Elizabeth Bishop: Poetry With Purpose, Capstone Project Example
Words: 6504Capstone Project
The work examines the subjectivity projection in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. The particular focus is directed on the poems “The Fish”, “One Art”, and “In the Waiting Room”. Each of the works reveals the author’s autobiographical motives disclosing experience related to childhood memories, intimate emotional reaction to realms of life, reflections of eternal values.
Elizabeth Bishop: Poetry with Purpose
“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
An individual, the poet, ‘speaks’ and is ‘heard’ by an audience of readers. Poetry brings into existence worthy past and present moments. Every accomplished poem silhouettes an author’s perception of a person, place, thing, object, or experience and captures the attention of its readers, making it unmistakably, successful. In accordance with E. E. Cummings’ observation, “Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit”, it can be said that the works of Elizabeth Bishop certainly expose her human spirit.
The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop can be well thought of as a voice echoed in print. Bishop’s work ultimately, offers a precise, graphic depiction of one who has been key witness; in as such, rests an unambiguous awareness of Bishop’s sensibility, as well as skilled poet. Elizabeth Bishop lived, at times, a tumultuous life and other times a peaceful life. Her creative and curious nature is projected through her poetry. In most “I” person poems, the speaker is presumably identified with the author herself. In some of them, threads of escapist motives play a significant part as an attempt to forget about harsh life realms. Hence, these poems serve a perfect example of catharsis produced through readers’ empathy, compassion, shared enduring of emotional experience. Apparently, emphasis on her poignant responses to life changing events is particularly underscored in “One Art”, “In the Waiting Room”, and “The Fish”. Symbolic messages found in these poems apparently conceptualize Bishops’ life story.
Some critics have labeled Bishop’s poems as puzzling, obscure, and simple yet non-definitive. A reading, that seems confusing or perplexing, instigates that part of the human will which brings to surface curiosity, the part of self which turns from complacency to investigator. A reading, that is obscure, or difficult to understand, gives rise to contemplation and the power of imagination. A reading, that is simple, yet non-definitive, lies at the crossroads between humbleness and pretentious. All of these characteristics (puzzling, obscure, and simple), are what make Bishop’s work undeniably, ingenious.
Elizabeth Bishops’ work rests within a class of its own. Her work encapsulates the work of someone, not the poet herself, but the average layperson writing a life journal or diary. Most of Bishops poems were re-constructs of ‘self’ –real life events and experiences. Her life was filled with inspiring experiences. As a child, Bishop lost both parents, one to death, one to mental illness. Orphaned, Bishop was raised by relatives, mainly an uncle and aunt. Many of her poems represent the journey of an adult writer to childhood memories that oppressed Bishop throughout her entire life. Though the speaker is a child, the voice and though depths prove that it is an adult’s flashback. The poem “In the Waiting Room” mirrors one of Bishops childhood experiences that involved her aunt. The poem discusses a seemingly innocent childhood experience, which turns into a coming of age poem as it erupts into gender self-identification. Being an adult, Elizabeth Bishop was involved in a lesbian relationship with a Brazilian lover. After several volatile years together, Bishop’s lover commits suicide. Bishop creates barriers to shield herself from this loss and alludes to her desire to move pass the loss and pain. The loss becomes a transient theme in her poetry. The villanelle “One Art” reveals deep reflection on various losses and the reaction to them.
Throughout her adult life, Bishop enjoyed living in places that offered settings of comfort (perhaps in a quest for tranquility–opposite of her childhood). One place of comfort for Bishop was the coastal waterway of Key West, Florida. There she enjoyed a favorite hobby–fishing. “The Fish” is a poem about one of Bishops ‘catches’ and her decision to free the ‘catch’. Not only does this particular poem (above all others), reflect an intimate view of Bishops passionate soul; it also encompasses aspects of Bishops life to include her struggles, triumphs, and ultimately her surrender.
