"That sense of constant re-adjustment": the great depression and the provisional politics of Elizabeth Bishop's 'North & South.'
In January 1946, concerned about the political nontopicality of her forthcoming North & South, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her publisher Houghton Mifflin, "The fact that none of these poems deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach."(1) Bishop's apparent humility ironically masks an acute understanding of how during the war the poetry establishment's dominant notions of "political experience" could sanction the social value of a poet's work: poetry that directly addresses wartime events is political, whereas poetry situated on the home front, like Bishop's well-known "Roosters," for example, is undeniably unpolitical or at least privileged with less political value, even though that poem criticizes militarist masculinity. Indeed, when Oscar Williams labeled Bishop's "class consciousness" poems "charming little stained-glass bits" in his 1946 review of North & South, he barely concealed a condescension toward disengaged "feminine" verse that echoes those virulent critics who called Jane Austen's "bits of ivory" about the private sphere unpolitical .(2)
Jeredith Merrin, Susan Schweik, and other recent readers of Bishop have expertly explained the politics of "Roosters" but have not focused on the broad historical dimensions in which Bishop defined those politics. "Roosters" raises issues that clarify the political dimensions of the other poems in North & South, most of which were written during the Great Depression. In a 1966 interview, Ashley Brown remarked to Bishop, "you grew up in the Marxist '30's" and then asked, "Do you think this radical political experience was valuable for writers?" Bishop responded, "I was always opposed to political thinking as such for writers." She continued, "I stood up for T. S. Eliot when everybody was talking about James T. Farrell" . In "The U.S.A. School of Writing," which Bishop was drafting in 1966, she described more specifically the circumstances during the 1930s in which she defended a modernist against a Marxist. After graduating from Vassar in 1934, Bishop moved to New York City and worked at a correspondence school of writing, the U.S.A. School of Writing. Bishop often talked books with her supervisor Rachel (alias Mr. Hearn), who encouraged her to join the "Party" and who liked "big books, with lots of ego and emotion in them," specifically "the Studs Lonigan series of James Farrell." Yet despite her differences with tumescent proletarian fiction, Bishop admitted that when working with Rachel "the mysterious, awful power of writing first dawned on me," "the power of the printed word, or even that capitalized Word whose significance had previously escaped me but then made itself suddenly, if sporadically, plain" . A similar ambivalent awareness dawns on Bishop in the early morning light at the end of "Roosters": "The sun climbs in, / following 'to see the end,' / faithful as enemy, or friend" .(4) Bishop makes a faith powerful and--unlike Rachel's found proletarian "Word" -- provisional enough to awaken her from the impoverished inaction she slumbers in at the poem's beginning.
During the thirties Bishop explored how poetry could engage with social conditions without adopting politics "as such," which for her was a politics committed to a cocksure, dogmatic ideology that squelches speculation. In an essay on Hopkins written in 1934, Bishop defined a poem not as "a sudden fixed apparition," but as a "moving, changing idea or series of ideas" . Bishop realized the political implications of this solicitous linguistic skepticism at the end of "Roosters," using poetic language not to uphold reassuring orthodoxy but to elaborate choices that remain unresolved; as Schweik remarks, "the poem concludes, reduplicating its original dialectical dynamic in miniature, with a choice of similes, neither of which holds privileged status" . Bishop's politics were based in a skepticism that unsettles any belief and prevents a point of view from fossilizing into a dogmatic Fact. The theoretical framework for "Roosters" was in place when Bishop chose to defend Eliot in the early thirties, but it took her nearly a decade witnessing "atmospheres of poverty" and responding to other poets' heroic polemics to define a rough line between disabling doubt and an enabling skepticism and to determine how poetic form expressed that skepticism within an impoverished social world. Unlike Auden or Pound, Bishop asserted that while poetry alone couldn't provide the miraculous solutions to the decade's material poverty, it could provide a critical understanding of the decade's conflicts and the solutions to the decade's problems other artists proposed. Indeed, often responding to other poets' work, Bishop made her thirties poems like the frottage rubbings of Max Ernst that she admired. During the thirties she suggested in shades and shadows the political necessity of avoiding the prisons of doctrinaire perspective and masculine heroism. In 1993 Bishop published in Vassar College magazines two short stories that topically represent social conditions but avoid politics "as such": "Chimney Sweepers," a dramatic monologue about a Victorian-era sweep's economic exploitation and death, and "Then Came the Poor," a portrait of an upper-class family evacuating its mansion to escape a proletarian "mob." The unnamed narrator of "Chimney Sweepers" is speaking to an M.P. investigating the death of Sparrow, the narrator's friend and fellow sweep. Bishop's story details economic exploitation and material degradation as gruesome as circumstances Farrell portrayed in Studs Lonigan. Sparrow's mangled and singed body has just been pulled from a chimney; he was stuck, and Nate, the master sweep, lit a fire to smoke him out. Nate purchased Sparrow for the same amount as a bull terrier and treated him worse than an animal. The narrator describes how Nate "pickled" the sweeps' gashed knees and elbows with pork brine to toughen their skin for chimney climbing. Given the chance to use a sweeping machine, an incorrigible Nate continues to use boys so he can pocket the tips they receive from housewives.
In "Chimney Sweepers" Bishop is as aware of social conditions as she is conscious of how a class perspective affects that awareness. Bishop footnotes the historical sources of her details--sentimental histories and reports to the House of Commons from the nineteenth century--thereby drawing attention to her construction of a class-bound narrative perspective. This footnoting doesn't disqualify the story's engagement with social issues, but rather indicates how a specific formal perspective informs that engagement: the story's point of view is held in check by its narrative devices. Instead of purporting to convey the "Word" about oppression, like Rachel's proletarian novels, "Chimney Sweepers" constructs a detailed perspective on oppression.
