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  • 18 Poetry:The 1940s to the Present
  • Frank Kearful

This chapter having been conspicuous by its absence of late, I have tried to do some catching up in my first year on the job. Books and articles published in 2001 and 2002 are included and I have indicated their year of publication. The chapter is longer than customary, but given my catching up remit and the thriving state of scholarship on poetry since the 1940s, it might have been much longer. My apologies to all those authors—you know who you are—who have published important work during the last three years which I take no note of here.

i Elizabeth Bishop

What Thomas Travisano identified some years ago as "the Elizabeth Bishop phenomenon" shows no sign of wearing itself out. The sheer volume of scholarship devoted to her over the last three years far exceeds that on any other poet of the period; this chapter might have turned into a special number entirely on Bishop. Though I have accorded her more space than anyone else, I have been more ruthlessly selective—or, if you will, even more arbitrary—in my coverage of Bishop scholarship than I have been in discussing recent work on any other poet.

Efforts to construct Bishop as a political poet continue apace: she is now well on her way to becoming a political progressive with a social conscience, and even on racial matters critics have become generously understanding toward her. Steven Gould Axelrod's closely argued "Elizabeth Bishop and Containment Policy" (AL 75: 843–67) is a good example of this trend in Bishop studies. Axelrod maintains that by employing the language of the Cold War against itself in "View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress" Bishop initiated a Cold War poetics "in which the institution of poetry intersected with the era's political discourse—its [End Page 425] war of words backed up by bombs." His essay also documents to an embarrassing extent how apparently disinterested Bishop was in political issues and current events. In her letters, "[t]he Korean War, the U.S. Soviet military buildup in Europe, and the commencement of a nuclear arms race seem to exist for Bishop as personal inconveniences, potentially disruptive of her travel plans, rather than as events worthy, in themselves, of thought or worry." Her obliviousness to domestic politics was even greater, and she seems to have remained undisturbed when fellow writers became victims of the anticommunist hysteria of the period. During the late '40s and early '50s, at the height of what Axelrod concedes was a notably apolitical phase in a generally unpolitical life, Bishop nevertheless wrote several poems which critics now view as "progressive in intention and implication," particularly insofar as they focus on the power and legitimacy of same-sex desire. Demonstrating how "View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress" incorporates and ironizes political discourse of the period, Axelrod draws extended attention to how "intervened" in stanza 3 picks up a term which along with "intervention" pervaded foreign-policy discourse. The poem "wrenches 'intervene' from its context of governmental and military policy and places it instead in a context of aesthetic resistance to power." Another key word in the political discourse of the period was "containment," and Axelrod allots several pages to establishing how the poem employs "containment metaphorics" deriving from the containment policy advanced by George Kennan. In Alan Nadel's formulation, which Axelrod cites, "containment" is "the name of a privileged American narrative during the cold war" which permeated American life, thought, and expression. Bishop's poem "consolidates the epistemology of containment by affirming that external threats exist and that protective barriers provide a measure of security against them," but it also "challenges and undermines the practice of containment by locating external threat in the American Capitol itself rather than in some nation or ideology." Containment, a recurrent motif in Bishop's early poetry, is embedded in Bishop's "coded discourse" as a closet lesbian, and in "View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress" she "structures her discourse . . . so that feminine and homosocial signifiers collaborate to defeat masculinist official discourse." The poem thus "subverts, while...


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