Elizabeth Bishop published only 100 poems in her lifetime and yet is still considered one of the most important and distinguished American poets of the 20th century. She served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 and a National Book Award in 1970.
Her poems are characterized by careful, detailed observation and the refusal to give in to the confessional impulse of her contemporaries, Plath, Sexton and Lowell.
At first, the poems can feel detached from experience, so cool and remote is the speaker’s voice, but this impersonality reveals strong emotion below the polished surface. These 11 poems depict Bishop as a traveler, both literally and metaphorically, as someone who moved restlessly between the domestic and the exotic, between the unknown and the familiar, elsewhere and “home.”
1. “The Map”
A map is of course one of a traveler’s most necessary possessions. No surprise, then, that this is the first poem in Elizabeth Bishop’s first collection. The poem serves as a kind of map to Bishop’s stylistic moves, such as parenthetical statements, rhetorical questions, and repetition. The poem’s last line, “More delicate than the historians’ are the map maker’s colors,” provides a view of Bishop’s ideas about geography, as expressed in a letter she wrote in 1948: “…geography is a thousand times more important to modern man than history. I always like to feel exactly where I am geographically all the time on the map.” Bishop began this poem when was she was alone and sick—and clearly homesick—in New York on New Year’s Eve in 1934.
2. “The Imaginary Iceberg”
“We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship” begins this poem, which is itself very like an iceberg: cool, imposing, a bit dangerous below the surface. This poem was the first Bishop published after college. It’s often read as a quiet battle between the attractions of the imagination and reality, resolved by the “we” of the poem waving goodbye to the iceberg and sailing back to warmer, more familiar climates. The poem might also be an early explanation for Bishop’s refusal to write confessional poetry: The introspective was not, for Bishop, as attractive as the literal. For many years, I carried in my wallet a picture of an iceberg, cut from a glossy magazine. I couldn’t figure out my attraction to the image until I read this poem.
3. “Paris, 7 A.M.”
The poem, from which my new novel takes its title, begins with the confusion of the many clocks telling time in Clara Longworth de Chambrun’s apartment at 58 rue de Vaugirard. It reflects Bishop’s observation of the winter weather in Paris as “really sinister…a sort of hushed, frozen ash heap,” as well as her life-long obsession with the passage of time. Bishop’s mentor Marianne Moore disapproved of the word “apartment” in the first line, but Bishop defended her choice, wanting, she told Moore, the sense of a “’cut off’ mode of existence.” Throughout her life, Bishop felt a distrust of both time and houses; time was the enemy, and houses could be unsafe, not built to last.
4. “Arrival at Santos”
The opening poem of Bishop’s third collection, Questions of Travel. The poem begins in certainty, with strong statements of location: “Here is a coast; here is a harbor; here….is some scenery.” The speaker arrives at the coast of Brazil by ship, having endured 18 days at sea. But certainty dissolves when a small boat, called a tender (and I feel sure Bishop enjoyed the pun), comes to take the passengers to “the interior” of the country. This was a new start for Bishop; in Brazil she would meet Lota de Macedo Soares; their relationship, though fraught, would last 16 years, until Lota’s death. Interestingly, Lota was an architect who built Bishop a house in the mountains above Rio, which she lost after Lota’s death.
5. “Questions of Travel”
Why do we want to travel? this poem asks. Why not stay home and imagine? “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come/ to imagined places?” The middle of the poem, though, lists all that might have been missed: exaggeratedly beautiful trees that seem to gesture, the music of mismatched clogs, songbirds in bamboo cages, the sound of rain and then the “sudden, golden silence” after. The poem answers its own question in the last two lines, by looking at its questions from the other way around, and invoking the uncertainty and instability of ‘home.”
The orderly sestina form requires dexterity and precision. It’s hard to write a good one because the repetition of six words over the course of six stanzas and a three-line envoy can become dull. Bishop’s sestina describes what seems like an ordinary domestic scene: a child drawing a picture, a grandmother making tea, a stove, a farmer’s almanac hanging on the kitchen wall. But underneath there’s disorder, an atmosphere of sadness and longing for stability. The poem seems to depict the time after her mother’s final hospitalization, when Elizabeth was five. She would never see her mother again.
7. “In the Waiting Room”
This poem describes the moment when a child (“an Elizabeth”) begins to have a sense of herself as an autonomous being. The child begins as an outsider in this scene—not a patient, not a grown-up. When she looks into the National Geographic, what she sees is unfamiliar, horrifying: an erupting volcano, a dead man strung on a pole, naked women. When she hears a cry of pain from her aunt, the poem starts to collapse differences and distinctions. Her “foolish” aunt, the women in the magazine, herself—all frightening versions of womanhood. The child feels this vertigo, and to try stop it, reminds herself of what defines her: her birthday and her name. After the publication of this poem in 1976, Bishop was concerned about her inaccurate portrayal of the actual contents of that issue of National Geographic.
8. “Crusoe in England”
This poem is a kind of elegy for travel. Bishop gives us Robinson Crusoe as an old man, long ago rescued from his island, alone and bored in civilization. He misses the oddities and eccentricities of his life on the island—lumbering turtles, waterspouts, a violet blue tree snail, a red berry that makes a potent drink, goats and gulls, as well as his companion, Friday. At home in England—another island that doesn’t seem like one—his handmade possessions have lost their meaning, their urgency—his parasol looks to him like “a plucked and skinny fowl,” and the knife on which his survival depended “won’t look at him at all…it’s living soul has dribbled away.” The last line reveals that “Friday, my dear Friday” has been dead for 17 years, shifting the poem from elegy to eulogy.
9. “The Moose”
An ordinary bus ride at night through rural Nova Scotia is interrupted by the extraordinary appearance of a moose. The passengers, who have been quietly discussing the troubles in their lives—“deaths, deaths, and sicknesses…the year (something) happened”—are stunned into happiness by the spectral appearance. I’ve always loved that the moose is, as one passenger exclaims, “a she.” She’s “grand, otherworldly,” perhaps an image of female power, but not dangerous, inspiring in the passengers a “sweet sensation of joy.” Bishop herself was on a bus trip in Nova Scotia in 1946 when a moose stepped out of the forest.
10. “One Art”
One of Bishop’s few first-person poems, in which the “I” is central and revealing. The stanzas detail the speaker’s losses, which increase in magnitude as the poem proceeds, culminating in the most personal “even losing you.” The form is a villanelle, which is based on very specific repetition of two lines that rhyme, in this case the dueling between “master” and “disaster.” The tone is falsely light, blithe, an echo of the grandmother in “Sestina” who is “laughing and talking to hide her tears.” In the last line, the revealing parenthetical (Write it!), Bishop seems to be forcing herself away from her own natural reticence and stoicism to admit that this loss is disastrous and perhaps can never be mastered.
11. “The Fish”
Bishop lived most of her life within sight of water and loved to fish and sail. She said later that Ernest Hemingway’s praise for this poem meant more to her than praise from literary magazines. It’s her most widely anthologized poem, and she grew tired of its celebrity, once telling an editor he could have any poem except this one.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.