She shares with Eugenio Montale a novel sense of what epiphany a poem can or should seek or record. She only knew the Italian’s work once her career was underway, but she remarks in two letters to Lowell, on his publication of Imitations, that she is especially curious to read the Montale translations. Perhaps she suspected a kindred spirit.
The sense one finds in both poets—and the sense of it in her poetry is more keenly felt once his is held in mind alongside hers—is that of a desire to recover the glow of a hermeneutically resistant experience, as one would revive an ember, by applying a consistent but delicate flow of air; the consistency requires that she sustain her attention and persevere in an occasionally unrewarding reckoning with detail; the delicacy requires that she approach them from oblique perspectives, with rapid movements of the eye.
The result, the achievement, from the perspective of the poet, is neither as intense and bright as an epiphany, nor as blissfully announced; the poem for Montale and Bishop kindles and fosters the ember, but to announce its bright warmth would be to cease to nurture it, and extinguish it; it is felt, as a consequence, only indirectly, through the force of the applied oxygen.
“The Man-Moth” might be the nearest Bishop comes to explaining what it means for a poem to break through, to find something like that glow of hermeneutically resistant experience; just as, for Montale, “The Lemon Trees,” is an early forthright description of their version of epiphany. But these are similar too in that neither poem achieves the break-through first-hand; in both, the moment occurs at a remove, either through a character (Bishop) or through a hypothetical memory (Montale).
The differences are so great as to require little discussion: Montale writing his greatest volume from within a time of war; Montale writing poems of exquisitely painful intimacy and loss. And even accepting the similarities, the usefulness of the analogy is limited.
But as a corrective, the image of Montale can help redefine the purposive intensity of Bishop’s poetry, and also make their peculiarity of detail and design feel less whimsy than strenuous concentration towards a result.
Another surprising poet can be enlisted to get at something else elusive in Bishop’s verse. Montale celebrated Yeats as the greatest of poets; Bishop, in the letters to Lowell (which have been published), is more skeptical of Yeats’ rhetorical charms. But she too pays the Irishman homage in the opening of “Questions of Travel”: “There are too many waterfalls here: the crowded streams” alludes to “Sailing to Byzantium.”
What might be Yeats’ most distinct contribution (because nowhere else so insistently given) to twentieth century poetry, is the demonstration that a private, esoteric mosaic of significance could make for poetry; that people do not need to understand the idiosyncratic meanings a poet endows in objects, provided they can feel their heat, weight, and charge.
Whatever her wariness, Bishop must have appreciated this in Yeats; his willingness to turn powerful, high-strains of rhetoric to visions that he alone could see, to objects that took on meaning only in relation to those visions. So she ends her poem to Lowell, “The Armadillo”:
The ancient owl’s nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,
and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft–a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!
The final lines, italicized in the original, recall Lowell’s early Catholic intensity; but they are not a parody of Lowell because they are continuous with, and at ease within, Bishop’s established habits, which are not at odds with the sort of impassioned exclamation that might also be found in Yeats—but which is different from Yeats because Yeats assumed (with reason) that his private and esoteric visions had bearing on the public life of a nation, on his standing as a public figure, and on a readership that made up that public.
Bishop, without pretending to exist apart from the world, or history, or commerce, sets her rhetorical expostulations and exclamations at odd angles, upon a point that she does not assume to be accessible to the public; it is cradled in her hand. In this, too, she is similar to Montale, whose poems are scarred by history, but which do not claim to be acting in it. In poem after poem, Bishop consistently and emphatically establishes her place in the world, but, as in “Questions of Travel,” gleans from the world an experience of significance that does not belong to others in it:
But surely it would have been a pity
Never to have seen the trees along this road,
Really exaggerated in their beauty…
Here the poet addresses the memory, and a barrier has been placed between the memory and the world, lest the glow of meaning be extinguished by sudden stirrings of others.
But Bishop balances the Yeatsian insight against the lesson of Marianne Moore: that the heat and charge of significance may be subordinated to, eclipsed by, painstaking accounting of detail and description. Hence in “At the Fishhouses”:
Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, think silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and done
at intervals of four or five feet.
Readers, appreciative as they are of the patience and precision, might be left asking wherefore. But when the reverse is true, when the valuation or significance is at its hottest, the brightness of description fades, as at the end of the same poem:
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
Her villanelles and sestinas are the most readily admired, perhaps they require a balance of light and heat: of detail and significance; they focus her breath; it returns, applied to the same objects, intensifying them each time, but preserving their outline. This is not to say that they are her greatest poems.
But the image of the ember is perhaps, though frequent enough in her poetry, exhausted. Her greater longer poems, “Crusoe in England,” “At the Fishhouses,” “Questions of Travel,” “Over 2000 Illustrations…”, these all present instead the image of a person carrying a basin of water, gazing down into it as they walk, never looking up, but guided by, and aiming to catch, the reflections caught in it from above; it ripples, the reflections blur, lose focus, a detail only is apparent; tremendous strength is required, and stillness is sought, then achieved, and as the movement subsides, something bright and distinct is clearly seen, perturbed only by a stray ripple; but then, with the next step, it is lost again. It is not that she cannot look up, but looking up would not do; it is not the thing that is sought, but what the water makes of it:
Shelley saw, and first touched into life, the possibility for a different sort of modern poetry; but most successfully to see the fading coal awakened to transitory brightness:
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
—I couldn’t look any higher—
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
Why should I be my aunt
or me, or anyone?
Voices gather to cry out “Dickinson! Dickinson!”; in response, resist: “Yes, But…”.
A host of unlikely forces gather in the poems; and though she is not to be reduced to any of them, failing to see them at work would be to reduce her more destructively.