Appeal of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry – Sample Essay

Appeal of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry – Sample Essay

Write an essay on the appeal of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry

Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry is appealing for a variety of reasons. Her poetry is intertwined with her life, a depressing but interesting one that saw a troubled childhood, many countries and many awards for her poetry. Her celebrations of the ordinary are an unusual yet original quality, while her poetry has a unique style, with a fine combination of vivid imagery and concrete intense language. In addition to this her poetry lacks the monotony that often can be the detriment of a poet’s work; her poems have detailed descriptions of both the exotic and familiar and vary in poetic form. Finally, her range of themes adds to this variance, making each Bishop poem original and of worth in its own right. The poems I have studied are: First Death In Nova Scotia, Filling Station, In the Waiting Room, A Prodigal, The Armadillo and The Fish.

As said, an appealing aspect of Bishop’s poetry is that her poetry links with her life. Bishop has some connection to each poem, and this adds credibility to her poetry. We see that the poet is real and serves some worth; Bishop does not simply write on some aspect issue, but rather about that which she feels strongly about, which is evident when reading the poem. This is seen in The Filling Station, where direct reference can be made to Bishop’s mother being permanently hospitalized for mental illness in 1917 when Bishop was young. There is no mother present in the poem, but we are constantly reminded of the need for one, which can be linked to Bishop’s desire for maternal influence during her youth, a trying time for any, but especially one without a stable family structure. The tone of the narrator is maternal as she begins remarking of the place ‘Oh, but it is dirty!’ and later ‘Be careful with that match!’, which raise issues and problems that a mother or parent would usually deal with to protect the child, such as keeping a clean and healthy environment for the child to live, or protect them from danger. Elsewhere, the need for a mother is emphasized as the sons and father are present, yet are presented as unsuitable for maintaining a suitable environment, seen in such details as when it is declared ‘Someone waters the plant,/ or oils it, maybe’, a reference to the males’ working in the filling station. The concluding line that ‘Somebody loves us all’ is an ironic lament that while someone even loves the father wearing ‘a dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit’ and the ‘greasy sons’ (none of whom is capable of providing a suitable family unit), Bishop has no parents to love her.  The same connection to issue is seen in The Armadillo. Here Bishop refers to the time of the Cold War in which she lived, where she doubts the human capacity to deal with the unknown. The insurmountable armadillo represents the humans; its leathery armor shell symbolizes the belief of the time in the strength of humankind, which is coupled with the initial mention of the balloons (which later are threatening) as ‘frail’. When catastrophe strikes, the armadillo ‘left the scene,/ rose-flecked, head down, tail down’, and the humans, who were initially thought of as strong like armadillo, are later shown to be as unwilling to counter the chaotic and dangerous. The balloons can be seen to represent the world in the time of Bishop, which was taken to be turning on the innocent individuals in the time of war. However, when the world turns on the individuals, with the balloons shown as ‘steadily forsaking us’ and ‘suddenly turning dangerous’ the humans around Bishop do not attempt to stop the Cold War and challenge the world that is turning on them when it intrudes chaotically into the normality of their lives that they are used to. Instead they build bomb-shelters to protect themselves and ignore the problem that should be dealt with; as a result they are shown in their true form in the concluding stanza, weak against events they will not, or cannot control: ‘Oh falling fire and piercing cry/ and panic, and a weak mailed fist/ clenched ignorant against the sky!’ More of the same is seen in First Death in Nova Scotia, as Bishop remembers the death of a relative and explores not only this but also the death of her parents and the effect of this on her as a child. The death of the poet’s cousin Arthur, while made seem ordinary with the presentation of the coffin as ‘a little frosted cake’, is mysterious to the young Bishop, who compares the paleness of her cousin’s body (a result of his death and the usual preparation of the body by relatives before a wake) to a doll who ‘Jack Frost had started to paint’ but for some reason ‘He had just begun… then Jack Frost had dropped the brush/ and left him white, forever.’ This can be seen to represent the child as she dealt with the death of her parents, knowing something was wrong but not aware what this was. The difficulty of a young child understanding such a situation is represented in the child’s responsive question to viewing her cousin’s body, which touches on the idea of mortality but shows no real understanding of the issue: ‘how could Arthur go,/ clutching up his tiny lily,/ with his eyes shut up so tight/ and the roads so deep in snow?’