Critic Ann Hoff offers a different view of sorts with Bishops work, specifically Bishop’s autobiographical works. Hoff attempts to convince Bishops critics that she [Bishop] withholds the most intimate details of memoirs from her readers in autobiographical works. “The Fish”, one of Bishops autobiographical poems, certainly does not fit into Hoff’s critical stance on Bishop. In her essay, “Owning Memory: Elizabeth Bishop’s Authorial Restraint”, Hoff‘s presumptions are evident: “We study this element of Bishop’s work because there is an intriguing silence in her speaking. She seems to be telling us something personal, vital, crucial, autobiographical, but she does not let us know exactly what it is. Bishop‘s poems, in particular, present a fascinating study of the autobiographical pact, because they project the feeling that the author–in the very act of sharing a memory–is hiding something crucial from the reader”(2).
In direct contrast to Hoff’s view, it can be said that Bishop exhibits the characteristics of discernment and authority. This is marked by her ability to identify significant details on the most trivial of creatures and, by doing so, dominating her reader with, if nothing else, and sheer curiosity. Through the tools of poetry, Bishop explores truth, conjecture, victory, and the means through which wisdom is acquired. In exposing these details, her ‘voice’ of authority is established.
Reading Bishops work literally draws the reader into ‘Bishops World’. As Bishops audience, we are engaged into a bond of sorts with what she is sensing and seeing at a place of enlightenment–her subjectivity. Intertwined within this “place”, a reader’s own subjectivity is tested. According to the analysis of Bishop’s poetry done by Hoff: “She [Bishop] offers a body of poetry that demonstrates a method of self-disclosure that creates and verifies trust between author and reader. Further, her careful method of writing promotes a more watchful way of reading, one that permits us to acknowledge autobiography in verse without being naive about the artist’s manipulations of her own subjectivity” (17).
Multiple interpretations of the poetry argue whether or not Bishops’ “subjectivity”, was influenced by her personal experiences of solitude, tragedy, loss, and constant personal struggles with alcoholism and lesbianism. In either case, she had a natural ability to write simplistically, as though preserving something sacred, yet notwithstanding, exposing her inner human spirit.
Though Bishop does not overtly discuss her emotions of compassion or passion in poems like “The Fish” and “One Art”, she pervades these two intangible truths, which were remarkable assets she possessed. “The beauty of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry lies in the keenness of its reserve, and the duplicity such reserve demands from the integral operations of language” (Logan 19). Through the written word, Bishop echoed insights into the human condition. She mastered the art of portraying realistic images of objects as well as soliciting emotional responses from her readers. Therefore, the critics and readers often “confuse” the author and the narrator of the poems. The statement of Randall Jarrell illustrates the above said: “She is so morally attractive in the poems, like “The Fish” or “Roosters”, because she understands so well that the wickedness and confusion of the age can explain and extenuate other people wickedness and confusion …” (qtd. in Millier 155)
Despite the spurious minimalism of speech, widely used simplistic declarative articulations, her ability to convey meaning through poetic devices was fascinating. As noted by William Logan: “Poetry is a system of communication in which the instinct of communication is often exceeded by the poetic means. The means at such a moment bear a burden in excess of their commitment, and in a poet like Bishop the innocence of those means may become part of the troubled drama of understanding, may agree to be the carrier of less innocent messages. Poetry is not a code, because it is more ambivalent than code–its immaculate expression may not seem genuine unless betrayed by the archeology buried beneath it”(19).
The “archeology buried beneath” the themes, which underscored Bishops work, proved her interests in the smallest of objects and creatures as well as her connection to the pain of loss, and her inner conflict between present and past experiences (Logan 19). David Kalstone offered a meaningful interpretation into the attributes of Bishop’s writing: “What characterizes Elizabeth Bishop’s sensibility is a coalescence of realistic description and personal imagination. Her poetry results from a careful process of “looking”. Such seeing is reflected in her accurate images. Experienced as maps to her own experiences, however, Bishop’s poems emerge as a record of her own manner of seeing things as they are and more often than not of the carefully evolved epiphanic insights into their particular meaning for her”(3).
