- Elizabeth Bishop's Theater of the Inevitable
"Writing poetry is an unnatural act," Elizabeth Bishop observed in a set of notes dating from the late 1950s or early 1960s, "it takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet's energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he's up to and what he's saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances."1 That Bishop, by mid-career, aimed to make her poems seem "natural" and "inevitable" is not surprising to those familiar with her craft. But two recent books, Bethany Hicok's Elizabeth Bishop's Brazil and Vidyan Ravinthiran's Elizabeth Bishop's Prosaic, enhance our understanding of the cultural circumstances and technical theater behind Bishop's air of inevitability—the uncanny sense, which Bishop readers often have, that her finished poem could not have been written any other way without diminishing its power.
Hicok's and Ravinthiran's books offer new contexts for reckoning with Bishop's enduring appeal. As Angus Cleghorn and Jonathan Ellis state in their introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop (2014), "At the beginning of the twenty-first century, her poetry seems, if anything, even more contemporary than during her lifetime, a process facilitated … mainly by the sheer originality and variety of her writing."2 Hicok animates the rich complexity of Bishop's years in Brazil, living among the cultural elite during a period of tumultuous political change and, later, personal urgency, evincing the ways in which Brazilian literature and politics informed Bishop's poetry. It is a book that enables Bishop scholars and readers alike to see, vividly, Brazil's place in Bishop's imaginary. Ravinthiran, for his part, draws on a theoretical framework that includes George Saintsbury as well as Derek Attridge and Stanley Cavell to uncover Bishop's use of sonic and semantic structures, typically germane to prose, within her poems, prose poems, literary prose, and letters. He offers a fascinating new [End Page 181] way to interpret—and to hear—Bishop's aesthetic, one with ramifications for the study of poetics, more generally.
Both books work against established critical tendencies to read Bishop primarily as a North American poet, one who happened to spend the greater part of two decades in Brazil, and to consider her primarily as a second generation modernist or narrative lyric poet, principally informed by the techniques of a single genre. Hicok's study steers Bishop scholarship further away from its early North American focus, positioning Bishop's life in Brazil among its political tensions and upheavals, the social architecture of class and race, the influences of Portuguese language and literature, and the informing richness of its landscape and ecology. In Hicok's meticulous narrative, Bishop emerges as a poet influenced by—and indebted to—the cultural and literary legacies of both Americas. From a similarly novel perspective, Ravinthiran reads Bishop not as a poet who also happened to write remarkable letters and stories but as a writer intrinsically provoked and guided by the cadences of prose in her work across genres. Prosaic, in his definition, is rinsed of its pejorative force and repurposed to describe ways in which prose structures enhance the sound and cognitive texture of Bishop's inimitable style.
Together, these two books extend our understanding of Bishop's oeuvre across generic and national boundaries, moving in the direction of the speaker in Bishop's "Santarém" (1978) who posits:
Even if one were temptedto literary interpretationssuch as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female—such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight offin that watery, dazzling dialectic.3
Written toward the end of her life, long after Bishop had returned from Brazil, "Santarém" cautions critics who might be "tempted" to apply reductive binaries to the curated ambiguities—and the...