Volume 20, Number 1
Review by Ola Madhour, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop
Edited by Angus Cleghorn and Jonathan Ellis
New York & Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 216 pages with index.
ISBN 978-1-107-67254-3 (pbk.)
Who would have thought that Elizabeth Bishop would get a Cambridge Companion before Robert Lowell? Bishop was a poet of small reputation during her lifetime, but many of her contemporaries and early admirers (including Lowell) would have been scarcely surprised by the phenomenal success that her work has enjoyed since her death in 1979. Bishop’s originality and importance in the world of American literature has now been firmly established, celebrated, and reiterated. The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop bears the stamp of the excitement that her life and work has inspired in her readers as well as the star-like popularity she has achieved within academia today.
More than an introductory volume, the Companion retraces the history of Bishop criticism and tells us where to go from here. It features a wide range of engaging essays that explore and question various aspects of Bishop’s growing universe, from her literary friendships, letters (Siobhan Phillips), drafts, and paintings (Peggy Samuels), to matters of sexuality and gender, her experiences of living in Canada and Brazil, and how she responded to nature, politics, and history. Sandra Barry’s essay demands particular attention as it calls for a reevaluation of one of the most important influences on Bishop, her mother’s, and regrets that Gertrude Bulmer’s grief and her occasional appearances in Bishop’s body of work have often been dismissed as the manifestation of an absent or insane figure. Bishop’s relationship with her mother “was complex, fraught, contradictory, and mysterious.”
Moreover, Bonnie Costello’s essay identifies Bishop as “forever part of ‘poetic tradition’” by retracing the incredible diversity of literary material that Bishop read and absorbed, from Melville, Tennyson, Philip Sydney, and the Bible, to Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Hopkins and Herbert, and of course, modern American poets and her contemporaries. As the impact of Bishop’s literary interests on her work seems to be growing in our minds, demanding more studies and research (how many other poets and writers influenced her?), Costello concludes by drawing our attention to the “immeasurable” impact that Bishop herself has had on other writers, therefore stretching Bishop’s relationship with poetic tradition from past to future.
Though the volume celebrates Bishop’s largeness and multiperspectival genius, it is also aware of her contradictions. Editors Angus Cleghorn and Jonathan Ellis begin the introduction by highlighting the difficulty of categorizing Bishop, and her description as a “divided creature” (here used by Steven Gould Axelrod) essentially runs through most of the volume’s subsequent chapters. Bishop vacillates between the personal and the impersonal, the awful and the cheerful, the natural and the artificial (see Susan Rosenbaum’s essay for the latter): always a traveler, she is still, in David Kalstone’s famous words, “hard to place.” Thus, in her essay on Bishop’s complex relationship with Brazil, Barbara Page writes that “home can be anywhere,” and that it is “a question of continual orientation and reconsideration.” And Bethany Hicok looks at Bishop’s move from poems of the North to poems of the South, writing that “Bishop openly situates herself in the position of the traveler […] in order to ask important ethical questions about encounters with the other.”
The posthumous publication of Bishop’s unpublished poems, drafts, and letters has expanded both her corpus and her readership and has certainly allowed, as Thomas Travisano explains in the opening chapter, for her reputation to rise. But with more knowledge comes more responsibility, and the volume provides guidance on how to steer through Bishop’s twists and turns and bridge the gap between life and art, reticence and autobiography, self and other. Kirstin Hotelling Zona writes that “the ‘problems’ of ‘difference’ within Bishop’s poetry are thus always ‘helplessly proliferative,’ affirming neither the abject nor the ideal but rather, the degree to which one’s sensation of autonomy depends on the play between the two.” A “play between the two” constitutes the tensely balanced framework within which many of the volume’s contributors situate Bishop’s fluctuating artistic vision.
The volume often returns to the controversy and debate surrounding the posthumous publication of Bishop’s writings, most notably in Lorrie Goldensohn’s essay. Should one read the unfinished “Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box” just as attentively as the celebrated “One Art”? Lloyd Schwartz writes that Bishop’s will “gave her literary executors, [Alice] Methfessel and Frank Bidart, ‘the power to determine whether any of my unpublished manuscripts and papers shall be published, and if so, to see them through the press.’” That Bishop was not totally opposed to the publication of some of her drafts provides us with comfort, and Schwartz adds that “there might have been less controversy over Bishop’s posthumous publications had her will been more generally known.” The volume certainly embraces the research and diversity that Bishop’s extended canon has generated, though by returning to the controversy, it also warns us not to fall into excess. Goldensohn gives perhaps the best advice: “as the decades begin their slow, volcanic accumulation over this body of poetry, so must our critical reception of it heave and realign.” One needs not demarcate between an old Bishop and a new Bishop. Instead, it is a sense of constant re-adjustment of her criticism that the Companion successfully brings forth.
