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British Association for American Studies


Issue 18, Spring 2011: Article 4


Issue 18, Spring 2011: Article 4




© Vidyan Ravinthiran. All Rights Reserved.

During Elizabeth Bishop’s first stay in Paris, she took part in a bizarre argument about aesthetics described by her friend Harriet Thomas:

For her beauty really was one of the eternal verities, the most important thing in life. […] John was taking the part of the advocatus diaboli, arguing that beauty was in the eye of the beholder and that one’s ideas of value conditioned what one thought and how one defined beauty. […] Bishop got very upset […] and went into the kitchen. I found her there ten minutes later drinking a large glass of gin and weeping profusely. She said, “Well, you know, people shouldn’t discuss things like that”.[1]

The specifically gendered nature of the confrontation is striking: appalled by her interlocutor’s masculine gamesmanship, Bishop retreats like a good housewife into the kitchen, and self-pityingly subverts her insistence as to the reality of disinterested aesthetic pleasure by taking more mundane solace in a ‘large glass of gin’. Religious beliefs are often presumed to be exempt from rational discussion—perhaps because the grounds for such beliefs cannot always be verbally articulated. Bishop, a sceptic, transfers that sacred hush to the domain of aesthetics.

She is touching here on the experience alluded to by the ordinary-language philosopher Stanley Cavell, when he remarks:

the feature of the aesthetic claim, as suggested by Kant’s description, as a kind of compulsion to share a pleasure, hence as tinged with an anxiety that the claim stands to be rebuked. It is a condition of, or threat to, that relation to things called aesthetic, that something I know and cannot make intelligible stands to be lost to me.[2]

Bishop’s work affords plentiful instances of ‘the aesthetic claim’—when she tells us, for example, that the rise of fireflies is ‘exactly’ like that of bubbles in champagne, she is pointing something out joyously, trying to share it with us. When Bishop writes in this way to Marianne Moore in her letters, the essentially social nature of such similes becomes more obvious; she observes more specifically what Cavell calls the ‘compulsion to share’ when she writes to Moore in July 1941 of her poetic descriptions that ‘I get so overexcited and then angry because there is no one to show them to’.[3] But what if the interlocutor finds nothing noteworthy in such supposed beauties?

If Bishop was concerned with that anxiety Cavell describes as haunting Kant’s aesthetic judgement, then there is one poem in particular, ‘Santarém’, in which I would argue the problem is explicitly dramatised; not just by what Brett Millier has called the ‘central confrontation’ of the poem,[4] which echoes Bishop’s argument in Paris, but also, I hope to show, by the very texture of the writing itself. We may remark of this late poem, first published in The New Yorker on February 20, 1978, that its defiantly prosaic style cannot be separated from the philosophical problem with which it is concerned. By writing this late poem in what is essentially prose-rhythm,[5] Bishop is, in a sense, returning to the scene of conflict she deserted rapidly that day in Paris; she is inviting the kind of attack made, for example, by the poet-critic Mary Kinzie, who brutally differentiates Bishop’s good prosy poems from her supposedly bad ones:

the proselike liberation of a “freed verse” like Bishop’s encourages a precarious honesty in the thought. At the same time, slackness shows. It is easy to distinguish her standard poems from her good poems, for the mediocre ones are always just prose, yet with that false, poetical “aura” provided by line breaks. (I would place “The Man-Moth” here, despite its moist, waiflike fancy, also “Arrival at Santos”, “Manuelzinho”, and a poem collected in the 1983 volume for the first time, “Santarém”.)[6]

Kinzie makes recourse here to something like Wittgenstein’s distinction between what can be said and what must be shown.[7] We should note how important it is to her argument not just that Bishop’s two kinds of ‘proselike’ poems can be distinguished, but that it is in fact ‘easy to distinguish’ them, since this is a difference that ‘shows’, that does not need to be argued and in fact, as Cavell suggests, could never be discursively argued.