“The Fish” was one of those poems that “characterized Bishop’s sensibility” (Kaltsone 3). This early poem belongs to the most representative works perfectly disclosing the author’s personal voice. Moreover, it marked a turning point associated with the launch of the Key West works success.
She used the power of descriptive language to convey a personal experience, which ultimately, underscored her compassion. The poetess developed in her early poems impersonal “I” narration without specifying the speaker. Though the narrator and the author do not merge into one, in Bishop’s poems the narrator is so close to the author, that may be interpreted as straight embodiment of the author’s views. Millier acutely concludes that the person, readers are introduced to in the poem, is Elizabeth Bishop herself (154). Hence, the openness and high morality of the narrator are regarded as Bishop’s qualities.
“The Fish” draws the reader into a story where realistic images are brought to life. The pointedly realistic truthfulness, accumulation of details, and complicated ideas delivered in the simplest way made the poem one of the most anthologized which even lead to the author’s intent to rewrite it in the form of a sonnet. Bishop spoke of “The Fish” as a perfect example of fidelity to life: “I always tell the truth in my poems. With The Fish, that’s exactly how it happened. It was in Key West, and I did catch it just as the poem says. That was in 1938. Oh, but I did change one thing; the poem says he had five hooks hanging from his mouth, but actually he had only three. Sometimes the poem makes its own demands” (qtd. in Millier 155).
The development of action resides only in seven lines of “The Fish”. The action is described in the first six lines and in the concluding line. The first six lines, occurring right at the beginning, are remarkably straightforward:
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.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all. (1-6)
The opening dispassionate lines bring us into the beginning scenario. They are unpretentious, to the point, and simple. Verbs (“caught”, “held”) are the most important part of a sentence, yet the verbs Bishop uses in these first six lines are plain and ordinary. Then, without much ado, Bishop abruptly ends the last two sentences with a period. Thus, we can surmise these combined first six lines are the detached part of the poem. Then, we are privileged to be part of the remaining, intimate, sixty-nine lines of the poem–Bishop’s experience. These lines are filled with Bishops reflective thoughts and feelings based upon her interpretation as well as her imagination. The short encounter erupted in keen observation and the fish shown simultaneously attractive, ugly, and evoking sympathy (“aching jaw” (64).
In addition to Bishops use of simple verbs and strong adjectives in “The Fish”, she also used rhetorical language and poetic devices such as tone, metaphor, symbolism, personification, simile, and imagery. Amongst these devices, however, the most prevalent literary tool Bishop used in “The Fish” was the simile. When describing the fish’s physical appearance, Bishop compared the fish’s skin to ancient wallpaper:
Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down. (9-11, 16-21)
From mere observation of the appearance noted by multiple keen details (eyes, irises, flesh, entrails, bones), the speaker shifts to admiration, even ascribing the heroic attributes to the fish (“Like medals with their ribbons” (61). The following line should be also interpreted from the standpoint of its symbolic message. The fights and confrontations endured by the fish gave him wisdom. This embodiment of experience evokes not only curious observation, but also thoughts of eternal verities.
Examining the compassion shown toward the fish in the poem, Anne Stevenson pointed out that the author “…was the tourist, the curious, sympathetic and delighted observer of place and custom, animal, and person, and the interaction between them which gave them identity and character” (4). Bishop’s day of fishing, which resulted in catching the fish, was a day of the realization of a confrontation between human and nature.
The ingenious declarative lines illustrate Bishop’s ability to capture details about the simplest and smallest of things, such as the fish’s skin. Most fishermen admire their catch in terms of length and weight. Bishop referred to the fish’s ‘covering’ [skin], comparing it to wallpaper, also a ‘covering’. She spoke of the way the fish’s skin “hung”. Wallpaper is also hung, and it is usually done so in “small strips” (as she noted about the appearance of the fish skin) at a time. Bishop also referred to the skin in color, “brown” and goes on to call it “ancient”. Old [ancient] wallpaper would most likely have faded and worn over the years, lending it a brownish, fading color. She refers to the skin as a “pattern”. Most wallpaper is designed in some sort of pattern. Bishop could have compared the fish’s skin to any number of objects or things or perhaps gone so far as to distort its image; however, she astutely chose something simple to elaborate upon, an object [wallpaper] a covering, just as skin covers. Bishop used visual language to create a powerful scenario of images and details. This provocative scenario between fish and fisherman (lady), allowed the reader to experience various emotions and ‘see the catch’.
