The Complete Poems
By Elizabeth Bishop
Original Publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Current Publisher: Out of Print
Ross Gay writes:
Elizabeth Bishop writes in her short aesthetic statement, “Writing poetry is an unnatural act”:
“Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet’s energies are really directed toward this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he’s up to and what he’s saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances.”
Among American poets, Elizabeth Bishop might be the one for whom this statement (hers, after all) most applies. Her poems have such a sense of clarity and precision that we’re left with the strong sense of inevitability, the sense of naturalness. For years, that certitude and inevitability and naturalness was something that held me, at least a little bit, at bay. The poems are so…well, perfect. If you want you can go through these things with a fine-toothed comb and you will almost always find the perfect word, the perfect syntactical turn, the perfect simile. It is hard to read a Bishop poem and say, “well, she messed that one up,” or “coulda’ used some better imagery on that one,” or “that was out of her reach!”
In art I love broken things. I love the sense of danger and potential collapse, of something riding an edge. I love a kind of abundant straining, something bigger and beyond the artist. I love the unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo, and William H. Johnson’s yearning lines. I love Nina Simone’s gravel and honey, Etheridge Knight’s hulking sorrows, and the luminous dark of Jean Valentine. Every year a world music festival comes to Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, and the first year I was here I saw a marching band that had, as I remember it, people on stilts, some fire, and raucous, blasting music. It felt dangerous—the stilt walkers looked like they might crash. The fire—well, you can imagine how that felt. And the horns were screaming not only in pleasure. It was beautiful, and so goddamned human. That same band came back the following year, and they had polished up their act. Everything was sharp as a tack. Even the stilt walkers looked as though they had gone to stilt-school. I was less interested.
Lorca talks about it in his “Theory and Play of the Duende,” and Fanny Howe discusses it in her essay, “Bewilderment.” This is a feeling I can get from many of my favorite poets, including Dickinson and Plath and Clifton and Carl Phillips and Rukeyser and June Jordan and W.C. Williams and Claudia Rankine—but I only recently learned to see something like this, some danger, in Bishop. (Incidentally, I discovered the danger in Auden at about the same time.) So many of Bishop’s poems illuminate and inhabit an edge: beautifully dangerous and torn and tearing. And really strange. There are quite a few to point to, for sure. But for the past several years I’ve had her poem “Roosters” in my mind. It begins:
At four o’clock
in the gun-metal blue dark
we hear the first crow of the first cock
the gun-metal blue window
and immediately there is an echo
off in the distance,
then one from the backyard fence,
then one with horrible insistence,
grates like a wet match
from the broccoli patch,
flares, and all over town begins to catch.
From the start Bishop puts a fire beneath the reader’s feet, lulling us with the comfort (and illusion of inevitability) of the rhyme (which, incidentally, she doesn’t reveal as a perfect or near perfect rhyme until the second tercet—just a small and brilliant and unsettling withholding) but alerting us to the violence that will, finally, be the subject of this poem with the use of a few harmless adjectives: “horrible” and the repeated “gun-metal blue.” And immediately, too, we see one of those bizarre moments that regularly occur in Bishop’s poems, moments perfect and perfectly unpredictable: “grates like a wet match / from the broccoli patch / flares, and all over town begins to catch.”
Meanwhile, this is a poem about roosters, isn’t it? Well it’s kind of about roosters, and it’s also about patriarchy, and it’s about war.
Now in mid-air
by twos they fight each other.
down comes a first flame-feather,
and one is flying,
with raging heroism defying
even the sensation of dying.
And one has fallen,
but still above the town
his torn-out, bloodied feathers drift down;
and what he sung
no matter. He is flung
on the gray ash heap, lies in dung
with his dead wives
with open, bloody eyes,
while those metallic feathers oxidize.
Whereas Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” employs brevity or absence to shock into a reader the absurdity and horrors of war and the state, Bishop’s poem keeps dragging us into the depths of its metaphors, and the shock comes because of how incredibly and frighteningly clear they become. By now, in Bishop’s poem, the rhyme is less a hand to hold than an alarm—the stark and frightening juxtapositions of “sung” “flung” and “dung.” And the final stanza here cited, ending on that awful rhyme “oxidize.” Not only do those extra syllables choke you some, they also remind you that the thing “dies.” The poem doesn’t end here—in fact, it gets stranger. And terrifying. But you’ll have to go re-read it.
No one needs me to remind them how significant Bishop is to our poetry. The more time I spend with her poems, the more precise, the more mysterious, and the more, well, inevitable they come to seem.
Ross Gay’s books of poems include Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming January 2011). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, MARGIE, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He has also, with the artist Kimberly Thomas, collaborated on several artists’ books, including The Cold Loop, BRN2HNT, and The Bullet. He is an editor with the chapbook press Q Avenue. Gay received his MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and his PhD in American Literature from Temple University. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in poetry at Drew University, and in Indiana University’s English department. (Photo credit: Zach Hetrick)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- Daniel Berrigan for False Gods, Real Men
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti for The Secret Meaning of Things
- Robert Lowell for Notebook, 1967-68
- Philip Whalen for On Bear's Head
Poetry Judges that Year: Eugene McCarthy, William Meredith, Kenneth Rexroth
The Year in Literature:
- Untitled Subjects by Richard Howard won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- William Stafford was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.
- Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was born in Worcester, MA.
- Bishop won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976. She was the first woman and only American to receive this award.
- Archival materials (PDF File Format) including a copy of the Judges' Citation for The Complete Poems, Robert Lowell's remarks upon accepting the National Book Award on Bishop's behalf, and a letter from Robert Giroux to Bishop summarizing events at the 1970 National Book Awards.
(Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College, Bishop Folder 42.7)
- Bishop's profile at Poets.org
- Elizabeth Bishop: /voices and visions
VOICES [Education Project]
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