What makes ‘Santarém’ particularly interesting is that, of the four poems selected, this is one where Kinzie’s ‘just prose’ judgement has been echoed by more sympathetic criticism. For while Kim Fortuny, for instance, also refers to ‘Arrival at Santos’ as ‘prosaic’,[8] she is more conclusive about the style of ‘Santarém’, which she describes in terms of Bishop’s ‘relaxation of poetic form into almost pure and casual prose, perhaps the most proselike of all her poems’.[9] It therefore seems relevant to explore the particularly ‘proselike’ quality of this poem, as identified by both sympathetic and hostile criticism as being inseparable from the question of its overall aesthetic value. What makes this poem proselike, and why is it so? ‘Santarém’ begins in uncertainty:

Of course I may be remembering it all wrong

after, after—how many years?[10]

This casual disclaimer positions the poem to follow as an oral account of what the poet saw, and experienced—with all the potential for unreliability, exaggeration, and after-the-fact formalisation that such an account entails. If this is ‘prose’, then prose, for the moment, means speech, life raw and unedited; yet the speaker here is clearly speaking to somebody, and so the encounter which Cavell describes is already taking place.[11] The poet is saying: do not judge me, or what I am about to tell you, too harshly; there may be something here, as in that tearful confrontation in Paris, which simply cannot be discussed, but I am going to do my best to render it in language as carefully as I can.

The situation may be clarified by a passage from Susan Sontag’s essay on ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’, regarding Beckett:

Beckett speaks of “my dream of an art unresentful of its insuperable indigence and too proud for the farce of giving and receiving”. But there is no abolishing a minimal transaction, a minimal exchange of gifts—just as there is no talented and rigorous asceticism that, whatever its intention, doesn’t produce a gain (rather than a loss) in the capacity for pleasure.[12]

‘Santarém’ will end with a kind of aesthetic ‘transaction’ in Cavell’s terms, where the speaker shows the wasp’s nest she admires to ‘Mr. Swan’, who merely finds it ugly. Such an argument as to aesthetic worth is, however, already relevant at the beginning of the poem. If, as I have argued, the speaker’s disclaimer—‘I may be remembering it all wrong’—is not just an admission of memory’s inevitable editorialising, but also an excuse made pre-emptively on behalf of a to-be-recounted experience that may not be all that interesting, then the proselike style of the poem may be said to explore Beckett’s dream of a zero style which would eliminate the social/aesthetic transaction entirely, and merely place the facts on the table as they are. That no such pure transmission is possible—that there is always, in Sontag’s phrase, ‘a minimal transaction’—is, however, registered by the nuanced rhythmical development of that expressive medium Kinzie rejects as ‘just prose’. That is to say, the aesthetic transaction, apparently negated, is in fact then re-established gently as we read by our recognition that the ‘asceticism’ of Bishop’s style may actually—for certain readers—‘produce a gain (rather than a loss) in the capacity for pleasure’.

The intersubjective nature of the poem—it is very much a speech-act—bleeds through into the discussion of a mongrel, hybrid culture which is ostensibly its subject:

That golden evening I really wanted to go no farther;

more than anything else I wanted to stay awhile

in that conflux of two grand rivers, Tapajos, Amazon,

grandly, silently flowing, flowing east.

Suddenly there’d been houses, people, and lots of mongrel

riverboats skittering back and forth

under a sky of gorgeous, under-lit clouds,

with everything gilded, burnished along one side,

and everything bright, cheerful, casual – or so it looked.[13]

As the poem inaugurates itself as a transaction between poet and reader, speaker and listener, its first impulse is not, in fact, to carefully describe the experience in question, but to immediately symbolise its potential meeting of minds as an ideal state of harmonious ‘conflux’. The first two lines of the verse-paragraph have a certain thrown-out intensity which could be called poetic, but the next two about the rivers, with their casual punctuation and paused repetitions, bring that lyric impetus to a prosaic halt. It is at this point that we encounter the only line-break which does not fit seamlessly into the prose syntax: the break on ‘mongrel’, which, rare for Bishop, draws attention to itself. Cross-breeding will turn up in the poem more explicitly later on, and the highlighted word ‘mongrel’ prefigures that, but it is also worth remembering that language itself can be described as ‘mongrel’, and the word may function here as a descriptor for the hybrid, proselike style of the poem itself. That Bishop unusually chooses at this point to show her hand, with the kind of dramatic line-break one would tend to associate with a different kind of poet, may be related to the ongoing intersubjective drama of the poem. If this is a poem about (aesthetic) value judgement, and the experience not just of difference but of loss which may result from an authentic encounter with the other, then this line-break in particular represents a deliberate transgression, as the poet teases and provokes the kind of reader represented by Kinzie.

