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  • Money, Painting, and the Generic Abidance of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem”

“Money is a kind of poetry.”

—Wallace Stevens, Adagia

“‘You can’t call it living / without the margin’”

—James Schuyler, “Now and Then”

By tracking down, restoring, and publishing the painting that supplies the descriptive occasion of “Poem” (1972), John Felstiner would appear to put a rewarding close to a mystery about one of Elizabeth Bishop’s most personal lyrics.1 Now critics who want to understand “Poem” as part of the canonical tradition of ekphrastric verse can speak from exact knowledge of Bishop’s material artifact. We can gauge her art by its departures from the recurrent aesthetic rivalries of the ekphrastic poem subgenre. At the same time, Felstiner’s work aids the recognition that, since it means “description,” the Greek ekphrasis has long served critics in the broadest sense as an apt—indeed irresistible—means to characterize the aesthetic mode of all of Bishop’s work. Having the painting before us also helps us assess of Bishop’s important, if less primary, accomplishment as a maker and judge of the visual arts. Bishop’s sketches and paintings excel at a less pronounced version of the same folksy or faux-naïf quality she admired in the Key West sign painter Gregorio Valdes. But her own favorite twentieth-century visual artists—Paul Klee, Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters—turned decisively from the impressionism that Bishop’s great-uncle George Hutchinson’s painting exhibits. The [End Page 349] avant-garde ethos of this rejection strands his work upon the mediocre, middlebrow shoal between “primitive” realism and high-modernist abstraction.

To the extent that Uncle George’s visual aesthetic is realized to be mediocre (and realized in its mediocrity), however, one senses that mediocrity may itself harbor an unanticipated kind of poetic interest for Bishop, beyond its less-than-compelling level of technical accomplishment. Uncle George’s undistinguished painterly style tests Bishop’s lifelong gift, maybe even her resolution, to achieve the prized effects of mystery, spontaneity, and accuracy in poems whose recognitions pretend nothing exceptional in their subjects and apparent methods of artistic treatment. What if that achievement of an unexceptional community in aesthetics and social life should also be a figure for value’s general form? The contemporary American poet Ben Lerner offers a definition of poetry through his symptomatic experience of the generic commodity form:

“Poetry is a kind of money,” Wallace Stevens said; like money, it mediates between the individual and the collective, dissolves the former into the latter only to dissolve again. Do you remember that sense (or have it now) of being a tentative node in a limitless network of goods and flows? Because that’s also poetry, albeit in a perverted form, wherein relations between people must appear as things. The affect of abstract exchange, the feeling that everything is fungible—what is its song?2

To gain his insight into the distinctive “sense” of poetry in our own century, Lerner must cite inaccurately and not care too much that he reverses Stevens’s adage or aphorism. “Money is a kind of poetry” becomes “Poetry is a kind of money”: this emphasizes poetry’s mediating role—and risk of false universality—in place of Stevens’s evocation of the erotics of money, Romantic, luxurious, yet severe. Among the many things going on here, there is an inflected tone in “kind” that is lost in treating the reversal as an equivalence. Stevens endorses Percy Bysshe Shelley’s executive definition of poetry but includes bankers. Lerner evokes the sense of being a product in a network, for poem and person alike. The dissolve into “abstract exchange” thus marks “the feeling that everything is fungible” and notes the place of critique by its concession: “albeit in a perverted form.”

This article contends that a mode of poetry that is not necessarily dialectical in its form, but “smooth”—and descriptive rather than normative—can nonetheless mount a critical aesthetics. I will show how Bishop, in “Poem” and more widely throughout her writing, offers a kind of aspect vision on the dynamics of globalization and money. “Poem” does this through the attention it pays to...

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