Academic journal article Style

Representing Other Voices: Rhetorical Perspective in Elizabeth Bishop

Academic journal article Style

Representing Other Voices: Rhetorical Perspective in Elizabeth Bishop

Article excerpt

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his discussion of "Types of Prose Discourse," denies that his theory of voice has much to say about poetry. "Poetic speech in the narrow sense," he writes, "requires a uniformity of all discourses, their reduction to a common denominator." Prose, in contrast, retains as a fundamental feature "the possibility of employing on the plane of a single work discourses of various types, with all their expressive capacities intact, without reducing them to a common denominator." Bakhtin then does concede that "even in poetry a whole series of fundamental problems cannot be solved without some attention to the [types] for investigating discourse"; but only in the sense that "different types of discourse in poetry require different stylistic treatments" (200).(1)

Despite his own disclaimer, however, Bakhtin's theories certainly have application to poetry.(2) Elizabeth Bishop, for example, deploys in her work a genuine multiplicity of voice beyond mere differences in stylistic treatment and does so in ways that fully engage the social discourses that interested Bakhtin. Even when her texts seem to unfold within a single stylistic "denominator," Bishop's controlled lyric forms often bring into play the multiplicity of social voices [in the] wide variety of their links and interrelationships" as well as the "struggle among sociolinguistic points of view" that Bakhtin calls heteroglossia ("Discourse" 263, 273). Some aspects of this multiplicity have attracted critical attention in welcome contrast to accounts of her work that claim she is usually speaking in her own voice" (Parker 32); "usually writ[ing] in her own voice" with "few personae" (Schwartz, "One Art" 139); or that she fails to establish "a voice sufficiently distinctive so as to serve as a vehicle for an assumed dialogue" (Gordon 16).(3) However, critical discussion has almost exclusively focused on Bishop's skill in projecting variations in visual perspective.(4) I shall emphasize how multiplicity extends beyond visual effects into a "perspective" that is instead rhetorical, which Bishop accomplishes by interweaving subtly distinguishable patterns of rhetoric associated with variations of stance and viewpoint. This representation of distinct rhetorical patterns establishes "voices" such as Bakhtin proposes, each of which retains its integrity as a separate and often socially situated mode of representation, but always in a relationship directed toward and addressing the text's other rhetorical "voices."

In Bishop, the scenes of multivoicedness vary, as does the balance among its components. Many of Bishop's most familiar poetic strategies contribute to it; her manipulations of perspective, which often shift radically within a text, and her pervasive figures of travel and maps. These travel scenes, besides their biographical reference, also take place as specific social-historical encounters and feature a surprising variety of human figures within varying cultural contexts. Bishop's varied generic registers take part in her orchestrations of voice as well: her blues and children, s songs, her use of troubadour forms, and her translations all reflect her project of voice exchange.

Some poems are overtly spoken by another's voice. The "Songs for a Colored Singer" are each sung by a separate, black female voice but also together form a group of poems sung by multiple voices. "Jeronimo's House" is spoken by one of Bishop's many squatters. "The Riverman" is the interior monologue of a witch doctor on the Amazon. "Manuelzhino" is introduced with the instruction that "a friend of the writer is speaking." Even "Crusoe in England" is cast as Crusoe's own utterance. In each case, Bishop's own voice comes into play, too, to a greater or lesser degree. "Jeronimo's House" inscribes Bishop's view of Jeronimo's viewpoint. The friend speaking "Manuelzhino" is Lota de Soares, with whom Bishop lived for eighteen years. And Crusoe's persona is nearly a transparent mask for Bishop herself. …

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