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Why reading Elizabeth Bishop is like going to the cinema

From Magma 71, The Film Issue


The lens

Whether you’ve spent a little or a long time with Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry – chances are that what surfaces when you call it to mind, are some of the things you’ve seen in the poems. “Five big hooks … like a five-haired beard of wisdom” in the mouth of her veteran catch in ‘The Fish’, say, or a child’s coffin like “a little frosted cake” in ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, or “frail illegal fire balloons” whose “paper chambers flush and fill with light” in ‘The Armadillo’. A Bishop poem is an exceptionally vivid one. She almost seems to paint them for you – or film them.

The writer Mary McCarthy wrote enviously of her “way of seeing that was like a big pocket magnifying glass”, adding that, “Of course it would have hurt to use it for ordinary looking: that would have been the forfeit.” If the persona of the poet’s ‘Man-Moth’ is anyone to go by, Bishop felt the same:

    If you catch him,
    hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
    an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
    as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
    one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.

Just as the Man-Moth’s shadow drags “like a photographer’s cloth behind him” in the moonlight, so Bishop was also haunted by the gift and burden of eidetic recall – her near-perfect visual memory which stretched back to toddlerhood. Seemingly, whatever entered the enormous “dark pupil” of hers, imprinted itself on her brain and stayed there, as if it were a roll of film.

Her optical superpowers nevertheless proved to be a diamond blade for poetry. From the outset, Bishop set great store by the art and act of looking. Pondering the poetics that drew her, she reflected in a college notebook that:

    It’s a question of using the poet’s proper materials, with which he’s equipped by nature, i.e. immediate,
intense physical reactions … to express something not of them… But it proceeds from the material itself,
the material eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform.

It seems almost fortuitous that she was born at the same time as imagism. By the time she was a student at Vassar in the early 1930s, she had absorbed Pound’s few Don’ts and Eliot’s Sacred Wood essays, including his formulation for an “objective correlative”. More importantly, perhaps, she was immersed in the very visual writing of two other founding modernists – sumptuous Wallace Stevens (most of whose Harmonium she had by heart) and exact Marianne Moore.

As it turned out, a chance introduction meant Bishop would go on to learn from Moore’s formidable powers of description at first-hand, when she moved to Manhattan after graduating and became her protégé.


Cinéma vérité

As Moore and Bishop roamed New York together, visiting museums or the circus, Bishop absorbed her mentor’s faith in accuracy profoundly. She came to resist metaphor and what she referred to as “the terrible generalizing of emotion”, and stick to simile and “plain facts”. Even after Moore’s influence on her lessened, she would continue to make uncharacteristically emphatic statements to students, correspondents or interviewers about her adherence to a documentary approach –such as this one to painter, and poetry student, Wesley Wehr, in 1966:

   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 only had three… But I always try to stick as
much as possible to what really happened when I describe something in a poem.

Her protests never quite feel ingenuous – after all, she discovered such sophisticated strategies for arranging her ‘facts’. Take the device of accretion. In ‘The Fish’ and other early descriptive poems such as ‘Florida’, ‘Cape Breton’ or ‘At the Fishhouses’, physical detail is inlaid with physical detail (Brueghel-like) to the point of seeming superfluity. What interested her was that not only did each detail resist ‘meaning’ or interpretation this way, but together they conveyed a sense of a faithfully-rendered experience. Moreover, once built, these descriptions seemed to exert a sort of top-down pressure – a pressure that could cause the impenetrable to yield a bit.

Bishop’s inspiration for the effects of accumulation came not only from Moore, but also from a source beloved of them both. As she would later tell Anne Stevenson in a letter from Brazil:

   I do admire Darwin! … reading Darwin one admires the beautiful solid case being built out of his endless, heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic—and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels that strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown.

Affirmation of the vitality of her observational method was swift. Reviewing North & South in 1946, the critic Arthur Mizener said, “Miss Bishop’s mind … has an unusually acute respect for fact(s) and … is always transforming [them], making us see their meaning and elegance”. Even more gratifyingly perhaps, after reading ‘The Fish’, her friend Robert Lowell wrote to tell her, “Perhaps, it’s your best. Anyway I felt very envious in reading it— I’m a fisherman myself, but all my fish become symbols, alas!”


The frame

   Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
   exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
   every square inch filling in with foliage—
   big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
   blue, blue-green, and olive,
   with occasional lighter veins and edges,
   or a satin underleaf turned over;
   monster ferns
   in silver-gray relief,
   and flowers,too, like giant water lilies
   up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves—
   purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
   rust red and greenish white;
   solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
   and taken off the frame.

Frames … so many Bishop poems use one to compose with: think of the prescribed dimensions of her ‘Map’, the engraved pages of ‘Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance’, the bureau mirror of ‘Insomnia’, the tapestry frame of ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’ (quoted above) or the canvasses of ‘Large Bad Painting’ and ‘Poem’. In his review of North & South, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell said, “All her poems have written underneath, I have seen it.” Bishop would have been pleased he was alive to her doubling. For her, to frame what’s seen within the process of its being seen opened up a poem’s energy.

