and ‘Roosters’” (One Art
110). She does not say anything more about her own poetry and
goes on to tell Moore “how strange that you should quote the Herbert
poem to me, when it was just the one I needed and wished I had
along! I’d copied out a piece of another one, but yours was the
one I wanted” (110). While the two continue to discuss poetry,
Bishop does not present Moore with an opportunity to critique new poems
— a significant shift from their earlier relationship.
In the years after the disagreement over
“Roosters,” Bishop and Moore shifted focus to their daily lives.
Bishop regained authority over the subject matter of her poetry, but
she was without a mentor to guide her career. Bishop addressed
Lowell for the first time in response to his review of North and South in which he wrote,
“the splendor and minuteness of her descriptions soon seem wonderful”
(146). In response to his remarks, Bishop wrote that his “is the
only review that goes at things in what I think is the right way”
(146). This initial correspondence between the poets founded a
new relationship that would be influential throughout Bishop’s life and
Bishop and Lowell began to rely upon each other for
comments on work, but Bishop always felt subordinate to Lowell.
She felt “worried that she would ‘soon be accused of imitation’ of
Lowell’s enviably vivid characterizations” (Millier 198). She
also expressed sentiments that “he wrote ‘real’ poems and that hers
were ‘solid cuteness’ or simple description” (188). To Bishop,
Lowell represented the serious poet that she desired to be. He
also presented a far different style of poetry than Moore. His
publications before the overtly confessional Life Studies proved him to be “a
major poet of a very different kind, not personal and memoiristic but
allegorical” (Kirsch 2). Bishop was more attracted to this new
and vastly different style than Moore’s poetry. Her new
relationship with Lowell grew even while she traveled to Brazil and
took up residency there with her new partner, Lota de Macedo
Soares. Along with these changes, Kirsch notes, “Bishop would
cast off the indirection and intense sublimation” of her earlier poetry
(Kirsch 86). Both poets’ styles would continue to evolve
throughout their careers; however, they would evolve into very
different ones. Lowell continued to redefine his style by writing
with more candor and vulgar honesty. Bishop swerved away from the
path toward explicitness that Lowell laid out (Bloom 14). She
reflected Lowell’s influence with regard to confessing her emotions and
autobiographical elements only so long as she felt comfortable with
Bishop’s poem “Sestina” reflects the affinity she
had for the emotional or personal side of Lowell’s style, but it also
depicts the ways in which her and Lowell’s poetic approaches
differed. Bishop wrote “Sestina” after she wrote the short story
“In the Village” that “describes a period of several weeks in the life
of a five-year-old girl who lives with her grandparents on a farm in
Nova Scotia … [It] conveys the five-year-old’s impressions of loss
without the artificiality or self-pity an adult might add” (Millier
8). Bishop later took the short story and put it into a verse
form, thus the poem “Sestina.” Even later, Lowell took the same
short story and turned it into the poem “The Scream” because “he said
he had thought the story would make a good poem” (330). Bishop
felt defeated in her attempt by Lowell’s “barren versification” of “In
the Village.” She responded to his version by addressing
her desire for more poetry about her past (which later became “First
Death in Nova Scotia”). She wrote, “I don’t know why I bother to
write ‘Uncle Artie,’ really — I should just send you my first notes and
you can turn him into a wonderful poem — he is even more your style
than the village story was” (330). Bishop here indicated her
desire, yet presumed inability, to write in a style more similar to
Lowell’s. But Bishop’s previous experiences with Moore and their
shared value of precision and reticence prevented her from fully
adopting Lowell’s style.
This dichotomy of styles helps one to separate
Bishop’s poetry into two groups according to their treatment of the
subject matter. The first group can be defined as being
descriptive and objective — a group of Bishop’s work following the
style of Moore. This would include poems such as “The Map,” “The
Fish,” or “Filling Station.” One can define the second group of
poems as being more personal, introspective, and emotional — a group of
poetry that seems to seek the approval of Lowell or to match his
style. This group would include poems such as “Insomnia,” “One
Art,” and “Crusoe in England.” Through separating opposing styles
of poetry, one can find evidence for both of the critical
interpretations of Bishop’s work. The assertion here is that both
critical interpretations of Bishop’s poetry are partially correct, but
each is misguided in some of its critical contentions. By
examining Bishop’s personal and emotional work, one sees that Bishop
bridges the gap between the objective precision of Moore and the
explicit, searing honesty of Lowell, thereby creating an intricate
style unique to her. Bishop exemplifies the idea that “poetic
influence need not make poets less original; as often it makes them
original” (Bloom 7).