Another appealing element of Bishop’s poetry is her imagery and language. While many poets are difficult to understand due to the complexity of their poetry, Bishop’s poetry aids its reader through the use of detailed imagery and concrete language, making the message of her various poems easily accessible. This is seen in First Death in Nova Scotia, where we meet many detailed images of many sorts, from the domestic ‘marble table’ to a ‘frozen lake’, and it may be seen that such a contrast of images represents Bishop being at an age where she cannot yet accept death as a part of her life. As a result death is not presented as inevitable and normal in life, but rather at odds with that which Bishop is used to; this is seen elsewhere when Bishop talks about how her cousin bears resemblance to how she always knew him, such as that he ‘was very small’, yet is simultaneously not the same person at all. She refers to him as ‘the red-eyed loon’, with loon meaning an altered individual, perhaps insane, who is commonly considered to be a completely different person as s/he has lost all sense of being. The poem also possesses Bishop’s concrete, intense language, which assists in the revealing of the poet’s message. Bishop’s sense of unknowing about the death is captured in just three words: ‘cold and caressable’. While short and compact, this phrase shows Bishop once more unable to comprehend the full meaning of death; she can still caress her cousin as when he was still alive, but for some unknown reason  he is ‘cold’ now. The Fish uses language and imagery to communicate its message also. The fish is described ambiguously, with ‘brown skin hung in strips/ like ancient wallpaper’ but also ‘speckled with barnacles, fine rosettes of lime,/ and infested with tiny white sea-lice’, and elsewhere ‘battered and venerable/ and homely.’ The contrast is initially surprising but when considering the link of the poem to Bishop it makes sense, as the fish can be compared to Bishop and be seen to symbolize how she has been ‘battered’ by the turmoil in her life, such as her difficult familial situation; the mention that the fish’s ‘pattern of ark brown/ was like wallpaper:/ shapes like full-blown roses/ stained and lost through age’ can be read as a commentary on Bishop and how life has had a debilitating. Language is again intense and concrete, and helps in presenting the aforementioned representation of Bishop: the short sentence ‘He didn’t fight./ He hadn’t fought at all’ reminds us of how the fish fought earlier in the poem when initially caught, and concisely symbolizes how Bishop may have initially had strength to fight back against her difficult situation, yet does not have such strength any longer, due to her being ‘battered’ by life. The Armadillo follows suit. The eye-catching imagery is again present, with the ‘frail, illegal fire balloons’ juxtaposed against the sky lit up with stars and planets; Bishop speaks of the balloons and tells us ‘Once up against the sky it’s hard/ to tell them from the stars’ and the comparison of the balloons to stars and planets emphasizes how visually spectacular these objects are. This effect is greatened when Bishop compares the collapse of a balloon to the messiness of a smashed egg, saying it ‘splattered like an egg of fire’; the splattering of an egg is a spectacle in itself, given the messiness of a broken egg with the mixture of various colours and the broken shell mixed with the destroyed yolk, but Bishop goes further, calling it an egg of fire, mixing fire and flame with the aforementioned messiness. Concrete language is also present, as the shameful exit of the armadillo is encapsulated succinctly in three words, ‘Hastily, all alone’; the words are all of negative connotation, implying weakness and shamefulness, and contrast sorely with the more intense language associated with the baby rabbit, such as its ‘fixed, ignited eyes’. These words are vivid, and present a determined and powerful being, which the armadillo is not as it flees the scene.

