Elizabeth Bishop and Containment Policy
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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 843-867

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Elizabeth Bishop and Containment Policy

Steven Gould Axelrod

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Elizabeth Bishop appeared to withdraw to the private sphere. But long before, according to her biographer, she "had been uncomfortable in the presence of political commitment." 1 Even while serving as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress from 1949 to 1950, during a time of swirling controversies in the U.S. capitol, she maintained a pose of disengagement. She went to the House of Representatives once, but only "to buy a new pen at 10% discount." 2 And yet during this particularly apolitical period in a generally apolitical life, Bishop produced a highly complex and significant political poem: "View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress." 3 It was the only poem she completed in 1950. While common sense might suggest that during the McCarthy era, creative writers would have questioned dominant ideologies more forcefully in private discourse than in published work, I believe that the reverse is true for Elizabeth Bishop. In this essay, I will attempt to unravel the paradox of a writer who primarily inhabited private spaces in her daily existence yet vigorously, if obliquely, critiqued public places in her poetry. In "View of the Capitol," Bishop employed the language of the Cold War against itself. In and out of key with "containment culture," the poem initiated what might be called a Cold War poetics, in which the institution of poetry intersected with the era's political discourse—its war of words backed up by bombs. 4

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Perhaps Bishop's personal problems precluded her daily involvement in the public sphere. She was often ill. For recurrent episodes of disabling [End Page 843] asthma, she took large doses of adrenaline and ephedrine, no doubt contributing to the nervousness and anxiety attacks from which she also suffered. At least mildly agoraphobic, Bishop frequently invented reasons she could not give public readings, meet with professors or students, or attend other public functions. Compounding these problems were regular alcoholic binges, followed sometimes by hospitalization and always by remorse, anger at herself, and firm decisions never to drink too much again. 5 These physical and psychological struggles alone might be enough to explain Bishop's political quietism. 6 But she also occupied a precarious social position as a closeted lesbian in an increasingly homophobic time, perhaps further explaining her unwillingness to enter the classical polis, a space that Hannah Arendt has characterized as one of merciless "exposure." 7

Whatever the reasons, Bishop demonstrated little interest in political issues or current events. Perhaps in reviewing her manuscript of North & South (1946), she registered its difference from works by her contemporaries, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, John Ciardi, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Muriel Rukeyser, Karl Shapiro, and even her mentor Marianne Moore, all of whom wrote poems about World War II. 8 In a 1945 letter to her editor, Ferris Greenslet, Bishop apologized for her lack of poems dealing explicitly with World War II: "The fact that none of these poems deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach. The chief reason is simply that I work very slowly" (OA, 125). Nearly sixty years later, it is finally time to acknowledge that Bishop was being disingenuous here, for that stream of poems dealing directly with the war, which she implied would begin to flow in the amplitude of time, never actually appeared. As Camille Roman and Thomas Travisano have both suggested, World War II seemed to stunt rather than inspire her creativity. 9 Although her poem "Roosters" does deal indirectly with the war while other poems critique militarism or war in general, Bishop never actually wrote the promised poems that would "deal directly" with World War II. 10 Bishop at midcentury—perhaps as opposed to later—appeared to be relatively unconcerned about world events, even the cataclysmic and incredibly tragic. She seemed more concerned that her lack of World War II poetry would be perceived as a career...