In assessing Kinzie’s description of ‘Santarém’ as ‘just prose’, we therefore have to look closely—as she does not—at its structural features, paying particular attention to the constitutive distinction between poetry and prose: the line-break. The line-breaks of ‘Santarém’ have, I would argue, been redesigned so as to be virtually unidentifiable with regard to their traditional lyric function as the assertion of an ideally suspensive and transcendent intelligence.[14] As Clive Scott puts it, the traditional line-break represents, ‘amongst other things, an integrative pause where the line possesses its pre-ordainedness, stabilizes itself, hypostatizes itself’.[15] As such, it may be linked with what Sontag describes as ‘the self-conscious artist’s traditional serious use of silence … as a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak’.[16] The traditional lyric poem could be said to inscribe this silence within its texture at the end of every line, so as to dispel the kind of objection ‘Santarém’ is visibly opening itself to, which Mary Kinzie has emphatically summarised with the dismissive phrase ‘just prose’. The lyric voice, pausing and yet not pausing at the end of every line, seems to re-gather its force, to consider its options with an ideal lucidity; certain lines of Wordsworth’s blank verse, for example, visibly seek to exist not only as the product of a continuous intelligence but also as isolable, stand-alone phenomena in and of themselves, proved upon the iambic pulse. Enjambment in this case does work to suspend sense, to produce ambiguity, but a student of contemporary poetics might argue that the tendency of such verse is inevitably toward the creation and maintenance of ‘safe ambiguity’, a domestication of radical uncertainty.

William Empson may have made this case best, in his intelligent dismantling of Wordsworth’s habit of repeatedly breaking his line after the word ‘sense’:

             my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being. (Prelude i.392)

There is a suggestion here from the pause at the end of the line that he had not merely “a feeling of” those unknown modes but something like a new “sense” which was partly able to apprehend them—a new kind of sensing had appeared in his mind.[17]

Although Empson remarks the stressed pause at the end of Wordsworth’s line, the poetic line-break as traditionally conceived could be said to always institute a pause, although it may be, as Christopher Ricks suggests, a ‘non-temporal pause’;[18] an undecidable entity which intimates something like what Wordsworth finely describes as ‘a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being’. Bishop, who describes herself self-deprecatingly in a letter of July 1951 to Robert Lowell as a ‘minor female Wordsworth’,[19] uses her proselike verse to revolt against such a type of presumed intelligence; in ‘Santarém’ her speaker simply does not possess the authority to institute such mysterious, expressive pauses at the end of her lines. This is partly because, as I have argued, this is a profoundly intersubjective poem, and the speaker does not want to pretentiously intimate anything she cannot more objectively communicate to the other—even as she recognises, as Cavell states, that there is something essential to the aesthetic claim which must remain incommunicable. Her solution is to take us directly into the speaker’s ‘dim and undetermined sense’ of what is going on, although it is worth remarking here that she still stops far short of her successor in this mode, Jorie Graham, whose attempts to turn the printed page into a field of cognitive action Bishop would likely have taken as a travestying of the fundamental transaction between poet and reader.[20]

As Bishop seeks to depict, to borrow her favourite phrase of Morris Croll’s about baroque prose, ‘not a thought, but a mind thinking’,[21] we therefore get something more like the free indirect discourse of the novelist entering into her character’s thoughts:

Two rivers. Hadn’t two rivers sprung

from the Garden of Eden? No, that was four

and they’d diverged. Here only two

and coming together. Even if one were tempted

to literary interpretations

such as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female

—such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off

in that watery, dazzling dialectic.[22]

The verse-rhythm here seems to lose all fluency, breaking up into short, enjambed sentences close to that of prose. These linebreaks are deliberately, even aggressively opposed to Wordsworth’s procedure. They represent a reimagining of ‘the poetic’ not in terms of a monumental solidity of phrasing, but a destabilising of sentiments which, in unlineated prose, might pass as mere idling. Inevitably, form develops of formlessness, as the repeated structure of the line with a sentence-break in the middle produces the more complex idea of being ‘tempted / to literary interpretations’. ‘One’ here is not merely the standard disinterested pronoun but a condition of solitariness set against the ‘two’ rivers mentioned at the end of the last line. The idea seems to be that the temptation of literary interpretation—the line-break associates such temptation with the Fall from the aforementioned ‘Garden of Eden’—is particularly applicable to the solitary intelligence on its travels. In the moment of intersubjective union of the kind imaged by the rivers, and strongly desired by the poem as a whole, can be found a mode of life beyond that straightforwardly hermeneutic mindset the speaker associates with a crude binarism—‘life/death, right/wrong, male/female’. ‘Literary interpretation’ is connected here with the kind of combative masculine intelligence Bishop encountered painfully in Paris; a style in love with confrontation, to the extent that it incorporates that clashing structure into the very forms of its thought.