Bishop acts as an example of two of Harold Bloom’s
“Six Revisionary Ratios.” In relationship to Moore, one sees
Bloom’s idea of Tessera —
the idea that a poet relies on his or her poetic precursor “to retain
[his or her] terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the
precursor failed to go far enough” (Bloom 14). Bishop retained
Moore’s precise language not only to provide objective descriptions,
but also to reveal personal and emotional observations. By moving
beyond the basic elements of Moore’s poetry, Bishop again falls into
another of Bloom’s categories, that of Clinamen. This concept
suggests a poet implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a
certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction
that the new poem moves” (14). Bishop implies that Lowell went
accurately in the direction of confessing autobiographical elements,
but that he went wrongly in the direction of extremely explicit
confessions. Bishop revises his style of poetry by imbedding her
confessions deeply into images and descriptions. Bishop
successfully combines her two revisions of Moore and Lowell to create a
style of poetry suited to her artistic desires.
Through this method of writing, Bishop was able to
confess three main themes that existed throughout her life: her
unsettled childhood and relationships with her family, the loneliness
she felt throughout her life, and an instability and lack of structure,
which resulted from the two former themes. Bishop expressed these
themes through submerging her emotions deep into the terms and language
she uses. The hybrid of Lowell and Moore’s styles that Bishop
created provided her with an outlet to convey those themes and her
reflections in a way that satisfied herself, as well as Moore and
One gains an interesting perspective on Bishop’s
style of writing by exploring her poetry after the shift in her
relationship with Moore and throughout her relationship with
Lowell. Bishop sought the counsel of both poets and, at least for
awhile, refused to accept her work before she received the approval of
either Lowell or Moore. One can find emotional revelations by
looking at her poems through these lenses. Whether her emotions
are deeply rooted into the object that she is discussing, or she
removes herself from the poem to avoid immediate biographical inquiry,
one still finds expression of personal and emotional themes in her
Bishop often expressed concern that she did not have
a defined poetic voice. When once asked if she had “always had a
true sense of your poetic voice,” Bishop responded, “No, I
haven’t. This used to bother me a great deal and still does … I
was worried that none of the poems went together, that there was no
discernible theme” (Johnson 102). As her career progressed, she
was not only concerned that her poetry did not interrelate but also
that it was too similar to the style of Robert Lowell or had not
strayed far enough from the meticulous conservatism of Marianne
Moore. While Bishop did rely upon the influences of both of these
poets, the tension of their completely opposite writing styles helped
Bishop define her own poetic voice. Bishop wrote poetry that
suited both her reticent meticulousness as well as her desire to
express and reflect on her personal life and emotions. Critical
debate over Bishop’s poetry typically discusses these qualities as
being in opposition to one another; however, one can see that they
function in harmony so that Bishop can conceal her confessions.
The original critical debate that focuses
around Bishop and her style presents one with two opposing ways of
reading her poetry. This opposition also fuels the newest debate
surrounding Edgar Allan Poe and the
Jukebox. One group of critics focuses solely on the formal
and technical precision of her poetry — the qualities of Bishop’s
poetry most similar to Moore’s poetry. In nearly all of Bishop’s
poetry, she relied on creating perfectly constructed scenes in order to
connect with her readers. However, these critics do not focus on
what is beneath the scenes, which is what the opposing critics
highlight. The opposing critics advocate a confessional reading
of Bishop’s poetry — rendering Bishop a poet more similar to that of
Lowell. These critics focus on the raw emotions that Bishop
confessed through her poetry.