Amy Clampitt has recently asked, "Is there a poetry of the incorrigibly ugly,/free of all furbishings that mark it fraudulent?" . For Bishop, poetry becomes dangerously fraudulent when one assumes that a poem should attain an unfurbished or unassailable perspective on the social world. Bishop explored that danger in "Then Came the Poor," which concerns an upper-class family's attempt to flee their estate before a "mob" of immigrant laborers arrives. Narrated by the family's estranged youngest child, Bishop's story is an ironic jab at a popular left-wing perspective she described to Ashley Brown in 1966: "The atmosphere in Vassar was left-wing; it was the popular thing. People were always asking me to be on a picket-line, or later to read poems to a John Reed Club. I felt that most of the college girls didn't know much about social conditions" . Mary McCarthy, Bishop's Vassar friend and co-founder of Con Spirito, similarly observed in "My Confession" that "the depression was too close to home to awaken anything but curiosity and wonder," and for most students at Vassar, "the depression was chiefly an upper-class phenomenon" [78-79].(5) Bishop focuses more on the bumbling idiocy of the upper-class family than on the economic deprivation of the lower class; moreover, the cynical narrator regards turbulent social circumstances as conditions for joining a party--not the Communist party, but "some wonderful picnic or party." The narrator stays at the mansion waiting for the mob and changes into stable-boy clothes before the mob appears, feeling "like the host of a house party whose guests had gone mad." At the story's end a proletarian family adopts him, based on a drawing of lots. But he doesn't feel at home with a new family in his old home, wondering, "Well it may be fun for a while" . Having changed clothes, the narrator still remains--to borrow from McCarthy--"too close to home" to experience a revolutionary change in perspective.(6)
The real class differences that persist at the story's end anticipate a point Kenneth Burke made about revolutionary art in "Revolutionary Symbolism in America," delivered at the 1935 American Writers' Congress. While Burke advocated revolution, he also recognized that bourgeois intellectuals couldn't organize a revolutionary social movement if they didn't acknowledge how class differences would have already structured it: "one cannot extend the doctrine of revolutionary thought among the lower middle class without using middle-class values" [89-90]. The narrator's costume drama in "Then Came the Poor" furbishes class differences in a fraudulent style: wearing the clothes of a lower-class laborer his family had employed, he is unaware that he regards the lower class from his class perspective.
Bishop pursued her interest in perspective in more theoretical and formal but no less political terms when she first "stood up for Eliot" in "Dimensions for a Novel," which appeared in the Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies in May 1934. Bishop extrapolates from Eliot's notion that tradition is not a static object but a dynamic system her idea that a novel might sustain fluid narrative perspectives through which personal identity--based on knowledge of one's past--becomes an ongoing process of adjustment and accommodation. She quotes this passage from "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919):
The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.
Bishop draws on Eliot's ideas about temporality without his epic scale. While discussing the passage, she shifts its focus from history to narrative, revising Eliot's monuments to moments to emphasize how our personal knowledge of the world, inferred from memory's momentary recognitions, is tenuous and shifting:
We live in great whispering galleries, constantly vibrating and humming, or we walk through salons lined with mirrors where the reflections between the narrow walls are limitless, and each present moment reaches immediately and directly the past moments, changing them both. If I were to draw any more diagrams of the development of novels, the lines, although again greatly oversimplified, I am afraid would look something like a bramble bush.
For Bishop the novel does not maintain linear development over time but involves "a sense of constant re-adjustment," a sense of the provisional interdependence of past and present moments. One doesn't create a new temporal order but insinuates oneself into existing orders by adjusting to them--and thereby adjusting them.
Ironically, Bishop reread Eliot to criticize Joyce, Proust, Mann, and Woolf for not making narrative time fluid enough or narrative points of view contingent enough. Whereas New Critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren reread Eliot in 1938 to institute their formalist caveat that "an organic system of relationships" unifies a poem (ix), Bishop revised Eliot to suggest that texts cohere but never hermetically unify into a still point because of language's provisionality and historical contingency. While discussing the opening moments of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Bishop acknowledges that Joyce has successfully "blurred" the novel's narrative through a point of view but faults him for not smudging that blur as the novel unfolds: "Joyce's 'moocow' is blurred, but blurred at the age at which he beheld it; when the reader reaches the end of the book he is still in possession of, as of a hard fact, Stephen's earliest days" . Similarly, Bishop asserts that Woolf's The Waves, despite its fluid repetition of symbols, is too static: "A symbol might remain the same for a lifetime, but surely its implications shift from one thing to another, come and go, always within relation to that particular tone of the present which called it forth" . This shifting, Bishop later explains, creates a rhythm of crosshatchings, cross-references, echoes, and cycles: "Events arriving out of accepted order are nonetheless arriving in their own order." This process, she remarks in her essay's concluding paragraph, "perhaps resembles more than anything the way in which a drop of mercury, a drop to begin with, joins smaller ones to it and grows larger, yet keeps its original form and quality" . She imagines a narrative process similar to the phenomenon of parallax that Joyce used in Ulysses to convey time and memory in a universe internally consistent but irreductible to any narrative moment's singular comprehension. One incessantly assembles new perspectives provisionally anchored in a world extending beyond complete recognition.(7)
Although Bishop's essay purports to be strictly formal--she doesn't consider how the historical or social conditions of our existence tincture the moments ordered in novels--her reading of Eliot's formalism is imbued with political interests. She draws on an Eliot, who, Louis Menand explains, "subjected every assumption he could identify and bring to light to the critical force of a relentless irony" . Few writers (including Eliot himself) chose this skeptical Eliot as an ally during the thirties. James Longenbach has recently demonstrated how writers like I. A. Richards, Stephen Spender, and Edmund Wilson borrowed from the "waste land" Eliot to confirm their own visions of hopelessness and apocalyptic despair. Philip Rahv and William Phillips, like Spender in The Destructive Element (1935) and unlike Bishop in "Dimensions," concentrated exclusively on the reactionary strain of Eliot's work to sustain their attempt in Partisan Review "to reconcile Marxism and modernism," in Longenbach's words:
And as the 1930s progressed, the references to Eliot's work increased. At the beginning of the decade, Eliot's work from the 1920s (not the poetry he published during the 1930s) provided the metaphors for the modern sensibility, a nostalgic sense of lost possibilities; toward the end of the decade, Eliot's metaphors began to speak for a radical movement that found its own hopes equally diminished, a movement disillusioned by the Stalinization of the Russian experiment and by the marginalization of revolutionary politics in the United States.(8)
Consequently, when Bishop discussed a formalist Eliot in "Dimensions," she didn't retreat from the impoverished social conditions detailed in "Chimney Sweepers" and "Then Came the Poor" but subsumed them into a different critical perspective. Her choice of the skeptical Eliot instead of the tendentious Wastelanders' apocalyptic Eliot (or the acrimonious Eliot who delivered the Page-Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia in 1993), combined with her interest in a perspective's historical contingency, arises from the narrative devices she employed to describe social conditions in "Chimney Sweepers" and "Then Came the Poor." Her style is divested of politics only if we acquiesce to the critical standards she questioned in her letter to Houghton Mifflin--that a lack of historical topicality implies no interest in political issues. In "Chimney Sweepers" and "Then Came the Poor," Bishop developed perspectives on oppressive social institutions, while in "Dimensions" she advocated a style sensitive to change and that conjoins perspectives without dissolving each perspective's specificity--a form that resists the political certainty and dogma of the otiose "Word."