Having asserted that moment of potential intersubjective union which the poem’s overall tone is less certain of achieving, Bishop begins her next verse-paragraph with a return to more grounded description of the village. This functions like a conversational fallback strategy, as if the speaker feels she has pressed her point too aggressively on her interlocutor, and is in danger of boring him. As Cavell remarks of the aesthetic experience, ‘the compulsion to share a pleasure’ is necessarily ‘tinged with an anxiety that the claim stands to be rebuked’; the poem’s return to apparently pure description can be read as the poet, having exposed herself conceptually, now taking refuge in a style of reportorial prose which makes no greater claim than empirical accuracy:

In front of the church, the Cathedral, rather,

there was a modest promenade and a belvedere

about to fall into the river,

stubby palms, flamboyants like pans of embers,

buildings one story high, stucco, blue or yellow,

and one house faced with azulejos, buttercup yellow.[23]

The Bishop reader who takes an intense pleasure in such typically ‘modest’ description will have difficulty making their case to those, like Kinzie, who find it ‘just prose’. That said, this superficially proselike passage in fact seems to me to be trying to prove itself on the pulse rather keenly. The first four lines slant-rhyme, in a loose manner which adds to the sense of an improvised speech-act trying to make the case for the significance of what it is describing. The vague coherence of the landscape—the soft rhymes, the repeated yellow of the stucco buildings and the flowers—is what makes it poetic, and the suggestion of plain iambic metre in the third line is only held off by one reversed foot:

x  /   x  /   / x   x  /  x

about | to fall | into | the ri |ver

Associated with a potential action, that of the belvedere falling into the river, the iambic line arrives to buoy the casual prose-rhythm surrounding it, to keep the writing alert. This is verse written for and by an ear well-trained in traditional metrics, which looks instinctively for iambic footholds. But it also represents a reversal of the typical strategy embraced by formalist poets working in the Anglo-American mainstream; Bishop’s iambs evoke dissolution, not creation. For the belvedere to ‘fall into the river’ would not be the happy intersubjective mergence figured earlier by the rivers themselves, but something more like that aforementioned ‘fall’ into arid intellectuality, a letting-go of the redemptive materiality of the scene, as properly embodied in variable prose-rhythm.

Bishop’s irregular rhythms now gradually modulate into a style more easily appreciable as verse:[24]

x     /   x    /  x  /    / / x   /

The street was deep in dark-gold river sand

/     x   x  /x  x / x  /   /

damp from the ritual afternoon rain,

x     /    x   /   /  x   / x    /

and teams of zebus plodded, gentle, proud,

x    /   x    /     /    /   x    /    x  /

and blue, with down-curved horns and hanging ears,

/  x   /   x   / x   /

pulling carts with solid wheels.[25]

The first line is virtually perfect iambic pentameter, as is the third, where the iambs finally start to function in a traditionally constructive or mimetic fashion previously discussed, dramatising the plodding motion of the zebus. We may read a certain confidence into this skilful introduction of traditional form into an otherwise proselike poem. The speaker seems to fall into iambs because she has, for a short stretch, the sense that aesthetic value can be, if not communicated, then shown to the potentially oppositional reader, that the reader can be made to understand intuitively that value Bishop perceives in Santarém and which cannot be discursively transmitted. Iambic rhythm, in other words, comes to stand in for that ‘something’ Cavell refers to which one ‘knows’ but ‘cannot make intelligible’, and which therefore ‘stands to be lost’ when one attempts to share one’s aesthetic judgements with another. This is why the poem’s second verse-paragraph ends with a mysterious silence paralleling the ‘resolve, dissolve’ of the first:

x    /    /      x  /   x   /

The zebus’ hooves, the people’s feet

/   x x  /  x   /

waded in golden sand,

/    x   x   / x   /

dampered by golden sand,

/   x  /     x  /  x   /

so that almost the only sounds

x     /   x    /     /     /

were creaks and shush, shush, shush.[26]

