Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
Contributing Editor: C. K. Doreski
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Bishop's poems are highly accessible and do not present problems for most mature readers. I have found that more students come to hear the poetry of Bishop when they commit some of her work to memory. I often challenge students to find the poetry first and then discuss the theme. This encourages them to begin to find relationships among form, language, and topic.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Bishop's voice communicates rather directly to beginning readers of poetry. What is difficult to convey is the depth of expression and learning evidenced in these poems. Her work shows not merely experience but wisdom, the ability to reflect upon one's life, and that makes some poems difficult for younger readers.
For younger women readers, Bishop often seems old-fashioned, fussy, or detached. This perplexed the poet in that she felt that she had lived her life as an independent woman. This "generation gap" often provides an interesting class opportunity to talk about historical, cultural, and class assumptions in literature--and how those issues affect us as readers.
Students are often quite taken by Bishop's regard for animals. With the spirit of a Darwinian naturalist, the poet is willing to accord the natural world intrinsic rights and purposes. The dream-fusion world of the Man-Moth provides many students with an opportunity to discover this avenue into Bishop's world.
Bishop presents a curious "generational" case in that the circumstances of her childhood (raised by her maternal grandparents and an aunt) skew some of her references in favor of an earlier time. The kitchen setting in "Sestina" (not in this anthology), for example, seems more old-fashioned than Lowell's interior scenes in "91 Revere Street." Otherwise her poems may be seen as timely--or timeless.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
In the British lyric tradition, Bishop, by admission and allusion, draws heavily from Herbert, Hopkins, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Keats, and Blake.
Most pertinent American contrasts are with her mentor Marianne Moore (large correspondence at the Rosenbach Museum, Philadelphia), her friends Robert Lowell (correspondence at Houghton Library, Harvard University; Vassar College Library, Poughkeepsie) and May Swenson (correspondence at Washington University Library, St. Louis).
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. "The Man-Moth"
(a) This is but one of Bishop's many dream poems. In what ways does Bishop demonstrate her interest in and reliance upon surrealism?
(b) How does Bishop attempt to humanize her exile through a multitude of sensory impressions? Are they effective?
(c) The final stanza addresses the reader. How does Bishop in- tensify her creature's humanity through his ultimate vulnerability? Are we made to feel like the man-moth?
2. "Filling Station"
(a) As Bishop describes setting and inhabitants of this "family filling station," she deliberately builds upon the initial observation, "Oh, but it is dirty!" Why dwell upon and develop this commentary? Does it suggest a missing family member? Is this station without a feminine presence?
(b) The scale of the poem seems deliberately diminutive. Does this intensify the feminine quality of the poem? Is this intentional?
(c) The closing stanza returns a sense of order or at least purpose to this scene. The symmetry of the cans lulls the "high-strung automobiles" into calmness. With the final line, "Somebody loves us all," does Bishop suggest a religious or maternal caretaker for this family?
3. Describe the voice and tone in a single poem. The casual humor of Bishop's world is often missed by casual readers (obsessed with travel and loss as themes).
4. Bishop owes much to her surrealist heritage. Sleep and dream states animate the worlds of the "Man-Moth" and "Crusoe in England." Such an essay would allow students to discover a new topical frame for discussion of experience, language, and poetic form.
5. A useful technical assignment would be to discuss Bishop's reliance upon simile rather than metaphor as her chief poetic device to link her world with the reader's. It says something critical about Bishop's belief in the limits of shared knowledge, experience.
North & South, 1946 (Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award); Poems: North & South--A Cold Spring (Pulitzer Prize, 1956); Questions of Travel, 1965; The Complete Poems, 1969 (National Book Award); Geography III, 1976; The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, 1983; The Collected Prose, 1984.
Candace MacMahon, Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979, 1980; Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil Estess, Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, 1983; Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views: Elizabeth Bishop, 1985; Robert Dale Parker, The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, 1988; Thomas J. Travisano, Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, 1988; Bonnie Costello, Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery, 1991; Lorrie Goldensohn, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry, 1992; C. K. Doreski, Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language, 1993; Brett Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, 1993.