James Laughlin incorporated Bishop's formalist interests into an explicit politics when in 1936 he published "Casabianca," "The Gentleman of Shalott," and "The Colder the Air" in New Directions in Prose and Poetry. Laughlin's anthology grew out of his interest in the experimental writing that he edited for the literary page of Gorham Munson's Social Credit magazine New Democracy. Laughlin wrote to William Carlos Williams that Munson wanted the literary page to promote the idea that "Social Credit is the partial manifestation of a renaissance of all creative thought." He added, "That's a bit thick for me to swallow", Laughlin swallowed nonetheless . While Major Douglas emphasized decentralization of credit and the preservation of individual liberties, Laughlin asserted in his preface to New Directions 1 that experimental writing's commitment to imaginative liberties involved a political agenda: "The world is in crisis, and language is at once the cause and the cure. New social concepts could stop the waste and destruction. But they can only be introduced into minds ready to receive them, minds able to think along new lines, minds capable of imagination" (ii). "Language," Laughlin continued, "I conceive as the kinetic sum of two opposing forces--the will of the individual to express his ego in his own way & the will of the community to get things done efficiently by standardizing the system of communication as much as possible" (iii). Laughlin's conflict model of language defines freedom in terms of negative liberty: the imagination is free when language is impeded by no social system of meaning whatsoever. Laughlin advised, "it becomes a patriotic duty to read a little Stein now and again, much as it may bore you, simply to physic your sluggish mental intestine" (iv-v). For Laughlin, style is the whole of politics: if one writes disjunctively then one disrupts conventions and is revolutionary, despite any reactionary ideology that the text, no matter how intransigent, manages to sustain.
Paradoxically, Bishop's poems criticize Laughlin's promise of negative liberty. If in "Dimensions" Bishop advocated a narrative form that sustained fluid and dynamic perspectives, in the poetry she wrote after the essay she thought such an aesthetic a trap if its order did not enable the poem to engage with the social world. In "Casabianca," "The Gentleman of Shalott," and "The Colder the Air" we encounter artist figures literally trapped in their own figurative languages, which paralyze or imprison them because those languages are wholly dependent on the imagination. In "Casabianca" Bishop restages the jingoistic nationalism and patriotism of Mrs. Hemans's "Casabianca" (and Laughlin's paen to Stein) to define the cost of love and criticize a language of heroic commitment. The boy (the "hero") refuses to leave the sinking ship of his father, the French admiral Casabianca, who instead of surrending has gone below the decks to blow the ship up. In the first stanza, anaphora and masculine exact rhymes convey figuratively the boy's entrapment in his own heroic masculine language:
Love's the boy stood on the burning deck trying to recite "The boy stood on the burning deck." Love's the son stood stammering elocution while the poor ship in flames went down.
As in "The Reprimand" (1935), Bishop here seems critical of expression dependent wholly on obstinate heroics and self-pity; instead of calling out to help others or hailing sailors for help, the boy remains trapped in his burning desire for recognition, which in the last line doubles back on him in conflagration: "And love's the burning boy."
The Gentleman of Shalott is also trapped in his need for identification, but his predicament turns on a more complicated and humorous irony. The poem's figurative language mirrors the gentleman's infatuation with his style's mirror image; Bishop makes internal and external rhymes from identical rhymes and slant rhymes to accentuate the Gentleman's disorientation and uncertainty about the fluid boundary between inside and outside, reflection and figure:
he can walk and run and his hands can clasp one another. The uncertainty he says he finds exhilarating. He loves that sense of constant re-adjustment.
The Gentleman's figurative mise en abime includes Bishop herself; not only is "Dimensions" the antecedent of the Gentleman's enthusiasm for uncertainty, but his love of "that sense of constant readjustment" literally echoes the essay: "the constant re-adjustmen of the actions within a novel," Bishop explains, occurs because "events arriving out of accepted order are nevertheless arriving in their own order" . Here, however, that skeptical "sense" hatches neither freedom nor a "clearer sense of things and people" because it doesn't extend beyond the world of art into the social sphere . The Gentleman's predicament also refracts the "hall of mirrors" episode Bishop uses in "Dimensions" to illustrate one's constant experience and recognition of shifting orders. The mirror--his spine and the source of uncertainty--supports the Gentleman's ambiguous figure but also paralyzes him. "The moments I have spoken of occur so sharply, so minutely," reasons Bishop in "Dimensions," "that one cannot say whether the recognition comes from the outside or the inside, whether the event or the thought strikes, and spreads its net over past and sometimes future events and thoughts" . The Gentleman's recognition borders on obfuscation:
But he's in doubt as to which side's in or out of the mirror. There's little margin for error, but there's no proof, either. "The Gentleman of Shalott" comically belittles Laughlin's negative liberty: an enthusiasm for vagueness traps the Gentleman. Bishop safeguards her linguistic skepticism against what Richard Poirier has recently diagnosed to be a crucial danger of a pragmatist's exhilaration for constant linguistic readjustment. While pragmatists like Emerson, William James, and Stein theorize and practice a mythology of public philosophy and public poetry advocating democracy, "their actual writing ends up demonstrating how antithetical these can be to individual self-expression" . The Gentleman's exuberant skepticism holds him fugitive in Shalott's tower of art.
Jeredith Merrin has pointed out how Bishop's representation of the Gentleman galvanizes a criticism of romantic egotism and domination: "When describing male characters or adopting male personae, Bishop sidesteps the usual sexual hierarchy and debunks myths of masculine heroism and conquest." The Gentleman, Merrin explains, "is not militant but modest, not doughty but doubtful, not superhuman but silly--a long way from the legendary Sir Lancelot" .(9) Within the context of New Directions 1, Bishop's resistance to consoling myths of romantic heroism coalesces with her skepticism toward thirties literary politics "as such." When Laughlin explained that language was the kinetic sum of two forces, "the will of the individual to express his ego in his own way & the will of the community to get things done by standardizing the system of communication as much as possible," he associated experimental writing like Bishop's with a romantic ideology of crisis (iii). William Carlos Williams, writing out of a tradition of American liberalism, confirmed that ideology in his selection "How to Write," insisting that "At such a time the artist (the writer) may well be thought of as a dangerous person. Anything may turn up. He has no connection with ordered society. He may perform an imbecility or he may by a freak of mind penetrate with tremendous value to society into some long avenue long closed or never yet opened. But he is disconnected with any orderly advance or purpose" . He praised the artist's Basis of Faith in Art": "[the artist] lives in a world of the imagination where there is nothing but truth and beauty. It is there, in that Olympus, that all our destinies are solved" . And Ezra Pound, edging closer to fascism as he grew more obsessed with Social Credit, soapboxed in his selection, Canto 44, about economic schemes that could end the Depression and thereby save art. But when in "Dimensions" Bishop changed Eliot's monuments to moments, she adopted an attitude of humility that distanced her from such consoling (and sometimes obstreperous) epic ambitions of the thirties; and in "Casabianca" and "The Gentleman of Shalott" she further distanced her works from the masculine heroic demands of the age while still suggesting that art should relate to social conditions.
While in "The Gentleman of Shalott" Bishop diagnosed the dangers of absolute ambiguity, in the remaining New Directions poem, "The Colder the Air," she classified the danger of absolute certainty. As in "Casabianca" and "Gentleman," Bishop criticizes heroism in "The Colder the Air" by ironically presenting a wintry prophetess of the night. Indeed, her prophetess, whose vision is absolutely congruent with her will, is as fatally self-absorbed as Casabianca's son:
air's gallery marks identically the narrow gallery of her glance. The target-center in her eye is equally her aim and will.
Much like Steven's "The Snow Man" (1921), the poem implies the poverty of a zero-degree aesthetic attitude, a style and vision reduced to a fundamental expressive idea. The snow man ideally expresses the world without, the prophetess the world within, and both figures occupy lifeless (and metaphorically dense) worlds because there is no interaction between the imagination and historical circumstance: "Time's in her pocket, ticking loud / on one stalled second. She'll consult / not time nor circumstance." This stasis is the antithesis of a shooting gallery metaphor Bishop used to explain the poetic process in "Gerard Manley Hopkins," an essay written in the same spring as "Dimensions for a Novel." Bishop first proposes a fixed distance between target and hunter, implying that the hunter/poet is always in control of the target, but then changes her mind and incorporates a greater degree of contingency into the relationship: "Granted that the poet is capable of grasping his idea, the shooting image must be more complicated; the target is a moving target and the marksman is also moving" . As in "Dimensions," expression results from a dynamic system of cross-references and crosshatches: the poet looks at an object but with no certainty; both poet and object move through time and are changed thereby. The poem doesn't stop that process but expresses thoughts arising from it.
The issue Bishop faced at this point in the thirties was this: how to preserve in poetry the skepticism, contingency, and critical intelligence she attributed to narrative in "Dimensions" without succumbing to the aestheticism represented in "The Gentleman of Shalott." And she worked to apply that skepticism to the world around her without becoming the fatalistic romantic hero of "Casabianca" and "The Colder the Air." Bishop was asking when inward resistance to domination and dogmatism becomes a prison of self-interest. She continued to ironize self-pity and withdrawal in "The Man-Moth" (1936), "The Weed" (1937), "The Baptism" (1937), "Paris 7 A.M." (1937), and "Love Lies Sleeping" (1938), complex poems in which a character's inwardness either enables him/her to survive in a hostile urban environment or paralyzes action and is fatal. Yet at this time Bishop also started to stroll guardedly through the world without, using the poems focused inward to orient her excursions outward. Although she had not yet encountered the autobiographical and historical polemic of Lowell's confessional poetry, she started during the mid-thirties to relate her poetry to the social sphere. "In a Room in 1936," a poem drafted that year which contains a description of a quarreling, beer-drinking couple, reveals Bishop anchoring her style in historical time and attempting to widen the gallery of her glance beyond her will and vision (Goldenshohn 153).
Although she never published "In a Room in 1936," another poem Bishop started writing that year, "The Monument," shows her working in a more abstract mode but asking harder questions about the relationship of her skeptical aesthetic to the social sphere. While the title alludes to Eliot's monuments and suggests that the poem reworks the aesthetic Bishop defined in "Dimensions," the poem also responds to Stevens's Owl's Clover (1935) and Max Ernst's technique of frottage. Barbara Page explains that midway in a Key West notebook that opens with commentary on Stevens's Owl's Clover, Bishop "produced a pen and ink sketch of the figure she would describe in her poem 'The Monument,' in its setting at the shore, preceded by a lined-off text reading, 'Take a frottage [rubbing] of this sea.'"(10) Bishop associates her monument with Stevens's pragmatic, skeptical response to the Depression's political fatalism and economic poverty and with Ernst's surreal, visionary mode of composition. This conjunction reveals Bishop trying to temper the ideas about perspective that she defined in "Dimensions" into a definable attitude about poetry's political responsibilities.
In Owl's Clover Stevens defined for his poetry a political middle ground between modernism and Marxism. He wrote "The Old Woman and the Statue" and "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue"--the first two poems of Owl's Clover, to which "The Monument" most clearly corresponds--on the heels of "The Idea of Order at Key West" (1934) to promote art that confronts disorder and achieves a skeptical and antidogmatic flexibility while avoiding the trap of doctrinaire political commitment. "The Old Woman and the Statue" insists that the imagination's products (statues) have no value unless they interact with social conditions. "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue" extends and revises that premise, portraying a doctrinaire Marxist attitude as unyielding to the tensions of social conditions as the aestheticism that contrives the statue in "Old Woman." "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue" also suggests that art can assume political responsibility if engaged in a dialectic with social conditions that keeps art's ideas of order open to public view and open to question.(11)
Although Bishop's "The Monument" is more topically distanced from political events than Owl's Clover--which addresses Depression era economics, Marxism, and Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia--her politics are no less worldly. Like another wily modernist box, Williams's "Composition"--poem XII in Spring and All (1923)--Bishop's monument is fashioned from a variety of incongruent angles and surfaces that acquire functional meaning when construed in terms of human needs. But that meaning is open to question throughout the poem, debated by a narrator of formalist sensibilities (much like the Bishop of "Dimensions") and a second speaker sensitive to the scene's material conditions (much like the Bishop of "Chimney Sweepers" or "Then Came the Poor"). Although the narrator has the last word, his/her voice neither dominates the poem nor chastises the other speaker. The second speaker's questions force the narrator to define more precisely the place and relation of such abstract art to the social sphere. The first query addresses the monument's ambiguous location -- "Why does that strange sea make no sound? / Is it because we're far away? / Where are we? Are we in Asia Minor, / or in Mongolia?" --echoing the commands issued in Stevens's "Mr. Burnshaw": "The stones / That will replace it shall be carved, 'The Mass/Appoints These Marbles Of Itself To Be/Itself.' No more than that, no subterfuge, / No memorable muffing, bare and blunt" . The narrator's reply, "an ancient principality whose artist-prince / might have wanted to build a monument," contains too much subterfuge and elicits another question from his/her companion, "What is that?" , refiguring the polemic of the Marxist in "Mr. Burnshaw," "To Be Itself" . The narrator's response clearly explains how the monument's formal characteristics result from an interchange with its material surroundings:
--The strong sunlight, the wind from the sea, all the conditions of its existence, may have flaked off the paint, if ever it was painted, and made it homlier than it was.
Bishop uses this dialectical exchange to suggest how her aesthetic relates to the social sphere, while sustaining her interest in uncertainty and shifting perspective: "It is the beginning of a painting, / a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument, / and all of wood. Watch it closely" .
The closing line's focus on sight highlights the poem's response to Ernst's visionary surrealism. Frottage involves placing a piece of paper over a wooden surface and rubbing it with black lead; Bishop's monument is a collage of frottage rubbings taken from a wooden sea. Ernst explained that the "procedure of frottage, resting upon nothing more than the intensification of the irritability of the mind's faculties by appropriate technical means," invoked a visionary state "excluding all conscious mental guidance (of reason, taste, morals), reducing to the extreme the active part of that one whom we have called, up to now, the 'author' of the work" . Bishop knew from "The Gentleman of Shalott" and "The Colder the Air" the danger of such a zero-degree denial of the imagination--paralyzing quietism and isolation. Edwin Boomer, the ironized protagonist of "The Sea and Its Shore" (1937), lives out a similar trapped existence. Whereas Ernst takes rubbings from wood, Boomer collects pieces of tide-strewn paper littering the beach. But neither Ernst nor Boomer seems much interested in organizing stylistic fragments and traces into a more complicated text that relates to the world. "Semi-surrealist poetry," Bishop reminded herself in a thirties notebook, "terrifies me because of the sense of irresponsibility & . . . danger it gives of the mind being 'broken down'--I want to produce the opposite effect" (qtd. in Goldensohn 123-24). This terror catalyzes "The Sea and Its Shore." Boomer daily risks being drowned in the sea of phenomena that Ernst sought, the "total immersion" that kills Lucy in another 1937 story, "The Baptism." As David Kalstone writes, "Boomer is also victim to the failure of any ordering energy" . Like Stevens in Owl's Clover, Bishop understood that disorder must be organized, no matter how provisionally, to prevent disorder from becoming an overwhelming Fact of despair. Predictably enough, the perfidious Boomer finds relief from inevitable disorder in a modernist conflagration. What Boomer and Ernst consider the end--disorder--Bishop assumes is the starting place for making some kind of tentative art engaged with, and not withdrawn from, the social sphere: "It is the beginning of a painting."