 The obtrusive iambs of the first line set up another binary of the type deplored in the first verse-paragraph, with its dismissal of categories like ‘life/death, right/wrong, male/female’. The binary this time is that of animals and human beings, of nature and culture, and the speaker once again has little time for it; zebus and people alike both wade through the golden sand. When the pun on poetic ‘feet’ gently alludes to the artificially patterned force of the line itself, it is as if the poem recognises at this point its increasingly iambic slant, and starts to move away from it toward the more proselike, associative style prevalent earlier on. ‘Waded’ gets refined into ‘dampered’, which itself has emerged of ‘damp’ a few lines earlier; the repeated o sounds of ‘golden’, ‘so’, ‘almost’ and ‘only’ assert a form of slow-motion, where everything appears in silent close-up, moving through space with special visibility. At the same time, the ear registers the absence of the ee sound which, previously prominent in its run through street-deep-teams-zebus-ears-zebus-people’s feet, disappears mimetically from the next three lines to finally reappear in ‘creaks’.[27]

The binary of ‘the zebus’ hooves, the people’s feet’ is another version, like the conflux of rivers, of the aesthetic confrontation with which the poem will end and which is, as I have argued, the essential subject of the poem as a whole; as both hooves and feet are silenced, or at least ‘dampered by golden sand’, Bishop images another ideal reconciliation along the lines of the rivers’ ‘watery, dazzling dialectic’. (The slight pause after ‘dampered’ affords that line a subtle intensity.) Such a reconciliation has now also been staged by, and embodied within, the rhythmical texture of the verse itself, whose shift into iambic verse and then back out again is essentially dialectical, attempting that synthesis implied by Marianne Moore’s remark, in a letter to Yvor Winters, that ‘prose is a step beyond poetry … and then there is another poetry that is a step beyond that’.[28] In other words, the issue a reader like Kinzie has with ‘Santarém’—that it forsakes a certain responsibility to lyricism and thereby becomes ‘just prose’—is being meditated in the ongoing fabric of the poem itself.

The next verse-paragraph therefore ignores the shushing injunction to silence and plunges once again into the landscape, invoking the subject of conflict, of hybridity, already figured as one subject of the poem:

Two rivers full of crazy shipping—people

all apparently changing their minds, embarking,

disembarking, rowing clumsy dories.

(After the Civil War some Southern families

came here; here they could still own slaves.

They left occasional blue eyes, English names,

and oars. No other place, no one

on all the Amazon’s four thousand miles

does anything but paddle.)[29]

The two rivers no longer image an ideally frictionless reconciliation – they are ‘full of crazy shipping’ and people ‘all apparently changing their minds’. If the speaker is, as she has already told us, inclined to ‘stay awhile’ in Santarém, then the capricious bustling of all these other people ‘changing their minds’ suggests that no such peace can be found here, or in fact anywhere. Bishop refuses to idealise a current or lost cultural authenticity; instead, she aggressively historicises a hybrid culture both contaminated and inevitably enriched by the impurity of human motivation. Subtle formal effects reinforce her point, shifting her technique of proselike description towards argumentation; the abrupt line-break on ‘people’ wryly points out that ‘people’ themselves can become just ‘shipping’, or cargo, dehumanised like the slaves mentioned in the next sentence.

As Bishop italicises those ‘oars’, so they justly stick out as an example of colonial impingement into a local culture, we might remark that the prosy style of ‘Santarém’ may also be connected to the poet’s selection of a responsibly modulated voice for articulating such difficult subject matter. As Fortuny puts it:

Because Bishop labored to expose the philosophical biases of the Western traveler in her poems and prose, it was necessary to cultivate a certain selflessness that could be mistaken for cold critical distance.[30]

Such cold selflessness may be linked with the mutedly ‘proselike’ style of ‘Santarém’; when Kinzie suggests that the poem is ‘just prose’, that it is missing a certain something that raises language to the heightened intensity of poetry, she refuses to consider that Bishop may have deliberately excluded, or chosen to work around, that indefinable poetic quality for reasons of her own.

Carefully, unobtrusively, the poem continues to not only document but also subtly analyse the hybrid culture it describes:

A dozen or so young nuns, white-habited,

waved gaily from an old stern-wheeler

getting up steam, already hung with hammocks

—off to their mission, days and days away

up God knows what lost tributary.

Side-wheelers, countless wobbling dugouts…

A cow stood up in one, quite calm,

chewing her cud while being ferried,

tipping, wobbling, somewhere, to be married.