As well as imagery and language, another appealing trait of Bishop’s poetry is her use of the ordinary and the exotic. This is appealing not just for the sake of variety, but also for the same reason as imagery and language, as it aids the reader in his or her exploration of Bishop’s works and adds to their understanding of the poetry. This is seen in The Armadillo. The balloons, while fiery, are familiar; they are objects of the ordinary, known by all audiences and present in all facets of life, such as times of celebration. Bishop enforces their ordinariness by revealing that their appearance is not a surprise; as she tells us, ‘This is the time of year’ when they appear. However the exotic is also presented to the reader, as we hear of when ‘Once up against the sky it’s hard/ to tell them from the stars -/ planets, that is – the tinted ones:/ Venus going down, or Mars,/ or the pale green one.’ These planets are presented as the exotic as they are as unfamiliar to the audience as balloons are familiar; while readers would be very aware of balloons, such as their movement (which Bishop speaks of in the poem) and their physical nature, most would have comparatively little knowledge of the planets. The mixture of the exotic and the familiar here may be seen to represent the experience of Bishop and others in the time of the Cold War where the uncertain chaos of war intruded on the familiar certainty of everyday life; this distortion of life is represented aptly by the odd comparison of balloons and planets. The Waiting Room has the same effect. The waiting room is in the arena of the familiar, decorated with ‘overcoats,/ lamps and magazines’, which one would expect in such a setting. While Bishop waits in this place she reads a magazine and is immediately exposed to the exotic, from a volcano which is ‘black, and full of ashes;/ then it was spilling over/ in rivulets of fire’ to the famous husband-and-wife explorers and writers, ‘Osa and Martin Johnson/ dressed in riding breeches,/ laced boots, and pith helmets’. On one level, the mixture of the familiar and the exotic may be present so as for Bishop to explore and realize the need to be different, and individual in the world. When she hears a cry from her aunt in the dentist’s office she realizes the cry is from her also, and the exotic may be present so as to show Bishop the possibility to be individual and different in the world, which leads her to ask ‘Why should I be my aunt,/ or me, or anyone?’. The title of the poem may thus be seen as a commentary on Bishop waiting passively before she realized the possibility of being individual. If she had not been exposed to the exotic and kept on waiting there was a very real possibility that she may have eventually suffered the fate she worried was possible: ‘falling off/ the round, turning world./ into cold, blue-black space’. The Filling Station is similar to The Waiting Room. In the poem the ordinary is seen with the banal filling station. As the poem begins the station appears normal; it is ‘oil-soaked, oil-permeated’, and its physical appearance would not cause a second glance, with its ‘cement porch/ behind the pumps, and on it/ a set of crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork’. However there is also the exotic present in some form, represented by items that are not only alien to the masculine-dominated space but also generally, such as ‘begonia’. Such items of the exotic are linked to the maternal figure that is not present, and their very presence might be seen as hopeful, as it suggests that while a maternal figure is not present her influence and effect may not be forgotten and perhaps will be echoed at some stage. However the oiling of the begonia suggests that such items, of the exotic, are gradually being overpowered by the domestic and will eventually disappear, leaving behind the domestic world which is a place where maternal figures are no longer present, and soon where their influence will not be either.

The final appealing quality of Bishop’s poetry is that she does not form every poem in the same manner. She adds to her appeal by constantly differing in poetic form, which allows the reader a different experience when reading each work. The Fish is set in free verse. There are short lines with enjambment present, giving the impression of Bishop simply spilling her thoughts out onto the page, such as when Bishop remarks ‘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’; sentences run for a number of lines, presenting the poet as one who is not writing these lines on a page but speaking them out loud, almost as if she were present at the scene and is speaking as she catches the fish. Another form is seen in Filling Station. It is set in blank verse, with very few lines rhyming, such as the poem’s beginning where Bishop remarks ‘Oh, but it is dirty!/ – this little filling station’. Despite this, Bishop’s conversational tone is present in such remarks as “Be careful with that match!’ and ‘Do they live in the station?’, and the poem takes the form of being directed at someone particular, as opposed to a general nature, which compliments the poem’s conversational tone. This may represent a desire of Bishop for some connection with someone whom she can have such dialogue with, as she cannot connect with her father, who wears ‘a dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit’, or her brothers, those ‘several quick and saucy/ and greasy sons’, all of whom reside in a place that is ‘quite thoroughly dirty’. Elsewhere, in First Death in Nova Scotia Bishop the only order in the poem is the structure, with five stanzas of ten lines. There is little rhyme, with enjambment present throughout the poem, such as when the poet begins the fourth stanza with rhyme which soon disappears as enjambment enters: ‘Arthur was very small./ He was all white, like a doll/ that hadn’t been painted yet./ Jack Frost had started to paint him/ the way he always painted/ the Maple Leaf (Forever). He had just begun on his hair, a few red strokes, and then/ Jack Frost had dropped the brush/ and left him white, forever.’ The distortion of order, caused by a lack of rhyme and enjambment (which earlier was represented in The Fish as the speaker spilling her thoughts out rather than structuring them accordingly on the page) may be seen to represent the aforementioned difficult of the young Bishop to deal with death, and symbolize how it has distorted the world she has been used to up until the death of her cousin.

Bishop is connected to her poetry, as many parts of her poetry allude to events in her life. Her style adds to the capacity of her poetry, with impressive images and suitable language, as well as an interesting contrast of the ordinary and exotic. In addition, her poetry is constantly changing, be it in themes, moods or form, meaning that each poem offers a different experience. The Pulitzer Prize of 1956 and the National Book Award of 1970 were well deserved for appealing poetry such as this.

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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