Moore, Bishop, and Oliver: Thinking Back, Re-Seeking the Sea
Fast, Robin Riley, Twentieth Century Literature
Several poems by Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Mary Oliver offer an extended and illuminating example of what it might mean, in Virginia Woolf's phrase, for women writers to "think back through our mothers" (79), or, in Alicia Ostriker's terms, to "re-think ourselves by re-thinking them" (475). The friendship of Moore and Bishop is well documented.(1) Although there exists to date no definitive, explicit evidence of connection between Oliver and either Bishop or Moore, a deep responsiveness to Bishop's work, and through it, to Moore's, resonates from many of Oliver's poems. Thus "Mussels" and "The Fish," from Twelve Moons, and "The Fish," from American Primitive, recall Bishop's "The Fish"; "Postcard from Flamingo," from American Primitive, and "At Loxahatchie," in Dream Work, recall Bishop's "Florida." Further, the recurring, clear indications in her poetry that Oliver conceives of her own poetic voice as a woman's voice invite us to look at her work in relation to that of other women writers.(2)
Questioning the appropriateness to women of the Bloomian model of influence as the son's struggle against his poetic fathers, some feminist critics have proposed an alternative paradigm as describing the relationships more common between women writers and their female predecessors. This paradigm essentially thinks back through Woolf's observation that "we think back through our mothers": it describes the younger writer as seeking out her poetic mothers, whose example and works nurture and support her, and whom she affirms in her own work. Betsy Erkkila, while acknowledging the presence of ambivalence in such relationships, argues that "there is a primary sense of identification and mutuality between women poets that sets them apart from the more agonistic relationship between precursor and ephebe in the Bloomian model" (335). Erkkila uses this paradigm to examine, in Bishop's poetry, a pattern of seeking a powerful woman figure and a "matrilineal heritage," both associated for Bishop with Marianne Moore. In the poems by Moore, Bishop, and Oliver that I have chosen to discuss we can see the poet answering her forebears or inviting her successors. Including Oliver in this family of women allows us to consider how a poet of a new generation might enter (adopt herself into?) and hence enlarge the circle of influence.
Two of the poems I will consider here, Moore's "A Grave" and Bishop's "At the Fishhouses," have received much critical comment but have not been considered in relation to each other. The absence of such a discussion is surprising. "A Grave" is often thought of as uncharacteristic of Moore's poetry; it is also a poem that Bishop identified late in her career as one of her favorites.(3) These facts, together with Moore's unquestioned influence on Bishop, and the equally unquestioned and important differences between the two poets' work, demand that we inquire where Bishop's high regard for her friend's atypical poem might be evident in her own poetry. Once we inquire, "At the Fishhouses" reveals parallels and differences that suggest the poem is a meditation on and a response to Moore's. Similarly, through parallels and divergences, and in the context of an apparent responsiveness to Bishop's work, Oliver's "Sunday Morning, High Tide," "The Sea," "The Swimmer," and "The Waves" seem to carry on a familiar conversation with "At the Fishhouses" and, through Bishop's poem, to think back to "A Grave." In the process Oliver deepens her conception of the self's relation to nature and suggests new perceptions of Moore's and Bishop's seas.
One could think of these poems as representing two parallel movements - from Moore's apparently genderless to Oliver's overtly gendered response to nature, with Bishop, between them, more or less covertly identifying her voice as a woman's, and from Moore's depiction of the sea as genderless to Oliver's identification of it as female, with Bishop again playing somewhat ambivalently upon a middle ground. …