A river schooner with raked masts

and violet-coloured sails tacked in so close

her bowsprit seemed to touch the church[31]

If, earlier in the poem, Bishop imagined an ideal reconciliation, an intersubjective flight beyond those conceptual categories which keep individuals arguing and apart, then these lines are nowhere near so hopeful; the nuns will never convert the locals into beings exactly like them, and in this way they share the cow’s stubborn lack of awareness that she is headed off ‘to be married’. The poet’s proselike style is also no longer happy; it is as if it registers that loss Kinzie complains of, becoming dependent on ellipses and disjointed descriptions—the jaunty, off-kilter couplet on ferried/married aligns form with falsity, with too-pat reconciliations and absurd personification of the natural world. The river schooner’s bowsprit appears to intimate a rare moment of contact, but just as it seems ‘to touch the church’, the verse-paragraph ends. This is a world defined by disjunction; there is a pathos to the subtle uh sounds in ‘coloured’, ‘touch’ and ‘church’ which intimate that moment of contact which does not actually occur. Inscribed ambiguously by its colonial history, Santarém itself comes to inhabit that space of ‘loss’ described by Cavell.

The next verse-paragraph briefly encompasses the kind of epiphanic natural event which a more traditional lyric poem would centre itself around, and probably conclude with:

(Cathedral, rather!). A week or so before

there’d been a thunderstorm and the Cathedral’d

been struck by lightning. One tower had

a widening zigzag crack all the way down.

It was a miracle. The priest’s house right next door

had been struck, too, and his brass bed

(the only one in town) galvanised black.

Graças a deus—he’d been in Bélem.[32]

Bishop, possibly following Hopkins, often uses lightning to characterise the kind of poetic epiphany she wants to achieve, that sudden charging of the world with significance which here notably fails to occur.[33] The most telling detail is the priest’s bed being ‘the only one in town’—Bishop is poking fun at that obsession with unique one-off events which lyric poetry shares with the most mundane forms of gossip, a bit like how, as John Cotter observes, August Kleinzahler uses a dubiously unique snowflake in his recent poem ‘The Old Poet, Dying’, to make fun of the kind of ‘single-effect, single-mood poem’ favoured by poets like Mark Strand.[34]

Earlier in the poem I focussed on Bishop’s wry use of the word ‘one’, whose sense of loneliness and disjunction was pointedly set against the ‘two’ rivers joined in harmonious ‘conflux’. That the priest’s brass bed is, again, ‘the only one in town’ may be read as subtly damning; why should the clergy be so privileged? Perhaps God sent down a bolt from the blue to chastise him for that fact—we can never know. Uniqueness, Bishop is saying, is not necessarily a good thing; that brass bed, as a signifier of the priest’s difference from the laity, may be compared, once again, to Cavell’s distantiating aesthetic experience. It is something that cannot be shared. Bishop’s proselike verse revolts against those ideals of solitude and uniqueness which define the standard lyric; she is not only undermining religion, but poetry itself. She is attempting to revise the kind of aesthetic contract which, as Kinzie’s revulsion demonstrates, ‘Santarém’ has failed to honour from the outset—a contract whereby the poet provides a certain intensity of language, and of event—a thunderstorm, for example—and the client undergoes an aesthetic experience supposedly defined by transcendence but in fact proscribed within very definite boundaries.

The poem’s final verse-paragraph appears to cherish, for a moment, an example of such well-wrought perfection:

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.[35]

As Bishop’s inscape recalls the ‘wasp-nest flaws / of white and white’ she particularly admired in Marianne Moore’s ‘The Paper Nautilus’, a poem based on one of her own gifts, the frictionless interaction between the pharmacist and the speaker echoes that poetic (and literal) transaction between her and her mentor. ‘Blue’ links back slightly ostentatiously – Bishop is letting us see the ordering imagination at work, for good or ill – to the blue of the zebus and the eyes of the slave descendants. (By leaving ‘blue’ throughout the landscape, does Bishop’s own wandering eye represent just another instance of the colonial mindset?) It also, thanks to Wallace Stevens, suggests the aestheticisation of experience implied by his man with ‘a blue guitar’ who does ‘not play things as they are’.[36] Accordingly, although these lines superficially look formless, they are in fact tightly formalised: one notices the doubling of ‘pharmacy’ and ‘pharmacist’, the underlying iambic pentameter of the second line, and the taut line-breaks braced by the slant-rhyming couplet on ‘matte white’ and ‘admired it’, as ‘exquisite’ introduces the terminology of aesthetic approval. Nothing has, in Cavell’s terms, been ‘lost’ here—a claim for significance has been assented to and left uncontaminated by economic exchange, since the pharmacist, a scientific healer set against the theological authority of the priest, ‘gave’ the nest to the speaker, rather than selling it to her. Aligned with the ‘stucco’ buildings already mentioned as a feature of Santarém, the wasps’ nest emerges as a type of the ideal artwork, shaped to a genuine formal integrity and yet, perhaps unlike the slightly pathological ‘thin glass shell’ of Moore’s nautilus, totally in and of its cultural moment, connected to its environment and drawing its value from it.


The subsequent drop into prose-rhythm is therefore obtrusive:

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?”[37]

The speech-fresh interjection ‘really a very nice old man’—which rhymes with the oddly poetic word ‘Swan’—stops this passage becoming too prosaic, but the rhythmic slippage and the paralleling of aesthetic and personal judgement—‘I admired it’, ‘really a very nice old man’—still shows Bishop grappling with the problem Cavell describes. It is important that the poem ends at this point, at the very moment when what he describes as the ‘aesthetic claim’ is ‘rebuked’ or at least threatened. We do not get to see what happened next, to hear the speaker’s response, if in fact she has one. Perhaps, like Bishop left sobbing in that kitchen in Paris, she will be unable to deal with Swan’s challenge. Mercenary and male, he seems to have missed the point, but Bishop is also trying to make it clear that he is not a straw man, a simplified intrusion of the male/logical intelligence arriving to close down female aesthetic receptivity. He is, as she insisted later to Jerome Mazzaro,[38] a real person, who was actually there, who was himself motivated by a desire for knowledge, and for beauty—‘who wanted to see the Amazon before he died’. The poem seems to rush all of a sudden to its conclusion, demonstrating the strain, the excitement, the danger of Cavell’s ‘compulsion to share a pleasure’. Like the homely wasps’ nest itself, ‘Santarém’ the poem must necessarily expose itself to the criticism, or confusion, of a Swan or Kinzie inclined to ask of its proselike provocation—‘What’s that ugly thing?’

University of Oxford


Thanks are due to the colleagues who have looked at drafts of this essay: Tom Paulin, Laura Marcus, Michael Wood and Seamus Perry. It represents one chapter of an as-yet unpublished DPhil thesis on ‘Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Prose’.

[1] Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography, ed. by Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau (Amherst: Massachusetts University Press, 1994), pp. 65-6.

[2] Stanley Cavell, Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow, (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 9.

[3] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, ed. by Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), p. 102.

[4] Brett Candlish Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 309.

[5] Bishop criticism has long been interested in the proselike style of her verse, but has proved unwilling to consolidate individual insights into an overall thesis. In her chapter on ‘“Old Correspondences”: Prosodic Transformations in Elizabeth Bishop’, Penelope Laurans asserts, for example, Bishop’s frequent use of ‘prose passages’, suggesting that ‘fully one third’ of ‘The End of March’ is ‘prose arranged in verse lines’. In Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, ed. by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P Estess (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), p. 90. Thomas Travisano, in Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, identifies ‘flat prose rhythms’ in ‘A Cold Spring’ and ‘prose rhythms modulating … into lyricism’ in ‘Questions of Travel’. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1988), pp. 103, 144. There are subtle observations here, but both critics are hampered by their neglect of the long critical history of ‘prose-rhythm’. The neglected Victorian critic George Saintsbury propounds not a negative but a positive definition of prose-rhythm, as connoting not just the absence of poetic metre but the presence of something else, ‘arranged on a principle totally different, and indeed opposed, when compared with that of poetry. Instead of sameness, equivalence, and recurrence, the central idea turns on difference, inequality, and variety’. Saintsbury, A History of English Prose Rhythm (London: Macmillan, 1912), p. 344, <> [accessed 10 May 2011]. It is this positive definition of prose-rhythm, as an entity both cognitive and musically elaborative, which I apply to Bishop’s verse, drawing on her own cross-generic application of Morris Croll’s take on baroque prose to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. See Note 20 for more on this point.

[6] Mary Kinzie, The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet’s Calling, 2nd edn. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 96-7.

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-16, trans. by G.E.M Anscombe, ed. by G.H. von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961).

[8] Kim Fortuny, Elizabeth Bishop: The Art of Travel (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003), p. 33.

