Efforts of influence: Moore and Bishop.
Earlier studies of the Moore-Bishop relationship have generally adopted one of three different approaches. Some have concentrated on close comparative readings of the two poets' work.(2) Others emphasize the interaction between the two women, often through readings of their correspondence.(3) Such studies tend to be psychoanalytic in orientation; it is difficult, in this post-Freudian time, not to find in the mentor-protege relationship traces of the powerful and powerfully ambivalent relationship of parent to child. A final, more recent group skirts the question of influence altogether, emphasizing instead, as Betsy Erkkila says of her most recent study, the differences between the two women's poems.(4) Each of these methods can be helpful in attempting to pin down the nature of the relationship between these women, but each is also limited: textual comparisons like Rosanne Wasserman's, while illuminating similarities between the two authors, inevitably fail to provide actual evidence of influence; readings of the works of the two poets side by side are explicit about this failure. Psychoanalytic readings, then, seem to provide the most direct means of determining influence. But the variety of interpretations that a single relationship can be made to yield points to a deeper problem with the process of psychoanalytic reading: many such readings advocate the application of their chosen theory or a reading method more coherently than they illuminate a particular literary relationship.
That the relationship between Bishop and Moore should be so often subjected to psychoanalytic reading is not surprising, given the relationship between the poets. Bishop herself was motherless - indeed, her mother, institutionalized in Bishop's early childhood, died the year she met Moore - and Moore daughterless. The relationship between the two poets, at once elaborately formal, intensely emotional, and filled with half-articulated directive and resistance, moving (or so the letters indicate) through different "stages" of proximity, distance, and renewed proximity, suggests the tension and intimacy of a relationship between family members. And Bishop's poems themselves, preoccupied with the realm of dream and what evades or is submerged beneath what the patient observer can see, and evolving through her life to a more and more direct revelation of family and childhood loss, invite readings that acknowledge and explore the unconscious.
If Diehl keeps one ear to the semi-audible tensions between the two poets, she keeps the other to feminist attempts to revise orthodox psychoanalytic readings. Earlier readings of the Moore-Bishop relationship have found in it an alternative to Bloomian agon between authors and their precursors; they have emphasized its nurturing qualities and, with different levels of explicitness, have identified as particularly female the balance of support, practical career advice, and reticence evident in Moore's letters to Bishop. Female influence, these readers suggest, offers a set of values radically different from those in a more traditionally Freudian, male-male model. Drawing on the ideas of Nancy Chodorow and others, these revisionary readers use the Moore-Bishop relationship to establish and celebrate female difference.
As Chodorow revises Freud by concentrating on the child's preoedipal relation to the mother, Diehl draws on the mother-child dyad, basing her reading on the object-relations theories of Melanie Klein. But while Klein's theories, like Chodorow's, focus on the mother-child relationship, they are - as Diehl applies them to Moore and Bishop - far less positive about that relationship. Rather, Klein provides Diehl with a way out of the uniform and, in the case of Bishop and Moore, not entirely plausible notion that their relationship was one of unequivocal support and nurturing. Klein's theory is intrinsically ambivalent: the central tension in the infant, she claims, is between the opposing impulses of gratitude and envy toward the mother. In choosing Klein as a model, then, Diehl sets up a feminist alternative to the models used by other readers of the Moore-Bishop relationship, one that seems truer to its complexity.
Psychoanalytically informed though Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore is, it proceeds through a series of close readings, which move in a loosely chronological way from Bishop's early relationship with Moore (Diehl bases her analysis on Bishop's memoir "Efforts of Affection"), through a reading of three pairs of Moore's and Bishop's poems that locates the similarities and differences between them, to a final chapter that reads Bishop's "Crusoe in England" and the story "In the Village" as narratives of the loss of and attempt to make "reparations" to the mother. Diehl argues through these readings of particular texts for the centrality of Bishop's ambivalence toward her mother; Bishop's work in general and her relationship with Moore in particular, she claims, enact this Kleinian ambivalence.
