Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description

by Zachariah Pickard

McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009. 212 pages

A Poet's High Argument: Elizabeth Bishop and Christianity

by Laurel Snow Corelle

University of South. Carolina Press, 2008. 139 pages

A new generation of scholars has taken over Elizabeth Bishop criticism, and to judge by two recent books about her poetry it is in capable hands. Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description by Zachariah Pickard and A Poet's High Argument: Elizabeth Bishop and Christianity by Laurel Snow Corelle offer trenchant and valuable treatments of Bishop's poetry.

Both scholars concentrate on topics that Bishop readers might have thought had been sufficiently explored, and both show us how much more there is to these approaches than had previously been realized. Pickard's book deals with "something that anyone will grant [Bishop] but that few are interested in thinking about too closely: that her poetry is often concerned with the objective aspects of the physical world an.d that it conveys them to the reader with unusual force and clarity" (3). Noting that "description' has become a ubiquitous but invisible word in Bishop scholarship--oft used but rarely discussed" (3), Pickard declares that his own ambition in this closely argued and perceptive study is to ask "what, exactly, description means to Bishop" (4). His book takes off from--and keeps returning to-- "the Darwin Letter," the famous letter of 1964 to Anne Stevenson in which Bishop writes that

  Dreams, works of art (some) glimpses of the always-more-successful
  surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy (is it?),
  catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see
  full-face but that seems enormously important. I can't believe we are
  wholly irrational--and I do admire Darwin! But reading Darwin, one
  admires the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless
  heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic--and then comes
  a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and then one feels the
  strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young elan, his
  eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily
  off into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing
  it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a
  self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration." (qtd. in Pickard 5)

Pickard's book, as he himself says, "amounts to an exploration of this one paragraph" (5). Almost every writer on. Bishop has had occasion to use sentences and phrases from this letter, but Pickard is the first to subject it to close analysis. Engaging in a careful examination of Bishop's language, he argues that to begin with a perfectly useless concentration arid end by sliding off into the unknown is precisely the pattern that underlies Bishop's art of description. Description is a fascinating subject--see Willard Spiegelman's important study, How Poets See the 14'br Id: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry--and Pickard further explores the richness and importance of the topic.

That said., one must note that Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description is riot always easy to follow Pickard divides his book into chapters called "Imagery," "Surrealism," "Epiphany," "Water," "War," "Narrative," "Travel," and "Description." As these chapter titles suggest, Pickard likes to come at his subject from a variety of angles--he refers to "a variety of iterations" and "a variety of intensities" (189)--and to let the larger organization and argument of the book reveal itself gradually. Because Pickard chooses this approach, however, it is not always immediately clear where his argument is going, or why he has chosen a particular point of departure. In addition, he grounds his analyses not in Bishop's major poems but in the "more obscure, less personal--and more descriptive" verse of Bishop's first two books (12). …

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