Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description

Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 220
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  • Book Info
    Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description
    Book Description:

    Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description argues that attention to the material realm informs everything Bishop does. Seen through this lens, many familiar topics look remarkably different. Bishop's relationship to travel, epiphany, surrealism, and imagery are all transformed, and a timely new Bishop emerges - one quite different from the postmodern poet that has dominated recent scholarship.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7610-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-13)

    Finding a title for this book has been a struggle. Any honest title would have to include the word “description,” and nothing is more likely to glaze the eyes of a potential reader than this seemingly innocuous term with which Bishop has so often been associated. However, it is description that I want to discuss, first briefly in this introduction and then at considerable length over the course of what follows. As it is generally used in regard to contemporary poetry, the word “descriptive” is drab at best and more often derogatory. Applied casually to Bishop, it expresses something that...

  6. 1 Imagery
    (pp. 14-37)

    Throughout this book, I use the word “description” in a number of different senses – some familiar, others less so. I want to begin, however, with the simplest and most concrete sense of the word, the sense derived from the rhetorical figure ofdescriptio: the attempt to bring things before the mind’s eye, to make the leap from textual to visual. My goal in this chapter is not to present an account of how poetry does so – a question well beyond the scope of a single bookchapter – but to study the effect that doing so has on a particular poem, “The...

  7. 2 Surrealism
    (pp. 38-57)

    In the mid-1960s, while writing what would be the first full-length study of Bishop’s poetry, Anne Stevenson sent Bishop a rough outline of the book’s chapters. In it, Stevenson likens Bishop to “the surrealists and the symbolists too,” proposing that, like “Klee and Ernst,” she uses a great deal of “hallucinatory and dream material” in the belief that “there is no split personality, but rather a sensitivity that extends equally into the sub-conscious and the conscious world” (Stevenson, “Letter”). Bishop begins by agreeing, “Yes, I agree with you. I think that’s what I was trying to say in the speech...

  8. 3 Epiphany
    (pp. 58-72)

    Writing in hisAutobiographyabout the joys of beetle-collecting and, particularly, the pleasure of discovering a new species, Charles Darwin claims that no “poet ever felt more delighted at seeing his first poem published than [he] did at seeing, in Stephens’Illustrations of British Insects, the magic words, ‘captured by C. Darwin, Esq’” (21). Here, Darwin compares the simplest of his accomplishments – the capture of a new beetle – to the publication of a poem. As the Darwin Letter suggests, this comparison warrants expansion far beyond such simple matters. Though Bishop turns to Darwin originally as an ally against surrealism, she...

  9. 4 Water
    (pp. 73-97)

    When Bishop’s first collection of poetry was published in the summer of 1946, she was not on hand to celebrate; instead, she was touring Nova Scotia, visiting family and childhood friends. Some of what she saw on that trip found its way into her poetry: the bus ride back to Boston became “The Moose,” and a few notes, comparing the “dark, icy, clear” Atlantic to her “idea of knowledge” (quoted in Millier 181), became the closing lines of “At the Fishhouses,” which, coincidentally, was first published when Bishop was back in Nova Scotia during the summer of 1947. “At the...

  10. 5 War
    (pp. 98-124)

    Acknowledging Bishop’s complicated deference to the world around her is the first step towards qualifying my initial, toomasterful model of her poetics. From the strange way in which she both honours and devours the Fish, through the complex interplay of empirical and abstract knowledge in “At the Fishhouses,” Bishop is engaged repeatedly in the particular intellectual manoeuvre laid out in the Darwin Letter. The preceding three chapters show how this manoeuvre plays out in Bishop’s model of mind, looking particularly at the relationship between conscious and unconscious, observation and epiphany, empirical and abstract. In each context, Bishop maintains that, while...

  11. 6 Narrative
    (pp. 125-147)

    As I hope to have made clear, this book is not only about description in the usual sense (or senses) but also about the role of scrutiny in a much larger intellectual pattern that dominates Bishop’s work. Chapters 2 through 4 lay this pattern out as it pertains to knowledge and the mind, showing how Bishop always emphasizes the study of smaller, more concrete things at least partially because she believes that study to be the only avenue to the larger, more abstract ones. The preceding chapter shifts gears somewhat, tracing this same pattern as it applies to the opposition...

  12. 7 Travel
    (pp. 148-171)

    Located somewhere between the youthful ambition of “Time’s Andromedas” and the mature relaxation of “Santarém,” the three poems that beginQuestions of Travelpresent a turning point and a resolution of sorts. Explicitly, these poems are about travel, not time or narrative, but, as my choice of poems in the previous chapter suggests, travel, time, and narrative are not entirely unrelated: “Over 2,000 Illustrations” and “Santarém” are openly about travel, and “Paris, 7 A.M.,” is set – and was written – in a foreign city. Granted, Bishop wrote many poems that engage either directly or indirectly with travel, and any random sample...

  13. 8 Description
    (pp. 172-188)

    Poetry, like fiction, has a time-sense, and it is worth extending the ideas laid out in “Time’s Andromedas” to the formal – rather than thematic – elements of Bishop’s poetics. Generally, critics writing about Bishop have used the question of time to buttress arguments about the “mind thinking”: the notion that Bishop’s goal is to capture the feeling of a mind in the process of working out a thought rather than a mind relating a fully formed idea. The distinction is one Bishop found in an essay on Baroque prose by Morris Croll and used in both a paper of her own...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 189-200)

    For all the deeper honesty of her poetry, Bishop was often rather disingenuous in her letters, and so it is with a grain of salt that we must take the famous line about a “perfectly useless concentration” (DL). There is a strange doubleness to it, a way in which it is both accurate and misleading. On the one hand Bishop is dedicated to a concentration so intense that it precludes conscious intention, and each individual act of observation is indeed perfectly useless in and of itself. But behind the (false) modesty of this statement is a more serious engagement: the...

  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 201-208)
  16. Index
    (pp. 209-212)