Review by Ruth Hawthorn, University of Sheffield, England
Elizabeth Bishop: Lines of Connection by Linda Anderson.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. 184 pages.
Linda Anderson begins Lines of Connection with the question of Elizabeth Bishop’s now near-legendary slowness of poetic output. Her poem “The Moose” famously underwent three decades of development between its initial conception in 1946 and its final version, in the 1977 collection Geography III. Rather than attributing this solely to Bishop’s equally often-cited “perfectionism” and self-censorship or to her periods of illness and geographical upheaval, however, Anderson instead amends her initial question, reframing Bishop’s delays as a necessary part of her writing process: “what did she manage to bring to her writing that she might not otherwise have been able to through her use of notes and drafts, written years before? How, in other words, does her writing process – seemingly so ramshackle, so inefficient – also enter her poems?” In her examination of Bishop’s self-proclaimed process of “writ[ing] poetry more by not writing it than writing it”, Anderson draws on her subject’s entire oeuvre, tracing links between the letters, essays, short stories, paintings and unfinished drafts, in order to establish her readings of “the complex achievements of the poems”.
Anderson expands on these “lines of connection” through her consideration of a vast array of theoretical and cultural contexts. At times, the sheer number of links Anderson draws – ranging from discussion of Bishop’s interest in Baudelaire and her views on contemporary pop music to deconstructionist and psychoanalytical readings of Bishop’s work – is slightly disorientating. This, though, can be seen as necessary and apposite in a study of a writer who was so eloquently sceptical about schools, trends and labels. Bishop’s review of The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, which Anderson quotes, provides a vehement reproach of overly determined literary criticism: “in order to reach a single reason for anything as singular and yet manifold as literary creation, it is necessary to limit to the point of mutilation the human personality’s capacity for growth and redirection.” It is conceivably with this indictment in mind that Anderson offers such a multiplicity of contexts for her readings, refusing to reduce contradictions and complexities in Bishop’s writings for the purposes of a neatly overarching argument or theory. The result is a series of illuminating and inter-linked close analyses of both familiar works like “In the Waiting Room” and “The Armadillo” and posthumously published poems such as “It is marvellous to wake up together” and “Dear Dr.”, which are fast becoming an important part of Bishop studies. Lines of Connection, along with Elizabeth Bishop in the Twenty-First Century (2012) and The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop (2014), draw extensively from the wealth of materials made widely available through the controversial release of Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box (2006) and the expanded “Centenary” editions of Bishop’s poetry and prose. Anderson gratefully acknowledges these posthumous works and the insights they offer into Bishop’s writing process, without adding to the lengthy debate over the ethics of their publication; an indication, perhaps, that the collections are becoming a more accepted element of the Bishop “canon”.
Anderson works within a roughly chronological structure. The first chapter, “Paper Replicas: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore” re-examines Bishop’s early relationship with the elder poet. Focusing her discussion around a series of objects which were significant to their personal and poetic exchanges, Anderson argues that while Moore “helped [Bishop] to open up areas of vision which were oblique or peripheral, not dominated by tradition or authority”, Bishop introduced “doubts and doubleness […] critique and hesitation” into her writing, diverging from Moore’s emphasis on “synchronicity and simultaneity”. “A Window into Europe” explores Bishop’s interest in modern art and art theory, particularly Surrealism, during the period of her European travels. Most interesting here, and illustrative of Anderson’s eclectic approach to Bishop, is this second chapter’s discussion of embarrassment and shame as significant concepts in Bishop’s writing, which allow her to explore ‘interstitial’ states. She reads this interest biographically, as linked to Bishop’s sense of displacement and goes on to explore the poetic deployment of embarrassment in an astute reading of “The Man-Moth”. The third chapter “The Labyrinth of Temporality” is based around Bishop’s time in Brazil, delineating how being in ‘a country she did not know whose language she did not speak’ allowed Bishop to ‘approach her past across distances of time and space’, in numerous writings about her childhood. Anderson also briefly addresses Bishop’s relationship with Robert Lowell, here; now fairly well-worn ground, but included nonetheless as ‘an important part of the story’.
