… let us consider one of her poems.

She was born 8 February 1911. Died in 1979.

She lived in and wrote about Key West, so that’s another reason for UD, who will soon move there, to write about her.

But the real reason to write about her is that she’s a spectacularly good poet. Very much in the way of UD‘s adored Philip Larkin. Compare this Larkin poem with the Bishop we’re about to consider.

******************************

Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.

**********************************

If home existed. Bishop says almost the exact same thing in her poem Questions of Travel:

… “Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there… No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”

We travel, she writes in Arrival at Santos, because of our “immodest demands for a different world, / and a better life, and complete comprehension / of both.”

Knowledge of the world before you leave it, and a perfectly clear understanding that you’ll gain very little knowledge before you leave it — it’s odd to UD that this shared pathos created in Bishop a restless traveler and in Larkin a stay-at-home. But then both of them seem to suggest that there isn’t any home anyway, that the world’s a bizarre mystery wherever you happen to plant your ass, so you don’t really need to travel. You’re always writing letters of exile. Poems are letters of exile.

In fact travel might backfire; it might rouse expectations destined to be disappointed. These expectations might involve the possibility of greater comprehension; they might also be about the possibility that you can make a new life — that having botched this one, you can make a good, new one by placing yourself in a different world. That’s the theme of this little Larkin ditty:

Poetry of Departures

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It’s specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

*******************************

The ongoing struggle of our lives is the same struggle anywhere; to chuck it all is to pretend otherwise, to pretend that having, say, mucked up one life, you can do the next one right.

But anyway. What strikes UD most about these two poets is their almost Kafkaesque sense of how fundamentally strange life is, and their related disengagement from the human realm. Their world is the world of the Royal Station Hotel abandoned by human beings, though recently and incompletely colonized by them… I mean, Larkin and Bishop notice again and again traces of our efforts to inhabit and understand the world. They notice the way the obdurate world responds to these efforts with a maddening inhuman self-sufficiency. The world goes on living its worldly life and gives away almost nothing. This conundrum of ours produces – if you’re a literary genius – extremely eerie sets of lines, evoking not emptiness, but an absence weighted with the failed effort to be present.

Cape Breton

Out on the high “bird islands,” Ciboux and Hertford,
the razorbill auks and the silly-looking puffins all stand
with their backs to the mainland
in solemn, uneven lines along the cliff’s brown grass-frayed edge,
while the few sheep pastured there go “Baaa, baaa.”
(Sometimes, frightened by aeroplanes, they stampede
and fall over into the sea or onto the rocks.)
The silken water is weaving and weaving,
disappearing under the mist equally in all directions,
lifted and penetrated now and then
by one shag’s dripping serpent-neck,
and somewhere the mist incorporates the pulse,
rapid but unurgent, of a motor boat.

The same mist hangs in thin layers
among the valleys and gorges of the mainland
like rotting snow-ice sucked away
almost to spirit; the ghosts of glaciers drift
among those folds and folds of fir: spruce and hackmatack–
dull, dead, deep pea-cock colors,
each riser distinguished from the next
by an irregular nervous saw-tooth edge,
alike, but certain as a stereoscopic view.

The wild road clambers along the brink of the coast.
On it stand occasional small yellow bulldozers,
but without their drivers, because today is Sunday.
The little white churches have been dropped into the matted hills
like lost quartz arrowheads.
The road appears to have been abandoned.
Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned,
unless the road is holding it back, in the interior,
where we cannot see,
where deep lakes are reputed to be,
and disused trails and mountains of rock
and miles of burnt forests, standing in gray scratches
like the admirable scriptures made on stones by stones–
and these regions now have little to say for themselves
except in thousands of light song-sparrow songs floating upward
freely, dispassionately, through the mist, and meshing
in brown-wet, fine torn fish-nets.

A small bus comes along, in up-and-down rushes,
packed with people, even to its step.
(On weekdays with groceries, spare automobile parts, and pump parts,
but today only two preachers extra, one carrying his frock coat on a
hanger.)
It passes the closed roadside stand, the closed schoolhouse,
where today no flag is flying
from the rough-adzed pole topped with a white china doorknob.
It stops, and a man carrying a baby gets off,
climbs over a stile, and goes down through a small steep meadow,
which establishes its poverty in a snowfall of daisies,
to his invisible house beside the water.

The birds keep on singing, a calf bawls, the bus starts.
The thin mist follows
the white mutations of its dream;
an ancient chill is rippling the dark brooks.

****************************

This is a shag, by the way.

*****************************

So let me take a voyage around this poem. Here it is again:

Out on the high “bird islands,” Ciboux and Hertford,
the razorbill auks and the silly-looking puffins all stand
with their backs to the mainland
in solemn, uneven lines along the cliff’s brown grass-frayed edge,

[As with Larkin and the objects in the hotel, so with Bishop and the animal objects she’s considering, there’s a weird intentionality that the poet casts upon them; they’re almost human, seeming to mean and feel certain things — The birds are solemn; they’ve turned their backs to the mainland in some meaningful gesture of withdrawal or rejection… ]

while the few sheep pastured there go “Baaa, baaa.”
(Sometimes, frightened by aeroplanes, they stampede
and fall over into the sea or onto the rocks.)
The silken water is weaving and weaving,
disappearing under the mist equally in all directions,

[The water weaves silk as a weaver weaves. It doesn’t merely move; it disappears. It means to disappear in the same mysterious way the birds seem to mean their rejection of the mainland.]

lifted and penetrated now and then
by one shag’s dripping serpent-neck,
and somewhere the mist incorporates the pulse,
rapid but unurgent, of a motor boat.

