Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Proustian Closure in Wallace Steven's "The Rock" and Elizabeth Bishop's "Geography III."

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Proustian Closure in Wallace Steven's "The Rock" and Elizabeth Bishop's "Geography III."

Article excerpt

What was it Proust sought so frenetically? What was at the bottom of these infinite efforts? Can we say that all lives, works, and deeds that matter were never anything but the undisturbed unfolding of the most banal, most fleeting, most sentimental, weakest hour in the life of the one to whom they pertain? When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might almost call it an everyday hour; it comes with the night, a lost twittering of birds, or a breath of dawn at the sill of an open window.

- Walter Benjamin, "The Image of Proust" (203)

Shaped by awareness of impending death, Wallace Stevens's final gathering of poems, published in his 1954 Collected Poems as The Rock, and Elizabeth Bishop's last original collection, published in 1976 as Geography III, enact the cycle of relinquishment familiar to readers of T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding": a time when "attachment to self and to things and to persons" alternates with "detachment / from self and from things and from persons" (Eliot 142). For each poet, the nearing of death and the consequent closing of their canons prompted sequences that embodied the necessary exchange and negotiation with the imminence of mortality. Death, because it so sharply distinguishes between representation and reality, rescripts the relation between poet and work, translating the oeuvre into the enigmatic "knowledge" Bishop anticipates in "At the Fishhouses," where continuity rests in the narrative rupture of history: "and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown" (Bishop, CP 66).(1)

Preparation for this cycling of mortality into immortality requires ponderous and speculative mediation between the private and public spheres as the poet prepares a final collection or a collected poems. The material acquisition of a final, public wholeness requires the diminution of the individual poet, the literal disappearance of the body, in favor of the aggrandizement of the text. For both Stevens and Bishop, literary celebrity as well as an increased sense of readership compounded and complicated their approaches to canonical finality. The Auroras of Autumn (1950), Stevens's most recent previous collection, had won the National Book Award and inspired the respectful reviews accorded a major poet. And yet, as critic Helen Vendler notes, Stevens "was not really famous until the 1954 publication of his Collected Poems" (Vendler, Part of Nature 14).(2) Bishop's Complete Poems (1969), also a National Book Award winner, likewise consolidated her position as a leading poet and, by bringing her early work back into print, exposed her to a fresh generation of readers. So thoroughly had Bishop defined her niche in American letters that her publication of Geography III seemed remarkable, and perhaps even superfluous. Vendler's reception of "Crusoe in England" suggests the valedictory nature of the collection as a whole: "A poet who has written this poem really needs to write nothing else: it seems to me a perfect reproduction of the self in words" (Part of Nature 349).(3)

Dealing with the onset of mortality and the fixing of the canon in the presence of relatively wide and assuredly respectful audiences presented distinct problems. The similarities engendered by the positioning of these sequences in each poet's life and life's work (heightened by Bishop's awareness of Stevens's lingering aesthetic presence) loom large, but the differences between them demonstrate that this is not a simple case of Stevens becoming a fixed to Bishop's wandering star. Stevens in his mid-70s approaches his canon making with a sense of finality,(4) while Bishop, 10 years younger, approaches hers with tentative gestures, unwilling to accept or uninterested in finality or the notion of "knowledge" that will have "flown."(5) Such a total and totalizing design, imposed on the canon by the demands of mortality, posits a closure that will ultimately negate the poet. …

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