Bishop's exploration of how the monument indirectly engages with its material conditions complements a position Horace Gregory articulated in his introduction to New Letters in America (1937), which he opened with Bishop's "The Sea and Its Shore": "Writing of the kind that I have selected for New Letters in America can make few claims to being useful in the day-to-day routine of political discrimination. In that sense any work of the imagination, as distinct from another kind of truth, must always be retranslated into political terms by the political critic, orator, or statesman. There are few occasions when the writer can apply his entire awareness of the world before his eyes to the specific need of immediate political action" . Compared to James Laughlin, who wanted experimental art's political significance to be immediately apparent, Bishop and Gregory suggest that art's political responsibilities necessarily inhere in the social circumstances of language's meaning. As Gregory explained in the May 1936 Social Poets number of Poetry, a poem synthesizes multifarious strains of personal interest and cultural influence: "poetic belief by very definition is a cultural term which is dependent upon the synthesis of the literary heritage, of the geographical or physical environment, and of the political, moral, and religious conviction, as well as upon the social adjustment of the poet" . Bishop makes this point when the narrator remarks," -- The strong sunlight, the wind from the sea, / all the conditions of its existence, / may have flecked off the paint, if ever it was painted, / and made it homlier than it was"; the monument's pathos--the presence of our myriad interests--complicates its orientation: "those decorations, / carelessly nailed, looking like nothing at all, / give it away as having life, and wishing; / wanting to be a monument, to cherish something" . To be sure, Gregory wasn't as tolerant of the provisional in the Social Poets number; his Marxist sympathies tempered an interest in ambiguity with dogmatism, which "has a tendency to give orders, to approve or disapprove of human conduct. It virtues (not always pleasant) lead toward a restoration of order in life, which will affect the forms of art which it inhabits" . But Gregory learned from the Moscow Trials the pernicious turn didacticism could take, and consequently in New Letters in America he inveighed against oppressive ideas of order while trying to salvage his interest in Marxist notions of historical dialectic.
Commenting on "The Monument" and Bishop's allegiance to "the physical world and its inexplicable wholeness," Lorrie Goldensohn writes (perhaps borrowing a concept from Williams's Spring and All): "Much as our minds mirror and alter objective external reality, art and our mind's work are co-extensive: and that is all, and that is enough" [130, 131].(12) While Bishop is interested in the monument's splintery reality, I don't think she thought it co-extensive enough. In 1937 she wrote "A Miracle for Breakfast" and reconsidered the distance assumed to exist between art and the social sphere in "The Monument." While Bishop situates the poem's actions in an improverished world of tangible and multifarious social relations, she relates to that world with the ambiguity and indirection that sustains "The Monument" while guarding against that poem's programmatic and possibly insular allegory.
The sestina form Bishop uses in "A Miracle" realizes the possibilities of ambiguity that the end of "The Monument" suggests hatch any art. The monument is built from boxes stacked at alternating angles, and its texture is built up from impoverished physical surroundings; "A Miracle" is made from the alternation of words in the sestina form that constantly refigures the poem's relationship with the economically improverished world it describes. The sestina puts the anticipated miracle of bread and coffee through a series of formal and tonal incongruities that make the miracle provisional; the miracle, crumb, and coffee are figured in similes in each stanza, and the sestina's revolving rhymes highlight the incongruity of those similes. Bishop's use of the sestina confirms a point she would have encountered earlier in 1937 when reading William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930): "an ambiguity of the fifth type occurs when the author is discovering his idea in the act of writing, or not holding it all in his mind at once, so that, for instance, there is a simile which applies to nothing exactly, but lies half-way between two things when the author is moving from one to the other" . Bishop, in fact, had taught herself this lesson when in "Gerard Manley Hopkins" she explained that a poem is not a fixed apparition but a "changing idea or series of ideas" . Relatively, the "miracle" made in the penultimate stanza is the product of a historical dialectic as complicated and changing as the monument's seaside existence:
My crumb my mansion, made for me by a miracle, through ages, by insects, birds, and the river working the stone.
Although Marine Moore disliked the sestina's tonal incongruities, Bishop used dissonance and oscillation to apply a lesson she learned from Moore's review of Steven's Owl's Clover: "But requiem is not the word when anyone hates lust for power and ignorance of power as the author of this book does. So long as we are ashamed of the ironic feast, and of our marble victories--horses or men--which will break unless they are first broken by us, there is hope for the world" . Hope, in other words, depends upon us recognizing that our miraculous ironies can only satisfy certain kinds of hunger; such ironies can clarify the world's complications--such as poverty or lust for power--but won't alone solve them. In "Dimensions" Bishop first articulated this point when she explained that "one's sense of characters, events, thoughts" should not only "be presented in such a way as to show perpetually changing integration of what has been written with what is being written, but also the recognition itself of what is being written must be kept fluid. These recognitions are the eyes of the novel, not placed on the face-side looking ahead, but rather as in certain insects, capable of seeing any side, whichever seems real at the moment" . Texts about contingency can't settle into certainty; Bishop implies that we need to judge such ideas about randomness with the same skepticism with which we question other people's ideas.
Bishop also curbed her ironic feast with boisterous hyperbole; her comic vision keeps the miracle from expanding to a romantic vision of salvation. "I sit on my balcony / with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee," she exclaims, but immediately undercuts these hints at transcendence in the sestina's envoy:
We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee. A window across the river caught the sun as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.