While both critical schools are correct in their
contentions, they are not in as much opposition as they first
appear. Instead of falling neatly into one category or the other,
Bishop falls somewhere in the middle. The value of her poetry
extends far beyond the pristine settings and meticulous details, but
she never divulges raw, explicit emotions in a fully confessional
sense. She uses her linguistic precision to avoid that
“confessional nonsense.” Her uncollected poetry only highlights
the two opposing styles of her poetry and her desire to maintain a
balance of both facets of her work.
Bishop’s brand of poetry helps her to reconcile the
tension between the styles of the two people most influential on her
poetic career. She extends the use of Moore’s poetic techniques
to help her fulfill her desire to write like Lowell. Ultimately,
however, she swerves away from Lowell’s path toward morbidity and
rawness to fulfill her desire to remain somewhat reticent and avoid
explicitly autobiographical inquiry. Bishop’s uncollected work
shows readers that her poetry was a harmonious blending of these
elements. Through this blending, Bishop wrote in a way suitable
to herself and was able to find a true sense of her poetic voice.
Bernlef, J. “A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop.” Het ontplofte gedicht: Overpoezie.
Amsterdam: Em. Querido’s Uitgeverrij B.V.,1978.
84-92. Rpt. in Monteiro 62-68.
Bishop, Elizabeth. The
Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.
Bishop, Elizabeth. One Art:
Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar,
Straus, and Giroux, 1994.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of
Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 1973. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1997.
Costello, Bonnie. “Elizabeth Bishop’s Impersonal Personal.”
American Literary History,
15.2 (2003): 334-366.
Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth
Bishop: Questions of Mastery. 1991. Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 1993.
Costello, Bonnie. “Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop:
Friendship and Influence,” Twentieth
Century Literature 30.2-3 (1984): 130-149.
Dickie, Margaret. Stein,
Bishop & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War & Place. Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Dirda, Michael. Bound to
Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
Doreski, Carole. Elizabeth
Bishop: The Restraints of Language. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1993.
English, Richard. Ernie
O’Malley: IRA Intellectual. New York: Oxford University
Gioia, Dana. “Elizabeth Bishop: from coterie to canon,” New Criterion 22.8 (2004):
Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth
Bishop: A Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1992.
Hamelman, Steven. “Bishop’s Crusoe in England.” Explicator 51.1 (1992): 50-54.
Johnson, Alexandra. “Geography of the Imagination,” Christian Science Monitor 23 Mar.
1978: 20-21. Rpt. in Monteiro 98-104.
Kirsch, Adam. “Elizabeth Bishop’s hard-earned
mastery.” Times Online.
(26 Apr 2006). 1 May 2006 <
Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded
Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
Lowell, Robert. Collected
Poems. Ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
Lowell, Robert. “Dear Elizabeth.” The New Yorker 20 Dec 2004: 134-141.
Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth
Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1993.
Monteiro, George, ed. Conversations
with Elizabeth Bishop. Jackson: University of Mississippi
Moore, Marianne. The Complete
Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
Ribeiro, Leo Gilson. “Elizabeth Bishop: The Process, the Cashew,
and Micucu.” Correio da Manha [Rio
de Janeiro] 13 Dec 1964: 6. Rpt. in Monteiro 14-17.
Schiller, Beatriz. “Poetry Born out of Suffering.” Jornal do Brasil [Rio de Janeiro] 8
May 1977: 22-23. Rpt. in Monteiro 74-81.
Spires, Elizabeth. “The Art of Poetry, XXVII: Elizabeth
Bishop.” Paris Review
Summer 1981: 56-83. Rpt. in Monteiro 114-132.
Starbuck, George. “A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop.”
1977. Ploughshares 3.3-4
(1977): 11-29. Rpt. in Monteiro 82-97.
Tomlinson, Charles. “Poetry and Friendship.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 16.2
Travisano, Thomas. “The Elizabeth Bishop Phenomenon.” New Literary History. 26.4
Vendler, Helen. “The Art of Losing.” Powell’s Books. (6 Apr.
2006). 15 June 2006.
Wehr, Wesley. “Elizabeth Bishop: Conversations and Class
Notes.” Antioch Review
39.3 (1981): 319-328. Rpt. in Monteiro 82-97.
Wolosky, Shira. “Representing other voices: Rhetorical
perspective in Elizabeth Bishop.” Style. 29.1 (1995):
© by Laura Ebberson