POETS Day! Elizabeth Bishop

At The Fishhouses painted by Elizabeth Bishop

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

It’s POETS Day once more, that welcome weekly wonder when we wrap ourselves in awed gratitude, warmed by thoughts of Henry Ford, visionary businessman, architect of the modern, and inventor of the weekend. Is it ingratitude towards Henry’s memory to want just a little bit more free time? Sure, the weekend is wonderful as he made it, but we all know that nothing really gets done those last few hours before the sanctioned release. People check out mentally before they clock out officially and since you’re not getting any actual work done there’s no reason for you to be there. Who’s it going to hurt if you leave at three instead of five or six? Two? Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Dissemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass the norms and delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization. It’s okay. If you didn’t do everything in your power to get out of that prison you draw a paycheck from you’d be a participant in the lie that you are going to do anything of value for the company in those Friday afternoon workish twighlight hours and lying is bad. If you think about it, being there and not working is kinda like stealing. Get out. Hit a bar and catch a mid-major basketball game at happy hour prices, stroll through the zoo and make faces at the lions, call your mom. When was the last time you called your mom? The weekend begins when you say it does, assuming your boss falls for whatever shenanigans you get up to in service of your premature but deserved escape. Do with it as you will, but in homage to the mighty acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the delicate pieties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.


Today’s featured poem is “The Map” by Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop is yet another poet who rankled mid-last-century at being included among those known as The Confessional Poets. It seems like they all objected to the name to various degrees claiming that poetic personae was separate from the poet’s and further claiming, often laughably, that obviously autobiographical narratives were some sort of ill-defined coincidence, but Bishop seems to have a point in her objection. I’ve seen her referred to as loosely associated with the Confessionals and even wrongly held up as one of them. She lost her father before she could know him. He died when she was eight months old. Her mother was institutionalized due to mental illness when she was five, and as a defacto orphan, she spent some of her childhood in Nova Scotia with her maternal grandparents, moved to Massachusetts to live with her paternal grandparents, and later to another part of Massachusetts to live with her mother’s sister and her family. An inheritance from her father left her well off. She travelled widely, moved around the U.S., and spent fifteen years in Brazil. Her homosexuality was an open secret. All of that made it into her writing at least obliquely, but who doesn’t reference their life at all? I should mention that I’ve read about twenty of her poems, of which she published only one hundred and one titles, but none of her prose, which I’ve read is more biographical than her verse. I’m not claiming to be an authority on her body of work, but from what I’ve read and what I’ve read about what I haven’t, she’s no exhibitionist and no more “confessional” than most widely-read poets of her time. She doesn’t seem to air her life out there for all to see. Certainly not enough to be grouped with John Berryman or Sylvia Plath.

She does invite you into her mind, though. It’s intimate.

“The Map” is the first poem in her first published collection, Poems: North & South. She wrote it in late 1933 or early 1934, but the collection wasn’t released until 1946 (a reissue in 1955 combined with the collection A Cold Spring won her the Pulitzer Prize.) “The Map” is her introduction. She tells the reader what to expect from her poetics. When searching for bits of information about Bishop and this poem, I came across Open Yale Courses. Yale offers videos of a variety of the classes they offer, among them English 310: Modern Poetry, and they are fantastic if you have the time. There’s a lecture on Bishop by Professor Langdon Hammer where he delivers a quote about Baroque poets from a letter Elizabeth Bishop wrote to a literary critic named Donald Stanford:

“Their purpose was to portray not a thought, but a mind thinking. They knew that an idea separated from the act of experiencing it is not the idea that was experienced. The ardor of its conception in the mind is a necessary part of its truth.”

The professor really liked “the ardor of conception.” He lets it roll off his tongue a few times.

The first stanza of the poem begins as a straightforward description of where water and land meet. The language is simple, conversational. The personae is not Beatrice introducing the wonders of paradise. She’s addressing the reader as a frequent guest who knows where everything is and can help themselves to whatever is in the kitchen. There’s no attempt to impress. As ballast, she makes sure you know this is a poem. The rhyme scheme draws attention, oddly pairing “green” with “green” and “under” with “under.” In the first four lines she tells you she will be dealing with boundaries. It should be noted that, within the metaphor, the image is literally fluid. She lays out the thing to be considered. The next four lines invite the reader to experience the thing through “the ardor of conception” and to become with her “the mind thinking.”

The second stanza goes in a different direction from the first. The rhyme is gone as possibilities evoke images. Now the poetry is in the conception rather than the construction. “We can” and “as if” set the images in motion. Now they’re fluid. She hints at the character cities and town might take on – she’s noncommittal – by allowing a connection between the invented name and the physical realities of geography. Bishop is saying that the world as laid out is fascinating and will provide its own wonder.

She returns to the rhyme of the first stanza in the third. “We,” she seems to say, “are firmly back to poetic work,” even while she’s speaking to the reader as a close confidant. Professor Hammer mentions tension between what is real and what is representative as a recurrent theme in Bishop’s work. I’ll trust the professor as I haven’t the scope to say, but that tension is in evidence here. She also makes it clear that she presents the world as it is. Commentary or speculation may follow. She gives no promises that she will be an indifferent observer, but she first presents facts for a reader she treats like a passenger along for the ride. “Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.”

In the poem’s final line, she draws a distinction between her poetry and what has come before as she sees it by contrasting the jobs of historians and map-makers. The historian gives an interpretation of what he has seen. The map-maker, with whom she identifies, records the details, but chooses how the map is shaded.

Fitzgerald had This Side of Paradise. Wolfe had Look Homeward Angel. Joyce had Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I want to say Pere Goriot fits the genre but it’s been a thousand years since I read it and all I can remember is thinking that Fitzgerald did it better. There’s a tradition of writers announcing themselves to an imagined unexpecting world. It’s arrogant and sort of silly at times. I love it, especially when the youthful writer’s fictional stand-in has his moment of ascendance in a graveyard walloping the ghosts of his predecessors with as heavy handed a metaphor as can be found. This is Bishop’s “Here I am!” work but it’s subtle. Probably shouldn’t have the exclamation point.

Former editor of The New York Times Book Review Dwight Garner suggested that Elizabeth Bishop was “the most purely gifted poet of the 20th century.” Her body of published work is small, and I’ve only just begun, but “The Map” has certainly captured me. She lets us know where we’re headed from the get-go. She’s like Tolkien. Hope you enjoy it.

The Map

Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979)

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

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