In another entry in her college notebook, Bishop copied out extracts from an influential 1929 essay by the critic Morris Croll. Reflecting on seventeenth century ‘baroque’ prose stylists such as Burton, Browne and Montaigne, Croll wrote:

   Their purpose was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking… They knew that an idea separated from the act of experiencing it is not the idea that was experienced. The ardor of its conception in the mind is a necessary part of its truth.

Just as Soviet cinema would later develop the techniques of montage to break or enliven ‘smooth’ film, these writers sought to break the veneer of polished prose. By dramatising the act of writing, they hoped to engage a reader’s mind more actively…

According to her biographer, Brett Millier, the first “breakthrough” or “real Elizabeth Bishop poem we have” is ‘The Map’. Placed first in North & South (and so in the Complete Poems too), it is often read by critics as a key to her poetics. From its very first line, “Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.” the reader is engaged to keep company with the poet’s mind in an act of exploratory looking – an act that meditates, questions, wanders but draws no weighted conclusions. Rather, the poem’s art lies in its framing of an open surface – where the reader’s reading and the poet’s looking can occur (for ever) simultaneously and freshly.


Moving pictures

In his documentary, Filming Othello, Orson Welles paraphrased Carlyle this way: “Everything examined deeply enough will turn out to be musical,” and went on
to say that,

   Of course this is profoundly true of motion pictures. The pictures have movement. Movies move. And there’s the movement from one picture to another. There’s a rhythmic structure to that. There’s counterpoint, harmony and dissonance. A film is never right until it is right musically.

Of course, it is profoundly true of poetry too. Bishop was all too aware that visual accuracy alone cannot animate. In an early letter, to the poet Donald Stanford, she observed, “For me there are two kinds of poetry, that … at rest, and that which is in action, within itself.” The latter – poetry of energy, or to use her term ‘spontaneity’ – was the kind she wanted to write, though the movement she sought for it was not to be simple or linear.

Bishop thought of time as multidimensional. Two memorable images in her prose writings give us her sense of its flux. The first conjures a dome:

   We live in great whispering galleries, constantly vibrating and humming … and each present moment reaches immediately and directly the past moments, changing them both.

The second recalls an experience of observing a migrating flock of birds:

   I saw that some flew a little slower than others, some were trying to get ahead and some flew at an individual rubato; each seemed a variation, and yet altogether my eyes were deceived into thinking them perfectly precise and regular.

And in a college essay, ‘Dimensions of the Novel’, she advanced this precocious theory:

   Is it possible that there may be a sort of experience-time, or the time pattern in which realities reach us, quite different from the hour after hour, day after day kind? … The crises of our lives do not come, I think, accurately dated; they crop up unexpected and out of turn, and somehow or other arrange themselves according to a calendar we cannot control… Events arriving out of accepted order are nevertheless arriving in their own order.

She went on to link her idea of “experience-time” to the “feeling for rhythm” within a work of art, rhythm which she defined not as “a ‘march’ through a segment of time, but rather … the constant reorganisation … of the whole mass”.

In an early persona poem, ‘The Gentleman of Shallot’, Bishop created a character who is half ‘real’ and half reflection, since he lives along the line of symmetry at a mirror’s edge:

   The uncertainty
   he says he
   finds exhilarating. He loves
   that sense of constant re-adjustment.

As scholars have pointed out, this “sense of constant re-adjustment” was pivotal not only to the gentleman’s experience, but to Bishop’s aesthetics. For her, in art (as in life), beneath the illusion of narrative time, there lies what Victor Fleming (director of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) called “an extraordinary subterfuge of individual bits”. Configuring them, as Hitchcock said, “really should be called assembly.”

As it happens, assembly was quite literally the way Bishop often composed. A short article in the Boston Post Magazine offers this snapshot of the poet in 1950 telling journalist, Sally Ellis, about her habit of hoarding thoughts and phrases towards a poem on little bits of paper:

   The 38-year-old consultant in poetry saves these scraps of paper like other people collect coins and matchbook covers. Sometimes it will be a week or again six months before she assembles all her little scraps on her desktop and puts them together like a jigsaw puzzle.
   Then Elizabeth Bishop has a poem!

“There’s nothing at all complicated about it,” she explained; “it’s like making a map. Eventually, all the pieces fall in place. Occasionally I lose a scrap and then there’s trouble. I remember once I lost a key scrap and that poem never did get written.”

You can picture her there, bewildered yet alight, much as you might picture Walter Murch standing on his cutting room floor.

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Quoted material comes from these sources:

Bishop, Elizabeth: Complete Poems. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.

Bishop, Elizabeth: Elizabeth Bishop, Prose. London: Chatto & Windus, 2011.

Close to the Edit, 2017, radio programme, BBC Radio 4, 28 October, 2017

Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop. Ed. George Monteiro. Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Croll, Morris W.: Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm: essays. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ed. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Hitchcock, Alfred. 3 Theories of Film Editing, 1964, online video, YouTube.

Millier, Brett C.: Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley, Oxford: University of California Press, 1993.

Welles, Orson. Filming Othello, 1979, online video, YouTube.

Words in Air: the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Ed. Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2008.

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Lucy Ingrams’ pamphlet, Light-fall, is forthcoming from Flarestack Poets. She has recently researched a masters paper on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.

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