According to Fowlie’s acute observation: “Miss Bishop’s world is opulent, but in the most unexpected and most humble ways. As a poet, she gives order to this opulence. She enumerates it. She stabilizes the shudder, the nerve, the reflection, the pleasure and the irradiation… In this poetic world there is nothing merely invented. There is no fantasy and no delirium. There are embellishments, in the best tradition, but what is embellished is always true. What is sanctioned is what has been found to be authentic… Elizabeth Bishop is a partisan in the world” (Fowlie).
The realistic, descriptive passages based on exhaustive descriptions, strict structures, and colloquial speech primarily create the impression of a usual event portrayed in the poem. However, the poem provides several threads of motives urging to examine it on the level of symbols. It interlaces several motives from an ordinary fishing tell-tale (“I caught a tremendous fish” (1), “grunting weight” (7) to Melville’s Moby Dick, and the biblical domination of man over the sea and fish, to the image of rainbow as the first sign of the new covenant shown by God to Noah after the flood. The encounter also symbolizes the centuries-old opposition of humanity and nature, in which the fisherwoman won this time: “I stared and stared/ and victory filled up/ the little rented boat” (65-67). Still, the fish represented in the humanized image (“if you could call it a lip” (49) is also a winner of previous fight with a man. It should be noted, that Bishop personified the fish by referring to the fish as “he”, but not “it”.
Though the event happened to both actors, the catch had significant transformations for the fisherwoman’s way of thinking. Indeed, “The “event” in the poem happens less to the fish than to the fisher; her revelation, her epiphany, spreads the rainbow around the boat and seals her covenant with the other battered creature” (Millier 154).
“One Art”, a villanelle that Bishop used to create a framework of expression about the hardship of loss, yields “powerful recurrences of mood and emotion and memory” (Strand and Boland 8). It was a part of the last published Bishop’s collection Geography III, created two years before her death. The poem is a model of Bishopian “restraint, formality, classicism” which “deals openly with loss” (McCabe 26). Despite the original association of the strict form with frivolous pastoral content, the poetess managed to incorporate smoothly the formal complications with striking emotional depth revealing recognizable intimate experience and personal voice. The mature age of the author suggests multiple losses endured by the poetess.
The first line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” returns as refrain throughout all stanzas; its repetition becomes expressive. The vocal arrangement of the refrain, with dominating long vowels (“art”, “losing”, “hard”, and “master”) endows it with extended sounding and meaningfulness emphasized on the language level, as well. The colloquial speech patterns, contractions and plain language of the tercets and concluding quatrain bring the poem closer to recipients. The all-embracing experience of losing is familiar to everyone. Therefore, the first three stanzas address to the reader through declarative statements. These lines pivot on different insignificant losses, which provide reassuring that both reader and speaker are able to control this painful emotional experience. These lines represent the speaker as an observer, a survivor, experienced in losing.
What was so intriguing about this poem is the way that Bishop preceded with the things she loses beginning with small things and moving on to things that are more significant. She is quick to point out that it is easy to lose things: “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 (1-3).
The attempt to belittle the value of losses, the speaker starts with small casualties, like lost keys, lost hours, moving on to “places, and names and where it was you meant/to travel” (8-9). Then, she continues with more significant things, “I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or/next-to-last, of three loved houses went” (11-12). Then, she comes to more complex ones: “I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster/some realms I owned, two rivers a continent” (14 -15). The losses, which have become regular things, are enumerated in aggravating order. Apparently, their hyperbolic character paves the way for the representation of the main loss.
