Years ago a friend of mine gave me the book Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979. Last winter, in a recent American Poetry Review essay, David Wojahn gave a great overview of her work. So although I've never liked her poems, I felt ready to give it another try.
Unfortunately, my journey through this book felt like a laborious slog. I had all the same problems as before I was schooled in how great she was.
And I'm sure this has everything to to with my particular taste than in something lacking in Bishop's poems. Because who doesn't like Elizabeth Bishop? It's heresy. But I had this overwhelming feeling these poems all needed a punch up. They felt clinical, stoic, dry, blah. Her plain word choices, her passive nouns, we went round and around things all to finally arrive at weak payoffs. Reading "At the Fishhouses" I figured she was the Ernest Hemingway of poets.
The last stanza of "Cape Breton" is all you need to know:
The birds keep on singing, a calf bawls, the bus starts.
The thin mist follows
the white mutations of its dream;
an ancient chill is rippling the dark brooks.
Usually, one or two words would stick out in each poem that required a dictionary, words made prominent for me because my friend had thankfully underlined and defined them all in a thick pink pencil.
But there were poems found in this fog that I liked. I loved "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore" about her mentor. I loved the storytelling in "Manners" and the lovely understated last line of "Filling Station." "Visits to St. Elizabeth" stands out in its nursery rhyme madness. My favorite poem was the surreal and whimsical "12 O'Clock News."
There was something biographically interesting about her descriptions of "awful hanging breasts" in the poem "The Waiting Room." But eventually this poem only reminded me of what I found missing in all her other poems. I kept waiting for something more, something profound, interesting or discombobulating beyond tedious descriptions of semi-exotic places. Everyone loves "The Moose" but I felt it took too long to get going. I've read "One Art" in almost many literature classes I've had and I've come to believe it's just a mimic of W.H. Auden.
However, "Five Flights Up" does have my favorite parenthetical (a devise she is known for using effectively). And I liked the last stanza of her memorial poem to Robert Lowell, "North Haven"
...And now--you've left
for good. You can't derrange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song).
Their words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
And I loved her campy lines written to Frank Bidart in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I guess what I was hoping for was the kind of revelation I had re-reading James Wright. At one time I found his poems to be dry and a slog, too.
Wright's simplistic language once irked me and made my eyes glaze over as well. But then coming to him later, I found some of my favorite poems in his collected works. The bang doesn't have to be big. It just has to be found somewhere in there.
Take "Saint Judas" and its first line "When I went out to kill myself..." I'm hooked until the final fulfilling line after he meets a man beaten by hoodlums, "I held the man for nothing in my arms." There is music here.
And in "Autum Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio:
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
In "A Blessing" we go through some of the same plain language description Bishop takes us through, but we get to something unexpected at the end,
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Here are two of my other favorites: "A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862" and "To You, Out There (Mars? Jupiter?)."
Interestingly, I feel I should have more in common with Bishop than Wright. And I'm not that sure if that's enough anymore. Maybe commonality will draw you into a set of poems, but you have to find something you need inside.