Just as sitting in a train traveling 20 MPH can make us think a plane traveling 200 mph is flying backwards because of nearer objects we are passing, so a minor figure fawned over in our day can seem major.

Elizabeth Bishop is a spectacular example of near and dear fawning distorting actual merit.  She’s not even a good writer, much less a great one, but she has mattered to a clique which seems to be growing by the hour: the friendship with Miss Moore and Mr. Lowell has snowballed into a situation where all the Critics have fallen asleep.

What a ghastly creature Elizabeth Bishop was!

She understood the universe by the age of six (“In the Waiting Room”).

She had “three loved houses”—one, apparently, wasn’t enough (“One Art”).

She ridiculed what she perceived as the greaseball working class (“Filling Station”).

She overheard the conversations of regular folk riding buses with a thinly disguised, haughty scorn (“The Moose”).

Bishop feeds our inner spinster aunt who not-so-secretly hates and lords it over all (“those awful hanging breasts!”) with delicious ease.

To Elizabeth Bishop, actual human beings going about their business always elicited the faint whiff of gasoline.

Elizabeth feeds our aesthetically-hidden inner snob.

This would be fine, if her aesthetic project wasn’t also shallow and condescending.  After all, the quaint aesthetics of magical symbolism which she indulged in can lend a certain amount of pleasure; but rather than beauty, she merely proferred the current fashion of WC Williams modernism then extant, so we get ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ writ large: ordinary objects are everywhere “glazed” with something or other (oil or gasoline, mostly) and we get that patronizing tone of the Children’s Book author, constantly telling us the wheel barrow was red and the chickens, white and everything is seen not through our eyes, but hers, the over-descriptive one.   We get description, description, description and no thought, or, substituting for thought, a symbol, like a moose, or a fish, that we are supposed to ooh and aah over, never suspecting the poet has really nothing to convey but a bunch of cranky prejudices and snotty preferences. She likes beaches .  She doesn’t like filling stations.

What should one expect, after all, from someone who had the world figured out by age six, was miserable all her life, and had profitable friendships with the brittle Marianne Moore and the psychotic Robert Lowell?

Last night at an auditorium at Boston University, twenty members of po-biz sat on folding-chairs on a small stage, before a scattered audience of about 200, and mostly without fanfare, read poems and excerpts of letters and prose with varying degrees of intensity.

Two readers called what they read “perfect.”

All the readers felt rather pressed for time, since there were twenty of them, but that didn’t stop some from going on much too long.

Anything more than a page felt winding and obscure.

The delicate lyrics worked the best, but even there it was apparent we were not in the presence of a major poet; even “One Art,” her most famous rhymed work, is spoiled by that odd interjection—write it!—which doesn’t work when read aloud.

The evening was bland, except for two moments:

One female poet attempted to refute Dana Gioia’s recent remarks that Bishop was not much of an abstract thinker and she made the mistake of reading a passage of Bishop’s on the concept of time which was so befuddling and weak, it only proved Gioia’s point.

Christopher Ricks—no one introduced themselves, as one was supposed to match up the arrangement of the readers’ stage-seating with the order of the readers listed in the program—but we all know Christopher Ricks—Professor Ricks felt impelled to announce that Bishop appreciated prose as much as poetry and proceeded to point out that poetry has not, and will never, solve the problem of the prose paragraph.  Prose, Ricks, said, can quote poetry, but poetry cannot quote prose.  A pity this didn’t get discussed, and then Ricks read an exquisite one page prose excerpt from a Bishop story which quoted Keats.  At times, Bishop the aesthete emerges, which all aesthetes can love.  She just needs to be presented correctly, by thoughtful fellows like Christopher Ricks, who showed in a matter of seconds, the pure charm that is Christopher Ricks.

If all this seems demeaning and even sexist, it should be remembered how really sexist the Modernists were: not only did men, in terms of pure numbers, dominate po-biz in the 20th century, but the sexism is even deeper and more insidious than supposed: the male poets would decide what women poets would be allowed to have respectful poetic reputations.

The Bishop who loves Keats, we love.  But the Bishop we were meant to love, like the Marianne Moore we were meant to love, is the one not quite as good as Robert Lowell.


  1. Noochinator said,

    February 12, 2011 at 12:48 am

    One Art

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

    —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

    Elizabeth Bishop

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 12, 2011 at 2:18 am

      This poem falls apart in the last stanza: 1. The repetition of ‘disaster’ and ‘master’ has by now lost its charm. 2. The split between the ‘art of losing’ and the ‘art of accepting loss’ (two different things) is never resolved, and it’s really the latter which the poem is about, not ‘the art of losing.’ 3. The split between ‘losing thru carelessness’ (small things?) and ‘losing to fate’ (big things?) is never resolved. 4. “I shan’t have lied” is rhetorically weak. 5. The final line is simply ‘a disaster’ to the poem: “though it—are we to understand ‘it’ to mean ‘the art of losing,’ and if so, how can ‘the art’ of something ‘look like disaster?’ And “(Write it!)” may be an ingenious ‘solution’ to the trainwreck of that last stanza, but unfortunately the ‘solution’ only calls attention to the ‘problem,’ and so in the end, the poem, which showed promise, devolves into the self-consciously fussy and clever, unable to reach a satisfying climax.