[Incorporates. The great poet finds the word. Takes into its body somewhere. The world has a mind and the world has a body, and these things are powerful and have their reasons. We have little to no access to them, though we can mark some of their operations.

We can’t see the boat because of the mist — the mist that will stand throughout the poem for the haunted and undisclosed Kafka-world in which we move.]

The same mist hangs in thin layers
among the valleys and gorges of the mainland
like rotting snow-ice sucked away
almost to spirit; the ghosts of glaciers drift
among those folds and folds of fir: spruce and hackmatack–
dull, dead, deep pea-cock colors,
each riser distinguished from the next
by an irregular nervous saw-tooth edge,
alike, but certain as a stereoscopic view.

[Toto, I don’t think we’re in Romanticism anymore… Rotting, sucked away, dead, stereoscopic… Here, consciousness takes in the natural world as a rigid neurotic oddball with morbid tendencies. Which has nothing to do with us.]

The wild road clambers along the brink of the coast.

[Unlike the trees, the road is animate; but wildly, in a way that has nothing to do with us.]

On it stand occasional small yellow bulldozers,
but without their drivers, because today is Sunday.

[As with the Royal Hotel poem, it’s the world weighted with our failure to be present that compels Bishop. For her, every day is Sunday, because we never really enter into and interact with the world.

And yes – If you find yourself drifting glacially toward Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning – he also lived in Key West – that’s dandy.]

The little white churches have been dropped into the matted hills
like lost quartz arrowheads.


[Brilliant simile.]

The road appears to have been abandoned.
Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned,
unless the road is holding it back, in the interior,
where we cannot see,
where deep lakes are reputed to be,
and disused trails and mountains of rock

[She’s getting into it now. Notice how great poems don’t assert much of anything; they calmly and expansively describe a world, and then, naturally as it were, generate implications.]

and miles of burnt forests, standing in gray scratches
like the admirable scriptures made on stones by stones–

[Hey! UD gets all excited when she reads these lines. Faithful readers know why.]

and these regions now have little to say for themselves
except in thousands of light song-sparrow songs floating upward
freely, dispassionately, through the mist, and meshing
in brown-wet, fine torn fish-nets.

A small bus comes along, in up-and-down rushes,
packed with people, even to its step.

[Notice how by now, having evoked an obscure and powerful natural/spiritual world, Bishop’s introduction of people makes them and their things — buses, bulldozers, churches — seem like toys, absurd powerless things dropped in, crawling about, barely existent.]

(On weekdays with groceries, spare automobile parts, and pump parts,
but today only two preachers extra, one carrying his frock coat on a
hanger.)
It passes the closed roadside stand, the closed schoolhouse,
where today no flag is flying

[Again, just like the Royal Hotel, the setting is that of a place usually inhabited but now not inhabited.
]

from the rough-adzed pole topped with a white china doorknob.
It stops, and a man carrying a baby gets off,
climbs over a stile, and goes down through a small steep meadow,
which establishes its poverty in a snowfall of daisies,
to his invisible house beside the water.

[Notice too how the poet’s perspective moves in the poem from distant to closer and closer, from a long view of the islands to, by now, a specific view of a specific human being. Like a scientist, she is trying to understand, bringing the objects of her interest more and more to view.

The poverty, again, of our rather pathetic efforts to colonize and domesticate the world, to establish our presence by creating meadows of daisies instead of stands of firs.

And of course his house is invisible, holding back its meaning as much as any other thing on the island or the mainland holds back its meaning.]

The birds keep on singing, a calf bawls, the bus starts.
The thin mist follows
the white mutations of its dream;
an ancient chill is rippling the dark brooks.

[Frightening. We’re left, for all our mental exertions, with the same inscrutable soundings, and with a world that has a mind of its own — the thin mist propelled by its own dreams. The world is and always has been a cold place, despite our efforts to warm it. Cold and dark, with reminders of our brief battles here.]

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6 Responses to “For Elizabeth Bishop’s Birthday…”

  1. Dave Stone Says:

    Glad you cleared up that shag thing. "Dripping serpent-neck" would certainly have steered me wrong.

  2. Phiala Says:

    Trivial question, as I’m not familiar with this poem: The first time you print it, the line says "man carrying a bay", and it says the same thing on the linked poetry site (containing a horrific speaking Wii ad). Your analysis says baby.

    While I quite like the image of a man carrying a bay, I assume it’s actually a typo, and "baby" is correct.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Phiala: Thanks. I corrected the website’s error on my first printing of the poem, and forgot on my second. I’ll fix it.

  4. Kevan Says:

    Get in touch with me once you’re set up on Key West!

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Kevan: Will do.

  6. University Diaries » “Everything depends on which ‘nothing’ you are talking about.” Says:

    […] In my next Faculty Project Lecture, I’m talking about three great nothingness poems – Auden’s Brussels in Winter, and Larkin’s Absences, as well as his Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel. And of course there’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Cape Breton. […]

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