“The Journey of Lines” is the study’s closing and strongest chapter, offering a compelling analysis of the motif of the ‘line’ in Bishop work, and drawing together the concerns of earlier chapters. Building on the work of Lorrie Goldensohn and Peggy Samuels, Anderson identifies lines as a evocative ‘suggestive trope “within her writing, as well as her painting […] operating at the margins of what is figurable […] suggesting connections and extensions which go beyond the immediate work.” Looking at Bishop’s later poetry, which returns to and refigures “earlier experiences, themes and images” she argues that the line is an apt figure for Bishop’s writing process: “By thinking of [lines] as a kind of trace or energy that goes across her writing they could also be seen as marking out the poem’s process of arrival, the links that have been accumulated not just across the written page but beyond it, over time.” These are the “lines of connection” that Anderson follows throughout this study, taking in the multiplicity of influences which informed Bishop’s writing and providing us with a penetrating, nuanced overview of her life and career.
Elizabeth Bishop: Students and Protégés
ALA Washington, D.C.
Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill
Saturday, May 24, 2014, 2 p.m.
Ola Madhour, University of Fribourg
The Elizabeth Bishop society panel took place on a particularly hot afternoon in Washington at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. Though few attended the event, the panel featured an extraordinary group of people, all of whom knew Elizabeth Bishop. As students and protégés, the society’s guests Jane Shore, Megan Marshall, and Julie Agoos shared their experience of “studying” Miss Bishop and told delightful stories about attending her classes at Harvard.
For a Bishop aficionado, meeting the panelists was a remarkable opportunity, and listening to their stories and anecdotes about the poet produced a sense of complicity that spread around the room. Lloyd Schwartz (University of Massachusetts Boston), who acted as panel moderator, initiated the conversation about Elizabeth Bishop “the teacher.” He spoke of his own friendship with Bishop and recalled her willingness to support him with his doctoral dissertation. Lloyd told us that Bishop agreed to meet with him regularly and that she answered all his questions about the circumstances of her writing her poems but wouldn’t answer any questions about interpretation. “It’s obvious,” she told him about one line he was particularly puzzled by. Lloyd added: “I didn’t think she would be friendly to the idea of a friend of hers writing about her,” and when he asked Bishop, “How would you feel if I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on you?” She replied: “Well, would you finish it?” Lloyd drew our attention to Bishop’s “maternal instinct” and her wish to see a young student complete his degree.
Jane Shore (George Washington University) took us back to the fall of 1971 when she attended Bishop’s class on verse writing. As a young woman poet of twenty-four, Jane had been looking for a mentor: “I needed a role model to see what the life of poetry would be.” Jane had never heard of Bishop and had originally wanted to go to Harvard to study with Robert Lowell (who was away in England that particular semester). But with the encouragement of her teacher Kathleen Fraser, Jane made contact with Bishop and asked if she could sit in on her workshop. Jane’s initial thought was that Bishop was not a good teacher (though she was an impeccable dresser). In fact, on the first day of class, Bishop herself admitted that she did not like teaching, and that she had asked W.H. Auden for some advice on what to do in class. The latter had recommended verse writing, memorizing and learning meter. This was quite different from what Jane had previously studied at Iowa: “we were all reading James Tate,” Jane explained, “and surrealism and Robert Bly.” Bishop’s assignments included reading and turning the first paragraph of The Great Gatsby into a poem, and reading Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam, a memoir about her husband and poet Osip Mandelstam who had been imprisoned and then killed by Stalin. Bishop wanted her students to know that “we poets in America had it real easy.” Years later, when Jane became Bishop’s colleague at Harvard, she was able to observe and “study” her more closely, and assess the tremendous impression that the older poet had had on her. There was a huge contrast between Bishop’s personal “style” as a teacher—her self-presentation—with the cult of personality, the “po-biz” attitude and careerism, that would emerge from MFA programs then and in the future.
