by Elizabeth Bishop
I believe it was Robert Lowell who said of Elizabeth Bishop that she “spent a lifetime trying to impersonate an ordinary woman.” Perhaps he meant it as an observation of her personality, but it is also an apt observation of her poetry, of her poetic technique. And it is what I love about Bishop’s poems: the casual, conversational tone, the frequent questions and hesitations, the way we’re gradually drawn into the sense that we are seeing—not just seeing, really, but entering—a mind at work, and then the turn, or turns: into reflection, and then into revelation, revelation that surprises and moves.
All of Bishop’s poems don’t follow this exact pattern, of course, but think of many of the best known. The villanelle “One Art,” for example, enumerates the things the speaker has lost, from minor to major, but insists that none of the losses was “a disaster.” Then comes that final, devastating stanza where all the speaker’s denial falls apart, and it becomes clear that the subject of the poem all along has been “losing you” and that the speaker has been attempting to survive that loss by insisting that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master.” No matter how many times I read the final line, with its injunction to herself to “Write it!”, it never fails to stun me with the emotion it contains, that it both holds and holds back, never fails to make me gasp for breath. It is the poet’s withholding of emotion and then its surprising, subtle revelation that gives the poem such force.
But “Poem,” from Bishop’s final book, Geography III, is the poem I want to focus on as an almost perfect example of the way she uses turns, or shifts—in tone, in subject, in sound, in rhythm, for example—to give the reader what Keats called “the voice of true feeling,” that voice which moves and delights us. Even its title, “Poem,” is so unassuming, so modest, as if to say, “I’m nothing special, just any old poem.” (“I’m nobody. Who are you?”) From the beginning, the poet seems to be warning us not to expect too much.
And, indeed, the poem’s ostensible subject, as we learn in the first stanza, is a rather unprepossessing painting. Nothing is too precise about it: it’s “[a]bout,” not exactly, “the size of an old-style dollar bill,” and the dollar bill could be either “American or Canadian.” The painting is small then, and the fact that it’s “old-style” even seems to downplay its importance. It’s just some old thing the poet is observing. (I’m doing away here with the notion that the poet is not the speaker because the speaker is quite clearly Elizabeth Bishop.) In fact, “this little painting” may just be a sketch for a larger one. Certainly it’s of little worth, having “never earned any money in its life,” and it is “[u]seless and free.” It doesn’t seem that “free” here means “without restraint,” but rather that it has no monetary value, although since she’s already told us that it “never earned any money,” perhaps there is a sense in which “free” implies artistic freedom. What it is, actually, is “a minor family relic” that’s been “handed along collaterally” in the family. Notice again the financial diction; so the painting has been handed on collaterally, from one generation to another, but the language also suggests that it is some kind of collateral. Still, it doesn’t seem to have had any value to the generations of owners “who looked at it sometimes, or didn’t bother to.” This first stanza, then, is very casual, perhaps deceptively so—the speaker is vague, she insists on the painting’s unimportance, but why then does she want us to pay attention to it? Is the painting, too—or sketch—merely impersonating an ordinary “minor family relic”? Is “Poem” also suggesting that it’s impersonating any series of words organized in lines and stanzas?
In the second stanza, the speaker really looks at the painting and reveals it in more precise detail. She recognizes that it must be a scene in Nova Scotia (where Bishop spent much of her childhood) because she recognizes the kinds of houses: “gabled wooden houses painted that awful shade of brown.” I think it’s worth noting here that the houses are “painted”: throughout this stanza the bucolic scene is a painted one, not yet brought to life. We are being asked to look at it as a self-consciously “made” thing, as painting qua painting, but it still seems quite tentative. The church steeple is perhaps indicated by a “gray-blue wisp,” the “tiny cows” in the painting are “two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows,” and when we look up closer, we see the wild iris is paint, “white and yellow, / fresh-squiggled from the tube.” We’re also told that the “steel-gray storm clouds” were “the artist’s specialty.’” Ah, so the speaker must know who painted this! We’ve gone from her seeming not to know anything about “this little painting,” to recognizing its setting as Nova Scotia to revealing that she knows the artist’s specialty.