Finally, the last stanza dwells on the most striking of all losses, the loss of someone loved. All the losses mentioned in the previous stanzas were bearable; however, Bishop saves the hardest loss and the most unbearable for last. This is the loss that cannot be mastered; the pain involved is so much that ‘writing it’ may be the only way to cope:
–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. (13 -16)
The closing line of the poetry shows that losing “you” is a disaster. The line’s intermittence renders the depth of feelings. The refrain line repeated in the last stanza alters to hesitant “not too hard to master” (15) from affirmative “isn’t hard to master” (1). However, it sounds like a desperate attempt of self-persuasion that the painful loss may be survived. In the course of meditation, the loss reveals its real significance. The deviation from of previous speech patterns sustains the suspicion that the repeated line is not completely accurate. Therefore, as noted by Diehl, “syntax reveals the pain “One Art” has been fighting, since its beginning, to suppress as the thought of losing “you” awakens an anxiety with which the poem must wrestle down to its close” (24).
Thus, the last stanza uncovers the real anguished tone of the speaker, abrupt and uneven. The emotional breakdown at is also notable as a deviation from traditional happy ending in most Bishop’s poems (Sircy 242). The contrast with previous syntactic structures and overwhelming intimacy is identified by Sircy as “an ironically failed attempt to master disaster” (242). The last line comprising parenthetical command (Write it!) postpones the emergence of the term “disaster” in it. The seventeen drafts of the villanelle had various variants of the crucial concluding stanza: “Say it!”, “Oh, go on, write it!” (McCabe 33).
The biographical aspect of the poem’s content is obvious. Thought the poetess does not straightly points out her feelings towards a woman or women lost in her life, she did not conceal her homosexual identity. Hence, the poem and, namely, the transient theme of loss acquire one more significant sounding. It should also be interpreted from the standpoint of the author’s otherness.
The details of the person lost by the speaker are muted; the person lost is represented parenthetically by “the joking voice, a gesture” solely (16). The lack of details specifying the image placed its prototype in the focus of long-term discussion resulting in ambiguous conclusions over the identification of “you” throughout the poem (Dodd 143). The question is still open for discussion. Dodd E. C. claims that it was the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares inspired Bishop to “survive” the disaster in lines of villanelle; “After the suicide of Macedo Soares, Bishop returned to the USA, and so the loss of lands and love compound one another” (McCabe 3, Dodd 143). According to another point of view, the villanelle indicates the fear of losing or despair related to the loss of Alice Methfessel (Millier 513). Therefore, the unnamed “you” may imply a generalized character encompassing all the losses Bishop endured in her life. The list of them opens with the early departure of her mother.
The going away from Brazil is expressed in the loss of river, city and continent. The size of river, city and continent lost is directly proportional to significance of the personal loss. The poetess skillfully intertwines geographical objects with figurative message. By the lost houses, Bishop means the relationships with Louise, Lota, and Alice. The author longs to attract the reader’s attention to the “house” symbol; therefore, the narrator exclaims “look!” to emphasize its significance.
“One Art” is certainly an example of coping with loss through the “art” of putting feelings into words on paper. The poem was written when the author was mature enough to make
conclusions or resume her life. The lines about losses are not empty words or abstract reflection; their significance is multiply intensified by the personal experience Bishop alludes to in this poem. Spires claims about the concept of writing and survival in the poetry that “Bishops letters, like her poems, are able to do this, aware as they are of the precariously balanced, two-sided quality of human experience. The act of writing poetry for her, as it is for all true poets, was a way to survive” (Spires). McCabe identifies the villanelle as “means of mourning and how… a poetics of loss imbricates a writing of a fluid and unfixed self” (2). All the elements of the poem, from speech to lines composition, sustain the revelation of the key theme.
Indeed, Bishop’s poem “One Art”, although somewhat ‘lighthearted’ in syntax and diction, magnified her ability to balance and convey human experiences. Evidently, trivial and naturally sounding speech is one more way to try to learn the “mastery of loss”. Even the formal requirements of villanelle sustain the aim of revealing the major theme. The repetitions of refrain are expressive and convey a personal message. The rigors of villanelle help the author to keep the equilibrium and not give herself up to despair or self-pity which looms through the last lines. Diehl states that title itself “conveys the implicit suggestion that mastery sought over loss in love is closely related to poetic control” (23). The real emotions reveal presumably through structures of syntax and accurate selection of words. The rhyme “faster” (7)–“disaster” (9) implies the speed of living and moving father, which is necessary to survive numerous losses of names and places.
