What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Elizabeth Bishop - Poetic Trickster?

Colm Tóibín, in his absorbing On Elizabeth Bishop (2015), calls Bishop’s habit of correcting or qualifying herself a “trick.” He says,  

The enacting of a search for further precision and further care with terms in the poems (and maybe in the letters too) was, in one way, a trick, a way of making the reader believe and trust a voice, or a way of quietly asking the reader to follow the poem’s casual and then deliberate efforts to be faithful to what it saw, or what it knew.

I’m not sure “trick” is the right word. It connotes insincerity. It’s too cynical. When Bishop, in her great “Santarém” (The New Yorker, February 20, 1978), says, “In front of the church, the Cathedral, rather,” is she trying to trick us into trusting her voice, or is she simply trying to be as accurate as possible? Tóibín further says,

The trick established limits, exalted precision, made the bringing of things down to themselves into a sort of conspiracy with the reader. But she also worried about anything that might be overlooked (“no detail too small”), or not noticed properly, or exaggerated, or let too loose into grand feelings, which were not fully to be trusted.

I agree with the “no detail too small” part of this observation. Bishop was a meticulous observer; she relished visual accuracy. Seamus Heaney, in his “Counting to a Hundred: On Elizabeth Bishop” (The Redress of Poetry, 1995), refers to her “obsessive attention to detail.”

But Tóibín has spurred my thinking. Why enact the qualification? Why not, in “Santarém,” for instance, just delete “church” and insert “Cathedral”? Why show both the first word choice and the more accurate second one? I think this is attributable to another element of Bishop’s style – her Hopkinsian aim to portray, in her words, “not a thought, but a mind thinking” (quoted in James Fenton’s “The Many Arts of Elizabeth Bishop,” The Strength of Poetry, 2001). As Fenton says, she shows “the feeling mind, feeling its way to thought.” One way she does this is by showing her hesitations, corrections, and qualifications. For example:

                                           Oil has seeped into
the margins of the ditch of standing water

and flashes or looks upward brokenly,
like bits of mirror – no, more blue than that:
like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.

[from “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto,” The New Yorker, December 24, 1966]

No, more blue than that – this instant qualification isn’t a trick; it’s a habit of mind – “a feeling mind, feeling its way to thought.”

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