Megan Marshall (Emerson College) shared some of the discoveries she made while working in the archives at Vassar, looking at documents that survive from Bishop’s teaching days. While Jane attended Bishop’s second Advanced Verse Writing course at Harvard, Megan and Julie took Bishop’s last poetry workshop course in the fall of 1976. (Bishop taught a literature course in modern American poetry at Harvard in the spring to complete the academic year.) In a file labeled “College Teaching Notes and Exams,” Megan found names of students, some of their grades, exams, assignments, and a little notebook with an entry that said: “Cs are failing for good students.” “She [Bishop] was really troubled about how to deal with the caliber of students that she had at Harvard,” Megan said, referring to the expectation of high grades that Bishop’s Harvard students seemed to have in the 1970s. “When she had been a student at Vassar, she got Cs or Bs or even maybe a D here and there.” Bishop may have thought there had been grade inflation: “maybe she gave us higher grades than she was inclined to.” In the spring of 1975, as Lowell returned to Harvard and taught a poetry workshop, Bishop requested to teach a basic, prose writing class. The handout she prepared, reprinted by Lloyd Schwartz in the centennial edition of Bishop’s Prose (252), demonstrates Bishop’s well-known accuracy and her wish to always try and “get it just right.” She hated the phrase “creative writing” for instance, and while she thought that “more importantly” and “hopefully” were BOTH WRONG, she then scribbled “mostly” (both mostly wrong) as a note to herself. Megan shared another great and lengthy document about Bishop’s “Teaching Observations” that reveals much of the poet’s teaching style, but also her amusingly abrupt frankness. In December 1976, as she observed someone’s teaching at a nearby college, Bishop noted the teacher’s manner which was “gentle and polite, perhaps a bit hesitant,” and she praised her genuine interest in students and their writing, the absence of sarcasm and lack of pretension. All of these elements that drew Bishop’s attention were a reflection of her own character and style. Despite the fact that she “never felt comfortable about teaching writing,” or said, as Megan recalled from the first day of class, “I don’t believe that poetry can be taught,” Bishop remained devoted to her job and to her students, and showed them much affection.
Julie Agoos (Brooklyn College) had not read Elizabeth Bishop before college, though she knew of her, since Bishop’s “reputation as both a really bad teacher and a really great poet” preceded her. Encouraged by her sister-in-law and by Jane Shore, Julie took Bishop’s poetry class during her sophomore year. Bishop was understated, in a sense even “underwhelming” in the way she presented herself in class, and also in how she commented on poems. “She might pass a poem back,” Julie said, and “it would have one or two words circled in green or blue ink (I always thought of her poem “The Map”), and she might have written a couple of alternative words in the margin. But there weren’t extensive comments and I didn’t know initially whether that meant a lack of interest or just a very focused interest or a focused attention.” Julie thought Bishop was extremely “matter-of-fact” and “low-key,” but despite her apparent lack of joy in teaching, Bishop conveyed a “really deep sense of poetry.” It was a feeling that no syllabus could convey but it was something that Julie experienced as she absorbed Bishop’s love for craft and love of pattern and began to associate Bishop with “the idea of the importance of expository skills and of writing directly from the phenomenal world.” And what she learned in class with Bishop steered her also towards the “importance of poetry in life.” For one class assignment, Julie wrote a poem in triplets, and recalled Bishop commenting in class that “triplets hardly ever work” (Megan noted that Marianne Moore had made a similar comment on “Roosters”), though in the case of Julie’s poem, Bishop added, “they had worked fairly well.” After class, Bishop asked Julie further questions about her poem and how she had gone about writing it, thereby showing real interest, not in Julie herself, but in the poem, as well as in the woman character the poem describes. “She made my own poems real to me,” Julie said. Likewise Bishop’s questioning of Julie’s use of “nickel” (instead of “shilling” or “5p.”) in a poem talking about children speaking in a kind of street slang in England was not to embarrass her student, but to find out the truth about that specific word: “Why would you use an American term?” Bishop asked, and though Julie argued that she had heard children use it when living in England, Bishop remained skeptical, and even called a friend in London to check. But “she wasn’t trying to call me out,” Julie said; her questioning was “a window into her endless curiosity.” And it was “a curiosity,” she added, “that extended to us.”
Many thanks to the four panelists for reviewing and contributing to this report.
Lorrie Goldensohn is continuing her work on the 2011 acquisitions for the Bishop Papers in the Vassar Library. She is focusing largely on the psychological and literary aspects of the letters Bishop wrote to Dr. Ruth Foster in February of 1947, and an article of hers entitled “Elizabeth Bishop: Approaching the Foster Letters“ will appear in the January issue of The Yale Review. Goldensohn says: “One of the most pressing questions that remains concerns the identification of Dr. Ruth Foster. We know nothing about Foster’s personal history, training, or possible publications. Anything any researcher could contribute to this search would be welcome to all Bishop scholars. Another set of questions begging for medical expertise involves the specific drugs, psychotropic and otherwise– that Bishop took for her various problems: alcoholism, asthma and eczema. Many of the drugs Bishop used are named in Bishop’s letters to Dr. Anny Baumann. Medical opinion about the desirable frequency and dosage of these drugs may well have altered since Bishop was given her prescriptions.”
Jeffrey Harrison’s poem entitled “Elizabeth Bishop and The Grateful Dead” will delight readers with its biographical revelations. Here is the link to The Yale Review publication:
Clovis, Poems to Bishop
Clovis writes his Poems to Bishop from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Readers curious about this collection may view it through Amazon at the following link: