Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) was not a prolific poet, but her body of work is a substantial one and marks her out as one of the great poets of the twentieth century. However, the newcomer may find it difficult to find a good starting-point. With Sylvia Plath we might start with ‘Daddy’ or ‘Lady Lazarus’; Marianne Moore has her steam-roller; Adrienne Rich has ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’. Where should the novice begin exploring Elizabeth Bishop’s remarkable oeuvre?
Below we offer our selection of ten of the best Elizabeth Bishop poems, introducing each poem briefly – although, of course, there is no substitute for immersing oneself in the poetry itself. We strongly recommend Bishop’s Poems: The Centenary Edition.
1. ‘Filling Station’.
This 1965 poem does what so many Elizabeth Bishop poems do: it takes a particular object or setting (in this case, a gas or petrol filling station) and begins to home in on it, attempting to see how it works and what’s under the surface.
Having arrived at the filling station and immediately sniffed the overpowering smell of petrol, the speaker starts to observe the people who work there – the man who runs it with his sons – and ponders whether they live in at the station. As the poem develops, so does the speaker’s empathy with, and understanding of, the people who work there and the objects found at the station.
2. ‘Crusoe in England’.
This dramatic monologue, one of Bishop’s late poems, is one of the most celebrated in the language. As the title suggests, it’s about Daniel Defoe’s famous fictional castaway, Robinson Crusoe, following his return to England after he has spent years marooned on his desert island. And yet Bishop merely uses Defoe’s character as inspiration for her own, who is an altogether different figure (he quotes Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ poem, for instance, which was written after Defoe’s time).
The poem gives us an acute psychological insight into the years of isolation Crusoe spent on his island: the self-pity, the boredom, the attempts to while away the boredom (for instance, by dyeing a baby goat bright red with the juice of berries so he had something different to look at). And now, back on England, another island, he is left to grow old alone again, Man Friday, his faithful companion, having died years ago.
3. ‘The Fish’.
Randall Jarrell once observed that every Elizabeth Bishop poem have written underneath them the words ‘I have seen it’, because every one of her poems conveys a sense of having lived and observed what she writes about.
‘The Fish’, one of her best-known poems, is a good example. Meditating on the fish she has caught, the speaker sees the fish but also sees into it, somehow gaining insight into its swim bladder, its bones, and its entrails beneath the surface.
Bishop was a master of form, and as well as writing poems in a slightly freer style, she also wrote in many established forms, including the villanelle (see below) and the sestina. This poem uses the sestina form – in which six key words are repeated at the ends of the lines of the stanzas, but appearing in a different order in each new stanza – to describe a young child with her grandmother.
5. ‘The Armadillo’.
Dedicated to her fellow American poet Robert Lowell (who dedicated his ‘Skunk Hour’ to her), this 1957 poem has a number of images (armadillo, rabbit, owl, fire balloon) which grew out of several years of Bishop’s correspondence and drafts. We should bear in mind the Cold War context of the poem: are those fire balloons atomic bombs? The armadillo which emerges symbolises survival of sorts, though this isn’t necessarily an affirmative experience …
6. ‘The Shampoo’.
Perhaps one of the most erotic love poems about love between two women, ‘The Shampoo’ describes a woman shampooing the hair of another woman (Bishop’s partner Lota de Soares, in the waters of a stream behind their house in Brazil). The poem incorporates unexpected elements – such as lichen – and perhaps recalls H. D.’s ‘Oread’ in its use of water upon rocks.
The poem suggests that although we are destined to grow old and lose our youthful looks, we can forget these things in the powerful moment of embrace and tenderness we share with another person.
7. ‘The Moose’.
This is another poem which sees Bishop starting with a wide view of something – here, a bus journey and what can be glimpsed out of the window or overheard on the bus itself – before homing in on one particular detail. In this case, it’s the titular moose which wanders out from the nearby wood and into the middle of the road.
8. ‘In the Waiting Room’.
This poem takes us back to Bishop’s childhood, when she was about to turn seven years old and was reading the National Geographic magazine in the dentist’s waiting room with her aunt. She is exposed to a series of unsettling colonial images within the magazine, and these appear to inspire an epiphany in the young speaker: she is on the verge of adulthood, about to lose her innocence. She is ‘in the waiting room’ of life, waiting to enter the more cynical and unsettling world that awaits her, and all of us in adulthood.
9. ‘Questions of Travel’.
Written shortly after Bishop had moved to Brazil, this poem considers travel and the experience of taking up residence in another country. However, the poem is also a reflection on the land she has left behind. Should she have stayed at home, and what has brought her to this land of ‘strangers’? Should we simply stay at home within our room and sit quietly: something the philosopher Blaise Pascal said man was incapable of doing?
10. ‘One Art’.
We’ll conclude our pick of Elizabeth Bishop poems with one of her last great poems, published in 1976 as part of her slim ten-poem collection Geography III, which appeared just three years before her death.
‘One Art’ is a villanelle which sees the speaker meditating on the ‘art of losing’ things. Although the losses begin in a small way – mislaid door keys, a misspent hour – they become larger and more significant as the poem’s nineteen lines unfold. The poem is a great modern meditation on loss, which sees Bishop’s speaker defiantly insisting that it is easy to master loss, even while the poem suggests otherwise.