In the third and fourth stanzas we begin to feel that this scene may have some emotional value for the poet-speaker. In the third stanza, she recognizes the specific place—“Heavens, I recognize this place, I know it!” She can’t quite remember the farmer’s name, but she remembers that his barn backed on that meadow: “There it is, / titanium white, one dab.” Next she notes “the hint of steeple, / filaments of brush-hairs, barely there,” that “must be the Presbyterian church.” In these lines she specifically alludes again to the instruments of painting—the paint, the brush, etc., and, more specifically, the barn is not a barn but a dab of titanium white paint, the steeple merely filaments of brush-hairs. What she observes next, however, seems to be the thing itself: “Would that be Miss Gillespie’s house?” There’s no mention of it being a dab of paint or filaments of brush hairs. The following lines refer back to the cows and geese, who “are naturally before my time.” They are being, in a sense, placed in time, outside of the painting.
In the fifth stanza, we learn something even more specific: the “sketch” was “done in an hour, ‘in one breath.’ ” How does she know? Who is she quoting here? Line two tells us that the “sketch” was “once taken from a trunk and handed over,” but to whom? The speaker still seems rather at a distance, but in the third line someone begins to speak (albeit without quotation marks): “Would you like this? I’ll probably never / have room to hang these things again.” This speaker is perhaps an older relative speaking to the poet, someone who is downsizing and passing things on to the next generation:
Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George,
he’d be your great-uncle, left them all with Mother
when he went back to England.
You know, he was quite famous, an R.A…..
Here, the revelation is of the family connection, the continuity of the painting being handed down, and yet the losses, the deaths, that have had to occur in order for the painting to be handed down. Now the speaker is the one receiving it, and therefore the next generation to pass on.
So you could say then that each of these stanzas presents a kind of shift, a kind of surprise, as the speaker brings us closer and closer to the painting and to its emotional value for her. This takes a more dramatic turn in the final stanza, the longest stanza in the poem, which beings with the poet making a connection between herself and “Uncle George,” who was “quite famous, an R.A.,” or a member of the Royal Academy of Art in England, a status which lends him legitimacy as an artist. Both of them knew “this literal small backwater” and “looked at it long enough to memorize it,” despite all their years apart, and she remarks that “it’s still loved, / or its memory is (it must have changed a lot.)”
Here the poem takes another, more dramatic turn: from the particulars of the painting and its place in the family tree, even from its emotional value to her, to a meditation on art. She notes that “Our visions coincided—‘visions’ is / too serious a word—our looks, two looks”—it is characteristic of her, as we have seen, to still insist on modesty. This leads her to think about the role of memory in art, the way that art itself is memory, that it is memory that gives art its sense of life: “art ‘copying from life’ and life itself, / life and the memory of it so compressed / they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?” In some literal sense “life and the memory of it” may seem cramped and dim painted on a piece of shoddy Bristol board, and yet there’s something that makes it “live” and “touching in detail.” This, perhaps then, is the way that the two “visions,” or “looks,” coincided. For Bishop, surely, it is quite clear that it is memory and specific detail that give shape and life to poetry. She’s not making grandiose claims here: art is “the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust. Not much.” And yet it is “about the size of our abidance / along with theirs. . ..” Mortality may mean that our human “abidance,” and that of the things of this world, is short, but the present tense of the last few lines of the poem points to the “abidance” of art as being something longstanding. Consider those last few lines of the poem:
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
—the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.
Every time I read the final four lines, I’m flattened by their power and beauty, the way in which Bishop achieves the surprise of this concreteness after the abstractness of the previous lines. It is the artist’s alchemy that brings the scene from the painting so utterly to life through the use of present tense and the specificity of the images. We can hear the cows, who are not just eating but “munching,” reach out and touch the “crisp and shivering” iris, smell the standing spring water. We can see the trees and geese. This is a world in which the elms have not yet become diseased and had to be taken down; it is the eternal present, the living world of art. It is also important to note, I think, that much of the drama and power of this last turn in the poem is created not just by the images alone, but by the way the poet uses sound—assonance and consonance and alliteration and meter. The poem quiets and slows down, resting in that final iambic pentameter line (the preceding four lines have merely flirted with iambic pentameter). After the descriptive and conversational, then meditative sections of the poem, here is pure lyric, the moment suspended in time. This is Bishop’s Grecian urn, her nightingale.
Susan Wood ‘s fourth book of poetry, The Book of Ten, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2011. Asunder (Penguin, 2001) was a National Poetry Series selection and recipient of the Best Book of Poetry Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. Her second book, Campo Santo (LSU, 1991), won the Lamont Prize of the Academy of American Poets and the Natalie Ornish Prize of the Texas Institute of Letters. A former Guggenheim and NEA fellow, she is the Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English at Rice University.
† In the version of the poem we have linked to, there is an error in line 1o: “abled houses” should read “gabled houses.” For an accurate print version of this poem, see Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III (FSG).