The utilizing of unexpected ending fulfils the same function. The condition of reticence felt in the tercet lines is interrupted by the means of the specific device based on the bringing of the narration’s tension up to boil and abruptly ending.
Though the first lines of the poem seem rather convincing, their content contradicts to realms of life. Even not knowing the biography of the author, readers easily comprehend the sardonic character of the repeated refrain. In fact, the paradox of these lines is that real Bishop’s reaction to losses was not the acquiring of mastery; her life shows the opposite. Her stays in the hospital, suicide attempts, and problems with alcohol prove that she was not easily losing.
The poem “In the Waiting Room” opening Geography III was repeatedly anthologized and criticized which lead to numerous investigations often producing misinterpretations and misreading of the poem. In the article “The Geography of Gender: Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room”, Edelman concludes that “Commentaries on “In the Waiting Room” tend to agree that the poem presents a young girl’s moment of awakening to the separations and the bonds among human beings, to the forces that shape individual identity through the interrelated recognitions of community and isolation” (Edelman 182-183). He reproaches the critics H. Vendler, M. Wood, and S. Estess for identifying the narrative or “plot” of the poem to interpret the poem’s critical events (Edelman 183). Evidently, the main idea or ideas of the poem lie deeper beneath the plot level. However, the realistic description of events based on literal details (exact issue of the magazine, captions titles and content) creates the necessary spirit for the development. This close approach to particulars supports the famous Bishop’s statement about truth in her poetry: “I always try to stick as much as possible to what really happened when I describe something in a poem” (qtd. in Millier 196). On the other hand, this ingenious truth “grounding in the literal” and free verse form promote partly simplistic interpretations examining the plot lines instead of stylistic devices (Edelman 182).
On the broad narrative level, the poem tells about a visit to a dentist with the heroine’s aunt, which turned out to be a powerful stimulus for the child’s self-realization and correlation with the environment. An ordinary cover of a magazine was an incitement to find some common attribute for the unity to which the girl belonged. The girl is not surprised by the pictures of “ the inside of a volcano/black, and full of ashes/then it was spilling over/in rivulets of fire” (17- 20), “A dead man slung on a pole/ “Long Pig,” (24 – 25), “Babies with pointed heads/wound round and round with string” (26-27). Her attention grasped the photo of:
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying. (28 -31)
The symbolic reaction to the picture is cry, uttered simultaneously by the girl in the waiting room and her aunt in the dentist’s office. The cry uttered by the heroine at the sight of naked black women, in unison with her aunt’s cry of pain, symbolized a young girl’s reaction to the photographs in the National Geographic and her connection with them. As noted by Hoff, “the cry is the culminating symbol of exteriority, central to both the young subject’s and the reader’s experience” (53).
Bishop goes on to call herself by name with the recognition that she too is female, like her aunt, like the women in the magazine, “you are an Elizabeth, / you are on of them” (61- 62). However, the source of the cry is not precisely identified. Hence, the cry may be regarded as the author’s reaction to self-realization. Edelman claims that the “need to locate the place from which the cry or voice originates places the question of the voice’s origination at the origin of the textual problem in the poem” (187).
The juxtapositions of inner and outer (Massachusetts–waiting room–outside) are represented through constant changes of adverbial modifiers of place. This peculiarity noted by McCabe, Kalstone, Millier, Stevenson and other critics add to the analysis of “me-the other” concept revealed by the author’s otherness. The cry is an embodiment of the reaction to the moment of self0realization. However, the findings of previous researches lead Edelman to the following conclusion: “There is no inside in this poem that can be distinguished from its outside: the cry emanates from inside the dentist’s office, and from inside the waiting room, and from inside the National Geographic, and from inside “In the Waiting Room.” It is a cry that cries out against any attempt to clarify its confusions because it is a female cry–a cry of the female–that recognizes the attempts to clarify it as attempts to put it in its place”(195 -196).
