Elizabeth Bishop: Locating Oneself

by Colm   Apr 22, 2012


Elizabeth Bishop was an influential American poet of the 20th century. Her poetry often reflects issues that concerned her throughout her life, such as her search for a sense of home or place. Her troubled childhood had a lasting impression on her and feelings of isolation from this time ingrained themselves into her character and into her poetry. She traveled a lot in her lifetime, living in many countries in a search for a place where she could find herself at home. Her poetry often focuses on small details of everyday life, and shows how she could find beauty in short, intermittent and unspectacular events, but maintain a sense of distance from these everyday occurrences that she doesn't feel truly a part of.
Bishop's fractured childhood is critical in assessing the true meaning of some of her poems. Her father died when she was eight months old and her mother was instiusionalised when she was five due to a mental breakdown. Bishop was raised firstly by her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and then by her paternal grandparents in New York. This instability and lack of permanent parental figures left her with a confused perception of the idea of belonging. She didn't have one home and this featured in her poetry years later. In 'The Prodigal,' Bishop portrays the well-known biblical parable in a new modern way. While the character in the poem makes his mind up to go home, there is a sense of pessimism on a personal level for Bishop as because she has no home, she has no home to return to escape the miserable life she leads. The lack of a sense of home for her therefore can be seen as a contributing factor to the depression and alcoholism she suffered in her life and it seems as though she cannot escape it. In this deeply personal poem, the reader sees into the mindset of Bishop and it takes on added significance when one relates it to her personal history. It can be therefore read on many levels; as a parable and as a personal reflection on her life.
There is a sense in Bishop's poetry that she attempts to locate or define herself in small, seemingly everyday experiences which shee makes extraordinary in poems such as 'The Moose,' and 'Filling-station.' In 'Filling-Station,' Bishop describes the beauty of a family filling station that although it is "dirty" there is order to it. She describes cleverly how the cans of petrol are arranged from her physical point of view as an observer; "ESSO--SO--SO--SO." The station can be interpreted as a microcosm of the world. It is dirty and industrial, but even in such a place things of human-made beauty can exist (the embroidered doily). Simple family life is celebrated as is the power of the human spirit. Yet Bishop is a passer-by in this world; she stops at the filling station for only a short moment of epiphany before moving on. There is a sense that she recognizes the value of home, family and beauty in everyday life, but that she is only an observer of these. Distance remains between her and the family at the filling station. Similarly in 'The Moose,' she is traveling when a moose crossing the road provides a brief moment of epiphany for the poet. But this too is temporary, the reader realizes that the bus will soon move on and leave the moose and its elusive appeal behind. The moose transcends the monotony of normal life, yet exists alongside the normal mundane world, which Bishop cannot quite shake off. "There's a dim smell of moose, an acrid smell of gasoline." This highlights the lack of permanence in her life, and how she struggles to locate herself in the everyday world.
Loneliness and loss are prevalent in Bishop's poetry, and these appear primarily due to her struggle to find a place for herself in the world. 'One Art,' deals with many forms of loss in her life, and highlights how she feels that she is forever missing something which could lead her to be fulfilled. It is a villanelle, and as part of this form the first line is repeated in specific lines throughout the piece. This line in the poem is "The art of losing isn't hard to master," and its repetition engrains the idea in the reader's head; that Bishop isn't happy in herself, and that she is familiar with the idea of loss. In the poem the things she describes as losing range from small, relatively trivial objects, such as keys, to increasingly deeper and more personal things such as "mother's watch" and "places." The reader sees how she has lost her sense of place and companionship in this poem.
Bishop's struggle to locate herself in the world is perhaps seen no more clearly than in her poem 'Sandpiper.' It deals with the theme of searching for something in an seemingly confusing, ambiguous world. She again subtly makes the poem personal by using the metaphor of the bird who is 'looking for something, something, something.' It is significant that the 'something' isn't specific, it is as if the bird doesn't know what he is looking for, the only certain thing is that he is searching. This can be true of Bishop too, trying to find a place in the world amongst the wide variety of different people, ideas, cultures and emotions represented by the 'millions' of colours and textures of sand grains on the beach. The poem has tones of confusion and at times desperation about it. Despite the listing of specific visual detail the world is 'a mist,' symbolizing how the poet struggles to make sense of it and find or place herself in it. Grains of sand are washed away by the ocean as the bird scrambles to locate 'something,' and there is a sense that it is slipping him by, and his quest for meaning will be fruitless and inevitably end in failure.
In her life Bishop spent much time traveling, living in places such as Europe, Brazil, Nova Scotia and different parts of the United States. This sense of travel is reflected in some of her poetry. In 'Arrival at Santos,' Bishop describes a boat journey she took, and in particular one stop off point at the coast along the way. There is a sense that she is searching for a place to settle, and at first admires the scenery of land in comparison to the repetitive boredom of the open ocean. The imagery of Bishop traveling the seas stopping at various points is symbolic of her search for a place or home. In the sea she is divorced from civilization of land, and this shows her loneliness and her difficulty in belonging. 'Oh, tourist, is this how this country is going to answer you and your immodest demands for a different world, and a better life,' highlights how she searches for a place to settle down but eventually she is left disappointed and leaves Santos to go back to sea. The poem is another example of how Bishop moves from the general to the specific; the poem becomes more personal as it develops and ends with the line 'we are driving to the interior.' This is a direct metaphor about her search inwards to herself, and how stopping at ports are chapters in her long struggle to locate herself. Other poems, such as 'Questions of Travel,' describe Bishop's experiences in various places in the world, and in this poem she glorifies the idea of travel above staying at home. 'Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?'
Bishop is not a confessional poet, but her poems are personal on a more subtle level, especially when her childhood, travels, etc., is taken into consideration. There is an over-riding theme of searching for something intangible. She is very observant and describes small ordinary places or objects in an insightful and meticulous way, which in itself shows the reader Bishop's traits of observation. These seemingly ordinary, everyday experiences hold significance for the poet as moments of epiphany when for a brief time she experiences things such as family life that she herself doesn't have. Imagery of the sea puts her adrift or at the periphery of society, and reflect her feeling that she didn't belong. While the poems are personal to Bishop, they are not overtly personal and metaphors she uses can be interpreted in a wider way too, to describe how groups of people universally, or indeed the reader themselves, may be isolated or searching for happiness in a similar way. Therefore it is accurate to say Bishop is a complex poet who in her poetry describes her struggle to locate herself in the world, and perhaps uses her poetry as an attempt to find this elusive feeling of belonging also.

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