Perhaps, given the interrelatedness of Diehl's readings of particular Bishop texts and her application of Klein's theories to those readings, it is unfair to single out her close readings for praise. Yet her readings, both of "Efforts of Affection" and of Bishop's poems, are striking in their sensitivity to nuance, to what is unsaid or half-said - the more so given the tendency of some psychoanalytic readings to forgo close reading altogether. Diehl patiently teases out contradictions in, for example, Bishop's memoir of Moore to reveal the complex balancing act in which Bishop is engaged in that memoir; her lightness of tone, as Diehl convincingly suggests, masks Bishop's attempts to depict Moore as by turns old-fashioned and childlike. Bishop's insistence on the distinctiveness and idiosyncracy of Moore's ear and sensibility denies the possibility of influence - Moore is depicted as a slightly archaic, utterly unique creature - even as Bishop insists self-deprecatingly that Moore had immense influence on her work. Diehl's attention to such contradictions exposes the problems of several other studies of the Moore-Bishop correspondence, where lack of attention to such ambivalence leads at times to misreadings.(5)
Throughout Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, Diehl is on surest ground when she is most immersed in reading the works of Bishop and Moore. In particular, her comparison of the differences in paired poems by Moore and Bishop (for example, Moore's "The Pangolin" and Bishop's "The Man-Moth," Moore's "Silence" and Bishop's "Manners") is suggestive and illuminating. But her arguments in this, the most textually grounded chapter, are not radically different from those of earlier readers.
Diehl has chosen her texts carefully and selectively; it might be argued, in fact, that they are not fully representative of Bishop's work. In particular, Diehl's decision to base her analysis of Bishop's relationship with Moore so centrally on a memoir Bishop chose not to publish seems suspect; surely the relationship between the two women was more complex than that single memoir acknowledges. As others have suggested, the letters show a far more positive side to the relationship, yet Diehl does not discuss them at all. In fact, her decision to base her analysis exclusively on writings by Bishop reflects a more general problem: rather than seeing the relationship as a dynamic interplay between two distinct individuals, Diehl reads it from Bishop's perspective alone. Diehl's choice of texts enables her to fit her argument more closely to a Kleinian perspective: with Moore's voice effectively silenced, it is easier for Diehl to argue that Bishop is projecting her own desires and fears onto Moore. If Moore had been allowed to speak for herself, Bishop's responses to her might seem less a "classic" daughter's response or a projection of her longings for her own absent mother. By excluding Moore, Diehl paradoxically keeps Bishop in a childlike role.
This problem in text choice and its ramifications (a similar argument might be made of the book's chapter on "In the Village" and "Crusoe in England," where Diehl generalizes about themes in Bishop based on only these two works) suggests more general limitations to her approach. Poems, Diehl claims with Christopher Bollas, a student of Klein's, are like dreams. Yet while the unconscious may speak both through dreams and through poems, poems are not dreams. Dreams are unfashioned articulations; they are the unmediated "speech" of the unconscious. But in poems, the poet is (at least partially) conscious. Poems involve agency. Diehl resists such notions of poetic choice, agency, and censorship in various ways throughout her study. Her treatment of "Efforts of Affection" ignores its humor and wryness, and she overrides for the most part Bishop's careful distancing tactics, reading both "Crusoe in England" and "In the Village" as autobiographical articulations. The artist as a maker or a liar - such notions do not interest Diehl, except in their function as defense mechanisms. In a poet like Bishop, in whom disclosure and silence, visibility and invisibility are so complexly implicated and balanced, Diehl's error seems particularly grave.
The problem can be stated more explicitly: while Diehl argues that the relationship between Bishop and Moore is equivalent to that between an analysand and an analyst, between a daughter and a mother, Moore was not, finally, Bishop's analyst or mother, however intimate their relationship may have been. It seems more plausible to suggest, with David Kalstone, that the very difference between her relationship with Moore and the more strictly defined, intense relationship between a daughter and her real mother gave Bishop a space in which to move, to rebel, to explore her own poetic voice.(6)
To return to Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, then, when Diehl reads Bishop attentively she is most convincing; when she reads her through Klein, she is weakest. Her attempts to find in poems images of "good" and "bad" breasts, to read "Crusoe in England" in terms of a daughter's frustrated thirst for her mother's milk are among the least convincing in the book; such readings are not, finally, helpful in understanding Bishop.
