Twentieth-Century Literature’s: Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2015
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Twentieth-Century Literature’s
Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2015

The winner of this year’s prize is Frances Leviston’s “Mothers and Marimbas in ‘The Bight’: Bishop’s Danse Macabre.” The judge is Brian McHale, Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at the Ohio State University. His most recent books are The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (2015) and The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, edited with Joe Bray and Alison Gibbon (2012). A cofounder of Ohio State’s Project Narrative, which he directed in 2012–14, he is also a founding member and former president of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (ASAP). He is currently coediting with Len Platt The Cambridge History of Postmodern Literature.

Professor McHale writes:

One convention of this sort of citation is to protest the virtual impossibility of selecting a “best” paper from among several excellent nominees—and I have no intention of breaking with tradition. I unreservedly admired all the nominated papers; I was edified and enlightened by all of them; they all changed the way I will henceforth read and think about the authors and texts they explored. They were all superior examples of their respective kinds of critical writing, but they were all different in kind, which seemed to put me in the uncomfortable position of having to decide which kind of critical writing I valued most. Which do I prefer, apples or oranges?

So (to mix metaphors) I punted. Let me recommend to you “Mothers and Marimbas in ‘The Bight’: Bishop’s Danse Macabre,” which excellently exemplifies not a superior kind of critical writing so much as a basic one: close reading. Close reading is still one of the skills that we hope our students will master; we coach them in it, and we expect them to practice it. We practice it ourselves in our own critical writing and appreciate it in our peers’ practice. Even if our project is a theoretical one, or historicist or contextualist or political in any of a number of ways, we still depend more often than not on close readings of texts. Even if close reading is the ladder that we kick away once we’ve climbed up it, we still climb it.

“Mothers and Marimbas” undertakes an exemplary close reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Bight.” It attends scrupulously to details of sound and sense; it excavates wordplay and etymologies; it brings to bear [End Page 433] wide literary-historical and cultural learning, and justifies the relevance of that learning to Bishop and her text; it makes judicious and resourceful use of Bishop’s letters, her discarded drafts, and the facts of her biography to illuminate the text at hand. It does, in other words, exactly what we have in mind when we characterize a piece of critical writing as a close reading, and it does so with tact and imagination.

Which is not to say that its horizons are limited to explicating the thirty-six lines of Bishop’s text. Rather, “Mothers and Marimbas” joins the ongoing scholarly conversation about Bishop, in particular the part of that conversation having to do with the relationship between Bishop’s writing and her difficult and troubled life. Precisely because her poetry often seems deliberately reticent—or maybe because it aspires to reticence—it has prompted a great deal of biographical and symptomatic reading that seeks to restore the effaced contexts of her childhood displacement, her sexuality, her alcoholism, and most relevantly for this poem, the loss of her mother. Without at all denying the somewhat cryptically biographical dimension of “The Bight,” “Mothers and Marimbas” reminds us that private expression is mediated here (as everywhere in Bishop) by her deep engagement with her poetic precursors and the cultural traditions all around her.

The poet sometimes pretended that “The Bight” was “plain description,” but it was far from “plain” anything, and there was manifestly a lot at stake in it for her. It is literally framed by her birth and death: the bracketed epigraph “[On my birthday] ” identifies it as a birthday poem, evidently composed sometime around her thirty-seventh birthday in February 1948; and its last line...