[9] Ibid., p. 104. Italics mine.

[10] Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Santarém’. 1-2.

[11] Other Bishop poems which could be re-read in the light of a possible conversation, or meeting of minds include ‘A Cold Spring’, with its address to an uncertain recipient—‘Four deer practised leaping over your fences’—and its dedication to Jane Dewey; also the injunctions of ‘Little Exercise’, as dedicated to Thomas Edwards Wanning. Such readings draw on that inimitably spoken feel of Bishop’s style, as remarked by Robert Lowell when he tells her in a letter of December 1955 that she always seems to be ‘just talking in a full noisy room, talking until suddenly everyone is quiet’. Words In Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), p. 174.

[12] Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will (London: Vintage, 1969; repr. 2001), p. 8. 

[13] ‘Santarém’. 3–11. 

[14] We would do well, however, not to generalise from the style of Bishop’s linebreaks in one poem to her overall practice. The linebreaks of the early poem ‘Seascape’, for example, with their exact alignment to the clausal sense-units of prose, differ considerably from the later, more freely enjambed style of ‘Santarém’ and ‘Crusoe in England’, a close rival for the title of Bishop’s most prosaic poem. 

[15] Clive Scott, Vers libre: The Emergence of Free Verse in France, 1886-1914 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), p. 14. 

[16] Sontag, p. 6.

[17] William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), p. 290.

[18] Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 90.

[19] Bishop, One Art, p. 222.

[20] Although American criticism tends to relate Graham’s achievement to Bishop’s (see Willard Spiegelman, How Poets See The World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)), British critics and poets have on the whole been less keen to view the slide from Bishop’s anti-hysterical, if conceptually fraught, empiricism to Graham’s fractured splurge as either inevitable or desirable. See, for example, the poet-critic Sean O’Brien’s 2003 review in Poetry London, where he compares a linebreak in Graham’s ‘The Time Being’ to one in Bishop’s ‘The Bight’, and concludes that ‘in general the texture of the verse is much thinner’. Sean O’Brien, ‘Tension between Poetry for its own Sake and for the World’s Sake’, Poetry London, 44 (2003), p. 27.

[21] See ‘The Baroque Style in Prose’, in Style, Rhetoric and Rhythm: Essays by Morris W. Croll, ed. by J. M. Wallace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966); Bishop cites Croll in her undergraduate essay on ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins: Notes on Timing in His Poetry’ and in an early letter to Donald Stanford. Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters, ed. by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), p. 665-6; and One Art, p. 12.

[22] ‘Santarém’. 13–20.

[23] Ibid. 21–6.

[24] With prose-rhythm in mind, I scan phrasally from this point onwards, to place the emphasis on divergences from regular metre, rather than coincidences with it. Saintsbury’s definition of ‘prose-rhythm’ allows for ‘fragments of regular metre’ used as a kind of unadmitted counterpoint; so long they are ‘melted or welded rather than dovetailed or mosaicked into the whole…[they] can hardly be avoided, and indeed will positively improve [the rhythm of the prose]; but if they emerge and “stick out” it is doomed’. Saintsbury, p. 344.

[25] ‘Santarém’. 27–31.

[26] Ibid. 32–6.

[27] Although assonance is common in verse, Bishop’s curiously understated use of the device may be counted as one more factor which moves her style closer to prose, since it resembles the ‘Masson-patterns’ Adam Piette identifies as one of the subtle structuring devices of literary prose. Adam Piette, Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 38–43.

[28] Marianne Moore, The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, ed. by Bonnie Costello (London: Faber, 1988), p. 192.

[29] ‘Santarém’. 37-45.

[30] Fortuny, p. 27.

[31] ‘Santarém’. 38–49.

[32] Ibid. 50–7.

[33] See, for example, ‘Electrical Storm’, the unpublished draft ‘It is marvellous to wake up together’, and Bishop’s letter to Marianne Moore of September 11, 1940, where she remarks of her compositional difficulties that she feels as if, should the ‘things’ in her head be ‘joggled around hard enough and long enough some kind of electricity will occur’. One Art, p. 94.

[34] See John Cotter, ‘Kleinzahleresque’, Open Letters Monthly, May 2008, <> [accessed 10 May 2011]

[35] ‘Santarém’. 58–62.

[36] Wallace Stevens, Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1997), p. 135.

[37] ‘Santarém’. 63–8.

[38] One Art, p. 621.