At the same time, and more significantly, Diehl's application of Klein's theories to this relationship does not fully succeed in its more general goal. Diehl presents this study as part of a larger work in which she plans to apply Klein's theories more generally to literary relationships and literature; the current volume is, as she indicates, more of a test case than a self-contained study. She has thus self-consciously positioned this book as a revision both of Freudian-Bloomian notions of literary influence and of earlier feminist attempts at revising this paradigm. Yet Diehl's attempt to have it both ways ends up in contradiction. Her notions of Kleinian ambivalence, struggle, and denial are, when applied to literary relationships, finally not as radically unlike their Freudian precursors as she might like; her use of Bloomian terms suggests that her project is not, finally, as completely revisionary as she might have hoped.
Indeed, Diehl seems herself enmeshed in her own subject matter (as perhaps any literary critic must be); as she tries to disentangle herself from the theories of her own critical predecessor, Harold Bloom, she finds herself - as Bloom might predict - more caught up in them than she might like to admit. That Diehl, in examining questions of influence, is herself enacting and reacting to the influences upon her own thinking makes this study intriguing even where it fails or contradicts itself. The book seems, when read in this way, to enact what its argument denies - that, while issues of influence are surely embedded deep in the unconscious and thus invite psychoanalytic interpretations, they cannot be easily articulated or categorized.
Diehl's study leaves the reader at a frustrating impasse. The psychoanalytic components to writing and influence are, we might conclude, both self-evident and, finally, impossible to define. And yet, in the case of the relationship between Moore and Bishop, we want something else, a model less dogmatic, more open than Klein's. It may be helpful to return to Bishop, to her avoidance of theorizing, her inscription of hesitancy and qualification in her poems themselves. If the notion that we spend our lives reenacting our relationship to our mothers (or for that matter, our fathers) is a commonplace of psychoanalytic discourse, it is also reductive; it makes us want to cite counterexamples. And even more so in the case of art, which is (so artists would like to think, and even critics) set apart from life, a place of invention and fabrication, where we can move beyond the compulsively repeated dynamic of gratitude and envy, loss and reparation. That Diehl's reading of "In the Village" locates this alternative in the realm of artistic making - the clanging of the blacksmith's iron, which seems to cover up or replace the echo of the mother's scream - testifies to her sensitivity as a reader. But her study might have been fairer to Bishop if it listened harder to this clang, if it partook more fully of Bishop's own inclusion of different possibilities, her lightness of touch.
1. The letters are collected in Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, Selected and Edited, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, 1994).
2. Rosanne Wasserman's "'A Tutelary Muse': Moore's Influence on Bishop" (Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet, ed. Patricia C. Willis [Orono: National Poetry Foundation - U of Maine, 1990] 351-70) attempts, through studies of Bishop's drafts and finished poems, to determine instances where Bishop revised poems based on her reading of Moore. Lynn Keller's discussion of the two poets in Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition (New York: Cambridge UP, 1987) concentrates more exclusively on the poems, emphasizing the move in Bishop's work away from early similarities to Moore's.
3. For example, Betsy Erkkila, "Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Dynamics of Female Influence," in Willis, 335-49; Bonnie Costello, "Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop: Friendship and Influence," Twentieth Century Literature 30 (1984): 130-49; and Lynn Keller, "Words Worth a Thousand Postcards: The Bishop/Moore Correspondence," American Literature 55 (1983): 405-29.
4. Betsy Erkkila, The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) 101.
5. For example, the general attempt of Betsy Erkkila's "Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Dynamics of Female Influence" to delineate "a particularly female pattern of literary influence" (336) leads Erkkila to read both Bishop's correspondence with Moore and "Efforts of Affection" without acknowledging any ambivalence on Bishop's part. Bishop's use of hyperbole in her praise of Moore, her house, and her mother - in passages Erkkila quotes - has at times a clearly ironic ring; it suggests, if nothing more, that Bishop had mixed feelings about her mentor.
6. David Kalstone, Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, ed. Robert Hemenway (New York: Farrar, 1989) 11. This account of the relationship between the two poets is among the most sensitive that have been published.
ANN KENISTON is completing a dissertation at Boston University on gender, voice, and authority in twentieth-century American poetry. She has published poems in several periodicals.
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|Title Annotation:||Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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