At the same time, Bishop's comedy also inveighs against despair, the result of ungratified romantic hunger for salvation. Alfred Hayes opened "In a Coffee Pot" (which appeared in Trial Balances along with Bishop's "The Map," "The Imaginary Iceberg," and "The Reprimand") with such heroic despair: "Tonight, like every night, you see me here / Drinking my coffee slowly, absorbed, alone" . Bishop chastised herself from feeding on her own sorrows in "The Reprimand": "If you taste tears too often, inquisitive tongue, / You'll find they've something you'd not reckoned on" . Consequently, in "A Miracle for Breakfast," Bishop consoled herself not with a romantic vision, such as the image of mass salvation that ends Hayes's poem, but with an unassuming perspective acknowledge the limits within which her art could responsibly engage an impoverished social world.(13)
Even though Bishop's comic loafing on the balcony distances her from politics "as such," reading the poem in terms of her earlier uses of food as image of aesthetic salvation enables us to appreciate more clearly how the Depression compelled her to consider the political impact of her poetry. Like "The Sea and Its Shore," "In Prison," "Love Lies Sleeping," or "A Miracle for Breakfast," the stories she wrote for Walnut Hill School's The Blue Pencil focus on isolated characters and crepuscular settings, in part indicating the young orphaned Bishop's timidity and disorientation. But Bishop doesn't chasten herself or her characters with irony in these early stories. She seems more sympathetic to a character's escape, which often focuses around some confectioned aesthetic delight. In "Picking Mushrooms" (1928), the drowsy narrator walks out of the community at dawn into the mountains looking for fairy-ring mushrooms; the story ends with the narrator fantasizing about the mushrooms, which signify a cloister of sublime escape: "With my chin on my knees, and holding the bandana, I thought again of the Bible with the brass clasps, and how these were the lovely ivory towers, the fair hanging gardens of Babylon, this the fall of Babylon" . In "For C.W.B." (1929), the imperative to escape crystallizes in rarefied aesthetic treats: "We will live upon wedding-cake frosted with sleet" and "build us a house from two red tablecloths" . The poem ends with an equally enticing repast: "We will wander away where wild raspberries grow / And eat them for tea from two lily-white bowls." In "Picking Mushrooms" and "For C.W.B.," food is an enticement into another world, the sacrament of an escape imagined but never realized. In "A Miracle for Breakfast," Bishop breakfasts on a crumb and drop of coffee, a meager meal that nonetheless grounds her and her art in a world of social relationships: the poem ends not with the speaker isolated in the comic dream but eating with other people in an ordinary, impoverished world.
If the Depression awakened Bishop to the obdurate presence of the social world, her skeptical humility kept her from thinking that her art could alone change that world, and consequently from capitulating to apocalyptic fantasies at the decade's end. Like Gregorio Valdes, about whom Bishop wrote a memorial essay, dry comedy enabled her to imagine an ordinary world in which her art could function. Her tribute appeared in the Summer 1939 Partisan Review, and given that turbulent context it is useful to consider what Bishop doesn't say in her essay. Because she doesn't see in Valdes's life a confirmation of cultural despair, she stands apart from editor Philip Rahv, who opened the issue with "Twilight of the Thirties." During the thirties Rahv had stressed the political importance of literature by cross-pollinating Marxist revolution with experimental modernist style. At the decade's end, with the Moscow Trials behind him and another world war looming on the horizon, Rahv asserted that modernists had, in fact, been fulfilling a political function all along by documenting the West's decline into a cultural cesspool. Although he argued to preserve the artist's imaginative integrity from political orthodoxy, his version of modern literature succumbs to an equally deterministic formula: "From Rene to The Waste Land, what is modern literature if not a vindictive, neurotic, and continually renewed dispute with the modern world?" .
Bishop's essay opens with a sketch of impoverished social conditions, but her comic perspective resists discomfiture: she doesn't reduce what she sees to a "waste land" nor suggest that Valdes's art only arises from a struggle with a "cheap" environment. She taught herself a different lesson when she revised Eliot--suspicion of sectarian visions like Rahv's and sensitivity to a moment's multiple incongruities:
The first painting I saw by Gregorio Valdes was in the window of a barbershop on Duval Street, the main street of Key West. The shop is in a block of cheap liquor stores, shoe-shine parlors and pool-rooms, all under a long wooden awning shading the sidewalk. The picture leaned against a cardboard advertisement for Eagle Whiskey, among other window decorations of red and green crepe-paper rosettes and streamers left over from Christmas and the announcement of an operetta at the Cuban school,--all covered with dust and fly-spots and littered with termites' wings.
A poet like Alfred Hayes would have considered Valdes's illness the manifestation of a cultural apocalypse and made his death the hinge of an ineluctable romantic crisis narrative about an impoverished culture. Bishop told Ashley Brown that when she settled in Key West in 1939, "The town was absolutely broke then. Everybody lived on the W.P.A. I seemed to have a taste for the impoverished places in those days" . In "A Miracle for Breakfast" she satisfies that taste with an ironic feast, and in "Gregorio Valdes" doesn't season poverty with the decade's seductive fatalism.
Like Stevens, who asserted in "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue" that the world "moves from waste / To waste, out of the hopeless waste of the past / Into a hopeful waste to come," Bishop developed during the Depression a skeptical aesthetic sensitive to social conditions that doesn't disqualify the possibility of change . In the first section of "Roosters," Bishop's portrayal of cultural and spiritual poverty pivots on the rooster's "most virile presence" , but in the second section she refers to the little cock and remarks: "There is inescapable hope, the pivot" . Bishop asserts that our hope remains in thinking of hope as a pivot, which implies that change encompasses a choice of possibilities. Hope is the point where our judgment occurs, but as with Bishop's representation of the rooster, that judgment can oscillate in a number of directions. Hope is inescapable, but the exact character of that hope is not inescapably certain or fixed: hope is not a hinge but a pivot. Redemption at the end of "Roosters" does not lie in a romantic sublime peopled with heroes. Instead, we awaken into a liminal realm of multiple choices in an ordinary world of broccoli. Unlike the Gentleman of Shalott, Alfred Hayes, or Max Ernst, we cannot drowse back into a world of inconsequential self-pity or quietism; nor can we, like the narrator of "For C.W.B.," anticipate complacently nibbling on confectioned delicacies that gratify the hunger for an exotic place isolated from an impoverished world. But neither will Bishop let the poem's world of possibilities itself harden into "a senseless order"; instead, she modestly leaves interpretation open to an ambiguity that calls for "that sense of constant re-adjustment": "The sun climbs in, / following to 'see the end,' / faithful as enemy, or friend" . Although Bishop avoided politics "as such"--a polemical politics of idiosyncratic correctness--she did not evade political thinking in her Depression-era writing. Out of the dynamic between her own shifting sense of self and the changes perceived in the social sphere she inhabited, she constantly redefined the linguistic limits within which her aesthetic could resist the imperiousness and petty-mindedness of the decade's most overt, programmatic literary reclamation projects. During the thirties Bishop endowed her poetry with an awareness of its place in a politicized society by learning that hope is inescapable only if a poem's expression of hope (and portrayal of the poverty which is hope's axis) does not in itself escape questioning.
