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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics






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. 

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who has brought a brilliant precision to poetic language by meticulous conservatism … [and] maintaining the ancestral, ‘out-of-date’ virtues of American culture” (Ribeiro 15).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 Lowell. 
    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 poetic career.
    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 their expression.
    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 more 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 Lowell.
    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 poems.
    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.


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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 Press, 1998.
Gioia, Dana.  “Elizabeth Bishop: from coterie to canon,” New Criterion 22.8 (2004): 19-26. 
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  < http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25367-2163212.html>.
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 Press, 1996.
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 (1991),  102-108.
Travisano, Thomas.  “The Elizabeth Bishop Phenomenon.”  New Literary History.  26.4 (1995): 903-930.
Vendler, Helen.  “The Art of Losing.”  Powell’s Books.  (6 Apr. 2006).  15 June 2006.  <http://www.powells.com/review/2006_04_06>
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): 1-17. 

© by Laura Ebberson


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