- 18 Poetry:The 1940s to the Present
I sometimes wish a one-year moratorium could be called on new publications about poetry since the 1940s. I could hang an out to lunch sign on this chapter and go and read some poetry, instead of glumly staring at a mound of photocopied articles and a passel of new scholarly books still to be read and, some of them, held forth on before my annual deadline. There are unforeseeable benefits, though, of reading as doggedly as I must. Sometimes a poet with whom I am slightly familiar but have never really gotten into becomes pleasurably accessible to me thanks to secondary reading I do in the line of duty. This year it was Jean Valentine, the subject of a Field symposium featuring nine poets writing on poems that particularly appeal to them. Then there are those books that enable me to read a poet I thought I knew reasonably well from a, for me, new perspective. This year Willard Spiegelman's book on the persistence of the descriptive impulse in contemporary poetry and Jeffrey Gray's on travel and postwar American poetry have done wonders for my reading of John Ashbery. There are also, from time to time, books on the state of the art of poetry whose illustrative readings enable me to read familiar poems far better and unfamiliar ones avidly. David Caplan's new book on contemporary poetry and poetic form did the trick this year. It is for such reasons that I only sometimes yearn for a moratorium. I might not even take one. [End Page 399]
i Elizabeth Bishop
Cheryl Walker's God and Elizabeth Bishop: Meditations on Religion and Poetry (Palgrave) is the first book-length study of the "undercurrent of religious musing in Bishop's professed skepticism." Its two-pronged title suggests, accurately as it turns out, that Walker's book is not merely an outcome of devoted literary scholarship, although it is certainly that. What for Walker is end and what is means she makes clear at the outset: "In this book, I propose to reexamine some traditional Christian concepts such as sin and spiritual love, using the life and poetry of Elizabeth Bishop for inspiration." Bishop's musings occasion Walker's "meditations," which in turn provide contexts for her critical interpretations of Bishop's poems. Her six chapters comprise meditations on Time and Eternity, The Fall, Love and Longing, Suffering Meaning, Blessed Are the Poor, and Assent. All of these prove to be useful rubrics for discerning analysis of Bishop's poetry, in which religious allusions, references, and topics abound. One might ask, though, why use Bishop for inspiration, given her "professed skepticism," rather than a professed nonskeptic, Richard Wilbur, perhaps? Walker explains: "For readers who take religion seriously, a writer who ends up with the questions rather than the answers of a person with a religious temperament may be more enticing and ultimately more satisfying than a dogmatic one." Bishop qualifies for the role as she "never became a 'believer,' though she was in many ways attracted to the ideas of faith" and was an avid reader of George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and religious texts such as Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises, Theresa of Avila's Way of Perfection, and, toward the end of her life, Augustine's City of God. Making use of unpublished letters, Walker offers an insightful analysis of Bishop's ambivalent attitudes toward Christianity. The "ideas" of Christian faith were one thing, the malpractices of Christianity another. Walker's readings of poems with overt religious content, notably "Roosters," "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance," and "At the Fishhouses," augment one's understanding of them as literary texts and sharpen one's potential responsiveness to them as occasions for religious reflection. Her readings of apparently entirely secular poems, such as "One Art," which she interprets as "a religious poem whose religious content has been obscured," are more problematic. There are cases where much is made to hang on a single fact, indisputable but likely to be obscure to most readers, possibly even to Bishop. "Anaphora" is transformed for Walker [End Page 400] by the fact that...