(1.) Bishop to Houghton Mifflin, 22 January 1946, qtd. in MacMahon .
(2.) In 1928, for example, H. W. Garrod (Merton College Professor of Poetry) "depreciated" Austen for her apparent lack of awareness of the political events current with her work. After asserting that soldiers appear in her novels like "a permanent possibility of a splash of red at a country-house dance," and that Austen did not know "there 'was a war on,'" he condescendingly concludes: "I am concerned merely to note that she synchronizes with great affairs, and fits in only with small ones" . Thomas Travisano points out that Williams "had only faint praise for Bishop's elegance and restraint. [He] felt these qualities more as defects than virtues in the presence of what [he] considered an insufficient decisiveness" . Susan Schweik discusses Williams's similar criticisms of Edna St. Vincent Millay's war poems [33, 36, 68-69].
(3.) See Brogan, Goldensohn [139, 155-58], Merrin (128-31), Schweik [213-41], and Travisano [73-81]. Brogan locates Bishop's politics in her feminist subversion of a phallic lyric poetics. While my argument is at times consonant with Brogan's, it differs in that I try to discern how Bishop's "subversive" politics developed in the specific historical context of the 1930s. Schweik's very useful argument about "Roosters" focuses, among other things, on its early 1940s context.
(4.) All quotations of Bishop's poetry are from The Complete Poems unless otherwise indicated.
Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
Bishop, Elizabeth. "The Baptism." Collected Prose 159-70.
___. "Chimney Sweepers." Vassar Review 19 (Spring 1933): 8, 10, 36.
___. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, 1983.
___. "Dimensions for a Novel." Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies 8 (May 1934): 95-103.
___. Elizabeth Bishop: The Collected Prose. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, 1984.
___. "For C.W.B." The Blue Pencil Apr. 1929: 14.
___. "Gerard Manley Hopkins: Notes on Timing in His Poetry." Vassar Review 23 (Feb. 1934): 5-7.
___. "Gregorio Valdes." Partisan Review 6.4 (Summer 1939): 91-96. Rpt. in Collected Prose 51-60.
___. "In Prison." Collected Prose 181-92.
___. "An Interview with Elizabeth Bishop." With Ashley Brown. Shenandoah 17.2 (1966): 3-19.
___. "Picking Mushrooms." The Blue Pencil Dec. 1928: 18-20.
___. "The Sea and Its Shore." Collected Prose 171-80.
___. "Then Came the Poor." Con Spirito 1 (Feb. 1933): 2, 4.
___. "The U.S.A. School of Writing." Collected Prose 35-50.
Boland, Eavan. "An Un-Romantic American." Parnassus 14.2 (1988): 73-92.
Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. "Elizabeth Bishop: Perversity as Voice." American Poetry 7.2 (1990): 31-49.
Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students. New York: Holt, 1938.
Burke, Kenneth. "Revolutionary Symbolism in America." American Writers' Congress. Ed. Harry Hart. New York: International, 1935. 87-94.
Clampitt, Amy. What the Light Was Like. New York: Knopf, 1985.
Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
Eliot, T. S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. 1920. London: Methuen, 1960. 47-59.
___. "Ulysses, Order, and Myth." The Dial 75.5 (1923): 480-83
Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. London: Chatto, 1930.
Ernst, Max. Beyond Painting: And Other Writings by the Artist and His Friends. New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1948.
Garrod, H. W. "Jane Austen: A Depreciation." Discussions of Jane Austen. Ed. William Heath. Boston: Heath, 1961.
Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.
Gregory, Horace. Introduction. New Letters in America. New York: Norton, 1937. 9-18.
___. "Prologue as Epilogue." Poetry 48.2 (1936): 94-98.
Hayes, Alfred. "In a Coffee Pot." Trial Balances: An Anthology of New Poetry. Ed. Ann Winslow. New York: Macmillan, 1935. 198-204.
Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Ed. Robert Hemenway. New York: Farrar, 1989.
Kenner, Hugh. Ulysses. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
Laughlin, James. "New Directions." New Directions in Prose and Poetry 1 (1936): i-iv.
___. William Carlos Williams and James Laughlin: Selected Letters. Ed. Hugh Witemeyer. New York: Norton, 1989.
Litz, A. Walton. Introspective Voyager: The Poetic Development of Wallace Stevens. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.
___. "Wallace Stevens' Defense of Poetry: La poesie pure, the New Romantic, and the Pressure of Reality." Romantic and Modern: Reevaluations of Literary Tradition. Ed. George Bornstein. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1977. 111-32.
Longenbach, James. Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
MacMahon, Candice W., ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-79. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1980.
Mazzaro, Jerome. Postmodern American Poetry. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.
McCarthy, Mary. "My Confession." 1953. On the Contrary. New York: Farrar, 1961. 75-105.
Menand, Louis. Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Merrin, Jeredith. An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990.
Moore, Marianne. The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. New York: Penguin, 1987.
___. "Conjuries That Endure." Rev. of Owl's Clover and Ideas of Order, by Wallace Stevens. Complete Prose 347-49.
___. "A Modest Expert." Rev. of North & South, by Elizabeth Bishop. Complete Prose 406-8.
Poirier, Richard. Poetry and Pragmatism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.
Pound, Ezra. Personae. 1926. New York: New Directions, 1971.
Rahv, Philip. "Twilight of the Thirties." Partisan Review 6.4 (Summer 1939): 3-15.
Schweik, Susan. A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991.
Stevens, Wallace. Opus Posthumous. Ed. Milton J. Bates. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1988.
Williams, Oscar. "North but South." New Republic 21 Oct. 1946: 525. Rpt. in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ed. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1983. 184-85.
Williams, William Carlos. "The Basis of Faith in Art." Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. 1954. New York: New Directions, 1969. 175-94.
___. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 1909-1939. Vol. 1. Ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1986. 2 vols.
___. "How to Write." New Directions in Prose and Poetry 1 (1936): 45-48.
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