Elizabeth Bishop's Impersonal Personal
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American Literary History 15.2 (2003) 334-366

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Elizabeth Bishop's Impersonal Personal

Bonnie Costello

This article confronts the persistent argument that Elizabeth Bishop's poems are autobiographical, and the implicit assumption that the self and tradition are unitary and contending realities. It calls for a shift toward generic and rhetorical models of lyric subjectivity that remove voice from identity while still allowing for a connection between the poem and history. The article discusses reception of "Crusoe in England" (Complete Poems 162-68) as a focused instance of the critical tendency to absorb voice into author, and vice versa. It presents the poem instead as a configuration of various social impulses struggling toward transition, and as a meditation on the very problem of negotiating a relation between particular experience and the generalities of language.

1. Who Speaks for Bishop?

"You wish they'd keep some of these things to themselves," Bishop famously complained of confessional poetry. "Now the idea is that we live in a horrible and terrifying world, and the worst moments of horrible and terrifying lives are an allegory of the world" (qtd. in Cory and Lee 69). She kept a great deal to herself, but for more than a decade criticism has been busy rummaging through her closets. Connections between Bishop's themes and images, and her autobiography, are obvious to anyone who reads her letters or visits the archive at Vassar. Are these connections necessarily representational? Recent commentary reads a construction of Bishop's personal life back into her poems and assumes the allegory she abhorred in others. Art becomes a circular activity in which source and end narrowly converge. But Bishop's poetic intelligence is not so reflexive. Her poems do not so much veil or transmute the personal as expose the categories of the "personal" and "impersonal" to scrutiny.

"Bishop would have been uncomfortable with a biographical [End Page 334] study of this sort.... She had a ferocious sense of privacy," notes biographer Gary Fountain (xi). Perhaps she also had a sense of how such publications blur the distinction between the writing subject and the voice in which we necessarily read (and read into) the poem. One need not lean on rigid prohibitions against the "intentional fallacy," transcendent claims for the "autonomy" of art, or even notions of the death of the author, to resist the absorption of the lyric speaker into the biographical author. My concern here is not to evaluate the ethics of biographical research, but rather to examine some of the contradictions and misapprehensions that arise within the criticism emerging from it. These problems are by no means unique to Bishop criticism. They arise from our relentless curiosity about the lives of celebrities, and our perennial uncertainty about the nature of lyric voice and the relation between the poet, the poem, and society.

"Bishop's now virtually mythic story is here told—in the nick of time—by those who knew her best," writes Lloyd Schwartz in his book-jacket endorsement of the oral biography, in which he is a key witness. What this comment unwittingly reveals is the production of a myth, which gets read as Bishop's personhood and projected onto the mythmaking Bishop practices in her poems. Jacqueline Rose captured just this reflexive fantasy of "Plath" in her 1991 book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Like Plath, Bishop wrote poems that enact the very problems of forging identity and of linking identity to voice. As with Plath, there are those who pathologize Bishop, seeing her writing as therapeutic. And there are those who relish her "perversity" as a mark of her subversive relation to patriarchy. Some would wrest control of the poet's corpus. (The question of what gets published where and by whom may not be as contentious as in Plath's case, but it is certainly as vexed.) The "soap opera" drama of Bishop's psychosocial adventures has emerged in the ostensible quest for the "truth" of Bishop's inner life (Rose 6). But what Rose says of Plath is true of Bishop, perhaps of any great writer: "Inside her...