  2. Noochness said,

    February 12, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Filling Station

    Oh, but it is dirty!
    —this little filling station,
    oil-soaked, oil-permeated
    to a disturbing, over-all
    black translucency.
    Be careful with that match!

    Father wears a dirty,
    oil-soaked monkey suit
    that cuts him under the arms,
    and several quick and saucy
    and greasy sons assist him
    (it’s a family filling station),
    all quite thoroughly dirty.

    Do they live in the station?
    It has a cement porch
    behind the pumps, and on it
    a set of crushed and grease-
    impregnated wickerwork;
    on the wicker sofa
    a dirty dog, quite comfy.

    Some comic books provide
    the only note of color—
    of certain color. They lie
    upon a big dim doily
    draping a taboret
    (part of the set), beside
    a big hirsute begonia.

    Why the extraneous plant?
    Why the taboret?
    Why, oh why, the doily?
    (Embroidered in daisy stitch
    with marguerites, I think,
    and heavy with gray crochet.)

    Somebody embroidered the doily.
    Somebody waters the plant,
    or oils it, maybe. Somebody
    arranges the rows of cans
    so that they softly say:

    to high-strung automobiles.
    Somebody loves us all.

    Elizabeth Bishop

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 13, 2011 at 1:42 am

      This poem proves, I think, that Elizabeth Bishop was crazy, crazy like Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound were crazy, crazy, smart people who don’t work at real jobs and have no idea who the middle class or the working class are, who snidely mock them behind their backs, who dabble in poetry and are sort of good at it precisely because they don’t try very hard at it, but yet need it to justify themselves, because they don’t work, and so they ring up their publishing friends for lunch, drinks and poems, when they’re not miserable, utterly so-so-so-so…

  3. Noochness said,

    February 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    In the Waiting Room

    In Worcester, Massachusetts,
    I went with Aunt Consuelo
    to keep her dentist’s appointment
    and sat and waited for her
    in the dentist’s waiting room.
    It was winter. It got dark
    early. The waiting room
    was full of grown-up people,
    arctics and overcoats,
    lamps and magazines.
    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.
    Babies with pointed heads
    wound round and round with string;
    black, naked women with necks
    wound round and round with wire
    like the necks of light bulbs.
    Their breasts were horrifying.
    I read it right straight through.
    I was too shy to stop.
    And then I looked at the cover:
    the yellow margins, the date.
    Suddenly, from inside,
    came an oh! of pain
    —Aunt Consuelo’s voice—
    not very loud or long.
    I wasn’t at all surprised;
    even then I knew she was
    a foolish, timid woman.
    I might have been embarrassed,
    but wasn’t. What took me
    completely by surprise
    was that it was me:
    my voice, in my mouth.
    Without thinking at all
    I was my foolish aunt,
    I—we—were falling, falling,
    our eyes glued to the cover
    of the National Geographic,
    February, 1918.

    I said to myself: three days
    and you’ll be seven years old.
    I was saying it to stop
    the sensation of falling off
    the round, turning world
    into cold, blue-black space.
    But I felt: you are an I,
    you are an Elizabeth,
    you are one of them.
    Why should you be one, too?
    I scarcely dared to look
    to see what it was I was.
    I gave a sidelong glance
    —I couldn’t look any higher—
    at shadowy gray knees,
    trousers and skirts and boots
    and different pairs of hands
    lying under the lamps.
    I knew that nothing stranger
    had ever happened, that nothing
    stranger could ever happen.

    Why should I be my aunt,
    or me, or anyone?
    What similarities—
    boots, hands, the family voice
    I felt in my throat, or even
    the National Geographic
    and those awful hanging breasts—
    held us all together
    or made us all just one?
    How—I didn’t know any
    word for it—how “unlikely”. . .
    How had I come to be here,
    like them, and overhear
    a cry of pain that could have
    got loud and worse but hadn’t?

    The waiting room was bright
    and too hot. It was sliding
    beneath a big black wave,
    another, and another.

    Then I was back in it.
    The War was on. Outside,
    in Worcester, Massachusetts,
    were night and slush and cold,
    and it was still the fifth
    of February, 1918.

    Elizabeth Bishop

  4. thomasbrady said,

    February 13, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Elizabeth Bishop has a little ‘outside of herself’ incident thanks to the “horrifying breasts” of African women in a National Geographic. Even though she is only a child, she knows her Aunt Consuelo is a “foolish, timid woman.” I think this is more proof that Bishop was a little bit creepy and not the nicest person. No rule against them becoming poets, of course. Maybe I’ll get in trouble for this because no one has ever said a bad word about Elizabeth Bishop, but to look at the issue truthfully and matter-of-factly, I think perhaps we could use a jot of counter-perspective in the giant po-biz glass ball of Elizabeth Bishop-worship. Even Bishop herself would say, ‘Come on, people. Stop. I’m not a saint.’

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