Throughout the poem, a double perspective–the child’s and the adult’s–is subtly and consistently interwoven. The “childish” story reveals itself through simplicity of language and explicitly prosaic phrases. The age of the heroine-speaker (almost seven years old) flashes the reader back to the time when the girl was taken away from maternal family to reside with her late father’s family in Worcester. Nevertheless, the adult voice looms through the major concept of awakening, birth, recognition, growth, or shaping. It is an adult narrating, but an adult who is capable of reliving the point of view of the child, herself as a child, which occurred at a dentist’s office. The physical identification of the girl with other women is naturally expressed on the simplest “childish” level of thinking. The conclusion seems logical for a child who is regarding the relation to others, namely the emergence of gender awareness through anatomic attributes. Moreover, as Dodd states “the young Elizabeth is not really discovering her sexuality so much as she is discovering her own participation in the human race–including her gender identity” (109).
From the standpoint of an adult, the moment of awakening offers a deeper reading which necessarily suggests allowance of the author’s self-perception. Bishop’s identity also implies a broader self-realization, namely her lesbianism as otherness and accepted attitude to it. Still, the subtext of the poem is not presumably limited to “awakening of sexual orientation, and the poem’s subject is larger than a careful encoding of lesbian identity” or early homoerotic awakening (Dodd 109). Indeed, the poem refers to more realms of Bishop’s life. It discloses one more roles endured by Elizabeth Bishop, the role of orphan accompanied by “a foolish, timid woman” (42), the role of a person with ailment. The description of Aunt Florence (exotically named Consuello) points at the peculiar tension between her and niece, “a traumatic childhood confrontation with a woman to the onset of intense physical distress” (Lombardi 158) One more significant aspect is the place of the happening. As Lombardi notes, the physical ailments of Bishop were transmuted by her “into a rich cache of metaphors that help enact her sense of the world” due to which the location of the waiting room “opens up new ways for the reader to approach crucial images of respiration, suffocation, and constriction in each work-images that draw attention to the equivocal reality of human relationships” (153 -154).
It should be noted that the process of self-identification is not associated with rebel or protesting. The speaker realized herself a part of “we” hold up together by something. She endeavors to understand “what it was … [she] was” (65) and how she can be “one of them” (62). To underscore the crucial moment of identification the author uses syntactic strategy based on pronouns “you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth” (60-61).
The moment, although unintended, is a coming of age for the young Elizabeth as she is thrust into the unknowns of womanhood, adulthood, and sexuality. She was just beginning to learn what it meant to live in a grown-up world, to be a human being, to be an adult, an “Elizabeth”. “I knew that nothing stranger/ had ever happened, that nothing/stranger could ever happen” (72, 73, 74). By the end of the poem, Bishop made discoveries that only the adult Elizabeth could truly comprehend. Though crucial event is summarized in the climax of the poem by the girl, it is impossible to ignore that it may be uttered by an adult:
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
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”… (76-85)
Not only does “In the Waiting Room” take the reader to a place and time in one of Bishops earliest life experiences, it also compels the reader to examine the dramatic process of her discoveries, new insights, and new revelations. Hoff offers these ‘conclusions’ to Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room”: “The reader-like a child in the presence of grim and silent adults-knows some critical, impenetrable meaning lurks under carefully restrained word” ( Hoff para 8). Hoff goes on to say, “These veneered details keep the reader as profoundly in the waiting room as young Elizabeth” ( Hoff para 53).
