- The Elizabeth Bishop Phenomenon
In a 1955 review of “The Year in Poetry” for Harper’s, Randall Jarrell composed a notice of Elizabeth Bishop’s latest book that would prove prophetic in more ways than one. He began:
Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-toned shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see—otherwise I’d die—a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.
Usually it’s Homer he’s holding—this week it’s Elizabeth Bishop. Her Poems seems to me one of the best books an American poet has ever written: the people of the future (the ones in the corner) will read her just as they will read Dickinson or Whitman or Stevens, or the other classical American poets still alive among us. 1
Despite breathless predictions, Papersilk never really went anywhere, but the universal television wall has nearly made it, awaiting only the high-resolution digital TV signal to begin its inevitable march into the American home. However, Jarrell’s most prophetic vision was to foresee that “pigheaded soul over in the corner” holding Elizabeth Bishop. Just as Jarrell anticipated, many of those pigheaded children of the television age who are still holding onto Homer or Dickinson or Whitman or Stevens have come to value, and with like intensity, that most understated and mysteriously inward of mid-century American poets, Elizabeth Bishop.
When Jarrell composed his review forty years ago, the prediction he made seemed bold indeed, for Elizabeth Bishop, though her poems were already valued for their brilliant surfaces, keen observation, and formal perfection, was then commonly placed on the fringes of literary history. Her reputation remained somewhere near the fringes thirty years ago, or twenty, or perhaps even ten. As late as 1977, John Ashbery, one of her keenest admirers, alluded to the select nature of her audience in his now-famous description of Bishop as a “writer’s writer’s writer.” 2 For while her work had been passionately admired by successive [End Page 903] generations of poets, as well as by a small but impassioned circle of readers and critics, the scale of her reputation remained modest (a word also frequently used to describe Bishop as both a person and a writer), and the people writing the surveys and histories of modern and postmodern poetry still had trouble placing her, perhaps even seeing her. David Kalstone’s 1977 essay in his book Five Temperaments, for many years the best single critical treatment of Bishop, suggested that “there was something about her work for which elegantly standard literary analysis was not prepared.” Hence Bishop remained, in a phrase of Kalstone’s that surely exaggerates her position in 1977, “the most honored yet most elusive of poets.” 3 Honored by her fellow poets but elusive to critics and historians Bishop certainly had proven to be. When Bishop died two years later in 1979, her profile within the academy perfectly mirrored the working definition of a “minor” poet: a single outdated critical book in the Twayne series, 4 two or three unpublished dissertations, a handful of extended critical articles by academics (most of the commentary to date had taken the form of brief reviews or appreciations, the best of these mostly by poets), and a few dismissive footnotes by the literary historians. As recently as 1984, it was possible for a historical survey like James E. B. Breslin’s From Modern to Contemporary to dismiss Bishop in a sentence or two. Breslin portrays Bishop as suffering the “apparent defeat” of “the middle generation of poets,” a poet who “worked steadily and independently, but the cost was isolation and critical neglect.” 5 Breslin’s vision of Bishop, of course, has proved less prophetic than Jarrell’s, for in her case the defeat really was only “apparent.” Today, Bishop’s career seems far from defeated, and her work is certainly not suffering from...