The poems are about the failure to communicate or translate an esoteric, charged experience of the commonplace. Where poets who follow in her footsteps often fail, where their poems feel dull, is in the ease of the insight: the immediacy for the reader of what should, given its apparent dazzling splendor or titillating vibrancy, be hard won and inaccessible. Otherwise, why don’t we feel it and see it for ourselves more often everyday? Such poems amount to an inebriated friend walking around taking delight in the puddles and neon lights, drawing our attention to what we cannot but feel is not really there in the world at all.
Bishop, learning from Yeats, and in kind with Montale, does no such thing. We might think that the remove and inertia of her esoteric insight is owing to our distance from the far-flung places she describes. But the travel is not to arrive at, or enforce, a sense of the exotic; the poems feel mundane everywhere. Quite the opposite: the esoteric insight is not won from the exoticism or foreign charm of the places; those are flattened in her poems, reduced, and the travel serves instead to establish that the insight is possible anywhere because everywhere has a run-of-the-mill, at times at least, wherein it resides. Which is not to say that she denies locality and her foreignness: but the experiences of alienation and isolation that accompany travel, even with another, become a poetic equivalent the distance she feels from the reader—who is left beyond the local experience. It’s not just “you had to be there.” But “you had to be me there.” The insight is always, as in Montale and Yeats, personal; as in Montale and Yeats also, the poems sound the cryptic carapace, occasional chipping them, but never cracking them entirely.
Seen thus, she is a symbolist poet in the clothing of an imagist or realist—or else a symbolist by way of imagism and realism, who often writes of her own predicament, as in the closing of “Santarem”:
In the blue pharmacy the pharmacist
had hung an empty wasps’ nest from a shelf:
small, exquisite, clean matte white,
and hard as stucco. I admired it
so much he gave it to me.
Then—my ship’s whistle blew. I couldn’t stay.
Back on board, a fellow-passenger, Mr. Swan,
Dutch, the retiring head of Philips Electric,
really a very nice old man,
who wanted to see the Amazon before he died,
asked, “What’s that ugly thing?”
It might be an allegory for her own assays at communication. “The retiring head of Philips Electric” is the cunning but arbitrary detail, the novelists’ eye, the insistence that Mr. Swan (Yeats’ symbol in the guise of a fellow traveler), is chance product of a contingent world–rather than a totem of private significance. And that is the condition of the world everywhere in the poem, but she catches in her angled reflection of it, like light bouncing unexpectedly across a jostled liquid surface, the presence of something else: “I admired it| So much he gave it to me” does not implore us to find meaning in the nest, but the poem places the object where something more patently meaningful would have been inserted; and her admiration, we feel, must be grounded on an insight and appreciation that she chooses not to share. And even the final question of the poem seems, though I admit to indulging in whimsy, a play on the sort of question with which Yeats would end a poem: rather than a rhetorical question conjuring menace or promise, a question of deflating bewilderment. But the effect is not to remove or reduce the symbolic charge, but to get at it otherwise, to concede its distance, and to establish it by other means: by, for instance, the line of attentive description (“small, exquisite, clean matte white) applied to an object that could have such resonance. The symbol remains hypothetical, or subjunctive, but it impinges still.
Other, similar, instances could be found elsewhere. Some are fairly obvious, as in “In the Waiting Room”:
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts–
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How–I didn’t know any
word for it—how “unlikely”…
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?
Though we might hear Stevens in the Platonism of “made us all just one?”, I hear Yeats much more clearly in these lines; but with Bishop’s capacity for realism never lost. Here is the constitution of the self in the world of her poetry: a world of pain, a world of travel, a world of bodies. But the self is particularized, rather than universalized; the objects, with all of their symbolic charge, are ephemeral and localized rather than mystic (the focal point of the scene is the National Geographic issue, destined to the stack of other issues, in a box or on a shelf: it is the journal that unites the fascination with the world’s diversity to the amnesia of monotonous domestic hoarding); there is something like an epiphany here, but it is not the epiphany of Stevens’ verse because it is consigned to memory in that one place, and because it is not retrievable by or to articulation or even inarticulate apprehension:
The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.
Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February 1918.
Like Yeats, a war-time poem (that final date would have given Yeats his title), the instant of personal darkness brought into uncertain relation with history; but unlike Yeats, and like Montale, the remembered gasp of individual transcendence and the memory of history are both hermeneutically resistant; the poem cannot make sense for us of what happened in the waiting room; and the poem cannot make sense of what history was unfolding without, or why the two coincided, or how tenuous or meaningful the coincidence might be.
The symbolist as realist; the symbolist in history: about what other American can these phrases speak? Hart Crane was possessed by history, but not realism, not the solidity of chance (the poems were too awash with metaphor); not Stevens, where, in “Esthetique du Mal,” for instance, the symbolic charge overweighs the concrete; where the significance of the symbols is difficult but not, as in Bishop, because symbols are essentially personal, essentially esoteric, even when a publicly experienced history motivates or colors them; and Stevens, though not turned against an arena of public discourse, is not a poem who comprehends time chiefly as historical, personal and public—for Stevens it is first and last metaphysical. Yeats and Montale, then, are to me the touchstones for reading Bishop; though they are no more than touchstones.
Reading Bishop as a final flowering of American symbolism assumes that she reckons not only with the words of a poem, but with what words and language can do: with a metaphysical, as well as metaphorical, capacity of language—and it is to assert that she arrives at a new vein in what might have seemed, by mid-century, a tapped mine of endeavor.