The poem calmly ends by the familiar smooth tone of the first lines which shows the returning to the realms of war and harsh winter. The anticipation of some breakthrough does not realize in any action. The process of self-identification has finished. The thoughts may be hide the self-identification from the environment; but no one can hide from erupting volcanoes cannibalism, real war actions “inside” this inner world. The allusion to realms of life brings the heroine down to earth:
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. (94-99)
To summarize, Elizabeth Bishop’s artwork goes beyond ‘mere words’ that have been artistically interwoven by poetic devices. Her communicative techniques offered its readers personal glances into some of her life experiences and influences. The poetess’ vision of the world was influenced by the losses she faced throughout her life. Her poetic talent resides in perfect ability of keen observation. Bishop’s speaker in her poetic confessions discloses the most intimate sides of life including painful moments from which she managed to draw inspiration. She was a person of compassion for even the smallest and insignificant of creatures, the passionate lover attempting to overcome lost love and the adult woman recanting an unforgettable childhood memory.
Through the written word, Bishop echoed insights into the human condition. She mastered the art of portraying realistic images of objects and places, as well as soliciting emotional responses from her readers. Three particular pieces of Bishops work “The Fish”, “One Art”, and “In the Waiting Room” reveal different periods of Bishop’s life; they shed light on one of the aspects of her life: hobby, childhood, emotional experiences. Each poem epitomized various qualities of Bishops individuality and significant personal knowledge. The named poems vividly reveal her personality through childhood memories, interaction with the environment and nature, moments of self-identification.
Despite the complicated symbolic messages present in most poems, they are transparent and comprehensible to amateur readers due to thought-over keen observations represented in the simplest way. The unity of these elements makes the poetic style of Bishop recognizable. Elizabeth Bishop had the ability to write in a way that allowed her readers to view things from her perspective. The personal poetic voice and realistic images caused the evaluation of the author’s qualities through the works written. It is the main proof of how powerful this poetry is. All aspects related to form, diction, symbolism, autobiographical background should be taken into consideration to provide a proper understanding of Elizabeth Bishop’s creative work.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Fish.” Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux, Lloyd Schwartz. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2008. 33-35. Print.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “In the Waiting Room.” Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux, Lloyd Schwartz. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2008. 149-151. Print.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “One Art.” Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux, Lloyd Schwartz. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2008. 166 -167. Print.
Diehl, Joanne F. “Bishop’s Sexual Politics.” Elizabeth Bishop: The geography of gender. Ed.
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Dodd, Elizabeth. “Mastering Disaster. Elizabeth Bishop’s Tonal and Formal Understatement.” The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H. D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Gluck. Ed. Dodd, Elizabeth. University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1992. 104 -149. Print.
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Lensing, George S. “”The Subtraction of Emotion in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.” The Gettysburg Review 5.1(Winter1992): 48-61. Rpt. In Poetry Criticism. Ed. Elisabeth Gellert. Vol. 34.Literature Resource Center. Gale Virtual Reference Library. National University Library System. Web. 10 Aug. 2009. <http://go.galegroup.com /ps/start.do?p=GVRL&u=nu_main>.
Logan, William. “The Unbearable Lightness of Elizabeth Bishop.” Southwest Review 79.1 (1994): p120-139. From Literature Resource Center. Gale Virtual Reference Library. National University Library System. Web.10 Aug. 2009. < http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p =GVRL&u=nu_main>.
Lombardi, Marilyn M. “The Closet of Breath: Elizabeth Bishop, Her Body and Her Art.” Twentieth Century Literature 38. 2 (Summer, 1992): 152-175. Print.
McCabe, Susan. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of loss. The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA 1994. Print.
Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of it. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993. Print.
Sircy, Jonathan. “Bishop’s ONE ART.” Explicator. 63.4 (Summer 2005) 63. 4: 242 -244. Print.
Spires, Elizabeth. “One Life, One Art: Elizabeth Bishop in Her Letters.” New Criterion 12.9 (May 1994): 18-23. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol.121. Detroit: Gale, 2002. From Literature Resource Center. Gale Virtual Reference Library. National University Library System, 12 August 2009. <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=GVRL&u=nu_main>.
Stevenson, Anne. “Elizabeth Bishop.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 2 (2004): 290-292. Gale Virtual Reference Library. National University Library System. Web. 12 Aug. 2009. <http://go.galegroup.com>.
Strand, Mark, and Boland, Eavan. The Making of a Poem. New York: Norton, 2000.
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